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Karate as Something Real

This Article First Appeared in the WJKA HQ Newsletter

Before I get into the meat of this article, I will say I am not a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, or a researcher, but what I am is a concerned parent and instructor. I believe anyone who teaches kids these days sees an alarming trend in terms of mental health stability. Time magazine reports that in 2020, 16% of U.S. kids ages 12 to 17 had anxiety, depression, or both, a roughly 33% increase since 2016, according to an analysis by health-policy research group KFF.

As Sensei we care about the people in our classes, and we also care about how to use Karate as a means to help anyone - in any capacity - we can.

Yes, in many instances the Karate Dojo is a business that brings in income (although I’d suggest no one is getting rich from their twice-weekly Karate classes), but for the instructors I know, they teach Karate because they believe in it: they believe in its benefits. We believe that Karate, at the very least, takes individuals away from the humdrum of daily living and encourages them to focus on something different for at least a couple hours a week.

My point is, I’m not trying to sell Karate as a means of assisting mental health, but I have no issue saying that I believe Karate has many potential benefits in this regard.

As seasoned teachers we have seen shy and introverted youth find their way to being more confident and positive as they continue though the ranks of the Karate journey. I’m not saying Karate ‘fixes’ anyone but I am living proof that it has mental and physical benefits that are tangible.

Individuals today – youth and adults alike – are faced with different lifestyle choices than even a few years ago. With the advent of the smartphone came the notion of the entire world in the palm of your hand: information, entertainment, games, work tools, social media tools, advice, and tutorials. Information on the internet is ubiquitous…and smart.

With AI, if you start down a road of watching a certain type of movie, listening to certain music, or researching a certain topic, then you are taken further into more media with the same or similar themes. It’s an endless cycle, and this cycle can be positive or negative. Along with helpful information there is a plethora of harmful material, and the internet doesn’t discern how old you are; the information – good and bad – is there for your consumption.

Thus, the internet, with its social media advances is limitless…and addictive.

According to Yale Medicine some researchers say that exposure to social media can overstimulate the brain's reward center and, when the stimulation becomes excessive, can trigger pathways comparable to addiction.

We all use the internet, and in many respects, it is helpful, and even necessary, but the concern arises when it becomes a person’s reality.  Spending an hour watching an outdoor adventure video is not the same as experiencing an outdoor session: you can’t breathe fresh air on the internet, and you don’t get the exercise or the tranquil feelings that comes along with a walk in the woods.

According to a research study of American teens ages 12-15:

“Those who used social media over three hours each day faced twice the risk of having negative mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety symptoms.”

So, what is the antidote?

Friends Toren and Georgia Kihon

We know that exercise helps mental health. We also know that distraction (concentrating on something other than the usual) helps mental health – and we know that breaks form social media are not only good for you, but they are crucial. For all three of these, traditional Karate fits the bill.

No, Karate isn’t for everyone, but it is for a lot of people. Dojo time is non-screen time. It is focus and discipline time. Traditional Karate requires utilizing the mind and body in unison in order to meet short and long-term goals. It requires interactions with others, and it leads to a trust in your fellow practitioners. Karate is not a go-it-alone endeavor: you need a Sensei, and you need partners. Karate requires discipline and mental fortitude to do the repetitions and to keep attempting to get things right, or to make them better.

One of the most damaging trends on social media is the comparison of one person to another on every level, whether it be physical or intellectual. Youth are often led to believe they need to look like someone else, or behave like that YouTube influencer, or speak like that podcast person. 

It’s great to have mentors and goals, but it’s not so great for teens to feel like they need to change themselves to mimic someone else in everyday life.

The premise in Karate is to improve beyond where you are right now: get stronger than you think you are, get more skilled than you are today, and to become more confident in your own sense of person. If you’re in a good dojo, you’re being encouraged to be who you are, but to keep working on being all that YOU can be. This might sound philosophical, but it’s a fact.

Karate allows one to work out their emotions in a safe environment that has rules and boundaries: respect, control, and courtesy. It teaches us to respect one another, and those who are senior to us in rank, and to realize that you have to gain respect – you’re not entitled to it, and it isn’t simply given. 

We live in a society where the feeling of entitlement is ever-present, but in Karate you simply don’t get everything you ask for; patience is mandatory.

A Karate class is a microcosm of society where we have stepped back in time to a place where we learn and grow without electronic devices or social media influences, and without the push and pull of everyday life. The Dojo isn’t polluted with noise and disarray. Learning happens from one person to the next, based on generations of knowledge that is as much philosophical as it is physical.

The Dojo is also a place where we learn about ourselves and how far we can go. We stretch, we learn about breathing, we do repetitions, we challenge one another respectfully, and we learn to pivot and adapt. In my mind, a Kata practiced mindfully, utilizing proper breathing techniques has very real benefits.

Traditional Karate isn’t about a wall full of medals, or a trophy for an accomplishment at one point in time: it’s about walking a path that is oftentimes not easy, where you learn to trust yourself and depend on yourself to get from milestone to milestone.

When you walk into a traditional Karate Dojo you are part of a team that is on a journey. You have something in common with everyone there and you help one another succeed. It is grass-roots self-help in my opinion. Everyone is encouraged and no one is left behind. Your body shape, age, or ability isn’t going to matter. What matters is that you are willing to take a look in the mirror – without any social media polls, influencers, or keyboard ‘experts’ - and start to realize that you are strong enough to succeed, and all you have to do is keep at it.

Through sweat, focus, and stick-to-it-ness, you can take a break from the electronic world in the Dojo and simply work toward becoming a better version of you.

By the very act of laying down our phones for an hour or two when we enter the training hall, I believe we are doing ourselves some good. Exactly how much good Karate does us is dependent on the person and their commitment to it, but in any case, there are tangible benefits no matter the age of the participant.

I believe any activity that gets people talking, focusing, exercising, and working toward personal goals is a good thing.

Karate fits the bill.

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