What would be a good martial art for me?
December 15, 2014 8:24 AM   Subscribe

I've recently been thinking that I would like to take up a martial art of some kind. My goal is not so much to learn to fight as to improve my physical fitness and self-confidence, and develop discipline, confidence, and mental clarity. The physical and mental goals are equally important; what should I be looking at?

My partner's son has started taking karate classes, and I recently had the opportunity to take him to one of his lessons and watch him. I was really impressed—first by how much the kids (who were in the 6-10 range) seemed to like it despite the relatively huge amount of being still and paying attention that it involved, but more generally by the type of physical and mental exercise that it seemed to exemplify.

What I noticed watching the class was that, at least at the beginning level and for that age group, the lessons were only ostensibly about learning fighting moves while actually being mainly about mindfulness, being aware of one's body, self discipline and control, and polite behavior (both to the instructor and to one's peers). There was also a healthy amount of physical exercise mixed in: running, push-ups, jumping jacks, etc. Also, seeing how happy and confident the children were after their lesson (and how much more relaxed and self-assured my partner's kid was for the rest of the day) really opened my eyes. It immediately occurred to me that I could use some of that.

I've struggled for a long time with the feeling that I lack mental clarity, impulse control (of the don't-have-thirds-on-ice-cream variety, not the don't-hit-people variety) and self discipline. I actually take medication for ADHD, which helps a lot but does not, I feel, address the underlying issue. I also have a lot of anxiety and self-esteem issues and can have a hard time relaxing, especially in social settings, despite having been told many times that when I do relax and stop constantly second-guessing myself, I am perfectly nice to be around. (Not that I'm terrible even when I'm a mess; I just mean that I don't suddenly turn into a boor or a fool when I let down my guard.)

I have also long wanted to be more fit, but have never found an exercise program that I could stick with. I'm not in terrible shape, but I really think I would be a lot healthier, happier, more energetic, and better-looking if I could drop ten pounds and build up my strength and endurance some. I'm 30, and I find myself thinking more and more about how if I never start taking care of my body in terms of giving it enough exercise, I'm likely to find my physical abilities and my quality of life deteriorating much sooner than they would if I were better to myself. Thus far it hasn't given me enough impetus to get out and start pounding the pavement or hitting the gym, but I think if I had a more structured class setting in which I knew I was expected to attend at certain times and days then I would be able to establish a habit around which I could perhaps later build up a bigger fitness regime.

So anyway, my actual question here is whether anybody here has recommendations (preferably from personal experience) regarding which martial arts (or schools in those arts) are likely to be best for fulfilling my goals. I know that there's a lot of variation among training centers and instructors, and I plan to have a conversation with any potential instructors before I start. Even so, it would be nice to have something to go on as far as which disciplines are likely to suit me and my goals well. As I said above the fold I really don't care very much about how effective the martial art is likely to be in a "real" fight, as I don't find myself in a lot of fights and plan to continue in that vein.

Thanks a lot, as always, for your advice.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Easy. Boxing.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:30 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Tai Kwon Do. My sister is a second degree black belt. Don't mess with her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:35 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does your son's school have an adult program? A school with a kids' program set up that way is likely to be similar on the adult side.

The actual style matters a lot less than the instructors. I studied Seido karate, which is a perfectly good traditional karate style with an emphasis on the mental/emotional/spiritual aspects, but the differences between even the main school in Manhattan and the one I studied at (a women-run non-profit) were noticeable. If my arthritis allows me to take up martial arts here in California, I'll be going with the local women-run non-profit Kajukenbo school, not the local Seido school.

That said, where are you? I could maybe give you some specific recs for your general area.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:56 AM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Does the program your partner's son is in offer classes for adults? I mean, any of the usual martial arts can potentially offer the benefits you're looking for, including karate. In that case why not pick the one that will give you some bonding opportunities with your partner's son? If they don't offer adult classes, you could try talking to his instructor and see if there are any other dojos in the area teaching the same style.
posted by drlith at 8:58 AM on December 15, 2014

My spouse is a big fan of Hwa Rang Do/ Tae Soo Do. My sister has gotten a lot out of an Indonesian form of karate over the years.

My understanding is that most martial arts schools focus on children's classes. Check out the schools near you and see which have active adult programs: a community of sympathetic adults is probably going to matter more to you than the specific tradition.
posted by yarntheory at 9:05 AM on December 15, 2014

My daughter's karate school also offers classes for adults, and my husband & I both started taking classes. It's been great for all of us; we can help each other with moves and encourage each other to practice outside of class. Ask the instructor if the dojo offers adult classes.
posted by mogget at 9:26 AM on December 15, 2014

I'm a big fan of aikido for this sort of thing. It's less commonly available than karate or tae kwon do, but I found it much more engaging than either.
posted by Gneisskate at 10:28 AM on December 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Japanese ju-jitsu is a nice mix of aikido-like philosophy and moves, judo throws, and shotokan karate-style strikes. When I was doing it, I found the emphasis was much more on precision and mindset than on effectiveness as a fighting technique (not that precision and mindfulness are not also necessary for fighting techniques, but you know what I mean!) There was some Japanese used for respectful salutations, counting, that sort of thing, and there was definitely good dojo etiquette.

It sounds like something you might like, if you can find it.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:32 AM on December 15, 2014

The actual style matters a lot less than the instructors.

I can't say from much actual lived experience, but this certainly feels true to me. When I was a kid I took a karate class at the local Y which was pretty meh. When I was in high school I briefly attended a kung fu school and I've been eternally sorry that I didn't invest more into it. I guess you could look at it like the difference between Cobra Kai and Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid - both involved karate training, with vastly different approaches.

That said, kung fu comes in many different flavors, and the school I attended focussed on Hsing I Chuan/Xingyi Quan, but also had Tai Chi classes. Lessons ran about an hour and a half, the first half hour was almost all guided exercise and stretching, then some impact strengthening routines (basically lightly beating up a partner in a prescribed set of motions), then some different moves or whatever to fill the rest of the time. About half of the lessons were some form of meditation or could be seen as such, either through repetitive motion (alone or with a partner) or just holding certain positions. The way to advance through at least the lower belts was to learn "forms", which were generally a set of motions one went through while moving across the floor, intended to evoke Chinese elemental types (wood, earth, metal, fire, water) or animals, along with some other things (I never did learn what "Five Tigers Come Down the West Mountain" looked like). Fighting lessons generally centered on applying movements from those forms to a combat situation. At times it felt like I was attending a Taoist church rather than a martial arts lesson.

I haven't done Tai Chi, but it seems like if you wanted to go the meditative/focused mind route without worrying about the fighting so much, that might work well.
posted by LionIndex at 10:41 AM on December 15, 2014

Agreed that it matters more to find a good instructor and a group of adults you feel comfortable with. I've enjoyed a kickboxing class that was offered at the dojo where I was training in Krav Maga.

Kickboxing is focused on giving you a full body workout, and it feels like you're getting some aggression out when you punch the bag, but you never actually leave the bag to start sparring with other people. If getting your heartrate up and working up a sweat is what you're looking for, it's just the thing.

Krav Maga is about teaching you what to do if you were actually attacked in real life, and that's what makes it great for self-confidence. For the most part, it adapts to your level, meaning that even if you aren't as strong as someone else, the moves it teaches you are supposed to still be effective. To the extent that certain moves might require more strength, it assumes you're going to go out and build that skill on your own, though, it's not something you'd work on in Krav Maga class.

That combination of the two is pretty awesome, but it might not be so common that a place offers both, or if you even want to combine different styles or schools.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:42 AM on December 15, 2014

I'd say TKD too, but I'm totally biased, as that's what I study. :)

Seconding restless_nomad re: schools. It looks like you may have found a good school, so start with that and see how you like it.
posted by luckynerd at 11:06 AM on December 15, 2014

Muay Thai or western boxing. These also have the added benefit of having a higher chance of actually being useful for self defense than other martial arts.
posted by quadbonus at 11:50 AM on December 15, 2014

Ack! I forgot Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! This is actually my first choice for you. It's extremely cerebral AND phsyical. Not to mention incredibly useful, and quite easy to find!
posted by quadbonus at 11:51 AM on December 15, 2014

I adore tae kwon do and I think you'd get loads out of classes at my club! However, I agree with everyone above who says that the instructor team is far, far more important than the style.

I would suggest you find some local classes that are at convenient times and just try them out. You'll probably find some that you are immediately uncomfortable at, and some that are immediately fun. After a couple of classes you'll probably feel you want to come back or not.

Of course, your background might make you more suited for one martial art over another. I have a dance and yoga background so the showy choreography of tae kwon do fit right in with my ability to learn sequences of movement and my flexibility.
posted by kadia_a at 12:44 PM on December 15, 2014

Style matters a lot if you want to learn how to fight, but since you don't...why are you asking the internet? Seriously, there's pretty much nothing we can help you with. Location, class hours, and how well you fit the instructor are going to be the salient points here. Our preferences (and I have strong ones!) are immaterial here.

Don't have "conversations" with any local instructors. Call up (or drop in at) two schools a week and ask to take a trial class. If they don't let you, leave. Don't commit to anything, don't sign up anywhere until you try at least three places, and be up-front about the fact that A) you're shopping around and B) you're not looking for fighting, you're looking for physicality and mental a workout. This shouldn't be a problem at any reputable school.

Be warned that many schools, particularly judo and BJJ, will expect you to spar, and that is a rough activity that you might not enjoy.

Finally, you say that you...might?...want to get fit. If so, buy a kettlebell and use it five times a week, or start running before breakfast every day, or buy a squat rack and do Starting Strength. Light the fire under your own ass instead of expecting someone else to do the work.
posted by daveliepmann at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2014

I really liked kung fu for the benefits you describe (although I've never found anything that's really a silver bullet for the adhd and anxiety stuff, which I also have trouble with). I actually stopped because the lack of fighting was making me a little bored with it, although I really liked it for other reasons. (I was doing Northern Shaolin style if that matters)

Also: beyond martial arts, I've found that strength training gives very similar benefits but is a little harder to stick to, and rock climbing/bouldering also has a similar mental vibe and is extremely addictive.
posted by randomnity at 1:16 PM on December 15, 2014

Tai chai (with the right school).

To head off the cliches, yes tai chi is a martial art. Although not all schools teach it as a martial art which is why I say you need the right school otherwise you won't get the full/proper/useful experience.

It is an internal martial art though - focusing on becoming soft rather than hard. And one which takes regular daily practise over a long time to develop. I kind of feel something with regular daily practise you can do on your own would be helpful if you struggle with routine.

But my teacher tells me as you deepen your tai chi education you try to get both more yin (qigong, meditation, learning how to relax etc) and more yang (striking, pad work, press ups etc). This is one of my favourite things about tai chi.

Relaxation and mental focus are incredibly important in tai chi. I've definitely found the relaxation techniques helpful in other situations. Fitness is also very important. You won't learn how to lift extremely heavy weights (at least not at the low level I work at). But that doesn't sound like what you are aiming for anyway.
posted by Erberus at 1:18 PM on December 15, 2014

I have also found aikido to be good for what you are looking for.
posted by Grinder at 1:44 PM on December 15, 2014

Don't be afraid of sparring (which BJJ, judo, or any other kind of grappling will expect you to do, simply because you can without getting hurt). It's a fantastic workout, and it completely takes you out of that detached-anxious-cerebral headspace. You will naturally focus, and you will definitely be aware of your body. It's also fun and exciting.

If this sounds interesting, you might enjoy judo, because it has some of the focus/discipline/Eastern philosophy (which seems like it appeals to you), plus more structured training, as opposed to other disciplines which tend to frame themselves purely as sports. Of course it is important to find a supportive instructor, and good classmates (especially some other novices of a similar age and fitness level, so that you aren't constantly getting beat).
posted by vogon_poet at 2:35 PM on December 15, 2014

Fencing, especially since fitness is a goal. One-on-one lessons, if you can swing it. 15 years later I still have those muscles in my arms, even if they're hidden under some flab now. And I was a horrible fencer! Plus of course, focus, precision, and good manners.

Also, I'd always assumed fencers were snobby country-club types but they're total weirdos, in the good way!
posted by Room 641-A at 3:40 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that you can go too wrong by just picking a martial art and trying it out for a month or so. Some gyms/dojos even have a 'beginner' program for people who want to dabble a bit. The main thing to keep in mind is that you have to like going to the gym/dojo to train - if you don't jibe with the instructor, or the gym stinks, or the people there are meatheads or whatever, you probably won't want to hang out for too long.

I've taken Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Capoeira, Aikido, a bit of Karate and some kickboxing, and for me the BJJ takes the cake. It's a great workout, you get to spar in a very safe environment, and it's really effective in a real-life fight (in my limited experience). I'm kind of a klutz and not very physically coordinated, so the fact that BJJ takes place largely on the ground is a plus for me.

Some BJJ schools can attract meatheads, so you need to feel out the school you choose and make sure it's your speed. However, I've encountered less 'Martial Arts Supermen' (read: dudes with ego problems) in BJJ than I did in other fighting arts/sports. Something about kung fu in particular seems to draw out the weirdos, in my experience. Ditto for Capoeira.

Also, I have to disagree with the above bit of advice - "Light the fire under your own ass instead of expecting someone else to do the work." Some people need the structure and discipline of a class to light the fire under them. If you know you're one of those people - like I am - don't let anyone tell you that you need to do things their way. That's goofy - get yourself to a class and have a good time while you get in shape.

Anyway have fun, take it easy, and stay safe.
posted by Pecinpah at 5:36 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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