Many people who enter training in a martial art in today’s America take it as a lark. They want to brag to their friends that they “take kung-fu” or they “take karate.” In ancient times the real purpose was to defend oneself as a soldier or to survive in violent times. Very seldom was there a situation where a student walked into a school of martial arts to start their training. More often, a family member or a friend of a friend recommended an instructor. Instruction might have taken place behind closed doors. An instructor kept an eye on their new student for at least several months to see if they had what it takes and that their student would not bring dishonor to their martial arts family.
Today things have obviously changed. Chinese martial arts seem to be the last to retain many of the traditional ideas. Traditional martial arts today may not be, strictly speaking, required for self-defense. There are many non-traditional methods, weapons, self-defense programs and so on. However, these methods do not necessarily require as much from their students. The program might last a few weeks, a month or maybe a year. It is all about becoming a tiger. No part of the training is usually concerned about the internals.
In most arts, even in the “external” martial arts*, a certain amount of internal fortitude is required. A student will have to leave their ego at the door. The skills of the traditional martial arts often go beyond or go outside the confines of regular athletics. Repetitious practice, sometimes tedious, is required to learn what seems like the simplest things. These skills are often thought of as “obsolete.” After all, who needs to develop fast reactions, hand strength, flexibility, kicking skills, punching skills, leg strength, throwing a person on the ground, or sticky hands skills. All we need is to be good with the computer and not make the boss angry, right?
This idea might get you by until your 40s or 50s but after that, life might not be so pleasant if you have not taken care of your body and your mind.
Martial arts are about self-mastery in the 21st century. It includes the above skills but also the subtle ideas and physical movements to allow self-defense at a higher level than standard self-defense classes. In addition, it isn’t just about physical skill building. It also concerns your inner self. As a student, you should ask yourself whether you have the patience to develop unique skills that do not seem to have an immediate usefulness and confidence in your ability to learn. If not, you can develop those things through training. Such things go to character. How much is your personal well-being worth to you? Can I suspend my ego to listen to those who know? Am I the kind of person who must be right about everything? There are many personality characteristics that can stall or prevent you from learning a technical martial art.
People often learn in different order, based on natural tendencies and native skill. It might take a long time to advance if you miss classes, do not train on your own time, or it could be considerably shorter if you attend often, train often, or even take private lessons.
Learning a traditional martial art can help you control your emotions. It can also change your own self-perception. You now know how you learn and how you deal with difficulties that seem to have no solution.
In traditional martial arts, you can master yourself, not just learning movements but learning about yourself and how to overcome obstacles to move forward.
*See Wikipedia for external martial arts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Styles_of_Chinese_martial_arts#External_styles
-Si-fu Keith Sonnenberg