After weeks of arguing, pouting and exhibiting all the stubborn qualities characteristic of a 12-year-old girl, I finally bowed and entered the dojo at the United Studios of Self Defense. Those first 30 minutes of learning basic striking techniques kicked off my five years of Kempo Karate that not only taught me to defend myself, but also how to walk with confidence, act with self-control and think with discipline.

There are two sides of the benefits of martial arts. First, I learned to fight and defend myself. I developed strength, coordination and endurance. Second, I developed as a person. I learned to be disciplined in my studies, loyal in my relationships and balanced in my life. My instructor, or sensei as students called him, focused on my ability to apply the skills I acquired inside the dojo, or studio, to my entire life.

My studio’s head instructor was Sensei Danny. He was a 24-year-old, third-degree black belt with arms full of tattoos, who developed his instructing philosophy based on his past knife fights and brawls. The philosophy was simple: Learn to fight in a realistic situation.

Confidence: This meant I was sparring with boys or grown men, including an ex-cop. In the studio, sparing entailed stand-up fighting, grappling and anything necessary to defend against the aggressor. The purpose was to best reflect a situation in which I was alone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the students entered the dojo, we were no longer considered male or female. We were just students. This meant we would fight anyone in our class without “going easy” on our partners. We hit them with enough force to let them know we hit them (without hurting them too badly) whether it was a guy versus a girl or someone older versus someone younger. As a result, there were times I shocked my mom when I came home with bloody lips.

This experience built up my confidence, even in uncertain situations, because I knew I could handle myself. It also fostered a will to stand up for myself and others, raise my hand and participate in class and speak in front of an audience. Not to mention, my mom was much more comfortable letting me venture out alone once I earned my black belt.

Self-Control: Sensei Danny loved scaring us. He would throw strikes at us with all his strength, but would pull them millimeters away from us without even grazing our noses. If we flinched, he would give us a hard tap. His goal was to demonstrate the amount of control we could have over ourselves. Resisting our instinct to flinch was the first step in gaining command over our bodies and reactions.

The instructors’ theory was if a person can control her body, she can control her thoughts, actions, and mouth – a necessary skill for remaining polite and respectful in every setting.

Discipline: Instructors tested endurance by trying to mentally and physically break their students down. If the student broke down, she either completely quit or tried again. Despite the desire to see all students succeed, the professor and masters used this tactic for brown and black belt tests.

My first brown belt test was the toughest I endured. All the students aiming for this belt tested together outside in hot, summer weather while wearing a black gi, our heavy uniform with long sleeves and pants. The six-hour test included not only our learned material, but also hundreds of knuckle push-ups on asphalt, sprints, and holding a horse position for several minutes. In this position, the person stands with her feet shoulder width apart and bends her knees so that the upper half of her legs are parallel to the ground. I passed the test and earned my belt, but I will admit to breaking down when I finally left.

As terrible as this experience seems, it was six hours of personal growth. I walked away from that test knowing I earned my belt, but not just because I knew all the moves. The instructors already knew that I knew the material. What they did not know, and were trying to find out, was if I had the heart.

The discipline martial arts develops in a person allows her to persevere despite all obstacles. It gives her both physical and mental endurance that is applicable to studying for school, maintaining a relationship and succeeding in a work environment. It teaches respect to teens and promotes good behavior in younger children.

Balance: Martial arts instructors encourage their students to live balanced lives in addition to developing physical balance and coordination. One technique for developing the latter my instructor usually used at the end of a strenuous class. We would first stand in flamingo position in which we stood on one leg while holding the other up so our upper leg was parallel to the ground and our lower leg was pointed down. We would then balance a small cup of water on the lifted leg for a minute. If we did not spill the water, we could drink it.

In addition to physical training, our instructors would often ask us about our schooling, grades and other extra curricular activities to ensure that we were maintaining a balanced lifestyle outside the studio. This involvement also provided us with a larger supportive community as well as other adults with whom we could talk.

I discontinued karate almost three years ago, but the martial arts mentality has proven to be more than exercise. It is a way of thinking and acting. It helped transform me as a person during my teenage years and continues to affect my life as I enter into adulthood.

Alex Beall is an intern at Washington Parent and a journalism student at American University.

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