Styles of martial arts
August 26, 2009 5:38 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on different martial arts styles (specifically: aikido, ninjutsu, pekiti tirsia kali, bagua, or wing chun).

I'm looking to take up martial arts for exercise and self-defense. I've never done martial arts before. I've been trying to narrow down my selections to schools that are convenient to get to, that fit into my schedule, and teach a style of martial arts that seems interesting to learn. So far I have aikido, ninjutsu, pekiti tirsia kali, bagua, and wing chun.

I know that some of them are pretty far apart in terms of philosophy and methods. What I'm primarily looking for is something fun, but that will also teach me self-awareness and self-defense skills. I'm not looking for anything that's too aggressive. I'm trying to visit each dojo to get a more practical sense of how each style is practiced, and to see how comfortable I feel there, but I'd still love to hear about experiences that people have had (good or bad). What are they like? Thanks!
posted by elisynn to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A lot depends on the individual dojo, the instructors, and what affiliation they belong to. As an aikidoka I've had overwhelmingly positive experiences, and I've visited dojos in Canada Ireland and Australia, and trained with people from all over the world. However, I've also had positive (though limited) experiences with systema, which is quite different. I would suggest you get in touch with each dojo you are interested in and tell them that you'd like to try it out. Sample what's out there before making any commitments.
posted by tamarack at 5:46 PM on August 26, 2009

I once asked an old Japanese sensei a similar question. With so many styles of martial arts to choose from with a range of practices and philosophies, how do I know which is right for me? He said to pick the one closest to my house.
posted by Jode at 6:06 PM on August 26, 2009 [14 favorites]

I've seen recommendations for wing chun for women in particular, as lore has it that a women named Yim Wing Chun founded the style many years ago.
posted by zentrification at 7:13 PM on August 26, 2009

You might also check the FAQ for rec.martial.arts - there's a ton of info therein.
posted by jquinby at 7:58 PM on August 26, 2009

A lot depends on the individual schools. Can you post links to the websites of the schools that your considering?
posted by tdismukes at 8:15 PM on August 26, 2009

Previously. It's long, but there's a lot of depth there.

I think the best self-defense is not going into dangerous areas by yourself, and if you have to do so, looking alert and aware. This is free.

Also, I wouldn't worry too much about a martial art seeming too aggressive. Just because the people involved fight hard doesn't mean that they're mean or interested in hurting you. Some of the friendliest, most considerate instructors I've ever met were at a Muay Thai school, and Muay Thai is perceived by a lot of people as aggressive.

Whatever you style you pick, though, make sure they're up-and-up on the business side. Martial arts schools are notorious for scamminess. Don't let them pressure you into a year-long contract and if they're not open about costs, get away from them.
posted by ignignokt at 8:17 PM on August 26, 2009

Oh, also, watch out for 'ninjutsu'. These guys and their techniques have no real connection to the historical ninja, and who knows if ninja as we think of them today even existed. What they're doing is little more than live action role-playing, which would be cool if they were honest about it. Instead, they've got some serious delusions.
posted by ignignokt at 8:21 PM on August 26, 2009

While techniques between disciplines of martial arts are quite different, it terms of fun, aggressiveness, and emphasis on self-awareness what matters far more is the actual teacher and environment that you will experience at the school in question. A reputable school will always, always allow you a session or two for free so you can see how it works. Disciplines that are more rare, like wing chun and kali, tend to have practitioners that are a little more serious than most about the martial art, but such people tend to know a bit better how to separate seriousness about martial arts from seriousness about life. Ninjitsu generally tends to send up red flags for exactly the reason that ignigonkot says. Some schools are decent at learning from a variety of styles, but there is a lot of delusion involved in stating that there is any direct lineage from the days when it was something real in Japan.
posted by Schismatic at 8:51 PM on August 26, 2009

Teacher is more important than method. As a practitioner of various Chinese martial arts for many years (gave it up when I moved to Japan), I learned that it's better to look for a great teacher than it is a specific style.

Of course, the Catch-22 is that you can't really recognize a good teacher without some experience to begin with....
posted by zachawry at 9:26 PM on August 26, 2009

Response by poster: jquinby: awesome resource, thanks for the link!

ignignokt (and schismatic and tdismukes): great link. I've heard lots of things about ninjutsu, but this school seems reputable. As for aikido, I'm looking at this place, and wing chun, at this. All the others are through private instructors (giving public group lessons, but based out of their own homes or in a rented space). They all allow people to sit in on a class or two though, and they seem to have good reputations.

I'm keeping in mind the advice about choosing a good teacher. That's kind of one reason I want to sit in on classes.
posted by elisynn at 10:05 PM on August 26, 2009

I agree with the first poster. Its all about the dojo/instructor. Your body might LOVE love one specific art...but you may clash with the instructor.

Rather than looking for a fit with the art...look for a fit with the instructor/method of instruction.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:51 PM on August 26, 2009

Some background on the "ninjutsu" option, in contrast to ignignokt's statement:

The only schools which may have a link to historical ninjutsu are those deriving from the Takamatsu lineage. Toshitsugu Takamatsu was a Japanese martial arts instructor who is known for sure to have been a legitimate master in at least a couple of well-documented historical martial arts traditions. In addition to those two, he claimed to be the heir to a number of other ancient systems of martial arts, including three ninjutsu lineages. (Ninjutsu being very roughly the medieval Japanese equivalent of modern military intelligence and special forces.) The historical validity of these other systems has never been fully established and is the subject of some debate.

Takamatsu passed the grandmastership of all these schools on to his student Masaaki Hatsumi. Hatsumi established an organization called the Bujinkan as an umbrella for all nine systems that he learned from Takamatsu. Over the years he has taught these arts both individually and as a blended curriculum and has marketed his curriculum under different names: Togakure Ryu ninjutsu, Ninpo Taijutsu, and currently Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. Despite sometimes marketing his system under the "ninjutsu" label, he has never really taught much of the stealth/information gathering techniques that would have been characterictic of historical ninjutsu.

What Hatsumi has taught is a system of unarmed combat (taijutsu) and various weapon arts (staff, stick, knife, sword, chain, etc) that use the same body dynamics. The underlying principles of his system are excellent. The training methods are sometimes unrealistic, and the actual techniques being practiced can range from very solid to far-fetched. The quality of instruction between Bujinkan dojos can vary quite a bit. Hatsumi gives his instructors a lot of leeway in how they teach the art, so some teachers will focus on more realistic techniques and training methods than others. Also, Hatsumi has always been a bit ... liberal ... in his awarding of ranks certificates, so a teacher holding a high degree of black belt may or may not have a high degree of skill.

Over the years some of Hatsumi's top students have split off and formed their own organizations. Shoto Tanemura formed the Genbukan while Fumio Manaka formed the Jinenkan. The technical base for both of those organaizations is much the same as in the Bujinkan.

An American student of Hatsumi, Stephen Hayes, has also created his own art, Toshindo. Contrary to his marketing, Hayes was never one of Hatsumi's top students, although I can testify that he is a skilled martial artist and instructor. Hayes claims to still be affiliated with the Bujinkan, but the word from Japan is that he has been kicked out of that organization for doing his own thing and not continuing his training with Hatsumi.

I'm curious about the school you linked to. Boston Martial Ats Center, since the instructor claims to be affiliated with both Hatsumi and Hayes. I can't tell if he's offering the Bujinkan curriculum or the Toshindo curriculum. Either way, if you like the instructor it would probably meet your requirements of "fun", "developing self-awareness", and "not too aggressive". The self-defense effectiveness may or may not be there, depending on the teacher's skills and approach to instruction. (You'll definitely learn to fall and roll without being hurt, which is an important aspect of self-protection even for people who never get into fights.)
posted by tdismukes at 3:47 AM on August 27, 2009

Thanks for the detailed history, tdismukes. Doesn't the connection to the historical "ninja" still seem tenuous, though? The connection all goes through one guy who seems to have taught his students really inconsistently, so it's hard to tell what techniques they're teaching actually come from the "ninja" and what was made up recently.

elisynn: Of those three schools, all else being equal, only the aikido one lists their prices, so I'd definitely make sure that if you decide to check them out in person, you get all the pricing details out of them.

I have to take issue with this statement from the ninjutsu school's web site, though:

There is a big difference between a martial sport, such as one featured in Olympic competitions, and a martial art. Many techniques that are learned in a martial art could not be done in competitions because they are meant to disable an opponent in such a way that they cannot continue to attack you.

There are actually plenty of techniques you can use to disable an opponent in such a way that they cannot continue attack you that can be practiced in competition. As a result of practicing them in sparring and competition, you'll be able to apply them against an aggressive opponent unlike techniques that you only practice in an environment of full compliance.

Incidentally, in the Boston area, there's a couple of other schools that might be worth checking out as well:

Redline Fight Sports - This is primarily a sanda (a martial art developed in China by having kung fu practitioners spar) school, but they also have various other classes. They're very open and will let you try classes for free.

Sityodtong - This is a very reputable muay Thai school. They have really friendly, patient instructors, including a female instructor, as well as a whole women's class.
posted by ignignokt at 6:24 AM on August 27, 2009

Ninjas and their lineage wars... I'll second ignignokt - it's too much to ask a new person to sift through all the bullshit to find a quality school.

martial arts for exercise and self-defense

I've heard many people say the best self defense item is a good pair of running shoes. Given the choice between the styles you listed (aikido, ninjutsu, pekiti tirsia kali, bagua, and wing chun) I'd probably take the shoes. Kali is the best listed IMO, and tons of fun, but how often will you be carrying a sword or knife and are you willing to kill with it? ninjutsu, bagua and aikido are the worst listed with aikido being little more than cultural studies and tumbling. With those you'd be very lucky to find a school with anything worth learning and even luckier to be able to use anything they did teach you.

Calling out those styles may be unpopular, but you listed self defense as a goal. Some martial artists want to believe they have something (adrenaline, super ninja skills, fancy death eyeball or groin strikes) that can protect them in a fight with a bigger or stronger opponent. This is a false belief. With modern MMA, you can easily see what techniques "work" in a fight. Punches yes. armbars yes. Footwork yes. leaping claw strikes, weird stances, and wristlocks not so much.

Now if self defense really is something you want to learn, you must watch this 8 minute video. In it, Matt Thorton explains the concept of aliveness in training. This is what people mean when they say "it's the instructor, not the style". This practice of going near full speed against resisting opponents is the ONLY thing that will truly prepare you to defend yourself.

Any martial arts place no matter the style should have training with aliveness or it's just interpretive dance and not useful for defending yourself against an attacker. Given the hypothetical choice between an 'alive' aikido school and a 'dead' MMA school, the alive training wins.

I would personally recommend Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (not Japanese Juijitsu) for self defense. most fights end up grappling at some point, and knowing the proper counters when someone tries to grab you or hold you down you is a great equalizer. In a self-defense situation if you have room to stand and throw kicks or strikes then you probably also have room to try and escape.

I'm not looking for anything that's too aggressive.

The aggression shown in that training vid is all there should be. You are "aggressively" trying to impose your will on your opponent, but you aren't attempting to permanently hurt them. This is training, not fighting. Sure, there are always a few people that think training or sparring is fighting. But you are supposed to work as part of a team to improve your skills and the skills of your team mates. There shouldn't be anything beyond friendly competition. A good coach or sensi will prevent the spazzes (there's always one) from going too hard and check them if they get out of line.

If the sensi allows, or worse encourages bad behavior during what is supposed to be training or shows signs of bullying students (think of the bad guy from karate kid) it's a bad school.

FWIW You can try the site for their school reviews and advise. It can be informative, but since there's hardly any moderation a few vocal trolls tend to fling Tapout-covered poo at anything that isn't a full blown MMA gym with a pro fight team and that can drown out the better advice.

Wow this was a lot longer than I thought... TL;DR = watch this 8 minute video. Good luck with your training.
posted by anti social order at 7:20 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Doesn't the connection to the historical "ninja" still seem tenuous, though?"

Yep. I think that most Bujinkan schools these days de-emphasize that connection and focus on what they're really teaching, which is Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu.

"I have to take issue with this statement from the ninjutsu school's web site, though:

'There is a big difference between a martial sport, such as one featured in Olympic competitions, and a martial art. Many techniques that are learned in a martial art could not be done in competitions because they are meant to disable an opponent in such a way that they cannot continue to attack you.'

There are actually plenty of techniques you can use to disable an opponent in such a way that they cannot continue attack you that can be practiced in competition. As a result of practicing them in sparring and competition, you'll be able to apply them against an aggressive opponent unlike techniques that you only practice in an environment of full compliance.

I agree. There are Bujinkan instructors who include some level of randori or sparring in their curriculum. Others train exclusively with compliant partners. That's part of what I was referring to regarding the variance between individual schools.

"I would personally recommend Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (not Japanese Juijitsu) for self defense. "

I practice BJJ and I love it. I would wholeheartedly recommend it as part of a self-defense curriculum, but not as the whole thing. There are some essential elements missing, even if you attend a school that regularly covers the entire BJJ self-defense curriculum. Unfortunately, many BJJ schools don't even teach that part of the curriculum and focus exclusively on sport competition.
posted by tdismukes at 7:45 AM on August 27, 2009

Without getting into the "whose style is best" discussion, I agree that it comes down to the school and the instructor. I practice wing chun, but I've encountered good wing chun instructors and bad wing chun instructors, as well as good and bad schools of various other arts.

This thread might be helpful to you as well.

My experience with wing chun is that it's a very practical martial art. Nothing fancy, and one of my fellow students likes to joke that everything in wing chun ends with "And then you hit the other guy." It's not kata-heavy; beginning students are taught only one form, and there's only 6 forms total in the whole system, so if you're looking for an art in which you will learn dozens of different forms for each situation, you won't find that there. There's a lot of emphasis on using technique rather than muscle, so a smaller trained person can beat a bigger, less-trained person. It suits me, and I find that to be the most important aspect.

More important than the specific art, though, is finding a good school. Here are things that I tried to avoid when I was looking for schools:

-Fitness-club style contracts to lock in a year or more of membership up front.

-Anywhere that charges more than $100/month. Martial arts instruction isn't something where the more expensive it is, the better it is. And I live in an expensive area, so cheaper areas should scale down accordingly.

-Excessive marketing. One place had their logo on the back of a bright yellow Hummer H2. My money is not going to go to pay for that sort of thing.

-Not allowing anyone to watch the training.

-No free lesson. They should let you try one lesson, free, with no obligation to come back or buy anything.

-"Combination" arts or schools where one person advertises that they teach a large number of arts. I like to learn from someone who dedicated their life to one or two complimentary arts.

-Drill-sergeant type instruction. Some people like that, I do not.

-Focus on sport and competition. Teaching sport martial arts is much different than teaching traditional martial arts. Again, some people like that, I do not.

-No big egos. This is a biggie for me. I've left schools before because they had students who wanted to show off how much better they were than other people. Training martial arts isn't about "winning" or "beating" your fellow student at what you're doing. Everyone should come and be ready to learn and help everyone who's training with them.
posted by zompus at 10:15 AM on August 27, 2009

Also, the wing chun school in Boston that you linked looks good. If I were in Boston and looking for instruction, I would try there.
posted by zompus at 10:21 AM on August 27, 2009

Since you're in the Boston area, I'd second Sityodtong. I went to a trial class; although I have zero martial arts experience and pretty slow to learn anything involving coordination, I thought the teachers were excellent. They are on the expensive side, but I am strongly considering making room in my budget for regular classes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:41 AM on August 27, 2009

Ving Tsun (wing chun).
And I strongly second watching out for everything that zompus mentioned avoiding.
posted by bastionofsanity at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2009

Response by poster: tdismukes: thanks for the history; the controversy has me wondering about the school. I might ask about it.

anti_social_order: hey, great video! Never would have approached it like that.

zompus: thanks for the pointers. I actually did come across an instructor who said he didn't allow sit ins, and I dropped him as a potential teacher. Incidentally, he fit several of the other criterias you listed as well.

Thanks everyone!
posted by elisynn at 8:14 PM on August 27, 2009

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