April 28, 2009

What are the martial arts?

Before you head into a martial-arts school (or dojo) you're probably going to ask yourself, "Am I going to have to throw someone over my head? Break concrete? Use a weapon?" First, all martial arts use variations of the same movements, such as kicks, punches, strikes and throws. However, some are considered "hard" (based on attack), while others are considered "soft" (focused on blocking and defensive moves). Here are some specifics.

Aikido 100-percent soft style. No formal kicking or punching training; instead, you use the energy of your opponent to turn an attack into a submission, using shields, rolls and throws.

Karate 50-percent hard/50-percent soft style. Karate was designed as a swift and aggressive means of self-defense, using blocking and strikes, but very little kicking. There is a wide variation in how it is taught, so you should ask the teacher (or "sensei") about whether there is sparring in his or her class.

Tae Kwon 75-percent hard/25-percent soft style. Uses both kicks and strikes; most classes practice balance exercises, and some throws.

Kung Fu 100-percent soft style. More properly called "wushu," it's the first known form of the martial arts. Wushu encompasses tai chi, another soft-style martial art that teaches you to gracefully deflect your opponent's energy without being aggressive. If you find a tai chi or kung fu school that you are interested in, ask what techniques are practiced; speeds vary widely.

Kickboxing 100-percent hard. Developed as an American sport, rather than an Eastern martial art, it focuses on kicks and punches, including elbow strikes. Most Americans use it as a form of exercise.

Tae Bo Billy Blanks coined this term to describe his workout style, which blends tae kwon do and boxing. No "hard" or "soft" percentage is listed, because Tae Bo doesn't seek to teach self-defense.

Muay Thai 100-percent hard. Actually Thai kickboxing, the national sport of Thailand, muay thai is true hand-to-hand, as well as leg-to-leg (or chest) combat. Fighters using this technique kick and strike their opponents in every way, at close range, and in most areas of the body.

The How-tos of Kickboxing

Like dance, the martial arts comprise a series of steps and movements that are done both singularly and in patterns. The following basic poses and moves are found in most martial arts.

Left front lead Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Bring your left foot about a stride's length in front of your body and turn it in slightly. Your right foot is directly under your right shoulder, turned out slightly, right heel lifted. Your left hip turns slightly to the right with your torso on a slight diagonal. Stay on the balls of your feet, body weight centered and both knees slightly bent. Bend your elbows close to your sides. Hands and forearms are parallel, fists in front of face, thumbs close to cheekbones.

Right front lead Same stance as above, but your right foot is in front and left foot behind.

Neutral stance Feet are parallel, toes pointing forward, legs a little wider than hip-width apart. Keep your knees slightly bent and your abs contracted.

Recoil Pull your arms and legs back to starting position at the same speed at which you extended them in punches and kicks. Imagine touching something hot and having an immediate reflex to pull back.

Bob and weave Starting in either a neutral or lead stance, imagine that there's a string at almost head height from front to back. Pretend to move under the line by bending your knees and dodging side to side below the line.