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Martial Arts: Finding the Perfect Style for You

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Finding the right style and teacher that fits exactly with where you are on your path, can require some research to help make an informed decision. Here are some suggestions that may inspire you to connect with one of the many healing and powerful martial art styles available.

First off, don't be afraid to "Shop Around." Many experienced Martial Artists advise "Read, visit, ask, compare and then decide." Remember that the teacher and the school have as much to do with what you will learn as the style. Check out the styles in your area. Go see some classes of the different styles and see what interests you and what you think you would stick with.

Many people change from one style to another. While this is a common practice, accepted as a means of development, it is known that the first style is normally the one that leaves the base that most profoundly "marks" you. Try to choose a style that suits your needs and at the same time offers you a kind of challenge to go on learning.

Once you find the right style, martial arts can be like many religions. Teachings from the source/prophet are true, but the interpreter/teacher can be flawed or insane. When looking for the right teacher and school, you definitely want a peaceful and non-threatening atmosphere where you feel welcome and ready to empty your cup, so that new information may enter.

All the styles have value and something to offer. I started in Shotokan Karate (Japanese style) Then moved on to Tae Kwon Do (Korean style) and finally found my home and stayed with Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. This system had everything that fit my physical and spiritual needs. But I continued to expand my knowledge with some Jiu Jitsu training, which is extremely effective especially if you end up on the ground in a fight. For the physical challenge and performance purposes I studied Wushu too.

Once you have the foundation down, you can start to gauge whether a move or position feels rights. At this point practicing on your own in between your lessons is a great way to get in touch with your inner-guide and you can try moves that you may feel intimidated to practice in front of others. Learning to have the discipline to practice correctly on your own really can pay off. I have had many years of training but most of my major jumps forward and fine tuning have come from drilling over and over on my own and allowing my inner-teacher to push me forward.

Rankings and Color Belt Systems

Traditionally the Chinese arts of Kung Fu have not had a formal ranking system or colored belt model. In fact, ranking systems as we know it today have only been around for about 100 years. The first modern ranking system was devised by Jigoro Kano for the sport of Judo, then later adopted by Funakoshi as Karate spread from Okinawa to Japan. Today in the West, the spread of sport Karate and Tae Kwon Do has helped imprint the concept of colored ranking belts in the minds of most martial artists, so most commercial schools have adopted them as "standard operating procedure." That being said, do not put too much stock in rankings, and put even less in belt color. Belt colors are HIGHLY dependent on the style, school and instructor. Some styles don't have any belts. Some have only white and black. Some have white, brown and black. Some have a rainbow. Some instructors hand out rank/belts like candy, others are very stingy. A given color will frequently signify different ranks in different styles.

What Is the Significance of the Black Belt Or Sash?

Today the black belt or sash is given to martial arts students that have reached an advanced level of skill. In it's historical sense, the black belt signifies that this student has "put in his time" to learn the art. In ancient times, a student in training would wear a plain white belt when beginning training. Over the course of months and years, the white belt would become increasingly dark and dirty. By the time a beginner had mastered his art, his once pristine white belt was now black. When ranking systems began to be developed, the Black Belt was reserved as the mark of a long-time student in honor of this tradition. Rather than rank or belt color, what will determine an individual's skill are how long and how intensely they have studied, the quality of instruction they have received, and (to a lesser extent) their "natural" ability.

Here's some fascinating information about some of the different styles, that may help you determine if it's a fit to your body type, skills and mind-set. There are now many wonderful martial art programs for the disabled including self-defense for those in wheelchairs.

Wing Chun Kung Fu

Due to the very nature of it's core systems, it can be easily learned and used effectively by men and women of any size or build. Indeed the creator of Wing Chun Kung Fu was a woman, a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui, and her first student was also a woman named Yim Wing Chun after which the art is named. Translated into English, the name means 'Eternal Spring' or 'Beautiful Springtime.' Yim later married and taught her husband this style of fighting. He then simply went ahead and gave the style her name, Wing Chun.

Do not let this mislead you into thinking that Wing Chun is weak as it in fact has explosive power which can be seen in Bruce Lee's famous "one inch punch." Wing Chun Kung Fu which was developed in southern China over 300 years ago and initially was a guarded secret and only a select few were lucky enough to become students. But now mainly through the legacy of Yip Man , who famously taught Bruce Lee, it is practiced throughout the world. If you get a chance I highly recommend watching the film Yip Man starring the amazing Donnie Yen. Yip Man II was just released in Asia but, it takes little while for it to be released over here.

The typical stance (as we should be in life) is supposed to be like a piece of bamboo, firm but flexible, rooted but yielding. Wing Chun favors a high, narrow stance with your elbows kept close to your body and your arms are positioned across the vitals of the center line. Attack and defense follow along an imaginary horizontal line drawn from the center of your chest to the center your opponent's chest. The prime striking targets are on or near this line, including eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus and groin. With the emphasis on the center line, your vertical fist straight punch will be your most common strike. The kicks are to be kept below the waist. This is typical of southern Chinese martial arts in contrast to northern systems which apply many high kicks.

You can classify Kung Fu styles into four major categories: Southern, Northern, External (hard) and Internal (soft). Southern Shaolin is a southern external style. A southern school is known for low stances, kicks below the waist and fast and powerful overwhelming hands. It is an external style which emphasizes power. The Chinese have a saying -- "Southern Fist/Northern Kicks" -- which means that in the south they use their hands more and in the northern part of China they use their kicks. Much of this has to do with the terrain and their size and built of the people in the two geographic regions.

In Southern China the people tend to be shorter and stockier. In Northern China they tend to be taller and more slender. Due to the Northern terrain, mountains and open land they walk and ride horses. They favor high kicks and acrobatic movements, whereas Southern China's terrain is agricultural wet land which produces rice and waterways near which people live. Due to the southern life style and terrain, they make use of their arms more than their legs. Fighting in wet land or in a boat made it difficult to make large movements and kick high. The low Southern horse stance, for training balance and stability, was developed by the southern kung fu warrior.

Tai Chi Chuan

This is from Gregory Lichtenthal's article "How Can Martial Arts Benefit the Disabled." One of the best martial arts that can be used for rehabilitation is Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) [taiji]. Tai Chi [taiji] is an ancient Chinese martial art and health promotion exercise. It was originally considered a form of self-defense, but this dance-like movement has helped arthritics and those at risk for falling, as well as, multiple sclerosis and the rehabilitation of severe head trauma patients. "The emphasis of tai chi [taiji] is on the exercise of mind and consciousness. TCC [taiji] movements are continuous from beginning to end, and from one posture to the next, in a completely integrated circle" (Li).

"The first scientific description of the effect of TCC on health has been traced by Yu to Xu Zhi-Yi's 1927 book, Preliminary Explosion of Tai Chi Chuan" (Li). The literal translation of tai chi chuan [taiji] is "the grand ultimate fist" (Cerrato). One tai chi dance routine that has become popular in the U.S. consists of 20 "sets" of gentle repetitive exercises that keep the hands, wrists, elbows, knees, hips and ankles in continuous motion (Cerrato). This is accompanied by very deep diaphragmatic breathing improving flexibility, range of motion, muscle strength and balance. It's a low impact routine that is easy and gentle enough for the elderly (Cerrato). "Investigators at Emory University, for example, have found that teaching older adults tai chi [taiji] -- 10 sets per session for 15 weeks -- reduced their blood pressure and cut the risk of falling nearly in half" (Cerrato). At the University of California at San Diego, researchers have shown that tai chi can help younger adults with low back pain. "In their report, about 50 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 65 with daily back pain were split in half. Those in the tai chi [taiji] group were taught 11 movements over a six-week period and asked to practice the technique at home at least once a week. They saw a significant reduction in their pain and a slight improvement in their mood" (Cerrato). Another positive aspect to this therapeutic martial art is that there do not seem to be any adverse effects.

There are vast amounts of information on the benefits of each style, to much information to cover in one article. To learn more here are a few extremely informative articles about other styles; "How to Chose the Right Martial Art" by Bill Wallace" http://www.usadojo.com/articles/choosing-style.htm

See "How Can Martial Arts Benefit The Disabled" by Gregory Lichtenthal here.

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