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."

If that's too flowery for you, you might want to try Brazilian jujitsu, a South American variant on the Japanese art similar to both aikido and judo, which emphasizes ground-fighting techniques and flexibility. Jujitsu was first introduced to South America in 1914, when expatriate Japanese judo master Mitsuo Maeda taught it to the son of a Brazilian politician named Carlos Gracie, who went on to found Brazil's first jujitsu academy in 1925. If the name sounds familiar, that's because in the '90s, Royce Gracie (Carlos' relative) dominated the Ultimate Fighting Championships, using Brazilian jujitsu techniques to best masters from other martial arts disciplines (from karate to tae kwon do) and bring worldwide acclaim and recognition to the art. Thanks in part to the UFC, Brazilian jujitsu has grown tremendously in popularity in the last decade, and is now not nearly as uncommon. At a recent class at the Open Door studios in Oakland, one student was overheard saying, "The cool thing about Brazilian jujitsu is that you progress a lot in a short period of time." If you're the impatient type who wants to see a quick return on your resolution investment, you might want to check it out.

Capoeira is another Brazilian-based martial art, as well as a dance form. It also has a musical component, which makes it extremely cultural. There's a whole lifestyle associated with capoeira that is easy to get caught up in -- study it for some time and you'll soon be planning trips to Brazil and wearing green, blue, and yellow capoeira pants to work.

Capoeira's fascinating history dates at least as far back as the colonial era, when African slaves in Brazil escaped from Portuguese plantations into the thick jungles of the hinterland and formed communities known as quilombos. There, they created an unarmed form of self-defense which featured acrobatic, sweeping leg kicks and highly skilled footwork (ginga). After approximately 75 years of resistance, the former slaves were overcome and recaptured, but later taught capoeira to other slaves, masking their training sessions as a dancing game (called the jogo de capoeira) so as not to alert their captors. Eventually, capoeira split into two main variants: the dancelike Bahia style, and the more martial Rio style, before being reunited by the father of modern capoeira, Mestre Bimba. Capoeira has since proved highly influential to modern dance forms, especially breakdancing. Since the '80s, when Bira Almeida (a onetime student of Bimba who lives in San Pablo) wrote a widely acknowledged history of capoeira, the Bay Area has been one of the centers in the United States for the art form. Berkeley is the current home of the Capoeira Arts Cafe, one of the anchor tenants of the Downtown Arts District, which sells capoeira gear and CDs and offers classes.

If you're into exploring even more exotic aspects of the martial arts, you might be intrigued by jeet kune do, pencak silat, kali escrima arnis, or bujinkan, all of which are taught at the Bay Area BuYu Center in San Francisco. Jeet kune do is the martial art created by Bruce Lee, and roughly translates as "the style of no style." It emphasizes formlessness as the ultimate self-defense tool, and draws from various other disciplines, including karate, kung fu, judo, and Western boxing. Kali escrima arnis is a stick-fighting technique developed in the Philippines and put to good use against the Spanish conquistadores and American Marines. It emphasizes hand-eye coordination; timing and rhythm are as important as physical strength. Pencak silat is a highly secretive Indonesian martial art, performed to gamelan music, which views the entire body as a weapon and even uses some psychological techniques, including hypnotism.

Bujinkan is possibly even more mystical. It comprises nine Japanese ryus, or martial arts styles, including forms of both ninpo and ninjitsu. If you've always wanted to receive ninja training but didn't know where to look, start here. Instruction includes conditioning and flexibility exercises, break-falls, grappling, and weapons training, as well as san shin no kata meditation techniques to develop mental and spiritual strength. There are no formal competitions or tournaments in bujinkan, and the instructors emphasize that it is not a sport, but a way of life. The purpose of training, therefore, is not only for self-defense, but also to "maintain a compassionate attitude toward others" while "cultivating a natural lifestyle," according to the Bujinkan.com Web site.

Choosing a Martial Arts Instructor

This can be as important as choosing a martial art. A good sensei makes all the difference, especially if you're deciding between several schools that basically offer the same discipline. Beyond the prerequisites, such as a certificate from an accredited school, and a regular class schedule, you'll want to look for someone intimately familiar with the culture associated with the martial art you're considering. Since most martial arts aren't indigenous to America, this is important. For instance, if someone is advertising on the Internet that they offer Shaolin-style classes, you want to be sure that their course of study consists of more than a collection of taped movies from Kung Fu Theatre. If your sensei is a Westerner, check to see who his or her sensei was, and whether they've studied their art in its country of origin. It's a good idea to look for instructors who are serious about their art, but not so serious that they don't have a sense of humor. A good teacher will not only be versed in the technical aspects of the martial arts, but will be part motivational speaker as well, able to inspire you to push your body, mind, and spirit to new levels of performance.

Choosing a Martial Arts School, Class, or Dojo

Again, what's right depends upon what your needs and interests are. As with an instructor, you should look for a well-established school or dojo that has been in the same area for a while. Some dojos have a temple-like feel, and the sense of reverential solemnity can greatly enhance what you take away from your workout. If you're more of the cross-training type, and want to mix the occasional martial arts class with gym workouts or dance instruction, look for a multifaceted movement-arts center, such as a YMCA, some larger health clubs, or Oakland's multidisciplinary Destiny Arts Center. Compare prices, and figure out what you're willing to pay. Some classes are by the month; others, of the drop-in variety, let you pay each time you go. You'll also want to sit in on a session or two, to get a feel for the flow of the class, before you make up your mind. You'll know when you've found the right one.

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