Monday, August 10, 2009

Me and Martial Arts

I was never very athletic growing up, but I was always active and fairly healthy.  I played baseball in elementary school, ran and jogged for almost all of my life, and often went on long hikes with my family.  When I started college, I was tall and had good legs and cardiovascular fitness, but my upper body was weak and I looked scrawny.

I don't remember exactly why I started martial arts training.  I do remember that my college required everyone to take three fitness classes, and I wanted to do things that I had never done before.  I ended up taking several things, including karate.  I liked karate so I joined the club and started practicing with them.

I'm not sure why I liked karate so much.  Looking back, I realize that it was not a good dojo, at least compared to what I am now accustomed to.  Maybe it was because martial arts training, whether good or just mediocre, sits in a unique spot on the health and fitness spectrum.

With any competition-oriented physical activity, newcomers are judged solely on how useful they are to the team.  Anyone who does not come in already possessing the right physical attributes and skill set is quickly made to feel unwelcome.  The goal is winning a contest, not personal development.

By contrast, almost all dedicated fitness programs have no clear goal.  You show up and go through the motions, and nobody else cares how well you do or makes any effort to help you develop, aside from nagging you to keep going with whatever the workout of the day is.

But martial arts training accepts anyone and helps them on a path of personal improvement that results in real skills, not just calorie burning or muscle toning.  I must have been attracted to that spirit of development, the culture of self-improvement and mind over matter.  Here was a group of people that was willing to teach me how to make my body do new things, and was focused on something more than winning the next game or burning up calories.

Martial arts training will improve your life in a variety of ways that normal exercise routines cannot, even if you never get in a fight.  The improved balance, coordination, and knowing how to fall can prevent many injuries.  And the blocks you learn can stop more than punches and kicks.

Several years ago, my father and I were building a shed in the back yard.  We had finished the walls but not the roof, and there was a 4x4x16 piece of lumber resting on the walls that was to be used in the roof.  I was working inside the frame when my dad bumped it.  The massive chunk of wood slipped off the walls and came directly at my head.  I did a basic one-handed hard style upper block, and then caught the wood after it hit my arm and guided it, soft-style, into an underarm carry.  I was holding the lumber safely under my arm before I consciously realized what had happened.  My karate-developed reflexes had saved me, working faster than thought.

When I started grad school, martial arts was already part of my life and I wanted to continue it.  I checked out several of the martial arts programs there before settling on Cuong Nhu.  I chose Cuong Nhu because I liked the people and the culture.  They were people I wanted to hang out with, and they focused on safety, fun, and personal development.

I have seen a lot of growth and development in my time at Tiger Dojo, not just in myself and in the other students, but in the senseis as well.  I know that I am part of a style that emphasizes lifelong learning.  One of the tricks to living a good life is to accept yourself as you are now, without anger or negativity or shame, while still recognizing that you can always be better.  Martial arts in general, and Cuong Nhu in particular, is a great way to learn and practice this skill.

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