The martial arts are inextricably linked to their pop-culture images—David Carradine as the Chinese immigrant stoically making his way through the American West, Bruce Lee battling evil with his fists, Jackie Chan performing feats no stuntman would attempt.
Amid all the noise, however, has remained one of the hidden aspects of traditional martial arts training: the need for practitioners to stay focused, in the moment and mindful of their movements.
It’s an element of all martial arts styles that is often overlooked by the masses, but it is the one, say Delaware instructors, that can provide the most benefit to one’s physical, mental, emotional and professional well-being.
Making that clear involves cutting through the clutter, says Pat Caputo, owner and head instructor at American Karate Studio in Wilmington.
“I think people are looking more for the fitness and mental focus and confidence benefits,” Caputo says. “I don’t think that’s changed overall, but I think people expect more than they did 20 or 30 years ago.”
Consider this: Bruce Lee created the life he desired while turning his philosophies into an entirely new style of martial arts.
Martial arts have benefitted from the popularity of Eastern-based practices such as yoga and tai chi, which have reminded many fitness buffs that discipline and focus are key elements of achieving both physical and mental goals.
The difference is that yoga focuses on individual poses to stretch the body and meditation to calm the mind. Tai chi, meanwhile, is a slow version of effective self-defense moves. It requires the practitioner to visualize what the moves are supposed to accomplish.
For some, both are just a little too slow, says Rick Berry, owner and head trainer at Wilmington Aikido in Wilmington. Still, relaxation and a meditative state remain important parts of successful martial arts training, and both yoga and tai chi have made that concept acceptable to the masses.
“The nature of aikido is, in order for it to work properly, you have to learn to relax,” Berry says. “People don’t realize, though, that they think in terms of relaxing the body, but they also have to relax the mind. And when they’re both relaxed, you achieve something called mind-body coordination. All the arts strive for that, and the difference in aikido is we start students working out in that direction.”
Many people don’t realize that the quick punches, kicks and throws of traditional martial arts are learned only through repeatedly performing those movements slowly, Caputo says. To master them requires both commitment to the goal and focus on precise form and style.
“Contrary to what people think, there are a lot of slow movements in traditional martial arts,” he says. “There is slow, flowing motion in all traditional martial arts, and along with the slow movements, you learn a lot about proper breathing, focus and form.”
Michael Graves, owner and head trainer of Mahato Karate in Wilmington, has a saying to emphasize the need for dedicated practice: Learn once, practice 1,000 times. Practice 1,000 times to do once.
In other words, while the practical need for martial arts techniques may never present itself, once a person’s execution of those techniques is improved and eventually mastered, the benefits on and off the mat are manifold.
One important result is an increase in confidence and awareness of one’s environment that allows people to cut through the fears we face every day.
“It’s all about life,” Graves says. “You really want to be in awe every day and aware every day and at the point where you say, ‘Here I am and I’m going to live my life,’” he says. “We’re not really thinking that, as you turn the corner, you’re going to get mugged. But whether it’s fear of a shark attack or fear of being late to work, it’s still fear. Martial arts is all about that word confidence, because you’re always tasking with that world around you.”
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For adults, letting go of the world is often more challenging than the physical aspects of martial arts training, Berry says. One tenet of aikido is using timing, technique and rhythm rather than personal strength. Doing so requires the mental ability to drop extraneous thoughts.
“I tell students all the time that if you can’t apply these principles in your everyday activities, then you don’t have a clue as to what you’re doing on the mat,” he says.
Those who do learn to apply them see the positive results, Berry says. One former student, brought to him as a high-school troublemaker, initially had some difficulty. “But the one who struggled the hardest was the one who stayed with me until he reached second-degree black belt.” That student, now a partner in a law firm in New York City, recently wrote Berry a letter that credited the instructor with teaching him “how to play at life.”
The increased mental focus of martial arts also allows people to effectively look inside themselves and examine their behavior to treat others better and avoid the potential for a conflict. “One of the skills I’ve acquired is the idea that we teach people how we want to be treated,” Berry says.
Graves notes that martial arts training also gives students a better perspective on cause and effect. “In martial arts you must have a chess-like mind. Things are going to lead to other things,” he says. “Actions have consequences, and we’re responsible for our actions. We’re going to understand that focus.”
Such lessons can have an especially big impact on children, especially those with issues like attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. “Their focus improves because they know actions have consequences. It’s immediately known and immediately gratifying,” Graves says. “And for those who don’t have special needs, there’s just so much more we can offer to the world with [martial arts] training.”
The martial arts also offer children who are not accustomed to making their decisions opportunities to figure things out for themselves, Caputo says. “Everything is created for them. They’re just following,” he says. “The martial arts teach you to be creative and use that creative portion of the mind.”
That benefit can carry over to older people, though it occasionally takes work on the part of an individual to know they can both learn from and contribute to martial arts training, says Berry, 68. His older students average between 45 and 50, but he occasionally gets newcomers as old as 69. They are often concerned that their physical limitations will hold other students back, but Berry stresses that whatever a student can do will help the others learn. If an older student doesn’t want to risk practicing falls, Berry suggests that the student play the aggressor to help other students practice their falls.
“To me, the mental aspect is everything,” he says. “Mental exercise is, in fact, physical, and the truth is, when you’ve been studying something really hard, you feel drained. The body needs to be exercised so it can withstand all that pressure.”
“The Baby Boomers are saying, ‘I’m not giving up and I’m not giving in,’” Graves says. “People in their 50s are the workforce and are making lots of decisions and are going to be around for a while. They are understanding that what matters is what they do with their bodies now.”