Finding the Right Martial Art for You
I've been practicing Dan Zan Ryu jujitsu since 1982. I get asked pretty
often how one should go about finding a martial arts class or school. Here
are some thoughts I've scribbled down over the years.
It's more important to find a teacher you trust and can learn from than
it is to find the perfect style for you. Start by checking out dojos near
where you live or work, and by asking people you know if they know good
teachers near you. Then go visit the schools themselves and watch a class
or two. Ask lots of questions! If possible, participate in a sample class
before you join.
Schools vary widely in how class is conducted - length of classes,
warmup, structure of class. Most aikido classes seem to run an hour or 90
minutes. Most adult classes in my organization run two or two and a half
hours, and the structure is pretty predictable - a warmup, rolls & falls,
What's really important is that the school is safe and you like the
instructors and how classes are run. You can also tell a lot by watching
kids' classes - are the kids having fun? Are they treated firmly but
respectfully? Are they getting enough attention?
You may also want to keep in mind whatever your particular goals are in
studying a martial art. These might include:
- Getting a good aerobic workout. Many karate styles, aikido, and
judo are very aerobic. Tai chi generally is not. Kung fu styles may
- Learning self-defense. There are numerous self-defense classes
available through dojos, Ys, community centers, and organizations such as
Women Against Rape and Model Mugging. Martial arts differ in how fast you
can learn techniques and use them effectively for self-defense.
- Self-discovery. As you become more advanced, you will learn a
lot about yourself in most styles.
- Spiritual practice. Some styles have explicit spiritual
components. Dan Zan Ryu has The Esoteric Principles of Dan Zan
Ryu, for example. Aikido has a large spiritual component owing to the
goals of Uyeshiba, the founder.
- Improve balance, coordination, etc. Most or all styles will
improve your balance, coordination, and general level of fitness.
Things to look for include:
- School in good physical condition. It should be clean,
well-kept, pleasant to work out (and sweat!) in - check out the
- School size. Is there enough room for what's going on? It's
possible to conduct a pretty active class in a small space, but too
many people in too small a space may be a problem.
- Equipment. It should be in decent physical condition (clean, not
broken, not in poor repair or overly worn).
- Class atmosphere. Is it comfortable? Intense? Scary?
Safe/unsafe? fun? Note that "intense" doesn't necessarily
mean bad. Advanced students work at higher emotional levels and that is to
- Traditional courtesies. These include bowing on and off the
mat, bowing to sensei, students bowing to each other. These can help
structure a class and provide a line of defense against disrespect, lack
of focus, sexual harassment, and loss of temper.
- Amount of talk. Some schools/styles have very little talking
on the mat, others have a lot. Noticing this is more a matter of what you
like than anything good or bad, although too much talk can interfere
- Warmup. Does it seem adequate for what happens in class?
Does it include range-of-motion, stretching, aerobic exercise? Does
it seem excessive in any way? (For example, you don't need to do 100
push-ups to be warm enough to do jujitsu. Or any other style.)
- Instructors. How long have they been teaching? Have they trained
people through black belt (or to instructor rank)? Are they paying
attention to the students, especially kids? Any women among the
instructors? Any female black belts?
- Sensei attitude. Is the head instructor respectful of
the students? What about the other teachers? Is the head instructor
available for questions? Is the instructor paying attention to what's
going on in class? The whole class, that is?
- Student attitude. Are students respectful of teachers & each
- Student/teacher ratio. Is it reasonable? Again, this varies a
lot by style and how class is conducted. I have seen very large classes
managed fine by one instructor and very small classes run very badly.
- Beginners. Is adequate attention given to beginners? Do
they get extra attention?
- Female students. Are there any? Are they treated respectfully?
Preferably at least 30% of the students would be women. Note that if
a male sensei maintains that in the style he teaches, size and
strength do not matter, and yet there are no women in class, this may
be a school in which women are not comfortable for some reason.
- Body types. Do all the students have the same body type?
Possibly indicates a problem or a prejudice; most martial arts can be
practiced by people of different body types.
- Age range of adult students. How big is it? Does the teacher
have experience with a range of ages? If you're a 45-year-old beginner, you
may or may not be comfortable in a school of 25-year-olds.
- Athletic ability of students. Is the teacher experienced in
teaching people with a range or physical abilities? (I know of one
significant injury that occurred because very experienced and excellent
teachers didn't know or forgot they were working with a student who needed
more instruction on a new technique than the students they were used to
- Children's classes. Is program age-appropriate for children's
development? For children under 6 or 7, there should be lots of fun and
games and coordination exercises, and classes should be short. Is the
class length suitable for the age of the kids? Are there a reasonable
number of girls in the class? (I once walked into a very lively kids'
class that contained 23 boys and 2 girls!)
- School fees. Do you have to sign a contract in advance? Do you
have to pay to take a rank test? Are you comfortable with the payment
arrangements? (In my organization, the American Judo & Jujitsu Federation, there
are fees to the organization for testing at black belt rank. Below black
belt, testing fees are rare or unheard of.)
- There is no perfect style.
- There is no teacher who is the right teacher for everybody.
What you're looking for are a teacher and style that work for
Thanks to Susan Liroff, shodan, and Coleman K. Ridge,
sandan, for ideas that have been incorporated into this essay.