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Martial arts, the general name for a variety of traditional Asian disciplines, are becoming more popular in the West. This large and diverse family of disciplines can provide a workout at virtually any level. Practitioners say they help build endurance, self-confidence and health. They also are taught for self-defense and as a way of expanding spiritual awareness.
One of the main things that characterizes martial arts is a highly structured approach. Each form has many rules, and even the so-called fighting arts teach very specific moves. The focus is on learning these moves and how to put them together. There is a strong emphasis on the relationship between the mind and the body.
Some forms of martial arts are very demanding physically, while others emphasize gentle movements and control. But even the more demanding forms can be done by people of all ages, because of the emphasis on control of movement.
You may want to take a class and simply use martial arts to augment and spice up your regular workout routine. Or you may choose to become a serious student. Whatever your level of involvement, though, you are likely to realize some benefit. However, as with any exercise program, check with your doctor before you start.
Among the more popular martial arts disciplines are:
- Karate. This Japanese form, roughly translated, means "art of the empty hand." It can be used for self-defense or fighting, as well as for fitness, and it involves striking with both the hands and feet. Karate is one of the oldest forms of martial arts found in the West, and it is practiced by people of all ages. Proficiency in karate is noted by the belts of various colors that represent levels of achievement.
- Tae kwon do. This is a relatively recent martial art that originated in Korea. It is similar in some ways to karate. However, tae kwon do focuses largely on kicks, with some striking. Like all the active martial arts, it is highly aerobic.
- Judo. Another Japanese form, judo means "the way of flexibility." Unlike karate, which emphasizes striking with the hands, and tae kwon do, which emphasizes striking with the feet, judo focuses on throwing opponents or grappling with them on the ground or mat.
- Kung fu. This is a very ancient Chinese style of martial arts. There are several types of kung fu, and each type emphasizes discipline and control.
- Aikido. This Japanese martial art is much less physical than judo, karate, kung fu or tae kwon do. It is considered a defensive art, and it emphasizes smooth movements, often done in a circle.
- Tai chi. This martial art is the most gentle of all. It is almost a combination of meditation and martial arts. The movements are made very slowly and in a strict sequence, stressing grace and smoothness. The focus is on enhancing the circulation of chi, the life force, throughout the body to promote health and longevity. In fact, many medical studies suggest that practicing tai chi can help people lower their blood pressure, reduce stress and improve their overall health.
There are many options for studying martial arts. You can start by looking in your phone book for martial arts academies. You can also try community resources like your local park district or YMCA.
Before you sign up, especially if the classes are expensive, observe a class or two. Talk to the teacher about your expectations and whether the class would be a good fit for you. And always be sure to warm up properly before you start and cool down when you are finished.