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Martial Arts: It's not fighting, it's a spiritual experience

Updated on March 20, 2014
When sparring, such as in taekwondo, practitioners are often encouraged to wear sparring pads for their own and their partner's protection.
When sparring, such as in taekwondo, practitioners are often encouraged to wear sparring pads for their own and their partner's protection.

Different types of martial arts

What is the best martial art?

It is a common question, but it has no definitive answer. Each art has something valuable to offer, and each has techniques and ideas that don’t necessarily work for everyone seeking to immerse themselves in the martial way. Some experienced martial artists swear by a given path or tradition, while others assert that an eclectic approach provides more benefits than adhering to the curricula of old. Perhaps the most diplomatic (and true) answer maintains that a martial artist ought to focus primarily on his own path and his own development, rather than worry over the approval of a sensei or his friends.

Some disciplines, such as Okinawan Kenpo Kobudo (“old martial way of Okinawa”), incorporate weapons early on in practice. Students are trained primarily through learning kata (or “forms,” in English), a series of techniques threaded together, as in a sort of dance. Okinawan Kenpo teaches both open-handed kata and kata with weaponry, such as a bo, sai, or sword. While practitioners are taught to memorize the movements, and kata most certainly represent dances, the art emphasizes practicality, and movements exert as much power and realism as they do beauty.

Similarly, taekwondo also uses forms (poomse) as a method for teaching technique and movement, born as a combination of Okinawan karate and Korean martial traditions. An art such as taekwondo focuses on striking, both with the open hand and with powerful kicks. Taekwondo focuses as much on the art and sport of combat as it does on self-defense. As a sport, taekwondo sparring has been an Olympic event since 2000. Opponents aim not to harm one another, but rather, sparring proves more representative of a game of tag, where each side aims to score points with precisely placed kicks and strikes. The name taekwondo translates loosely to “the art of fist and foot.” Due to its focus on striking, taekwondo is commonly considered a “hard” art.

Meanwhile, arts such as hapkido, judo, and aikido, which focus on rolls, throws, and joint locks, are considered “soft” arts. This can be misleading, however, as anyone who has ever practiced such an art will readily argue that there is nothing “soft” about finding oneself on the receiving end of a hip toss. The label comes, not because of anything gentle or weak about the art, but due to the manner in which one’s opponent is encountered. Rather than meeting force with force, as in kickboxing or taekwondo, soft techniques take advantage of an attacker’s momentum and movements in a way that throws them off balance. The defender, meanwhile, exerts a minimal amount of force as he or she redirects the energy exerted by the attacker.

Krav Maga is often touted as the best art to practice for street defense. The national martial art of Israel, Imi Lichtenfeld originally created Krav Maga for the Israeli military. Lichtenfeld fused basic street fighting techniques with those from boxing, Muy Thai, Wing Chun, wrestling, and various other sources in order to create a system for the Israeli military. Over time, it developed a more popular following as a practice devoted to self-defense. In Hebrew, the name translates “contact combat.” Krav Maga emphasizes neutralization of an attacker, aiming strikes at the most vulnerable points of the body in order to maximize their effectiveness and escape as quickly as possible.

One art, Jeet Kune Do, acts as more of a hybrid of all other styles of martial arts. Created by Bruce Lee, this practice emphasizes an idea of “style without style,” or “fighting without fighting.” Lee believed that most established martial arts systems had become too rigid, not accounting for the fluidity of events in a real-life battle. More literally Jeet Kune Do translates to “the way of the intercepting fist.” Lee advocating developing a quickness that would allow one to not only react to an attack, but to counter before one’s opponent could even finish the attack -- to intercept the attack.

Belts are typically a way of identifying a practitioner's level of experience within a given martial art.
Belts are typically a way of identifying a practitioner's level of experience within a given martial art.


Central to the practice of any martial art, one must engage in the harnessing of ki (pronounced "kee"). Simply put, ki is energy (also known as chi or qi in China, or prana in Sanskrit). This life force energy permeates the entirety of the universe and unites all things tangible and intangible. Some refer to it as a martial artist’s center, the focal point within an individual from which the power behind all movements and strikes generate. Ki exists within us, without us, and all around us.

A Star Wars fan might compare ki to the Force. It is present everywhere, but it requires concentration and practice to channel it into one’s movements. More than that, it takes years of training to understand and utilize ki fully and effectively. In the same way that a Jedi trains to understand and use the Force, a martial artist trains to understand and use ki. When exercised consistently and diligently, harnessing ki results in a fusion of mind and body, and the focus required to utilize ki becomes a part of the practitioner’s subconscious, where it can be called upon without conscious effort. The martial artist does not merely call upon the energy of ki, the martial artist becomes ki.

A true martial artist does not rely solely on muscle to exert force. While the basic anatomical functions of the human body obviously require the engagement of muscle, the energy derived from ki exerts far more power than muscle can alone. Also like the Force, the energy of ki can be projected. The corporeal confines of the human body cannot contain it, but rather, an experienced practitioner can harness ki into an extension of his body. When an individual utilizes ki, the force of a strike does not merely end with the strike. It extends beyond the strike, causing damage beyond the physical extension of the appendage dealing the damage.

Most importantly, the energy of ki does not merely restrict itself to practitioners of the martial arts. The healing arts, such as acupuncture, Reiki, and massage therapy, also cultivate ki in their practice. Breathing exercises and meditation techniques harness and focus ki within an individual. Ki resides all around us. It unifies us. It keeps the universe in motion.

The artistry of the martial way

Oftentimes, in the quest for the “best” martial art, one loses focus on the beauty and sheer artistry of any practice. They are, after all, called martial arts, and those who practice them are martial artists. For all our attention on the potential of a discipline to inflict some major ass-kickery, we overlook the beauty and spiritual experience in the practice of martial arts in general.

An experienced martial artist can appreciate a precisely executed side kick as a work of art in itself. It’s one of the most basic of kicks, but perfect execution of any technique involves a considerable amount of detail, focus, and self-control -- not to mention hours and hours of practice. From cocking the leg, to the lean of the upper body, to the firing of this piston-style kick, every movement has a precise mechanic designed to make it faster, more powerful, and more efficient.

The very moment the foot hits its target, by itself, conveys the artistry of the technique. Not only does the kick strike the target quickly and accurately, it strikes with the outside knife edge of the the foot, led by the heel, leg fully extended with a snap, then retracted quickly and returned to a position that readies the individual for his next action.

The execution of soft techniques presents a different kind of elegance not found in mere striking. The act of redirecting an opponent’s momentum is all at once a science and a work of art. It involves an effective use of angles and body positioning in order to use an opponent’s movements and body weight against him. Any technique, hard or soft, requires an understanding of anatomy, physics, and, of course, ki.

Bruce Lee has referred to martial arts as “the art of expressing the human body,” and if there was ever a martial artist who projected the beauty and artistic possibilities of martial arts, it was Bruce Lee. Any YouTube video or movie of Lee executing a technique reveals the culmination of years of devoted study and practice in the martial arts

For some, the practice of martial arts serves as more than self-defense or sport or exercise: it becomes a religion. It has no “god,” no churches or shrines, no central religious text. Some arts, however, do teach tenants for training and living. The focus and teachings surrounding ki certainly introduce a spiritual aspect, and ideas of peace and harmony permeate throughout martial arts culture. The names of many styles include the syllable -do, which translates to “the way.” Indeed, serious students consider the martial arts a way of life, something that pervades all aspects of their day-to-day routines down to the smallest detail. They place as much emphasis on the spiritual side of training as they do the physical side -- honing their connection with ki via meditation, breathing, and other exercises.

Ultimately, perhaps we should not be asking, “What is the best martial art?” Rather, we ought to ask ourselves what ideas and practices make up our individual journeys as martial artists, because whether we actively realize it or not, we are all students of the way.


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