Friday, August 21, 2009

Enter the dojo: discover the physical and mental benefits of martial arts training

A few years ago, Debz Buller was mugged in her quiet, small-town neighborhood on the way home from Christmas Eve church services. Deciding it was time to take action, she signed up for a self-defense class at a local martial arts school. By doing so, she joined notables such as Jon Miller, the new chair and CEO of AOL, and Bernie Kerik, former New York Police Department commissioner, who believe martial arts training not only made them fitter, but also contributed to their personal and professional success.

Martial arts (i.e., systems of combat techniques) are at least 4,000 years old. They originally evolved in India in connection with Zen Buddhism and quickly spread throughout Asia. Modern martial arts, such as karate, taekwondo and aikido, teach not only fighting skills but physical, spiritual and psychological strength. The word do (i.e., way of) indicates these are holistic approaches to life, not just combat arts (which are signified by the suffix jutsu, as in jujutsu). In the United States, martial arts grow in popularity every year--by as much as 5 to 30 percent, according to industry statistics.

The Fitness Factor

While learning self-defense skills is important, fitness concerns top the list of reasons people train in martial arts, states Bob Spear, a seventh degree hapkidoist and internationally recognized martial arts theorist and instructor. He enumerates the fitness benefits a person may gain from training, "General cardiovascular fitness, explosive power--something you don't get in many other sports--limbering, stretching and strengthening." Sometimes the physical results can be dramatic. For example, shortly after starting training, Bullet participated in a national fitness competition and went from 36 to 14 percent body fat in three months.

The demands of martial arts training sometimes take individuals by surprise. Linda Formichelli, a freelance writer and intermediate-level karate practitioner who trains five or six times a week, says, "The kata [i.e., forms] are very vigorous. So is the warm-up." Although she had always been interested in martial arts, she didn't quite know what was in store the first time she stepped on the mat. "It was more physically demanding than I expected," she admits.

Students of Laura Kamienski, founder of Kicks for Women, a taekwondo school, echo this sentiment. "One of my students said, 'Silly me, I thought this would be easier than aerobics! Now I know better!'" recounts Kamienski, who finds the physical difficulty of martial arts training surprises even students from athletic backgrounds.

Although the physical demands may be high, Buller, now a kickboxing coach, claims one needn't be a 17-year-old gifted athlete to master martial arts techniques. When she first began training, she "saw normal, everyday people do spectacular things." This encouraged her to persevere although training was sometimes tough. "I don't have special gifts," she continues. "I'm a small, middle-aged woman and can do things I've seen in the movies!" Asked how, she explains, "Encouragement. Everybody believed in me."

According to Dr. Richard Hackworth, owner of American Dragon Martial Arts Academies and Paramount Health Clubs as well as president of the International Chapter of the Korean Martial Arts Instructors Association, because of the ranking system, a novice doesn't compare himself or herself to a black belt and feel bad about falling short. "It's self-paced. It's about you doing better than you did before," he adds. "You can tell you're learning new things. You're constantly challenged at each level, which keeps you motivated." Even if your physical changes aren't obvious in the mirror or scale--after all, the scale doesn't show increased endurance or strength--you can track your improvement as you progress through the ranks.

Creating Communities

Buller contends that building a sense of community is the secret to martial arts success. "People stay involved in martial arts because of the camaraderie," she asserts. "You want to be with this group. You want to feel the energy of a group dedicated to the same goal." In fact, when she moved from the city where she started martial arts training, she missed her fellow students almost as much as her family. "You forge connections, deep heartfelt connections with others. You go through physical, mental and emotional difficulties and support and applaud each other," she maintains.

No Limits

"Mental conditioning is key," Spear says. "One of my students credits his successful completion of Navy SEALS training [to] the mental discipline and toughness he learned in my classroom." This exemplifies how students learn to go beyond their perceived limits. "You don't just stop," Spear explains. "When you're sparring and someone nails you, you keep going. You learn to go until your body can't, not when your mind decides you're done."

Buller concurs, "Training makes me feel unstoppable. I know if I need more energy and strength, if I just look, there it is." What separates martial arts from other ways a person can get fit is "students feel their power," she affirms. "They get that power by integrating their body [and] mind. It's an addiction." From her students, she has learned, "Martial arts training benefits you in whatever way you're open to it. There are other paths, but this one is all-encompassing."

Beyond Physical Fitness

Buller compares martial arts training to "moving meditation" because it helps people remain calm and balanced, thus improving mental outlook. This is essential for people trying to cope with today's hectic lifestyles. "Martial arts training helps you kick away stress. You come in, you kick the heavy bag--it's a knockout workout. That's why so many pro athletes are turning to martial arts training," Hackworth says.

Formichelli reports that karate training provided benefits she didn't foresee--it helped her get off her anxiety medications. "I haven't had a panic attack since I started training," she reveals. The focus and concentration she's learned has also helped her career and personal interactions. "If someone cuts me off in traffic, I don't start yelling 'You jerk!' like I might have before, she explains. "I try to think from their perspective. Maybe they're in a hurry or didn't see me." The school Formichelli attends has five rules it expects students to follow, in and out of the training hall, including improving one's character, remaining honest and loyal, displaying humility, strengthening one's spirituality and courtesy. "We learn to be courteous to and respect one another," Formichelli says.

Trying to live by the dojo (i.e., training hall) rules has made Formichelli happier in her personal life. "I keep a more positive attitude. Sometimes I'll say, 'Oh, I can't do that,' and the sensei [i.e., teacher] always tells me, 'Yes, you can! You do it now!'" The teacher reminds her she will have to practice a kick thousands of times before getting it right. That lesson has overlapped into her work and personal life. "I catch myself when I say negative things about myself, rephrase it in a positive way and give myself more credit."

Buller enthusiastically concurs that participating in martial arts has contributed to her personal and professional success. "I wouldn't have had the courage to abandon corporate life for the job I have--and love--now," she admits. "My life has changed 100 percent since starting martial arts--I had lost who I was; martial arts saved my life."

Adding Martial Arts to Your Repertoire

Debz Buller, who teaches martial arts, kickboxing and yoga at corporate wellness centers, says fitness enthusiasts and professionals can find satisfying full-time or part-time work teaching martial arts-related classes. "I don't feel like I'm working," she declares. "I play and get paid for it."


Buller stresses the importance of certifications. She is certified as a kickboxing coach and cardio-karate teacher through the National Association of Professional Martial Artists (NAPMA) and to reach self defense by the American Self Defense Association. In addition, she obtained ACE, AFAA and ISSA certifications, although these are not required for all the classes she teaches.

Meeting Demand

When Bullet approached fitness coordinators at corporate wellness centers about offering kickboxing, yoga and tai chi classes, the staff often took a demonstration class and then asked if she also taught seminars. Taking the hint, she soon began offering weekend martial arts and kickboxing clinics. Then, a client asked her to give self-defense seminars to help employees feel safer and more confident at work. So, she began offering "Common Sense Self Defense."

"Listen to what people say," Buller advises. "I always spend a little time at the end of each class teaching students visualization and relaxation techniques and they tell me it's the best part of the class." These comments convinced her to develop chi-building, guided mediation and stress management workshops. "I don't have to advertise," she says. "Students in my classes want me to teach their friends and families, so I get invited to give seminars to all sorts of groups and associations. If you want to expand your practice, this is the way to go."

Everybody's Doing It

* 6 million Americans regularly practice martial arts in about 13,000 martial arts schools.

* 1.5 million participants are between the ages of six and 11.

* 1 million participants are between the ages of 12 and 17.

* 3 million participants are between the ages of 18 and 54.

* 100,000 seniors, age 55 and above, take part.

* 6.7 million Americans participate in cardio-kickboxing and similar classes.

* 86 percent of clubs offer cardio-kickboxing classes.

Sources: The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association; International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association and Martial Arts Industry Association.

Tips for Beginners

Bob Spear, author of Hapkido: The Integrated Fighting Art, suggests keeping several important factors in mind when starting martial arts training:

* The teacher is the most important element. Choose someone who can teach the techniques, expects a lot from his or her students and maintains discipline (safety) in the classroom. "Average athletes must work very hard to excel," Spear points out. "They must study every aspect of their sport in order to obtain whatever edge they can. These people generally make the best coaches, trainers and teachers."

* Research different types of martial arts. This will help you choose the style suited for you. Some styles are sport styles, others are devoted to street fighting, while still others are geared reward developing the student's character.

* The training schedule should be reasonable. Does the schedule work with yours? Can you train more than once or twice a week?

* The location will factor into how often you attend training. "If it's too far away, you'll quickly rationalize skipping classes," Spear warns.

* The cost should be reasonable. Monthly tuition might range between $35 and $70. Also, don't forget the cost of uniforms, equipment and testing fees, which quickly add up in schools that test students frequently.

* The facility should be adequate. In other words, it should be large enough for class members to perform their techniques without kicking each other. Equipment should also be in good shape.

* Since camaraderie is such an important part of the martial arts experience, you should feel comfortable with your fellow students.

Jennifer Lawler, a second degree black belt in taekwondo, began training over 10 years ago. Her training includes karate, hapkido, aikijutsu, escrima and weapons. She has written 19 books, including Dojo Wisdom: 100 Simple Ways to Become a Stronger, Calmer, More Courageous Person (Penguin Compass) and Martial Arts for Dummies (Wiley, Inc.). Lawler lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her daughter, two rambunctious dogs and a growing collection of martial arts weapons.

Source Citation:Lawler, Jennifer. "Enter the dojo: discover the physical and mental benefits of martial arts training." American Fitness 21.5 (Sept-Oct 2003): 24(5). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 21 Aug. 2009

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