Beginning A Martial Art – Part 1

So you have made the big decision to join a martial arts school. you paid your membership fee, received your white belt & uniform and now you are ready to enter into a whole new world. This world is one where you are usually known by just your first name and for the most part the relationships you make in the dojo usually stay there. For your information the name “dojo” stands for and means the training facility.

It is a fact that the strange thing about many of your fellow students is that they aren’t even recognizable on the street with their regular street clothes and out of the dojo. Another thing that I found and it might just be me but when I have encountered many of the present or past fellow students on the street the conversations seemed short and strained a bit.

Why, I don’t know but it may have to do with the environment that you both know each other in and once out of it there may be a little to talk about when you encounter each other in the real world.

The very first thing you need to do before you train is “leave your ego at the door”. It has no place in the dojo and it will definitely hamper your overall development. That being said you will also need to know the rules of the dojo, basic dojo etiquette, history of the martial art you are studying and have an open mind which is sometimes called the beginners mind.

Usually a senior student will be assigned to you to teach you how to tie your belt, bowing in & off the mat, bowing to your fellow students when training and also bowing in & out of class in a kneeling position. There are various differences in each school and in each particular style of martial art.

Some of the more formal classical styles will have a little more elaborate ceremony or rituals of sorts and I have even been to a school where Zen like statements began and ended the class. Interesting I must say!

Pay attention to what is being taught in the beginning because it is not too difficult to learn but does require that you stay focused which will help you throughout your training. The strange rituals that you initially learn will become so normal after a while it won’t even register that this may be pretty strange after all.

Basically all the bowing is a show of respect to the particular founder, the sensei, the school and to your fellow students. There are variations to bowing and what the hands are doing when bowing in different styles but whatever style the meaning is still the same, respect!

Obviously the gi or uniform that you wear is important since naked martial arts aren’t really too popular so keep it clean and wash it frequently. The first belt you receive will usually be a white belt so you’ll need to learn how to tie it. Practice at home how to make the special knot you are taught so you are not fumbling before class begins and after a short while it will become automatic.

An important point is to be punctual. If class starts at let’s say 7 PM then make it a your business to get there at least fifteen minutes early so that you can change into your gi and warm up on your own. It is disrespectful to come to the class late because it disrupts the rest of the class that is already in progress.

Occasionally it will happen and when it does you should kneel at the edge of the mat until the sensei acknowledges your presence and invites you onto the mat. Oh, I hope everyone knows to never walk onto the mat with street shoes on! This is a big no-no.

A word of advise is; supplement your martial arts classes with other strength, aerobic and cardio workouts such as weight training, running, swimming and anything else that fits this criteria. Even though many of the martial arts that you will train in gives you a great workout you will be able to do more, go longer and not be exhausted and avoid needless injuries if you add other workouts to your weekly schedule.

When you build up you muscles and your cardio you will also increase your enjoyment on the mat and be less prone to injuries. This is a result of building up your muscles so there will be less chance of strains and sprains that can result from sparring and grappling.

I have seen countless people over the years maybe come once a week, give a half ass-ed effort and constantly struggle to keep up with the rest of the class. Their workouts and classes would be so much easier and more enjoyable if they would take physical fitness more seriously and workout on their own.

This may sound a bit over the top but I feel that it takes at least five years of regular training to get a more than basic understanding of the martial art you are studying. This understanding also involves the muscle memory, knowledge of the katas, names of the techniques, the ability to perform the techniques on command and the development of awareness both on and off the mat. There are no shortcuts to true knowledge!

Of course it is possible to absorb this type of understanding in a shorter time period but it would require more classes per week, extra practice at home, possibly private lessons and a a total dedication to the martial art that you are studying. This dedication also involves the mental aspect of learning your martial art.

This is like homework but more enjoyable! Take notes and review the notes and the techniques that are described hopefully in detail if of course you can read your own handwriting. If you are or were a good student and note taker the transition will not be overwhelming and you’ll have lot of reference material. Only one technique is recommended to go over in your mind at a time so you won’t get confused and mix up different techniques.

You can even do the techniques by yourself to practice the body movements and where the hands and feet should be relative to the imaginary opponent. It does take patience and dedication but the rewards are amazing in terms of progress. So take notes, review notes and practice what is in the notes on a regular basis.

Only 20 minutes a day is all you need!

The ranking system is now pretty uniform across the board in the many different martial arts & styles that exist today. Prior to the beginning of Judo as a sport there were really no belt rankings. Way back when there were many different martial arts schools the advanced students did not need a colored belt to indicate to the others how proficient he was. The particular ryu or school was usually very closed to the general public so those who were students knew who was the beginner & who was the expert.

With the advent of Judo by Professor Kano the belt rankings became a standard indication of the students proficiency. Professor Kano was a very skilled jujitsu practitioner along with being an educator. His goal was to incorporate a system of martial arts that builds the body & strengthens the character of the students.

The reason for the belts I believe was the visual reinforcement of where the student stood in relation to the rest of the class. This prompted the student to try to attain a higher rank which would be evident by the color of the belt. Also, this distinguished the beginners from the advanced students so everyone knew who’s who so in competition and the same belt ranked students would fight each other.

Now just about every martial art has belt ranking even the the criteria is different for each type & different styles. My opinion of the belt rankings is rather complicated. On one hand I think it is necessary to separate the beginners from the more advanced students in an open dojo environment where anyone can join. The most obvious way to do it is to have a colored belt that indicates your rank & experience.

The mystique of a black belt still permeates the public consciousness as being the pinnacle of martial arts. The reality is quite different though and can hamper your individual development as a martial artist. We’ll explore this concept in another article in the future.

When there are belts in a dojo what does happen is a class separation even though it is unspoken and the focus sometimes can be on the belt itself and not the individual or the martial art. Different schools, different sensei’s and the individual students will affect this perception of the belts real value in relation to the the experience level & dedication of the students.

The basic truth is a belt is just a belt regardless of the martial art with no mystical properties as is portrayed in the movies. This also pertains to the red belt which signifies the the “master” or “grand master” of a martial art and this is supposed to be the ultimate ranking that can be attained.

My recommendation is that if you encounter a martial arts school that is headed by a “master” or “grand master” then you should not even consider joining the school because anyone who designates that they are a “master or grand master” don’t have a clue what is the true essence of martial arts. Their ego is off the charts and what they have to teach is tainted with their exaggerated perception of themselves.

Consider this; the highest ranked ever Judo practitioner, Kyuzo Mifune was promoted to a tenth degree black belt at the age of fifty eight. There are martial arts out there that have individuals with 15th degree black belts that have been practicing for maybe ten years. Is something wrong with this picture?

Possibly the holders of 15th degree black belts are so proficient that their abilities surpass all other black belts studying the same or related martial arts. Doubtful at best!

Especially when you realize that belt rankings are big business that can generate lots of money for a sensei and main organization that he or she are affiliated with. Each belt and accompanying certificate will cost the student a certain amount of money based on rank and greed. This might sound a bit cynical but there are many martial art organizations that are in the belt business which is a big money maker.

The money aspect can be perverted and the students can become willing participants quite easily. What sounds better? I have a yellow belt or I have a black belt.

This belt selling can also be found in martial arts magazines and on the internet where a set of tapes or online teaching can be purchased and the student can earn his black belt at home! This probably has to be the hardest thing to do even if the course is totally on the level. I have over twenty five years of experience and I find it hard to pick up techniques on tape. So how hard can it be for a complete novice to learn? Impossible? No! Very, very difficult? Absolutely!

At this point in your reading you would be right to say; who is this guy to talk trash about belts, he probably doesn’t even have one which is why he is against them. Well, I have a yellow belt in karate, a purple one in jujitsu, a brown one in Judo and a black one in Tomiki Aikido. So I think I have most of the colors covered and maybe in the future we’ll add a couple more to the mix even if I really don’t want the belts. It comes with the territory when you train at a school and very hard to avoid.

I think at a certain point in your martial arts life chasing belt rankings should stop and should be replaced with the desire to learn on a much deeper level. Call me a purist but this is what I feel is the most important aspect of learning a martial art. They don’t call it the “way” because there are belts that you can collect! The true spirit of “budo” is not represented by flashy gymnastic techniques with colorful uniforms and lots of loud music as seen many tournaments.

The true spirit of “budo” is quiet but powerful and comes from within!

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