by Akumbu Uche
Growing up in the ‘90s, my siblings and I were fairly addicted to the numerous martial arts-themed movies, starring the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, which were popular back then.
Fearing that our brains would turn to mush, our parents enrolled us in a Shotokan Karate dojo; while the weekend sessions were a good excuse to not do my homework healthy and exciting, somewhere along the line, Steffi Graf replaced Steven Seagal as my ultimate action hero and I dropped out.
Last year, during my three-week incarceration NYSC camping exercise, I signed up for self-defence training on a whim and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had retained some muscle memory. My instructors could tell that I had had previous martial arts training and encouraged me to pick it up again.
After giving it some thought and carrying out some research, I’m considering taking up one of the following martial arts – Karate, Kung Fu, Taekwondo or Tai Chi.
To help me make up my mind, I reached out to some gurus and here is what they have to say:
- Aaron Blumenstein on KARATE
How did you get introduced to Karate and how long have you been practicing?
I was first introduced to Karate when I was 6 years old as an after school activity. I practiced for many years, took a break, and then started again when I attended College. All told, I have roughly 12 years experience practicing Karate.
Have you done any other martial arts? If so, what is it about Karate that makes it stand out from the others?
I fenced foil for a short time. The obvious difference is the weapons, but many of the stances and motions are surprisingly similar. A front stance and a lunge could be mistaken for one another and the motions for the parry are similar to inner and outer blocks. The ceremonial aspect feels very different and special when practicing Karate. The opening and closing of a class are very formal, as are “promotions”. I put the word promotion in quotation marks because the event is less of a gain and more of a recognition of dedication and commitment to being a karateka.
Because of its origins, Karate makes use of many Japanese words; which is harder, learning the moves or the foreign words?
Learning the moves is definitely harder. A name for a technique or stance is just a word and you learn the intent of it after hearing it said many times – it is also made easier by seeing the word written down. Mastering the techniques is an ongoing process of learning and improvement that never really ends.
One of the techniques in Karate is the tameshiwari, which involves breaking wooden boards and concrete blocks with one’s bare hands or feet. Where does that strength come from?
The strength comes from practice and dedication. Whether there is a board in front of you or just air, the confidence comes through many repetitions of the technique, always trying to improve form and power. Another source of strength is the kiai or a focusing of energy expressed vocally. The more the karateka hones the kiai, the greater the force upon impact.
In our dojo at St. John’s College, our sensei never placed an emphasis on tameshiwari and I personally never saw the need. I hope I never have to use Karate to break anything, whether it’s wood, bricks or bones.
Karate, like several other martial arts can take years to master; what advice would you give a frustrated karateka who is about to quit?
We live in a world that is increasingly impatient and people expect instant gratification. Frustration is an emotion – don’t bring emotions into the dojo. When practicing in the dojo, there is only karate-do. Leave everything behind when you bow into the dojo and lose yourself in practice. Karate is a never ending process and lifestyle. The karateka who grows frustrated with progress needs to remember that it’s not about achievement, but about the process.
When it comes to washing your gi, what is your go-to detergent?
Whatever detergent I have on hand! Wash your gi once a week and make sure to air dry it! The serious karateka should invest in a proper heavyweight Japanese gi since it will provide many years of reliable wear and offers additional protection when sparring.
Aaron Blumenstein is an alumnus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is currently working to become a professional beer brewer. A former New Yorker, he lives in New Brunswick, Canada.
- Michael Nelson-Cole on KUNG FU
Is weight loss a good enough motive for taking up Kung Fu or any other martial arts?
Yes; weight loss is a great motive for anyone to take up Kung Fu. I have a student who is over 55 years of age, was 122kg when we met; he now weighs 103kg after 11 months of training. He trains once to two times a week with me.
A key aspect to martial arts is the physical training which keeps your body in good shape internally and externally.
You have trained in several martial arts disciplines; why did you choose to focus on Kung Fu?
I have trained in quite a few martial arts and I still do. I have never been someone to stick to one art however my main art is and will always be Kung Fu. For me there is more to Kung Fu than just learning to defend yourself or what you see in competitions and movies. I focus on Kung Fu as it is a way of life for me and is in everything I do on a daily basis. Patience, health, fitness, thought, energy, self development, etcetera – these are examples of things that Kung Fu assists me with on a daily basis.
What does a novice need to know about Kung Fu training before they start?
There are loads of Kung Fu styles out there in the world accessible to anyone who wishes to learn. A novice would need to know the type of Kung Fu style he/she would like to learn, school location, student code of conduct, what to wear, style lineage, instructor’s profile and if the instructor is eligible to teach and fully insured.
You teach group as well as individual classes; which environment is better for the student?
To be honest this all depends on the requirements of the students. Personally I would say that a student needs the two. A class environment is where you can get the family feeling, social aspect, train with many other people as well as see a variety of skill, different levels of ability in the students, gain knowledge from senior students, etcetera.
An individual session is where you get more focus and time from the instructor/trainer. You are also more likely to learn more technical skills in this sort of session in less time.
When I used to do Karate, our senseis pretty much banned us from watching martial arts-themed movies because they didn’t want us to mess up our technique. Do you impose a similar ban on your students?
I don’t impose any such ban on my students. I am there to guide them but not stop them from living their own lives. If someone gets disillusioned due to watching movies, I will always try to make them see the reality of things. Till today movies have made some of my students overexcited and at the same time it has made some more committed to learning Kung Fu. So it’s for me to guide them regardless of the effect movies may have on them.
Michael Nelson-Cole is a London-based Kung Fu instructor and Personal Trainer who is “committed to helping people from all walks of life achieve their full potential”. For more information, visit his website, www.tpm66.co.uk or follow him on Twitter.
- Dike Chukwumerije on TAEKWONDO
How did you get involved in Taekwondo?
I was introduced to it by my father when I was a little boy – it was a family sport. By the time I was able to run around, my elder ones were already black belts in Karate. I joined the bandwagon when they made the switch to Taekwondo. I have practiced two other kinds of martial arts since then, namely Kung Fu and Capoeira. They each have their strengths; I like Taekwondo because of its forms and the way it uses the legs. I like Kung Fu because it helped me develop versatility in the way I use my hands in combat. I like Capoeira for its blend of music and martial arts, and also for the beauty of its movements.
When you talk about Taekwondo and its ‘forms’, what exactly do you mean?
Stances, postures, techniques and movements. There’s a lot of structure and strength in Taekwondo: where you place your feet, how you throw a punch, the angles you form when you hold up a block, and the invisible lines you follow in your mind when you shift from one stance to another. To an observer, Taekwondo can seem very fast and fluid, but it actually breaks down to many specific movements carried out with incredible speed and control.
[Laughs] Long, long ago, mostly in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I never went international but I did lots of inter-club, inter-state and national competitions. I won my fair share of medals too, but I can’t remember most of them now. My clearest memory is of my most bitter rival, a boy named Abdullahi Mohammed. And his brother, Jafar, who kicked me in the head once! I saw stars, literally. It was fun, because we would be laughing and joking around one second and the next we would be on opposite sides in the ring.
Anyway, my last competitive outing was at the National Sports Festival in 2000 at ATBU Bauchi, where I bagged a Silver. I got punched in the face there, lost a molar, and thought to myself, I think I’ve had enough of this!
Martial arts is often associated with aggressiveness yet you come across as calm and cool-headed.
On the contrary, martial arts is actually associated with inner peace and self-control. Many forms of martial arts arose out of the search for inner peace. The way I see it, if your aim in life is to be aggressive and a bully, all you have to do is find a big weapon and you would have achieved your aim. Those that put in the years it takes to master martial arts are searching for more than just physical prowess. You may start out just wanting to be like Jackie Chan, but the discipline of the art teaches that true strength, often, lies in holding back.
How often do you practice these days?
I’m not a professional athlete at the moment so I just practice to keep fit; at least, three times a week.
What is the best way to keep your gi sparkling white and well starched?
I haven’t worn a gi in years now, so I don’t know if there any new ways of keeping it clean. Back in the day, I just washed and ironed mine. I didn’t even bother much with starching it.
Dike Chukwumerije is a lawyer, writer and social activist. He also anchors readings for the Abuja Literary Society.
- Elizabeth DeMare on TAI CHI
How long have you been practicing Tai Chi?
I first got involved in Tai Chi while in college at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College. It must have been in perhaps the fall of 1985, so almost 30 years ago. Prior to that, I had dabbled in various martial arts. I love the strength that they give one, and the control over one’s body and mind, but have never resonated with the aggressive aspects and the sparring in some styles. The Tai Chi teacher – another college student – at St. John’s was perfect for me. We would sometimes spend whole class periods in one or two postures learning the principles behind the posture and the fine tuning of the body position and gaining muscle strength.
Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘moving meditation’. Could you tell us more about that?
I think that this refers to the fact that the Tai Chi movements, while they may look slow and simple, are actually very complex. Many different parts of the body have to move in different directions and at different speeds at the same time. Anyone who has ever tried the ‘pat your head and rub your tummy’ exercise knows how difficult that is. Now imagine adding something for your left foot to be doing while the rest of your body is turning to the right and you shift your weight slowly from the front foot to the back foot – you might get the idea. It absorbs the entirety of one’s mind to accomplish the Tai Chi movements, leading to a quieting of all other thoughts.
In Tai Chi, there is a lot of emphasis on slow, graceful movements; to a skeptic, it looks more like yoga than a martial art.
I suppose that it depends on your definition of ‘martial art’ and of ‘yoga.’ The movements in Tai Chi are based on the basic blocks and punches and kicks of any martial art. In every movement, if you wish, you can envision your attacker and the ways in which your actions are a part of your self-defense. I have worked with several different Tai Chi instructors over the years, one of whom was very into a competitive martial art, I believe it was Karate. He liked the ways in which Tai Chi’s slow speed causes one to really focus on and deconstruct one’s postures. If you are moving quickly, you can move through or compensate for an imbalance in your posture. But at Tai Chi’s very slow speed, you feel the position of every muscle very intensely, and if you are off balance you will simply stumble or fall. Over time, Tai Chi helps you to have a great precision of movement, and a deep connection with the ground and with your stance.
One of the attractions of martial arts is that it teaches you to defend yourself. Can Tai Chi offer me that?
Thank goodness I have never been in a position where I have had to defend myself, with Tai Chi or otherwise! As I mentioned earlier, the movements of Tai Chi are all the standard blocks, punches and kicks of any martial art. Tai Chi certainly helps in your awareness of where your body is in the world and of how it moves, and that would, I imagine, be helpful in any potentially violent situation. But I would say that the cornerstone of Tai Chi is the ‘self-mastery’ aspect of martial arts, not the ‘self-defense’ one. If self-defense is your main concern you may want to chose a martial art where sparring between students happens frequently.
Are there any other benefits?
Tai Chi is sometimes described as an energy work, moving the currents of energy through the body – the same energies that acupuncturists work with. It is said to help to keep them flowing openly. For myself, I know that I move with more clarity and purpose through the days that I do Tai Chi than on the days when I don’t.
What should I look out for in a Tai Chi class/instructor?
I would say that the most important thing is for you to feel that the instructor is interested in the same aspects of Tai Chi that you are interested in. For example, I was not a good fit with the instructor that I had who was mostly interested in how Tai Chi could improve his fighting skills in his other martial arts, but others found this to be exactly what they were looking for. The teacher should allow you to participate in one or two classes free of charge at the beginning to see if their style and focus matches yours. If the first teacher that you find doesn’t suit your style, don’t give up on Tai Chi, but ask around to find someone who is more suited to you.
Elizabeth DeMare resides in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
So which should I pick – Taekwondo or Tai Chi, Karate or Kung Fu? Help me choose.