It is a means of preparation, a defense against the storms of life. It is the armor on the battlefield and the willingness to fight for what is right. It is more than physical training; Martial arts is a transformative power to change the body, mind, and soul into a being of honor, an ambassador of respect, and a catalyst for courage. No matter the discipline, the true martial artist dismisses selfishness in favor of service, utilizing well-learned values on the journey to becoming something greater.
Martial arts, which is broadly defined as traditions and practices of fighting or combat, have origins around the globe. The martial arts of Eastern Asia - such as karate, kung fu, and judo, are more commonly associated with the term “martial arts” today, although types of systematic martial practices, (martial meaning war- or warrior-related) practices still taught were part of nearly every ancient culture, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa and the Mediterranean. Here’s a brief list of commonly taught martial art disciplines and their country of origin:
With countless cultures developing their own martial arts throughout history, today we have a host of martial art styles taught. In addition, there are many sub-disciplines that have come about through cultural evolution and development or restyling by martial arts masters. Karate, for example, is a parent discipline with many off-shoots, such as kenpo, tang soo do, and Shotokan. Each sub-discipline has defining characteristics but keeps its roots in the parent discipline.
“Kata” is a Japanese word meaning the choreographed movements of Japanese martial arts practice. Today, “kata” is interchanged with the word “forms,” while “forms” also refers to those choreographed movements in non-Japanese based martial arts. Forms are done solo or with a partner and are the foundational moves in many martial art disciplines’ instruction.
As previously mentioned, forms (also called “kata” in Japanese martial arts) are foundational movements in many martial art disciplines. Done solo or in pairs, forms are part of training that helps build muscle memory for techniques to be used in sparring or real-life applications. They vary in length and complexity and are specific to each discipline and style.
The bow is an ancient practice and is a sign of respect and trust toward your partner. There are other purposes and symbols associated with the bow as well. Bowing in the martial arts is not a showing of subservience, as it is in Western culture (i.e. bowing to royalty).
Colored belts are used to denote rank in most East Asian martial arts. The colored belt system is a fairly recent invention, first introduced in the late 1800s with black and white belts, with the expanded color system coming about in the early 20th Century. (Jigoro Kano, the founder of modern judo, is credited with the creation of the colored belt system.) Belt styles differ from discipline to discipline, and colors may vary as well. The most common colors used in martial arts are white, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, brown, and black, with white being a beginner and a black belt (or red, as is the case in taekwondo) being the most advanced. Students progress, earning the next belt rank and color, through testing. Testing styles and requirements depend on the discipline and school.
Two-toned belts, with a middle stripe running down the length of the belt, often signify that a student is between two belt ranks or is at an advanced stage of their current belt rank. Some schools also use colored stickers that wrap around the ends of belts, signifying levels, skills, or attributes achieved within their belt rank. The colored bar stickers are common for younger martial artists in order to aid development in the beginning stages and ranks of their discipline.
Most belts are long enough to wrap around the waist two times. See the diagram below for the most common way to tie a martial arts belt.
“Dojo” is a place where karate, judo, aikido and other Japanese “do” arts are practiced. (“Do” means “way” or “the way to enlightenment, self-realization and understanding,” and refers to when a martial art changes from simply a form of combat to a form of education, with specific attention to perfection of character.) In ancient Japan, “dojo” was the name of a religious place, often part of a Zen temple. Traditionally, the four walls of the dojo have specific names and functions.
Titles and how you should address your instructors differ from discipline to discipline, and also depend on your instructor/school preference. Your instructor will tell you how to address him or her. It is common for a simple prefix of “Mister” or “Miss” to precede their first or last name, but there are more specific titles assigned to instructors of the various disciplines. Some examples include: Sensei (Japanese disciplines); Sifu (Chinese disciplines); and Master (used in various disciplines).
There are many different types of uniforms to accommodate the needs and preferences of the various disciplines, schools and instructors. Because of those needs and preferences, uniforms traditionally worn by students of your discipline may not be the uniform required at your school. In many East Asian disciplines, the uniform is called a gi. Common differences in gis include: style of the top (i.e. crossover, V-neck), the material (i.e. cotton, poly-cotton), weight (density and rigidity of the fabric), and color. Other things to consider are: The fit common for the discipline (i.e. loose or tight), length, and the student’s skill level (i.e. beginner, advanced).
Definitions for sparring vary depending on the discipline, school and instructor. Most commonly, however, sparring refers to partner practice where students use their skills in a more real-life setting (as opposed to training alone or with a bag/dummy). Equipment used in sparring (such as mouth guards, gloves, shin guards, etc.) also depends on the requirements of your school and instructor.
Not all disciplines or schools use weapons in their instruction. However, those that do teach weapons training most often use practice tools such as rubber knives, unsharpened blades, lightweight staffs, etc. There are hundreds of weapons that are part of martial arts history, but some of the common ones used today in training are knives, swords, bo staffs, escrima, nunchaku, sai, tonfas and kamas, among others. Ask your school or instructor about the specific use of weapons in your training.
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