At the time of writing this I hold a second degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate, a first degree black belt in Okinwan Kobudo, have done extended training in Jujitsu, Aikido, Iaido, Qigong, and have been regularly practicing both open-handed and weapons-form Tai Chi for the better part thirty years.
My first exposure to martial arts was a taking few months of Judo classes when I was seven. After my family moved to from Alberta to Ontario I looked for a replacement but wasn’t able to find anything I felt a connection with. I either didn’t click with the style being offered or with the instructors. My inner karate ka didn’t finally find a home until I was in high school and a friend told me she knew someone who was about to open his own Dojo.
Sensei Hans Meyer. A six foot, three hundred pound mischievous teen-ager in a grown man’s body. Highly skilled in his art, eager to teach with a natural knack for it to match, passionate about his particular style but also about all martial arts in general, and able to maintain the perfect balance between having fun and the traditional discipline the martial arts are rooted in. It was an instant click and I was among his very first group of students. When I completed my first grading and received my yellow belt from him I knew without a doubt it was going to become a very big part of my life.
When Sensei Hans opened up satellite Dojos I wound up training four nights a week, sometimes travelling an hour each direction not only to train but also to help out with the new Dojos as both a participant and instructor. I trained all through high school and did as much training as I could whenever I was home from university. I became his first student to go all the way from brand new white belt to black belt, eventually to two of them.
In addition to the enjoyment and obvious roster of physical skills all this training has brought me there is not a single aspect of my life studying martial arts has not affected. From physical health to emotional stability to physical and interpersonal awareness the proper traditional study a martial art offers the chance to develop your entire being. And for me the skills around balance, distancing, flexibility, strength, timing, and leverage have been immense assets to my career as a dancer. With only a few conflicting muscle memory issues from time to time.
There are some Dojos which focus heavily on tournaments and demonstration which can certainly develop discipline and certain ranges of physical skills, potentially to an awe-inspiring degree, but the traditional studying of a martial art incorporating the history and philosophy and Eastern spirituality is what makes martial arts not just a collection of skills but rather a way of life.
Here are my front line ten lessons and benefits which the study of martial arts has brought to my life.
Confidence Born of Capability
Learning, developing, and achieving success in any skill bolsters our faith in ourselves giving us an invaluable boost in all our ventures and interactions but there is no question knowing you are able to handle yourself in a threatening situation has an powerful impact on your level of confidence. Among other things, it can allay base level existential fears around survival.
I have been blessed with height and strength my entire life, I’ve been six one and two hundred plus since my mid teens. But that hasn’t made me immune to fear or anxiety.
Knowing I am able to defend myself, or those I care about, is an invaluable gift which allows me to approach even daunting or scary situations with a base level of assurance in myself and my capabilities.
Regardless of what the movies may try to tell us no matter how skilled you become there will always be others of equal or greater skill, or skilled in different ways. Martial training is strategic and adaptive. It is about training yourself to use your particular strengths, whatever they are, as effectively as possible against the weaknesses of an opponent. Size is not always an advantage, neither is youth, or flexibility, or any other number of attributes one might assume as such. Nothing keeps the head from out-swelling your hat like being dumped on it by a seemingly frail old instructor, or losing a sparring match to a brand new white belt because their limbs just go everywhere like a button-mashing rookie gamer.
And no one is ever a master of all possible skills. As a fighter I am a very skilled at defensive, I’m very difficult to score points on but I don’t tend to score that many of my own. There was a guy who trained at the same time I did who was very skilled at attacking, his legs seemed to suddenly double in length and he could find a hole in pretty much anyone’s defenses. He and I had a long history of stale-mating in tournaments but were rather useful to have around the Dojo. Want to test your attacking skills? Go work with Jeff. Want see how effective your defenses are? Go work with Shaun.
A crucial part of martial training is drilling and practicing with your fellow students taking turns attacking and defending, applying a technique and then having it applied to you. You spend just as much time being the person thrown to the ground as being the one doing the throwing which fosters a healthy, and necessary, respect for your fellow students.
Treat your training partner with arrogance and it will likely come back to haunt when it is their turn to do the throwing.
Respect for the Human Body
Not only does proper training instill a respect for your fellow students but it also builds a fundamental respect for the human body itself. Training in martial arts reveals how awe-inspiring and magical and strong and durable our bodies can be regardless of their shape or size, just pull up a video of Shaolin monks in demonstration. It also exposes how fragile and vulnerable the body is at the same time.
The body can be trained to twist and stretch and strike in ways which seeming to defy physics but can also be irrevocably damaged with relatively minimal effort. Being able to drop into the splits or fire off a leaping spin kick can make one feel somewhat invincible. Learning it only takes two pounds of pressure to dislocate and destroy a joint like a knee or a shoulder brings it all back down to earth.
The more martial skills and knowledge you gain the less you ever want to use them, the more awe and appreciation your feel for these beautiful miracles of bio-mechanical evolution we have all been gifted with.
Training in martial arts not only developed an awareness of my body both in terms of coordinating different simultaneous tasks for the arms and legs but also a spatial awareness both in relation to my surroundings and also in terms of how my body is positioned an aligned, a skill set which has most certainly been useful in my career as a dancer.
Some people have an innately keen awareness of their bodies but anyone can can develop it through training in something so physically exacting and structured.
The other type of awareness one develops when training the body in such a detailed way is of how well your body is functioning. Training intensely you get to know your body extremely well, what it can do, what it cannot, how much stress it can handle. Being able to hear and understand what your body is trying to tell you, about how it is doing or what it needs or if something is wrong, is an immeasurable asset in bolstering and maintaining your overall health.
The 5 Levels of Fighting
Part of what made me click so instantly with Sensei Hans was his description of his views on conflict, combat, and violence. The description of the 5 Levels of Fighting has always been a standard part of any new students welcome to his Dojos and it instantly told me I was in the right place.
Level 1 — Instinctive. Something attacks and you instantly flinch away. This is the base fight-or-flight survival instinct all living animals possess. It’s why our eyes blink, why we tense up at sudden surprises, and curl inwards to protect our vital organs when we feel anxious or threatened.
Level 2 — Responsive. You have started to train your body to respond strategically to a threat so when an attack comes you are able to block it and then respond with one of your own.
Level 3 — Counter. Through continued training your reflexes are faster and more skilled so your block and return strike are able to happen simultaneously.
Level 4 — Pre-emptive. Not only are your reflexes faster and more honed but your perceptions and understanding of potential attacks is extensive enough to enable you to see the attack forming. You are able to land your own counter strike before the attack has even reached its target.
Level 5 — Non-engagement. Your awareness and understanding or yourself, others, and your surroundings enables you to see potential confrontation coming well in advance giving you the chance to either deescalate things or leave and avoid the danger all together.
The idea that the highest level of fighting was to render fighting unnecessary made feel I had found a home. There will always be times when we need to stand and face a danger or confrontation but fighting should always be the last resort not the first.
You can’t take the bruise back after the fact.
Discipline versus Fun
We are no longer living in a time where the survival of family and village depends on our ability to fight off invaders but Dojos still need to be place of discipline in order to ensure people don’t injure themselves or others as they train in combative physical skills. There also needs to be room for fun as well so we will be able maintain the desire to learn.
Playfulness keeps discipline from becoming too fixed and rigid and discipline keeps fun from crashing into unforeseen consequences.
The ability to maintain both creates the kind of enjoyment and celebration and exploration which can be sustained indefinitely in ways which can be shared and free of regret.
Anger and Aggression are not Evil
We humans are emotional creatures. We have a lot of them and they all serve a purpose. Some are more user-friendly than others but with practice and training we can channel all of them into effective and useful actions. We all get angry, it happens. Someone cuts us off in traffic or we get stuck with slow internet service… Anger doesn’t make us bad or dangerous people as long as it is not the sole force guiding our actions and reactions.
As an early adolescent my emotions were pretty much all over the place and while I didn’t get angry often, when I did, I tended to get pretty overwhelmed by it. After one almost feral incident with a friend during a sleep over I got so scared of getting angry I somehow instinctively developed a panic reflex around it. Any time I would start to feel angry and I would have a minor anxiety attack. Crying, hyperventilating, collapsing into a ball, it kept me from getting angry like that ever again but was also pretty incapacitating.
The structure and respect of the Dojo gave me a safe place to explore aggression by channeling it into a focused purpose. Poor Sensei didn’t know what to make of me at first, hyperventilating for no apparent reason during sparring sessions in those early years. But I was able to trust him, trust the Dojo, trust my fellow students, and eventually trust my own capabilities to resist becoming overwhelmed by my emotions. Not though suppressing or denying them but by letting them happen and then channeling them into a purpose.
Studying the Right Style Matters
Some aspects of the various martial arts are pretty universal, kicking and punching and how not to hurt yourself when you fall down, but different styles can have vastly different approaches which can have a very big impact on how well you will feel it suits you. For example styles like Shodokan and Tae Kwon Do are primarily striking martial arts which focus on dealing with opponents from a distance, Judo and Jujitsu are grappling arts which get in very close and focus on pinning and tangling up the limbs of your opponent, Aikido and Tai Chi lean far more heavily in the direction of an art form focusing more on the principles and concepts than on specific ‘street applications’.
If the style doesn’t mesh with your personality, with how you prefer to interact with the world, then trying to study it will feel frustrating and restrictive. Doing some research in advance of starting can help but the only true way you will be able to figure out of the style is a fit for you is by trying it out, which is why virtually every martial arts school offers a few free classes first.
If it’s not the right style for you you won’t enjoy it and thus won’t stick with it long enough to truly gain all the benefits it has to offer.
The Right Instructor Matters
Just as the style needs to be a good fit for your personality, so too does the instructor and environment. There are people we don’t click with and there are those with whom we form ling long bonds.
It’s important to be adaptable but the simple truth is we aren’t going to be a fit for every person we meet.
Studying martial arts is a challenging, rewarding, and vulnerable journey. You are will need to trust your guide on that journey. You don’t necessarily have to like them or want to be best friends but if you are going to truly push yourself in the ways training in the martial arts will push then you will need to feel you can trust your Sensei. Not only to teach you the skills but also to guide you in a direction you wish to go. If their ‘Levels of Fighting’ are different than yours, skilled or not, they are probably not the one to teach you to fight.
It Only Hurts When You Don’t Break The Board
There are two truths here.
One is that it really does only hurt when the board doesn’t break. Basic board breaking isn’t as impressive as it might look from the outside, competitive breakers who shin kick through the handles of baseball bats or do precision breaks while flipping upside down six feet up in the air are a whole other type of impressive crazy. With basic board breaking if the wood is dry and cut the right way along the grain then even a child of six or seven can put their first through one.
Having said that it still requires the person to strike with proper technique and the key ingredient is focusing past the board not on the surface of the board itself. If you aim past the target then you break through the board in order to get to your target. Focus on the board and it becomes your target so your energy will stop there, making that oh so lovely hollow ringing sound and all the bones in your body vibrate. Or, if the wood is too soggy, it will make a horrifying sodden ‘thud’ but that is another story.
To overcome the obstacle you have to target and focus beyond it.
That is where the other truth comes in. We cause ourselves the most harm when we focus our thoughts and energy too short-sightedly and too narrowly. If we only ever fixate on the closest surface of the nearest obstacle then we never give ourselves the power to push past them. Focusing beyond the target not only reminds us there is a world on the other side but it also empowers us simply through the implication that going beyond is an option. We just need to practice our skills, take a deep breath, and aim strategically.
There is a reason we regard martial artists as somewhat mythical figures. Not just because they can kill people with their bare hands or twirl weapons about their heads and bodies at the speed of light but it is the calm and solid confidence which comes from studying and training and developing your mind, body, and spirit. There is a monk-like air about someone who truly know themselves, their capabilities, and understands the ways they wish to use those capabilities. There are many ways to achieve such a sense of self but proper traditional study of the martial arts is by far one of the best.