As martial arts studios start popping up like pizza chains in our East Bay strip malls, many of today’s “soccer moms” find themselves transforming into “Karate moms” as they tote their gi-doned kids to class. But these parents aren’t always content to sit on the sidelines and watch their children have all the fun.
“After seeing their kids take my class, the parents sign up, too,” says Don Rethage, owner of the family-oriented American Karate in Brentwood. In fact, his Saturday class for parents and kids has become so popular that he’s considering adding a second.
While many adults get their start after watching their kids, they soon realized that they gain much more from Karate than just fun and bonding with their families. “The commitment to Karate means everything to me,” says Stephanie Calvert of Antioch, who is one belt away from her black. “I feel like I’m a better person, a better wife, and a better mother because I have a goal that’s not just being a housewife or doing another load of laundry or taking care of my kids. Karate gives me something I can be proud of that’s just mine.”
Kicking up a sweat
You don’t need black-belt aspirations to get the pay-off though. In fact, according to an article published by the Martial Arts Industry Association, adult students typically start a martial arts program just to get some exercise. This mirrors what Joyce and Ron Crupa, owners of United States Karate Systems (USKS) in Concord, see when new student jot down their reasons for training: Women put self-defense first and fitness second while men say fitness tops their list.
That’s why Jonathan Cooper of Lafayette started taking Taekwondo at the ATA Black Belt Academy in Martinez. He tried swimming, lifting weights, and climbing the Stairmaster at the local YMCA but couldn’t stay motivated. “What interested me about martial arts is that you’re progressing and learning new skills as you go along,” says Cooper. It’s obvious that his twice-a-week Taekwondo lessons have kept this 43-year-old father’s attention because after three years he’s on the level before black belt.
Need a mental boost?
His instructor, Jordan Schreiber, says that besides these great physical fitness advantages, martial arts give the mind a workout, too. “I believe martial arts help develop concentration and calm, which enable you to focus more on other tasks,” says Schreiber, who adds that self-confidence, inner calm, stress relief, and self-control are just a few of the many mental health benefits awaiting the dedicated student.
You can see all this in the faces of students during a recent 7:30 p.m. adult class at Crupa’s Concord studio as they focus on perfecting a series of synchronized moves. Even a stranger walking around with a notepad and clicking camera was not enough to break their concentration. Students must be able to focus as they learn and memorize these forms, says Crupa. And with this focus comes a side benefit, adds Rethage: “If you have a bad day at work or a fight with your spouse, here you get away from that, clear your mind, and get a good workout. When you take off your shoes and come on the mat, you leave your worries behind.”
Not just for Chuck Norris
For years people thought you had to look like Bruce Lee or at least be a male jock to take Karate, but no more: Crupa has noticed a big change in who trains at her studio: She now sees more moms and dads, people with chronic health conditions, and overweight middle-aged adults try martial arts and stick with it. Many instructors credit new teaching approaches and studio atmosphere with this broader appeal. “It used to be very militaristic–‘don’t ask questions, just do it,'” says Rethage. “Here at my studio I want students to feel comfortable, be relaxed, and learn.”
Watching these adult classes, you’ll see firsthand these changes in martial arts demographics. Few students look like they just walked off an ad for Bowflex. They’re like the ordinary people you see walking around your town every day: some are thin, some not, some just out of high school, some with kids in high school. “I’ll have people tell me that when they get in shape they’ll take Karate,” says Rethage. “I say why wait until you’re in shape? Come here to get in shape.”
The ATA Black Belt Academy’s Schreiber says he’s had adult students who were deaf, blind, or autistic, as well as varsity and professional athletes. “All of them felt a little awkward when they started and eventually were doing movements they never imagined they could do,” says Schreiber. “There is no prerequisite to training.” Age is not a factor either: You’ll find students ranging from 14 to 58 in Schreiber’s class, and he’s taught students in their 60’s and 70’s, too.
Schreiber has witnessed many of these students go through astonishing transformations. One student, who started Taekwondo to tackle his obesity, would see a pool of sweat at his feet after just a few minutes of stretching. But a few months later he could touch his toes and make it through an hourlong class without resting. “In nearly 20 years of teaching, I have seen numerous shy, self-effacing students emerge as assertive and confident leaders,” says Schreiber. “For many people, Taekwondo is the first thing they have ever done that gave them this feeling of confidence and competence.”
Whether students start training to gain self confidence, get fit, or gather self-defense skills, these adults often discover new reasons for sticking to martial arts. Cooper, who was initially attracted to martial arts for fitness, now appreciates his newfound self-defense skills. “It’s nice to know that when someone starts getting a little volatile, I do have the mental and physical tools to handle it,” says Cooper, a litigator who sometimes finds himself in situations where tempers flare.
Mike Henry of Concord, a 48-year-old intermediate-level student at USKS, says the confidence gained in his self-defense training has made him more tolerant in similar adverse situations, such as being cut off by an aggressive driver in a parking lot. “My confidence level has increased,” says Henry, “I don’t have to prove something to somebody.” And, adds Henry, the training helps him relieve tension, serving as a great anger-management tool.
Try it risk-free
If you’re sitting on the fence, not sure whether to hop over to the fitness club or martial arts studio, consider taking a free class or two. Don’t just scroll the online Yellow Pages or Yelp reviews, though. You should visit the studios, watch classes, and talk with the instructors to find a program that works for you. Many studios offer a trial class, week, or even month, so what do you have to lose except maybe some extra pounds, stiffness, a dash of fear, and vulnerability? Suzanne Brown of Brentwood lost these, and she’s glad of it. “I used to be afraid to go out by myself,” she says, “but now instead of walking with my head down I walk with my head held high.” She’ll be happy to teach you a thing or two: Brown, who started Karate at 35, is now an instructor.
“We will help you get in shape and meanwhile you’re not getting any younger,” reminds Crupa. “It’s a lot like salvation: You don’t have to be good to be saved.”