When many people think of Karate, they often have images of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee etched into their subconscious. A vision of body after body being effortlessly knocked to the ground following a flurry of wild kicks, punches and somersaults is the stereotypical “scene” played out in many people’s minds at the mere mention of the word.
In truth though, this display of aggression and showmanship is far from the true essence of the art it self. The aforementioned stars that have become so synonymous with not only this art, but many others too didn’t actually practice or utilise Karate. At least, not to any notable extent.
So what is it REALLY about? Is it a means for self-defence, a method of attaining discipline and self-confidence, or even a means of being able to unleash aggression with pinpoint accuracy at a moment’s notice? Let’s delve deeper into this ancient art and uncover what it truly means to practice Karate, and any other art in general.
Interestingly, though we stated that our opening imagery really bore very little resemblance to the “real life” incarnation of this art – it was originally created as a means of self-defence, and therefore almost certainly involved physical conflict.
It started to come to real fruition on the small island of Okinawa in Japan. During the 1400’s, trade across the island was rife, though there was a “ban” on weaponry in place. This ban gave rise to the need to practice unarmed combat techniques as a means of defence from bandits who lay in waiting in the areas in between populated pockets of the island.
It wasn’t just the traders themselves who learned the secrets behind effective self-defence either; others actually developed their unarmed skills and hired themselves out for protection during these long trading runs. An ancient “security” force if you like.
Though it was this period that ultimately gave rise to a surge in the popularity of unarmed combat practices (a spike that subsequently saw the art travel to other areas of Japan, before being picked up by Western society centuries later), this era certainly wasn’t where these practices originated.
It’s theorised that an Indian monk named Bodhidarma came to the island some 1000 years earlier, and showed the monks in the area how to physically and mentally develop themselves to gain a higher level of “adaptability” and “readiness” in life.
This framework actually served to combine the spiritual and physical elements that ultimately formed the basis of modern martial arts as we know them.
The monks were already disciplined and mindful – these added means of personal development only helped to fully round off the all-encompassing package that soon came to be used by millions across the world over the following centuries.
Practicality in every respect
From these early days, a series of unique “blueprints” were formed for integrating all of the basic elements of this newfound art together, to transform it into an all encompassing “system.”
This gave rise to the implementation of dance like sequences known as “katas”, whereas the most crucial aspects needed to perform every Karate based movement were seamlessly woven together.
These Katas varied (and still do); some were many, many moves in length, whereas others were shorter and less technical, intended to optimise only a few “facets” of each individual art.
Ultimately, these sequences served to discipline the students and gave them a practically useful way to memorise the principles of their art.
These Kata’s were of course far from being the only elements involved in practicing Karate. Regular endurance, strength and mental aptitude drills were also incorporated into a regular Karate training structure.
In short – not one aspect of a student’s mentality or physicality went untested. This helped to mould self-capable, self confident and highly adaptable individuals in every respect imaginable.
On the surface, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Karate as we know it has lost some of the aforementioned elements. In reality though, they’re more present now than ever.
Sadly, whenever a martial artist uses their skills (and especially with the advent of social media) it becomes a public spectacle. The physicality by default gets highlighted far more than the mental aptitude and respect that the art instils into its practitioners. What really goes on behind the doors of a modern Dojo though?
A well-established hierarchy in terms of rankings is adhered to (by means of a coloured belt system), teaching students to respect their superiors and listen to them intently.
Regular grading’s are performed to test the physical and mental aptitude of those who belong to each individual club, in conjunction with regular (often gruelling) training sessions to evolve each student’s capability.
As we speak, there is an entire “society” of people bettering every aspect of their lives via the practice of Karate. This self-betterment is embodied in no better way than the emphasis on self-defence either.
Aggression or compassion?
A martial artist, a REAL martial artist, isn’t going to willingly engage in conflict. The best fight for anyone who practices Karate is the fight that didn’t take place at all. Through the development of mental and physical discipline, those who practice this art learn to understand that their skills are not to be used lightly. They are there purely to protect themselves and others.
For this reason, there is very rarely a willingness to unleash their physical capabilities in public. You could encounter 100 martial artists on a regular basis, and if all 100 were the “genuine” article; it’s unlikely you’d ever see them in a physical altercation.
Much more than fighting skills
Karate is about so much more than learning how to “fight” – it’s about learning how to be the person you were always meant to be. A role model, a capable and readily able person, equipped to tackle any challenge with diligence and inspire others along the way. Ideally, to improve the lives of others too. It’s simply about being the best version of yourself possible.
This is where the lines are often blurred between the perception of Karate, and what Karate truly is. In its base form, it is simply a system used for the optimisation of physical and mental aptitude.
It’s only because of Hollywood and Western “adaptation” that many people view the likes of UFC/Jean Claude Van Damme movies and martial arts in general in the same light. They’re two incredibly different worlds.
You should check out the local clubs in your area and introduce yourself today. You never know what kind of impact it could have on your life tomorrow.