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    As Jax is in the process of choosing a martial arts school, I thought this might be helpful to post. 

    The first thing you want to do is decide why you want to study.  Is if for self-defense or for spiritual development or both?  Which of these things are more important to you? 

    A good school will teach you to be effective at protecting yourself no matter which art you chose be it a more ‘jutsu’ or a more ‘do’ approach.  If you are looking for Aikido, for example … as in ‘aiki’ ‘DO’…. then it is the study of the “WAY” first and foremost.  Or SHOULD be. What this means is that the self-defence aspects come as a side effect of learning the art as a pathway to spiritual growth. A jutsu art, on the other hand, goes straight to the self-defence aspects and any spiritual development is a side effect to that, so long as the school is a traditional one. (More on that below) 

    This may seem like a little differentiation but the ‘feel’ of the dojo would be completely different.  It all depends what you are seeking.  If you want a very effective self-defensive method first and foremost, then the quicker route (thought not quick!) is a jutsu art as it will immediately begin with things that you can tell have defensive application.  HOWEVER, if you DO wish to go this route, you want to be absolute certain that they teach their students that it should be used in self-defence situations only and that they do not use beginners as practice dummies for advanced practitioners to pound on. Safety, safety, safety should be their concern as well as solid ethics about when and where to use their training.

    Neither is the ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ approach.  It depends what you want and how quickly you want/need to be able to use it for self-defence.  Aikido in its proper form takes MANY years to be able to apply it in a street situation.  Jujutsu (one of the arts Aikido derives from) on the other hand, gets you doing things that are more immediately applicable, though it still takes time to be effective on the streets.  If you need something that will help immediately with self-defense, Krav Maga can get you to the point of being very effective in short order.

    Presuming you do not want to go with Krav Maga and want one of the Eastern arts, I highly recommend a traditional rather than commercial dojo or kwoon.

    Commercial schools are often only concerned with filling the mats with paying students and not concerned enough about the well-being and safety of their students.  If they have large colorful ads, the school feels like you just stepped into a martial arts supply store, and you get an overall sense that it is more about the flashy uniforms, patches and trophies on the wall, then be very wary.  There MIGHT be good instruction, but usually if the head instructor is supporting him or herself doing it, they have to, by necessity, be more concerned about getting warm bodies in the door and keeping them there.  In our impatient Western society, this often means quick progression through ranks and other ‘rewards’ which does not generally equate to skilled martial artists (it rarely does, actually).  I say OFTEN.  It depends a lot on the school.  Do not discount a commercial dojo or kwoon out of hand, but you will want to be sure they haven’t lost their way in their effort to keep students.

    Generally speaking, if you are more interested in using the art as a pathway to exploring Qi/Ki/the Force, then a traditional dojo that focuses as much, if not more, on the philosophy behind the art as they do on the execution of it would be the way to go.  A traditional dojo will have the founders picture at the front of the room and maybe a little shrine, will usually have plain white gis (uniforms), it will take a LONG time to progress up to black belt (5 years +).  The other signs of a GOOD traditional dojo are that the teachers will be meticulous about safety, bowing and other signs of respect (and not just to the black belts either…to one’s practice partners), they will expect HUMILITY, and they usually do not have large numbers of students pounding down their door.  This is because most Western students want the belts and ranks in short order and lack the patience for a school that takes the slow and methodical approach. (My Aikido dojo required 100 hours of mat time plus about 1 year of study for each of the lower ranks and much more at the brown and black belt levels.)  The focus should be on good technique and character building and not winning tournaments.  Tournaments are not bad and can be great fun.  But the focus should be on the art and not making a name for themselves through the tournament circuit.

    Always, always, always WATCH a class before trying it out.  Ask WHO teaches the beginners and find out about that person’s experience level. With Aikido, a new black belt will not be particularly effective yet.  All a first degree black belt or ‘shodan’ means is that the person has the basics down and is ready to START learning to really hone the craft. 

    Ok…I’ve probably given you more than you wanted to think about.  However, I’ve seen too many people injured because they chose the wrong school and then they are too afraid to try again somewhere else. I come from a background of 26 years in traditional Eastern arts, but also did some Kali which is more like Krav Maga in terms of ‘street-effectiveness’.  None of the schools I attended or taught at were commercial, but I have seen the quality of students that come out of the ‘quick and easy path to a black belt’ sort of dojo. The black belts often have huge egos, which is ironic as their technique tends to be sloppy or lacks the finesse of a quality practitioner. 

    Alright, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Kol is already having a bad influence on me apparently! ;)



    This was great information and I am going to look into this as I look into martial arts in the future. Could you possibly list some example art forms and what their focus is (defense, “offense” for lack of a better word, a combination of both, etc)? For example, I have done some Hapkido (a jutsu art from your description) up to two belts (orange I think) and then a year or so of Tai Chi. It would be helpful to know where these and other forms fall “categorically” if that is possible.

    Thanks in advance!


    Kol Drake

    I wondered where that old soapbox went!

    (that and why it came back all dusted, stained, polished and looking brand new…)

    Great post Mizz T


    Well, I need to borrow that soap box again.  Apparently I can’t seem to help myself. :) But Marcus asked…

    There are so many out there, it would be difficult to list them all, but I can give some examples from things I have experience in and others can chime in I’m sure.

    Regarding ‘defense’ and ‘offense’ – most arts will say that they are about self-defence only and not about going out and attacking people.  However, some believe the best defense is a good offense and they teach accordingly.  As an example, the Kali (a traditional name for Escrima) that I studied was very much about the latter.  I actually only studied for a few months with them as it was simply far too brutal for me.  My preference is toward the least possible amount of force possible whereas this particular permutation of the art was about taking the person apart so they cannot get up again to harm you.  Now, that was THAT school.  Other teachers of the Filipino martial arts might take a different approach, though the history of the art predisposes it to a much more direct and forceful approach.

    The Aikido style I practiced, on the other hand, we worked on using just enough force to keep yourself and others safe…no more, no less.  The ‘submission’ holds are meant to not hurt as long as the person doesn’t struggle, for instance, but CAN break a bone easily if they do.

    In general martial arts can be broadly classified into external arts and internal arts.  The external arts are generally things like karate, kung fu, japanese swordsmanship, Hsing I etc. Energy is moved, obviously, but it is done less consciously.  One relaxes until the moment just before the impact of the technique and then everything tightens at the last moment, with the energy extending beyond the fist, foot etc at that point.  These arts will focus on good technique and over the course of time, with practice, the energy will respond accordingly. It has been my experience that this is, indeed, the case. Typically, the teacher will not discuss where energy is at any given time in the technique.  They are about DOING and experiencing and learning that way.

    In the internal styles – things like Tai Chi, Aikido, Pa Gua – you stay relaxed at all times and there is a lot of conscious concentration on energy flow. In fact, you are as conscious of the energy as the physical movement at all ties. This may sound far-fetched to some, but an internal arts practitioner can do something called a jing release where it is the ENERGY and not the physical blow that ‘packs the punch’.  He or she is relaxed throughout and allows the energy to do the work. If it is work, then you are doing it wrong.

    Here’s a little story about that: I once did this to my hubby in my sleep (Stormeye).  All I recall about the experience is that he had been snoring a good bit that night and I had had trouble falling asleep.  He finally stopped and I had just started to drift off to sleep when he started snoring again. I placed a hand on his ribcage and just pushed…a little bit. He woke up hanging off the edge of the bed and I came fully away, realizing what I’d done (I felt terribly guilty!).  Now I’m a pip squeak and he is 6’7″ tall and outweighs me by 100 pounds.  There was no mark and was no pain where I had touched him, but nonetheless, he had been shoved a foot or so.

    In any case, in the end, it depends what your goals are.  All martial arts are beneficial, so long as they are taught safely(this includes proper joint alignment in the techniques too so you don’t get repetitive motion injuries!) and teach solid ethics along with them.  Internal arts will teach you more directly about Qi/Chi/Ki/the Force and how to move energy consciously, but with enough time and practice, you can learn the same thing in external arts.

    Oh, and while advanced practitioners can and do juggle multiple arts with ease at the same time, I would not recommend doing this to anyone with fewer than 8 or 10 years’ experience in their first art.

    If you want to know about arts I’ve not mentioned specifically, it might be good to ask about them here.  There may be others on the forum who have studied them.

    These YouTube videos will give you a sense of the difference between internal and external arts (all are things that I’ve studied/do study):

    Internal Arts:
    O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido:
    Yang Style Tai Chi:

    External Arts:
    Wado Ryu Karate, Otsuka Sensei:
    Seido Karate:


    Oh, I almost forgot…there is also the difference between striking arts, throwing/grappling arts and weapons-only arts!

    Aikido has some striking, but it is mainly a throwing/grappling art as you spend the majority of your training time being thrown, throwing someone else or putting them into ‘locks’ or ‘submission’ holds.  There is a LOT of emphasis on learning to fall so that you are safe during training.  (Actually, it’s a useful skill…I once fell off the top of a fire truck and did not hurt myself at all because I knew how to fall — long story — wet and slippery truck, dark night etc. :))) Judo is also a throwing/grappling art and so is Jujitsu. 

    A striking art would be something like karate or kung fu where you learn to kick, punch, block etc.

    A weapons-only art would be something that trains you to use a weapon – Kendo, Fencing, Iaido (Japanese swordsmanship).  These can be good fun and train reaction time, self-discipline, control and all of that good stuff, but aren’t as useful on the street.  (I don’t know about you, but I don’t walk around with a rapier or katana on a daily basis!)


    Thanks for the tips, Ter. I may inquire further about some of these. I’ve always been attracted to the forms and beauty of Kung Fu (I began to study it long ago, but that only lasted a few weeks), but I am partial to the internal arts like Tai Chi. I may see what clubs there are around town (and our university has a great many clubs as well) and come back here after that.

    And no, I don’t carry my katanas around. Just my Force FX lightsaber. Just kidding…



    You are quite welcome! If, after you do your research you want to chat further about this, you know where to find me!


    1.  I’m going to sticky this post as it’s a good reference and this comes up fairly often.  Thank you for writing it.  And don’t worry about the soapbox, this is very beneficial.

    2.  My experience is with 10 years of American Karate with a self defense focus to start.  I stopped after moving away to college. Then I had 3 years (I think) of Shotokan which was purely traditional.  I enjoyed that switch as the traditional element wasn’t present in my first style.  I left when I went to grad school and didn’t have the time nor the same quality of instruction.  Then I had about a year of aikido which I absolutely enjoyed but had to stop when I moved to Houston.  Since then my time has been soaked up with my wife’s illness so martial arts has been on hold.  I hope I can get back to aikido as it’s a good spiritual fit for me.  I like the ability to neutralize a situation without relying on strength.  However, I will seriously consider a ‘realistic’ street defense method for a time so if I’m ever in a real situation I’ll be able to handle it.  Though now that I have this handy reference I’ll look at my other options. 


    And remember, too, that there is a lot of good martial arts knowledge and experience on this board, so if anyone has any specific questions about specific arts, please ask.  If you find a school near you teaching something you know nothing about, we’d be happy to share what we know about it.



    Let me ask a noobie question: I loved Tai Chi and I would love to get back into that. But is there an equivalent from the Japanese culture? I ask because I am much more interested in and knowledgeable of Japanese culture and history than I am China. I suppose it does not really matter, but I could study the culture and history of the art at the same time as practicing and learning it, and if it was of the Japanese sort, it’d be the best of both worlds.

    This is also one of the reasons I looked into Aikido long ago, although I am not much into the throwing arts. We did some minor throwing in the lower belts of Hapkido and it was not my favorite part. I think all in all I am very much into the forms, which is why I lean towards Tai Chi, Tai Chi Sword, and Kung Fu.


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