In the modern world, the term “martial arts” has come to mean many different things to many different people. In the United States alone, a student can have widely different experiences depending upon which institution and instructor they choose to train under. The term martial arts training is used today in such a general way that it can cover a wide variety of activities ranging from hard core training for self defense to relaxed, esoteric, almost meditative practices intended solely for health, relaxation and fitness. There is no longer a universal standard and goal for those training in the martial arts. Furthermore, there is little discussion of perhaps the most important issues, why do modern people practice martial arts and what is the relevance of such training in modern society?
The average student begins training with only a vague understanding of why they want to practice. More often than not, those that continue training do so for reasons different their initial motivations, even if they are only dimly aware of such a transformation in their attitudes. Those who become instructors invariably recall that as time passed the practice of their chosen martial art simply became both part of their life and a part of what makes them the person they are. It is often not something they think about or discuss. Thus, both among the instructor and the student there is almost universally a lack of conscious self awareness of precisely why they do what they do and it’s precise relevance to the world they live in.
Humans around the world first developed martial arts as a means of self-preservation, as the only defense against an often cruel and savage world. It was neither as recreation nor sport, but rather a matter of life or death. As individuals developed societies, martial arts logically developed into means of preserving and protecting the society, i.e. they became methods of warfare. Methods of fighting with swords, shields, spears, lances, axes, etc. had immediate relevance and utility to mankind for a great deal of our recorded history.
However, the relevance and meaning of martial arts training still changed as society evolved. Advances in warfare technology made many older battlefield methods either lessened in importance or completely obsolete. At the same time, increasingly urban lifestyles created a new need for both individual self defense and personal dueling methods. The average Renaissance gentleman certainly had practical need of sword fighting techniques to defend himself and his honor in the urban life he led, but very little need for battlefield training with armor and lances. Today, a student may similarly find utility in learning to defend against a knife attack but has absolutely no practical application for the sword fighting techniques the Renaissance gentleman may have used on many occasions. This appears not only to be a logical but also an obvious conclusion, yet how many martial arts students in the modern world still devote time and energy to the mastery of such archaic weaponry?
Clearly, history should teach us that the martial artist of the past lived in a world very few of us alive today would recognize or even understand. However, there is still a need for martial arts as a form of self preservation. Modern society remains violent and inhabited by professional criminals. The conditions we live under have changed, and thus the requirements for effective self defense training have also changed, but self defense skills are still essential for all people, regardless of their age, sex, social condition or profession. There is still a great relevance to martial arts training, though the technical composition of such training should naturally evolve as the world around us changes.
Physical education and other benefits
Is the only relevance of martial arts in the modern world self defense? While self defense is so frequently cited as the reason for martial arts training, the reality is that very few of the many so called “martial arts” offer anything remotely resembling realistic and practical self defense. One reason is because of the aforementioned lack of self awareness on the part of both the student and the instructor. In particular, instructors often conduct their classes exactly as their instructors conducted them. An unbroken chain of such behavior and the result is that what is being taught is what may have been totally relevant and practical a hundred years ago but which has absolutely no utility for the modern student. The student contributes to the problem by never actually coming to grips with their actual motivations in studying a martial arts, i.e. self defense, and never stop to question and reevaluate what they are doing.
There is another contributing factor to the dilemma of self defense training that is less clearly identified and relevant to the discussion. Martial arts instructors seldom verbalize but for the most part are quite aware that very few students are interested solely in self defense training. In the modern world, martial arts can also serve other purposes. There are many benefits to martial arts in addition to their effectiveness as self defense and everyone, regardless of age, sex or physical condition can benefit.
Men and women are social creatures, seeking both friendship and recreation. Almost every single martial arts student enjoys training at least in part because they make friends, they enjoy learning new things, they feel good when they practice, they learn new things about themselves, and because it becomes part of their lifestyle. Training can cultivate the shy and those who lack confidence. On the other hand, it can also instill discipline, teach personal responsibility, and can teach them to become self reliant, independent and positive.
Many martial arts students will be fortunate enough to never have to use their sills to defend themselves but will benefit from the recreational and physical education aspects of their training every day of their lives. The practice of martial arts also has many advantages that other forms of physical education do not offer. It is an activity that can be practiced alone, without any equipment and even in small areas. It is equally well suited to practice in large groups, with a wide variety of apparatus and in large training halls. I do not honestly believe that any other activity offers such a wide range of options. Furthermore, it can remain a challenging and interesting activity for many years or even a lifetime. A properly constructed martial arts program is inclusive, offering these benefits to a large segment of the population. A program that fails to take into consideration the importance of these factors will be doomed to failure. The key is, as with all things, balance. An effective program balances realistic self defense training with physical education and recreation.
If a martial art strives to be relevant and beneficial it offers its students self defense, physical education, and recreation. The core of a modern martial art offers a training program suitable to a wide population (ideally both male and female students between the ages of 14 and 40) which will improve and maintain health, teach body awareness and serve technically as the foundation for specialized training (e.g. combative, law enforcement and elite sport competition). The core training should consist of the basic movements including effective methods for self defense. In addition, as a form of recreation the core training program must also have a wide variety of techniques to keep interest. Modifications for children (under 13) and for executive (over 40) will be necessary but these programs should still conform to the same principles as the core program. Finally, modern martial arts training should include the development of ethics, self discipline and confidence. The instructor and training environment should strive to achieve these results.