Learning 12 Martial Arts in 1 Week

I recently went on a binge. I’ve never studied a martial art to speak of – surprising considering how many other sports I’ve tried. The last time I trained in something even remotely aggressive was soccer. And I quit soccer in 5th grade when the guys started using elbows.

Photo: Edward Dalmulder
(Photo: Edward Dalmulder)

Image my surprise last month in discovering sabre practice once each week resulted in my greatest productivity that week. By process of elimination I realized that it was the aggression and competition of sword play that resulted in my increased results. I began to investigate what else I might learn to supplement my physical training…

Enter the crazy. In 1 week I tried:

Clearly, I’m a bit of an odd case. I don’t recommend you learn all of these. But I thought it would be useful to describe a bit about each of my favorites.

What’s Your Intent?

Do you want to learn techniques for self-defense, to “break fall,” how to use your fists or how to do a cartwheel? Martial Arts are divided into several different types:

I want to defend myself!

Krav Maga is the most dangerous form of unarmed combat that exists today. Developed by the IDF (Israel Defense Force) from among a wide variety of martial forms and honed to perfection, a slightly less lethal form is now taught to civilians for self-defense around the world. My favorite Krav Maga gym is in San Francisco.

Philosophy of Movement

Aikido – developed by the samari as a way to train without swords, Aikido is an amazing mix of inner balance and dynamic roles. While some of the techniques for Aikido are designed for the somewhat outdated samari dress-code (namely, full plate armor), the philosophy and depths of Aikido have only gotten richer over the generations.

Tai Chi Chuan – very similar to the neuro-developmental movement lessons I have practiced avidly for 5 years, Tai Chi Chuan is the exemplar of acquiring self-knowledge through quiet attention. Tai Chi takes a very small piece of choreographed movement and hones the art of that series. Eventually – for those interested – that choreography can be translated into competition. For the most thorough discussion of Tai Chi Chuan competition I have read I suggest The Art of Learning. A fabulous all-around read and a must for anyone interested in improving high-level performance.

Olympic Kicks

Tae Kwon Do is known for its kicks. These folks know how to use their legs!

(I suggest jumping to 3:15.)

M is for Mash-Up

MMA or Mixed Martial Arts is a conglomeration of different styles for the purpose of competition. In the MMA gyms I visited the two most common styles practiced are Muay Thai and Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu. MMA starts in standing and usually ends on the ground. The goal is to knock the opponent unconscious. Think UFC. If you are like me just a few weeks ago, you don’t know what UFC stands for. Think Roman gladiatorial combat without the swords. At the highest levels these fights take place in Las Vegas.

Flips and Kicks

Capoeira was developed by slaves in Brazil as a martial art disguised as a dance form. No where else did I experience the level of play and exuberance that I did playing this “game.”

Attitude is Everything

Entering so many different dojos and studios was a great reminder about attitude – mine and the ones I train alongside. Some of the dojos were warm and hospitable while I felt threatened entering others even before interacting with anyone! Something about the smell of that much fear-sweat? I don’t know. I don’t mind training hard with someone when I know them and we are in it together. And in competition I always aim to win. But as a beginner walking in I was amazed that some studios even maintained a business. Where does it pay to scare off newcomers before they’ve even entered the mat? Something there works for someone else, but not for me!

A Book By It’s Cover

Funnily, the gyms I would have assumed would be the most violent were also the most cuddly. El Nino’s MMA Training Center is the place where all the top fighters in the Bay Area go to train. They also remember every person’s name at the front desk, ask after your family and really give a damn. On the flip side, some of the gentlest marial arts I tried were the most pretentious.

Play to Your Strengths

I am really good at subtlety and enthusiasm. I’m not great at learning under dictatorial tutelage – once too many times hit by a ballet teacher, I guess. Thus, tai chi and some of the related forms I tried were untenable for me. Great for their subtlety and awful because they didn’t encourage me to ask questions. Know what you want going in and choose from among whatever fits you, personally.


The two gyms that I’ve ended up sticking with are the two that offered me the most community. One is El Nino’s, where they remember my name. The second held a grand opening that rivals any of the best parties I’ve been to – there was Blues dancing, acrobatics, cuddling, jui-jitsu competitions with a cash prize to the winner, great food and conversation, and – I kid you not – kiddie-pool chocolate syrup wrestling. I want to train with the same people I enjoy seeing off the training floor. I’ll be training Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Bay jiu-jitsu (@BayJiuJitsu) over the next several months.

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