Why do people take Karate lessons?

I recently spoke to a group of middle school students at their Career Day. I wanted to get them involved in a discussion right from the beginning of the class, so I asked them why they thought people, and particularly students their age, would take Karate lessons. Only two students raised their hands to offer an opinion. The first suggested that people would take Karate to beat someone up that they didn't like, while the other said that Karate was for Self-Defense. While Karate does work for Self-Defense, and bullies could use it (though not my students),neither of these answers hit the mark as far as our program at the Dojo is concerned. Realizing that most members of our community probably have no idea why they should train here, I thought an article on the subject might help, particularly because we appreciate referrals from our students and their families; I want you to have all the information you need to inform your friends, and answer their questions regarding participation in our classes.

The main reason people train in Martial Arts at UKC is for personal growth. When I began the program in 1980 I structured the curriculum to teach body awareness and physical development through stretching and movement. We start each lesson with a short “yoga session” to improve flexibility, warm up, and prepare the body and mind for training. Additionally, breathing properly throughout the stretching balances the emotions and teaches self-control. If you’ve ever seen a contortionist perform you understand the importance of self-control in their act. Our stretching is like a mini-contortionist program. The Basics segment of the class starts with hand strikes, which improve blood flow to the heart, beginning a cardio segment for fitness conditioning. When we add the kicking skills, cardio conditioning and flexibility are increased, as well as balance and coordination skills. This conditioning continues into the combination techniques which also improve agility and fitness. As the body is the most tangible and “real” part of ourselves, I have always stressed the importance of working with the body to connect with the emotions and the mind. We emphasize the importance of a strong exhalation with each technique so our practice stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, lowers the blood pressure and the pulse, and develops emotional balance while we practice all of our skills. I have always insisted that students practice with correct alignment and a clear understanding of the lines of motion involved in the execution of each technique. This leads to correct posture and body use and allows the development of physical talent. Talent cannot achieve its potential without correct posture and body use. Practice in the “partner techniques” improves our perceptual skills, especially timing and distancing, as we work with different partners. Kata practice is always combined with visualization to improve cognitive development through thinking in pictures.

For several years I was involved in the fields of clinical psychology and counseling. The frustration I often felt when trying to help clients change their behavior, or develop an improved attitude to life, often lay in the fact that the process of “talkie therapy” did not involve any actual activity. Although I could recommend behaviors and activities, there was little opportunity to follow through and reinforce a program of activities. Teaching Martial Arts allowed me to get beyond those limitations and involve clients who were already basically OK, in a program that could make them more OK. That’s what personal growth is about. Naturally classes will sometimes be physically challenging. Sometimes they will be emotionally and psychologically challenging as well. If they were not, the process would not be working. Only through conscious work and intentional suffering can we fulfill our personal potential on a human level. Every time we stretch ourselves, physically or emotionally, we choose to suffer some discomfort. It is through this suffering that we become more flexible in every respect. Just as there is no benefit in unconscious work, so there is no benefit in accidental suffering. We train to benefit ourselves, while learning to cooperate with others and achieve personal independence.

Of course, all of the skills that we practice can be used in Self-Defense should we need them. This means that the training has practical applications beyond the inner work. Sparring, weapons training and tournament participation accelerate the growth of our skills and build confidence based on competence, while increasing our awareness and self-control. With all of these benefits I hope that many more members of the community will choose to seek Self-Mastery through the Martial Arts at our American International Karate Institute here at UKC. In short, this is why people should take Karate lessons.

© 2005 Shihan Robert H. Mason