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There are hundreds of different martial arts, and it is possible to find a wide variety of styles in most communities. Areas rich in culture like Northampton, Newton, Amherst—and surrounding towns like Easthampton and South Hadley—are likely to have even more schools to choose from.

People study the martial arts for many different reasons, and they should consider their motivations honestly and carefully before joining a school. Although most combine some mixture of self-defense training, physical conditioning, and spiritual and mental growth, most emphasize one or more of these components more than the others. At advanced levels, many martial arts begin to overlap and resemble one another, but for the first few years of study, Ji Do Kwan looks and feels very different from, say, Aikido, which seems different from T’ai Chi Chuan, Wing Chun, Judo, and the rest of the spectrum of martial arts.

Since reaching a level of competence in any martial art requires a significant commitment of time and effort, it is wise for novices to learn about the schools in their area before throwing themselves into their study. A little research will give them the confidence to give their chosen art the dedication it deserves, which will in turn give them the best chance of achieving their individual goals. Most martial arts instructors let potential students observe classes and/or participate in a trial class, and this should be an essential part of everyone’s selection process. When watching a class, newcomers should pay attention to the three main factors which will affect their study:

  • Movement — Martial arts can be roughly divided into two groups: hard and soft styles. The names are somewhat misleading — both can be rugged or gentle, or both at once. In general, hard styles use a system of kicks, blocks, and strikes, while soft styles use throws, trips, and joint manipulation as the basis of their techniques. Within both hard and soft styles, individual techniques may be fluid and graceful or sharp and percussive. Some styles are very fast and physical, while others are slower and more contemplative. Beginners often have very different ideas about what a martial art looks like — watch a few different classes and see what kind of movement appeals to you.
  • Ideals — Some people begin studying a martial art to learn to defend themselves, to get in shape or be more at home in their bodies, to gain self-confidence, self-awareness, or self-control, to reduce stress, to learn to resolve conflicts productively, or even to better understand the world and their place in it. Again, most schools teach a combination of all these skills and more, but most also emphasize one or more over the rest. While a school with a window full of trophies may prepare its students well for tournament competition, it may not be the best at teaching the other values and skills people may expect from a martial art. Other schools may give their students excellent technical skills but fail to instruct them on how to use them, either for self-defense or to create the strength of spirit to resolve conflicts without force. None of these approaches are necessarily better or worse than any of the others, but it helps to know why you’re studying and choose a school that will prepare you for whatever you want to achieve.
  • Instructor — This may be the most important of the three factors that determine a student’s experience of a martial art. Since the goal of all martial arts is more or less the same, the benefits of choosing a good teacher outweigh by far the superficial distinctions between techniques and styles. It is not necessary that a student “like” his or her teacher, but if the teacher does not inspire and motivate the student, it is not likely that either will gain much from the relationship. The student must trust and respect the teacher absolutely, because it is essential that a student surrender to the teacher’s vision of the proper training goals and methods. The martial arts can liberate the body and spirit, but there is no “freedom” in the training hall — since a student will be immersed in the teacher’s ways and knowledge, it is wise to choose a teacher with a vision that matches what a student is like, or perhaps what he or she would like to become.

The bond between a teacher and student of the martial arts is unlike any other relationship. It can seem, especially for new students, to be among the most distant of relationships. Although they are often friendly, the teacher is not exactly a student’s friend, and many students travel a long way along their path before learning anything about a teacher’s life outside the practice hall. In larger schools, a teacher may work with a student for years and know everything about his or her abilities and progress as a martial artist before even learning that student’s name.

In other ways, though, it can be among the closest of human relationships, as student and teacher work out side by side through thousands of hours of sweat, fatigue, and growth. After a while, they learn to read and anticipate each others’ intentions, to transcend speech and reach a state of pure mind and motion. This is only possible through a deep bond of mutual trust and respect. The student respects the teacher’s experience and knowledge and trusts that following a master’s instruction is the only way to make progress along the Way, even if the reasons for any particular instruction are not apparent at the time. The teacher trusts in the student’s willingness to learn and respects the difficulty of the journey ahead (having been there not so long ago). A good teacher realizes that the student is the next link in a chain hundreds of generations long, and will find a balance between being attentive to an individual student’s abilities and maintaining the rigorous methods of an ancient tradition.

Ji Do Kwan translates as “The Right Way” or “The Way of Wisdom,” but this refers to the high standards it applies to students following its Way. Its practitioners do not claim that their art is the “best” martial art or that it is the “one true path.” Many masters believe that if one style were superior to all others, it would have gradually eliminated the rest in the same way that a dominant species of animal, through evolution, replaces all those that are weaker. By now, at the end of the second milennium, after thousands of years of development in a fairly small geographical region, everyone would be studying the same style. The range of different forms that exist today is proof that there are as many “right” or “best” paths as there are different kinds of people who follow them. Beginning a martial art is like setting off on a physical journey with no end in sight: consult a map, learn what the world looks like, then point yourself in one direction and start walking.

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