Moving into Harmony with Martial Arts

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Moving into harmony

If you thought taking up a martial art would teach you nothing more than some impressive self-defence moves, think again. Martial artistry will not only make a warrior out of you, but can prove to be a great overall mind, body and soul workout.

I’ve always been amazed and awed at the way martial art hero’s like Bruce Lee moved through their opponents with such agility, effortless grace and focussed concentration. What impresses me about martial arts is that they not only gives you the confidence to defend yourself in an often-hostile world, but also teaches you valuable life lessons and skills. And as an added bonus, you develop super fitness along the way.

Martial arts are a unique practice because it combines intellectual concepts with physical techniques and manoeuvres. The result is a stronger body and mind and an overall sense of harmony and well-being. When used as an exercise, martial arts can improve balance, strength, stamina, flexibility and posture and provides some sound cardiovascular training. On a mental level, martial arts can improve concentration and willpower. And tuning in the inner warrior also helps build confidence and a more positive self-image.

All forms and styles of martial arts stem from the same ancient basic philosophy, which holds that the universe operates within laws of balance and harmony, and that people must live within the rhythms of nature. It’s all about harnessing universal life force energy and using it to bring mind body and spirit back to a state of wholeness. The martial arts are primarily used for self-defence but the focus is more on self-discipline and self-mastery rather than mastery over others and winning fights.

Although there are many different styles, the mental and physical benefits of martial arts are all essentially the same. It all depends on what the practitioner intends to gain from the art form. Do you want to learn self-defence? Develop fitness? Enhance coordination? Relieve stress? Learn an art? Win competitions and trophies? Some martial arts are hard, some are soft; some are fast, some are slow; some are more physical, some more mental; some are more artistic than others; some involve the use of weapons and some are more competitive in nature. The trick is to find a style and school (or “dojo”) that best suites your needs, intentions and training goals.


Originating in Okinawa and brought to Japan, karate is one of the most widely practiced martial arts today. Karate literally means, “empty hand” and does not typically include weapons training in its curriculum. It emphasises both offensive and defensive moves, which are delivered as blocks, kicks, punches and strikes with the arms and legs. Karate training encompasses both physical and metal aspects of martial arts. According to Malcolm Dorfman, chief instructor at the Honbu Dojo of Karate no Michi “Karate is an exercise regime that uses the entire body as well as a martial art in the true samurai tradition. Karate builds aerobic fitness and flexibility, enhances coordination and boosts self confidence.”


If you’re keen to get down and dirty WWA style, then go for the wrestling like art of Judo. This Japanese art was originally derived from the deadly grappling system of Jujutsu, which was modified to create a gentler art form. Unlike karate, judo involves a lot of throws, grappling, pins, chokes and joint locks. It is designed so that moves can be done in full force to create a decisive victory without injuring the opponent. Judo training emphasises mental, moral and character development as much as physical training. It’s a highly competitive sport and many tournaments are available, although there is room for those who just want to do it as an art form or just for fun.


This Korean art is primarily a martial sport and involves a lot of competition work. Taekwondo is especially noted for its foot techniques and involves a lot of high kicking, striking and blocking. Hand techniques are also employed but only as follow up manoeuvres. Taekwondo demands a great deal of dexterity, speed, stamina and flexibility. Besides the physical benefits of this art, it also offers practitioners self-defence skills and self-discipline.


Originating in Buddhist Thailand, Muay Thai (or Thai kickboxing) is known as “the science of the eight limbs” because it uses all parts of the body, including hands, elbows, feet and knees. Certain holds and throws are also used. Mauy Thai is an extremely vigorous workout. Training includes running, shadowboxing, bag work and kicks. Mauy Thai is known to be one of the most powerful and dangerous of the martial arts and blows can be delivered with deadly force.


This Chinese martial art actually encompasses a wide range of sub-styles and is one of the oldest martial arts still practised today. “Kung fu encompasses all aspects of martial arts namely physical fitness, self-defence and the artistic side or forms,” explains Si-Mo Eulalia Kavalier at the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre in Johannesburg. Kung fu movements combine animal styles, like snake tiger and dragon with practical combat techniques, like wrestling, joint locking, hand techniques and kicking. Weapons are an integral part of training. According to Si-Mo Eulalia Kavalier, “Kung fu is focussed training that allows you to become physically fit whilst learning a martial art. Students are pushed beyond their own limitations, therefore creating self discipline”


If you’re looking for a slow, non-forceful martial art, the Chinese healing art of Tai chi is for you. Tai chi consists of a series of controlled, graceful movements that create a tremendous amount of internal power. “Tai chi works from the toes up towards the fingertips”, explains Eddie Jardine, head of the International Tai chi Society in South Africa. “The legs are the centre, which root us to mother earth and keep us grounded. Slow, twisting movements massage the spinal column and the deep breathing and meditation calms us. Tai chi can increase blood circulation, enhance flexibility and improve overall body function.” As a method of self-defence, tai chi trains practitioners how to direct energy through the body, out the fingertips and onto the opponent, although they almost never meet force with force.


Capoeira is an African system of unarmed martial combat created by African slaves in Brazil. This art form was developed from the moves of ritual African dance that evolved into self-defence techniques. Capoeira is a stylised dance usually performed in a circle or “roda” with a sound background provided by musical instruments. Born out of a lack of freedom, this art form actually involves a great range of movement and demands incredible flexibility and agility. “With capoeira you also develop extreme fitness as well as muscle definition, particularly in the abdominal area, back triceps and buttocks” explains Paulo Palinhos, head instructor of Casa de Capoeira in Johannesburg. “Experiences that take place in the roda help us deal with life’s problems because they mimic real life experiences”. Fighting involves mainly leg kicks and dodges, with little emphasis placed on punches, grappling and locks. Capoeira also involves some acrobatic work, like summersaults and back flips.

There are so many martial arts styles to choose from that the choice can become overwhelming. Some schools offer classic training in one particular art, while others integrate two or more styles or offer more modernised forms. The best advice is to kick, punch, grapple, breathe and meditate your way through as many dojos as necessary until you find your own personal martial arts haven.

* A copy of this article appeared in Longevity magazine

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