The benefits of karate may at first seem obvious—it’s a great excuse to exercise while building vital self-defense skills. And yet, that description hardly scratches the surface. There’s a reason why “modern” karate is over 200 years old, with roots cutting many thousands before that. Studying karate has proven deep-seeded benefits to almost every aspect of the human experience: body, mind, and spirit.
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One of the more obvious benefits of karate is that it will give you the tools to defend yourself in a dangerous situation. Perhaps that it your primary interest in karate. In training, you’ll work through many techniques with blatant real-world applications.
Karate tends to make someone an expert at reading body language, too—from the person who wants to be left alone, to the person who is primed to initiate combat. Just as much as karate can train someone to get out of a sticky situation, it can train someone to deescalate or avoid one altogether.
Having the ability to defend yourself goes a lot deeper than any street altercation, too. True of most physical activities, confidence in karate implies a mastery of your physical body and the space you hold. This bleeds into a general physical confidence, and then a better all-around self-esteem.
Karate is a full body workout. And, like with any activity utilizing every muscle, regular practice will improve oxygen circulation, overall cardiovascular health, strength, and endurance.
By practicing karate, you will be stretching regularly. You will be doing lots of pushups and holding positions which increase muscle mass and improve muscle tone, such as the zenkutsu dachi (front stance) and kiba dachi (horse stance). Katas (forms), individual training exercises, as well as kicking drills, are great sources of cardio.
No matter your fitness goals, karate is a fun way to become more flexible, more agile, stronger, and healthier.
Aerobic exercises, because of increased blood circulation to the brain, have been proven to reduce mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. This increased blood flow, helping organic communication, affects all kinds of changes in the body and mind. This includes the limbic system, involving motivation and mood, the amygdala, involving stress-related fear, and the hippocampus, involving memory formation.
In short, karate can greatly reduce stress.
According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.”
Karate can also reduce stress in less physical ways. Regular discipline in a positive activity can do wonders for motivation and purpose. Distraction from problems, general self-efficacy, and socialization can all eliminate stress as well and help a person operate with a more positive outlook.
Focus & Discipline
One great thing about karate, as opposed to other forms of physical activity, is its emphasis on mental being and how mental being affects performance.
“Attitude, not aptitude, determines altitude.” My first sensei said these words often.
Another sensei, down the line, taught her students to “empty our cups” before setting foot on the dojo. She could tell when I was distracted, from school, from work, from home, from whatever. She advised me to empty all those thoughts onto the entryway before bowing onto the mats. On the mats, we focused on karate alone.
Another common saying of my first sensei was that for every one time we made a mistake on any form, application, or move, it took twenty times doing it right to correct it.
Focus and discipline. I’m not sure what this required more of.
Holding yourself to a standard, even something as small as mastering a kata, is a simple practice that compounds to an improvement of every aspect of your life.
Retired U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven talks about the value of discipline best. “Making my bed correctly was not going to be an opportunity for praise. It was expected of me. It was my first task of the day, and doing it right was important. It demonstrated my discipline. It showed my attention to detail, and at the end of the day it would be a reminder that I had done something well, something to be proud of, no matter how small the task.”
Anyone who has trained in karate long enough will tell you that you’re more likely to learn how not to fight than you are to learn how to fight.
This of course, has grown from karate’s historical ties in Zen Buddhism, which strongly influenced the martial arts that grew out of Japan and China. Karate teaches a student to concentrate on their own movements and be fully cognizant on self and surroundings in this moment. A not-so-subtle form of walking meditation.
Meditation can help people have a stronger grasp and awareness on their emotions, and thus how they act because of them. These are the teachings of karate as well.
In addition to this school of thought making a student actively better at karate, a greater sense of mindfulness can give that same student better clarity, focus, and fulfillment far beyond the dojo walls.
Any good sensei is going to pause from grueling physical work every so often to tell colorful allegories of old that have clear connections to everyday experience. I’ve never had one who didn’t, actually.
Learning powerful morals, learning why we fight—and why we don’t—is deeply entrenched in karate incomparable to any other sport.
One of my favorite stories a sensei told me has ancient Buddhist roots. It’s of a man being chased through the jungle by a tiger. The cat gains on him for many miles, until he is backed against a cliff, tiger closing in.
Then, the cliff broke below him.
Able to grab hold of a single vine, the man survived the fall. He looked up as the tiger paced, awaiting its meal. Below him, at the base of the cliff, another tiger waited.
Stuck between this death trap, the man grasped tightly to the vine. Nowhere to go. Then, two mice—one white and one black—appeared from a hole in the cliff. They began chewing away at the vine, slowly.
To his right, from a sparse piece of vegetation coming from the cliff, grew a single strawberry. The man grabbed it quickly and put it in his mouth as the vine he held onto thinned.
Oh, how sweet it tasted.
These types of stories not only will help better your practice in the dojo, by broadening your understanding of the techniques at hand, but also can change your thoughts outside as well. In short, practicing karate can make you a better person.
Why Practice Karate?
Karate is a centuries’ old practice meant to improve your mind, body, and spirit.
It’s a simple practice a couple times a week. Yet, in miniscule ways, it can change every aspect of your life. You may learn how to physically defend yourself in a sticky situation, which will boost your confidence outside of it. You may work out every part of your body, which, on top of all the obvious benefits, will reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. You may learn firsthand the tangible effects of discipline, which will bleed into your workplace and personal relationships. You may learn the value of the present moment, which will boost your mood and produce a mastery of your behavior.
In short, karate can make you stronger, braver, and happier.