Which martial art is best for my specific interests?
July 10, 2011 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Which martial art is best for my specific interests? Thoughts on Shaolin Kempo and other forms much appreciated.

I really want to take up a martial art, but I want to be sure I choose the right one for me before I commit to it seriously. I'm looking for something that teaches hand and foot combat and a bit of grappling combined with a good measure of artistry (aesthetic appeal) and spiritual practice. I've considered Taekwondo and Karate (and taken a couple of lessons) but feel the movements are a bit too linear and staccato. I've also considered Capoeira because the beautiful, flowing movement entices me, but I'm not sure it has enough of a fighting/combat component - I want to be able to handle myself in a real fight if necessary.

I recently found an Ultimate Self Defense studio walking distance from my house. They teach Shaolin Kempo, which is a more recent martial arts development that combines kenpo karate with kung fu. Does anyone have any experience with this martial art who would recommend for or against it? I found the mixed elements appealing because I think it's good that martial arts evolve and incorporate new forms that work for new environments (e.g. guns didn't exist when some of these forms were developed). However, the commercialism of the studio itself turned me off slightly, so I'm wondering if I'm going to be getting a genuine martial arts experience. I'm wondering if I should look into a traditional kung fu class, but my concern there would be that I'd be missing out on the more modern developments in fighting techniques that a mixed martial art can provide.

As you can see, I'm a bit torn in terms of which direction to go, so any and all thoughts (especially from those who practice martial arts) are MUCH appreciated! And if there's a martial art I should be considering that I haven't, please do tell!
posted by citystalk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For the most efficient and effective fighting techniques, try Krav Maga. For beautiful movement and spirituality and to cultivate Harmony, Aikido. The two styles and philosophies are opposites that complement each other quite nicely.
posted by ainsley at 10:22 AM on July 10, 2011

I don't have any particular recommendation of a style, but the only martial arts that are truly effective in combat are those that incorporate aliveness into their training. This means practicing moves against fully resisting opponents and regular free sparring. Doing drills, kata, etc. can help, but only actually fighting can teach you how to fight.

In general, aesthetic beauty and fighting effectiveness are mutually exclusive. If you want to fight, you have to hurt people, and the most efficient ways of hurting people are brutal and direct, not pretty. There are some martial arts that teach certain beautiful moves for practice but use a very different style for sparring -- these might be good. you could also cross-train, as ainsley suggests. (except I have reservations about Krav Maga, both because they sometimes fail to incorporate aliveness in training because the moves are too violent to safely practice, and because it's a set of techniques designed for a military situation where deadly force is acceptable and there is no duty to retreat). Based on my own tastes, I would probably do capoeira and also join an MMA gym.

also, if you think a studio is too commercial and is just out for your money, it probably is, don't go.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:44 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are some martial arts that teach certain beautiful moves for practice but use a very different style for sparring

Such as...?
posted by rhizome at 10:49 AM on July 10, 2011

If you're interested in capoeira, shop around for different groups. Some train harder and more alive than others, incorporating groundwork occasionally. Some groups don't like this at all!
posted by mkb at 10:55 AM on July 10, 2011

From what you've described as your interests or needs, and how you've described Shaolin Kempo, it seems like a good fit for you. Whether it is or not is really impossible for other people to tell, and it will be impossible for you to tell until you've tried it out for a while. The best martial art is only as good as the person training in it - and the person doing the instruction.

Listen to Musashi: The way is in training. Try it, see what you think, if you don't like it move on.

I dig Kempo though, I know some folks who practice it and I'm impressed.
posted by natteringnabob at 11:19 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

shaolin kempo looks fun.
posted by the cuban at 11:35 AM on July 10, 2011

Trained in shaolin kempo for 7 years. Caveat is that I have no direct experience with another martial art to compare it to. But I recommend giving it a shot.

It's not as flashy and freewheeling as some styles, like Tae Kwon Do -- you don't kick above anyone's head or take huge flipping leaps or anything -- but there is a real elegance in its economies of motion: you build a sense for the minimal movement that will manipulate your opponent's body in the way you want. Right down to learning efficient ways to breathe. You also develop an instinct for how bodies work, how they aren't supposed to work, and how to exploit both. Finally, I liked its emphasis on contingency plans: how to fall, how to fight from the ground, how to recover from surprise, etc.

For those who like the spiritual skappledab there's occasional talk of "chi" and such, and you can find instructors for whom that's the main point.
posted by foursentences at 11:46 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into Hwa Rang Do or Jeet Kun Do? I have no experience with either but have friends who have taken classes out in Southern Cali and they seemed to have been quite happy as they too were looking for alternatives to traditional Tae Kwon Do and Karate.
posted by cazoo at 11:55 AM on July 10, 2011

>There are some martial arts that teach certain beautiful moves for practice but use a very different style for sparring

Such as...?

Years ago, I studied a Southern Chinese martial art that fit this description. Initial punching and blocking drills were highly stylized, with punches delivered from the "chambered" (next to the waist) position and blocks resembling the fancier gestures of kung fu flicks. Elaborate forms were taught as well. But when it came to sparring, the instructors insisted that the blocks and punches from the drills be cast off--temporarily forgotten, essentially--in favor of abbreviated movements and split-second, non-telegraphed punches. Sparring was closer to kickboxing or Muay Thai than a Shaolin martial art. The instructors insisted that this split was traditional, and helped students perfect their balance and movements, but I never got over the cognitive dissonance of learning what felt like two separate martial arts. If I wanted to learn self-defense--which necessarily means sparring, as vogon poet said above--I'd go with an MMA school, in which nearly all material is immediately useful in sparring--or (with some modifications) a confrontation on the street.
posted by Gordion Knott at 11:57 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check out several different schools. It's not uncommon for schools to give you one session for free before joining. If you are interested in something other than what regular McDojos or MMA schools are offering you should seek out private teachers, and I don't mean private le$$on$. Private schools tend to be hard to find, and good ones are really hard to find. Good luck.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:21 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: "spiritual practice"

If you want spiritual practice, join a church/temple/synagogue/whatever. In my experience, most places promising this are talking BS.

I would also be wary of "a genuine martial arts experience". What is that, exactly? Training in a boxing gym is a "genuine martial arts experience".

I think vogon_poet has it correct: flashy moves/aesthetics and practicality are pretty mutually exclusive.

Gordoin Knott offers probably the only way you can get both (other thank Kyokushin, but you've ruled out karate). From what I understand, traditionally in Chinese martial arts, you didn't just learn one style, you learned many, some hard some soft. The modern version of that hard, competitive component is usually called Sanda or Sanshou -- it's somewhat like Muay Thai, but has more throws and more standing grappling. It's awesome if you can find a school that does it properly. Some of those schools will also teach some softer styles, which would give you your aesthetic/dressing up in cool outfits/saying Asian words component.

I have to ask though: do you REALLY want to learn to fight? Because you kind of mention it as an afterthought. There are some schools out there who will promise to teach you to defend yourself without being strong or getting hurt. They're either lying or deluded. To become skilled in any practical martial art, you'll need to train many hours, many times a week. You'll do lots of strength training, you'll get hit, you'll get hurt, you will probably get injured. And even after all that, if you're a naturally small, weak person, there's still no guarantee you won't get your ass handed to you by an attacker in real life.

There's nothing wrong with doing martial arts for other reasons than learning to defend yourself. Health and fitness, meeting new people, dressing up like a ninja, learning to do cool tricks and flying jumping spinning kicks, chopping wood in half with your hands, earning belts, playing with weapons, competitive sports, because it looks good on your resume -- these are all totally valid and common reasons people take up martial arts. But if those are your primary motivations, you're not going to enjoy something like Muay Thai or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Anyway, following is the advice I always give to people who ask me which martial art they should take up and/or which club they should join.

1. Write a list of what you actually want to get out of the martial art (as above), from most to least important.

2. Research the martial arts that best fit your priorities. You probably won't be able to match them perfectly.

3. Research what is actually available in your area. Go try all the schools out -- all should give you a free or discounted trial lesson. Quiz the instructor at length. They will almost certainly offer you the world -- if they don't, if they admit their gym or system has weaknesses, that is actually a good sign. Find out about the average training sessions. If you only did some beginner thing, ask if you can watch some of the more experienced people train. Consider the school's instruction style and atmosphere and whether that is conducive to the way you learn. Some people work better when someone is barking orders at them, some people need lots of positive reinforcement. Some people learn better by copying, some people prefer lots of one-on-one attention.

4. Ask them about prices. DO NOT SIGN UP TO ANYTHING STRAIGHT AWAY. If there are contracts, get everything in writing. If they pressure you to sign up then and there ("oh, but if you don't sign up now, you can't get....") cross them immediately off your list. You don't want to be at a gym like that. Be very cautious about signing a long (a year or more) contract. Everyone enjoys their first martial arts class. Most people enjoy their first month. The three month mark is actually where most people start to lose interest. Even if it costs more to pay by the month, do that for at least the first few - if you get bored after then, you'll have saved yourself a lot of money, stress and guilt.

5. Look at the schools' timetables and locations. Which realistically match yours? "Oh but I loved X school and I am willing to drive 45 minutes there after work four times a week to train and get home at 10pm". You love it now. But after 6 months, you won't be loving it so much. It's cold and it's winter and you're tired after work and you just want to watch TV. Location and timetable is a way more important criteria than most people give them credit for. If you seriously want to commit to training properly, long term, you need to set yourself up to succeed. That means eliminating the inevitable excuses you will concoct not to go: it's too far, too dark, too late, I'm too tired, etc. Find somewhere reasonably close, that fits with your work and life schedule.

Once you've gone though all these steps, you'll probably find you only have one or two schools left in contention.
posted by retrograde at 4:54 PM on July 10, 2011 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: OMG! Retrograde! You are truly a wise person, and I can't thank you enough for your answer. It has already helped me narrow down the vast sea of martial arts to a mere 2 or 3 that I can now more easily investigate. You are sooooo right about location being important for the long term, and I really hadn't even thought of it that way. You also may be right that I'm more interested in other things besides the pure fighting element of martial arts. Thank you so much for your superbly well thought out and well constructed answer.
posted by citystalk at 7:43 PM on July 10, 2011

I am glad and I applaud you for being able to see your priorities so clearly. There is an awful lot of people out there who believe they're learning to kick ass by kicking the air, wearing magic pants and screaming "YES SENSEI!" and, in reaction to that, an awful lot of people doing combat sports who think all "traditional" martial arts are a waste of time and will spend hours loudly telling you so on the internet. I do think it's positive that there has been a huge rethinking of the merits of "traditional" martial arts training over the past decade, but I think the downside is that many people now dismiss it as totally worthless. The truth is that both are great activities as long as they're meeting your goals, and don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise.

I am both a former taekwondo instructor and a former (well, on hiatus at least) Muay Thai fighter. Dressing up in a uniform and earning belts and saying stuff in Korean and breaking wood in half and doing awesome spinning kicks in the air is awesome fun. Training four+ hours a day, broken bones, walking around with black eyes, fasting to make weight, and fighting full contact in a ring in front of big crowds is equally awesome (OK, making weight sucks). AND IF ANYONE DISAGREES I WILL KNEE THEM IN THE HEAD.
posted by retrograde at 10:12 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was going to come in to post something similar to what retrograde said. I've trained in the martial arts for ~12 years, with about 10.5 of that in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I have spent time (in decreasing order) also training: Judo, Aikido, Boxing/kickboxing, and Taekwondo. But rather than rehash a ton of what he said, I'll just add a few random thoughts:

Consider Judo, as it is a martial art that has a strong traditional side (kata, stuff like that) but also a strong, practical side as well. (Kyokushin and San Da/Sanshou are great suggestions as well.)

Don't judge a school as 'commercial' or not, judge a school as 'shady' or not. The last school I attended was pretty 'professional' in that the instructor charged a lot, but he also had great facilities (in the 5.5 years I trained with him he upgraded the space 3 times!) and solid assistant instructors.

I think sometimes people want the 'spiritual' side of martial arts without perhaps realizing what that is, exactly. I think some people become enamored of the bowing, and the ritual, and the other language because they never really immerse themselves 100% in a combat art. Being really devoted to an art will often lead to moments of 'absorption' or 'flow', since really performing at a high level requires you to be 'in the moment'. And the satisfaction that will come from the rare technique that is executed perfectly borders on sublime. And while some of the work that leads to attaining fluency (free sparring/rolling) is 'fun,' so much of the work is not that most people never put in the time to get that kind of appreciation from it. I think sometimes, the people who really like the ritual are the same people who don't do the kind of hard work that is required to attain fluency.

A related thing I've noticed (at least with myself) is that the more I understand the art, the more beautiful the movements become in my eyes. Sometimes the movements are flashy (ex: Genki Sudo), but sometimes they are simple, subtle movements executed at the highest level (Ex: Roger Gracie).

Good luck in your search.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 6:26 PM on July 11, 2011

you should look into kali/escrima, particularly pekiti tirsia kali (www.ptkgo.com) or perhaps its cambodian counsin silat. these are southeast asian martial arts techniques that have deep traditional roots but are very modern, ie, the filipino marines still learn kali -- adapted for use with automatic weapons.

i think kali has a lot of what you're looking for and is very "alive" and "practical" while also being beautiful and elegant. i train at a gym that has some very good PTK teachers. they teach techniques that use blades, sticks & open hands, as well as grappling techniques. though, with this there is no meditation or spiritual element.
posted by zdravo at 5:33 PM on November 27, 2011

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