Finding the Right Martial Art for You
I've been practicing Dan Zan Ryu jujitsu since 1982. I get asked pretty often how one should go about finding a martial arts class or school. Here are some thoughts I've scribbled down over the years.
It's more important to find a teacher you trust and can learn from than it is to find the perfect style for you. Start by checking out dojos near where you live or work, and by asking people you know if they know good teachers near you. Then go visit the schools themselves and watch a class or two. Ask lots of questions! If possible, participate in a sample class before you join.
Schools vary widely in how class is conducted - length of classes, warmup, structure of class. Most aikido classes seem to run an hour or 90 minutes. Most adult classes in my organization run two or two and a half hours, and the structure is pretty predictable - a warmup, rolls & falls, lessons.
What's really important is that the school is safe and you like the instructors and how classes are run. You can also tell a lot by watching kids' classes - are the kids having fun? Are they treated firmly but respectfully? Are they getting enough attention?
You may also want to keep in mind whatever your particular goals are in studying a martial art. These might include:
- Getting a good aerobic workout. Many karate styles, aikido, and judo are very aerobic. Tai chi generally is not. Kung fu styles may vary.
- Learning self-defense. There are numerous self-defense classes available through dojos, Ys, community centers, and organizations such as Women Against Rape and Model Mugging. Martial arts differ in how fast you can learn techniques and use them effectively for self-defense.
- Self-discovery. As you become more advanced, you will learn a lot about yourself in most styles.
- Spiritual practice. Some styles have explicit spiritual components. Dan Zan Ryu has The Esoteric Principles of Dan Zan Ryu, for example. Aikido has a large spiritual component owing to the goals of Uyeshiba, the founder.
- Improve balance, coordination, etc. Most or all styles will improve your balance, coordination, and general level of fitness.
Things to look for include:
- School in good physical condition. It should be clean, well-kept, pleasant to work out (and sweat!) in - check out the bathrooms!
- School size. Is there enough room for what's going on? It's possible to conduct a pretty active class in a small space, but too many people in too small a space may be a problem.
- Equipment. It should be in decent physical condition (clean, not broken, not in poor repair or overly worn).
- Class atmosphere. Is it comfortable? Intense? Scary? Safe/unsafe? fun? Note that "intense" doesn't necessarily mean bad. Advanced students work at higher emotional levels and that is to be expected.
- Traditional courtesies. These include bowing on and off the mat, bowing to sensei, students bowing to each other. These can help structure a class and provide a line of defense against disrespect, lack of focus, sexual harassment, and loss of temper.
- Amount of talk. Some schools/styles have very little talking on the mat, others have a lot. Noticing this is more a matter of what you like than anything good or bad, although too much talk can interfere with practicing.
- Warmup. Does it seem adequate for what happens in class? Does it include range-of-motion, stretching, aerobic exercise? Does it seem excessive in any way? (For example, you don't need to do 100 push-ups to be warm enough to do jujitsu. Or any other style.)
- Instructors. How long have they been teaching? Have they trained people through black belt (or to instructor rank)? Are they paying attention to the students, especially kids? Any women among the instructors? Any female black belts?
- Sensei attitude. Is the head instructor respectful of the students? What about the other teachers? Is the head instructor available for questions? Is the instructor paying attention to what's going on in class? The whole class, that is?
- Student attitude. Are students respectful of teachers & each other?
- Student/teacher ratio. Is it reasonable? Again, this varies a lot by style and how class is conducted. I have seen very large classes managed fine by one instructor and very small classes run very badly.
- Beginners. Is adequate attention given to beginners? Do they get extra attention?
- Female students. Are there any? Are they treated respectfully? Preferably at least 30% of the students would be women. Note that if a male sensei maintains that in the style he teaches, size and strength do not matter, and yet there are no women in class, this may be a school in which women are not comfortable for some reason.
- Body types. Do all the students have the same body type? Possibly indicates a problem or a prejudice; most martial arts can be practiced by people of different body types.
- Age range of adult students. How big is it? Does the teacher have experience with a range of ages? If you're a 45-year-old beginner, you may or may not be comfortable in a school of 25-year-olds.
- Athletic ability of students. Is the teacher experienced in teaching people with a range or physical abilities? (I know of one significant injury that occurred because very experienced and excellent teachers didn't know or forgot they were working with a student who needed more instruction on a new technique than the students they were used to working with.)
- Children's classes. Is program age-appropriate for children's development? For children under 6 or 7, there should be lots of fun and games and coordination exercises, and classes should be short. Is the class length suitable for the age of the kids? Are there a reasonable number of girls in the class? (I once walked into a very lively kids' class that contained 23 boys and 2 girls!)
- School fees. Do you have to sign a contract in advance? Do you have to pay to take a rank test? Are you comfortable with the payment arrangements? (In my organization, the American Judo & Jujitsu Federation, there are fees to the organization for testing at black belt rank. Below black belt, testing fees are rare or unheard of.)
- There is no perfect style.
- There is no teacher who is the right teacher for everybody.
What you're looking for are a teacher and style that work for you.
Thanks to Susan Liroff, shodan, and Coleman K. Ridge, sandan, for ideas that have been incorporated into this essay.