From its origins in East Asian combat to the flying moves of notable film stars, martial arts have had many incarnations. In recent years, martial arts is increasingly throwing off its exclusive image and, from judo to Tai Chi, enjoying widespread popularity.
Martial art refers to the art of warfare (derived from Mars, the Roman god of war) and comes from a 15th-century European term for fighting arts. The original purposes of martial arts were self-defence and training for battle but the birth of martial arts in the East encouraged a move away from these martial war techniques (‘bujitsu’), to the use of martial arts as a way to stop conflict and quell violence. The ‘way’, or path of spiritual development, was considered the most important aspect.
Now that all sounds bit daunting, especially for anyone new to the sport, but the world of martial arts is changing to encompass all levels and practitioners with plenty of courses out there to get beginners involved. While retaining the need for hand-to-hand fight training, martial arts have developed to become competition sports and general fitness pursuits. Some martial arts, such as Judo and Taekwondo, are Olympic sports and there are international competitions for a host of disciplines.
Mind and body
Training in martial arts has many benefits, both corporal and spiritual, and some disciplines are linked to religious beliefs. In fact, the spread of martial arts from India into the East is mainly attributed to the spread of Buddhism, so initially martial arts and religion went hand in hand. The advantages, therefore, can exceed physical capabilities, resulting in strong self-awareness as well as self-defence. In technical terms, martial arts can be broadly grouped into focusing on striking, grappling or weapons training, but some tend to distinguish between internal and external styles too. Internal styles, such as Tai Chi, utilise internal energy and breathing exercises to promote health in addition to martial techniques. External styles are purely physical, like Thai boxing.
Through systematic practice of martial arts, physical fitness is boosted no end as the whole body is exercised – strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination are all required elements. Judo black belt Kim Dunkley, who has competed for Great Britain, explains that ‘if you do a martial art properly you have to maintain a level of fitness. When you reach a certain level, you have to supplement your martial arts training with other forms of working out, such as running, to be able to compete competitively. Martial arts also make you work muscles you might never need to use otherwise!’
Martial arts today reach a broad audience. From well-known practitioners such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to the impossible beauty of movement displayed in wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to the lethal Krav Maga fight scenes in the Bourne films, most of us are familiar with the general look of different disciplines. Dunkley says that ‘modern actors like Jet Li make the younger generation more interested, but there is a big difference between mimicking martial arts, which can be dangerous, and actually learning a martial art, which is extremely beneficial.’
The increased visibility of martial arts has led to more and more people keen to have a go themselves. Some join for the social aspect or to help quit smoking, some want an escape from a difficult background, and many are simply looking for a fun and challenging way to keep fit. There’s a class or discipline suitable for every level, from introductory sessions, to more technical classes in a discipline such as Jiu Jitsu or Kung Fu. In London, martial arts are especially active and there are a wide variety of clubs open to beginners.
Finding the right art for you is important and it’s best to try out a few different disciplines initially. Make sure the martial arts school’s philosophy matches your own – is the main focus of the classes on winning tournaments, keeping fit, or spiritual growth? You need to look at teaching style, class structure and compatibility with your physical abilities. If you like competition, then select a martial arts school that also teaches traditional philosophy. Martial arts is a relatively inexpensive sport and, regularly practised, can bring physical and mental well-being and a huge sense of achievement.