How to Become a Martial Artist 

A primer on the differences between Wing Chun and Wang Chung.

Whether your ideas on the subject were shaped by David Carradine in Kung Fu, or Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there's no denying that learning martial arts is one of the coolest things you can do for yourself. After all, how many other sports combine flexibility, strength training, education, philosophy -- and even a spiritual component? Martial arts are like aerobics, fitness, and self-defense training all rolled into one, and they won't leave you huffing and puffing astride a sweaty Stairmaster or stationary bike, wondering how many more miles there are to go until you reach your target heart rate.

Best of all, there isn't just one type of martial arts. In the East Bay, you'll find numerous schools and academies offering classes in all sorts of disciplines, from old standbys such as kung fu, karate, and tai chi, to more esoteric practices such as aikido, capoeira, Wing Chun, escrima, pencak silat, and Brazilian jujitsu. Outside the class, you'll further improve your life by building inner strength -- what practitioners of aikido call ki, kung fu disciples refer to as chi, and capoeiristas call axé.

Of course, Bruce Lee and Jet Li didn't become martial arts superstars overnight. It took many years of rigorous training before either of them could even attempt a shadowless kick or any of the other amazing techniques they displayed on celluloid. As devout fans of martial arts flicks can attest, long training sequences precede almost every onscreen final battle. In other words, even in the fantasy world of film, years of study led up to that climactic showdown between Gordon Liu and his father's killer in 36 Chambers of Shaolin, for instance. Which is to say that you shouldn't expect to be a Crouching Tiger immediately, when you are actually just starting out on your martial arts path.

In the real world, most of your martial arts experiences probably will be similar to the training sequences in the movies -- except it's unlikely that you'll be asked to spar with a monkey, or balance two water jugs while standing on a wobbly chair. It's somewhat more realistic to assume that you'll be discovering things about yourself you didn't know, as you learn the different aspects of a ryu (or style), while interacting with your sensei (teacher) and others in your class, dojo, or gym. With luck, you won't find yourself in a situation where you're forced to use your skills outside the class. However, should it come to that, it's nice to know that, with the proper instruction, you'll be able to defend yourself accordingly.

Choosing a Martial Art

Different martial arts stress different skills. Karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do, for instance, are primarily offensive-oriented. If you want to learn how to kick like Jet Li, go right ahead and sign up -- just remember that you'll start out as a white belt (the lowest level) and will have to progress through the ranks for some time before your technique will be regarded as excellent by anybody.

Wing Chun is a female-friendly variant of kung fu that emphasizes speed and finesse over sheer power. Adapted from Snake- and Crane-style Shaolin kung fu by the legendary Wing Chun (portrayed in a 1994 Hong Kong movie by Michelle Yeoh), it since has become one of the most established forms of Chinese martial arts. Although it's not just for women, Wing Chun makes for a good alternative to women's self-defense training; you'll gain confidence and learn how to fend off unwanted advances just as well, and there are long-term benefits from learning an actual discipline, as opposed to simply completing a course.

It's easy to make fun of the people you come across doing the slow-motion movements of tai chi, but they're having the last laugh. One of the gentlest of the martial arts, tai chi has been proven to have significant health benefits. Practitioners say it literally reconditions the flow of blood in your body, replacing dead or negative energy with live or positive energy. And at the highest levels, it's as fast and furious as just about any other martial art, even if it will take you some time to attain that kind of skill. Tai chi is perfect for beginners, the very old and the very young, or anyone recovering from serious injury or health problems.

A good bet for both men and women -- and especially couples who want to train together -- is aikido, which translates roughly to "the way of moving in harmony with the essence of the universe." Aikido is probably one of the most New Age-y of the martial arts, which could explain the numerous schools in the East Bay. Its self-defense-oriented moves -- mainly holds, rolls, and throws -- focus on using your opponents' energy against them. Aikido practitioners are big on spiritual philosophy, and will probably refer you to the sage advice of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba (known as O-Sensei), who developed aikido as a peaceful alternative to the more violent and aggressive forms of martial arts. In The Art of Peace, a collection of Ueshiba's writings, he explains his philosophy thus: "Those who practice the art of peace must protect the domain of Mother Nature, the divine reflection of creation, and keep it lovely and fresh."

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