How I Got Into Martial Arts

I started karate during undergrad. I was 20 years old; it was the start of my junior year.

I’d wanted to do martial arts ever since I was about 8 years old and saw 3 Ninjas. (Oh man, Rocky was my true love!) But, being painfully shy and super embarrassed by my lack of athleticism, I never pursued my dream into an actual dojo.

Nor did I ever tell anyone how badly I wanted to do martial arts. I know my dad would’ve urged me to a sign up if he’d known—he had done various martial arts his whole life, from karate to kung fu, and I’d grown up watching him do tai chi in the living room.

After twelve years of never following my dream, I have no idea what possessed me to call up a dojo one September day in 2004. I remember exactly where I was sitting, and I remember amping myself up to do it—but can’t remember what spurred me to that point.

You’ve always wanted to do karate, I told myself, sitting at my giant desktop (computers were still HUGE in 2004). Now all you have to do is dial this one number and see what the person on the other end says. It’s not like it’s going to kill you.

I called the dojo. The sensei answered. He said to drop by later and check out the studio, try a class if I wanted, and see what karate was all about.

I did just that.

And I was immediately hooked. Everyone was so nice! The class ranged from all ages—kids to grandmas, other UGA students to officers off the nearby army base. Best of all, no one was competing with each other. The whole karate philosophy was about competing with yourself.  A “be better than you were last time” mentality.

So I got my gi and started attending class diligently three times a week. I got my first belt (the rank of yellow!) a few weeks later, and I still remember how proud I was.

I think the only time in my life I’ve ever been more proud was when I sold Something Strange & Deadly—and honestly, my pride over that yellow belt still stands out more firmly in my mind. I vividly recall calling my mother from the dojo parking lot and SCREAMING with excitement.

Karate transformed me.

I got stronger. I got faster. I got less embarrassed about screwing up a punch and more determined to “be better than I was last time.”

All that hard work paid off in other areas of my life too. My focus at school doubled—quadrupled even. I became known as That Girl—the Hermione who always had the highest test grade and was every teacher’s favorite. But it wasn’t something I did on purpose. I just found that I loved learning, and I swear it was because karate had retaught my brain to see information—of any kind—as exciting.

After about a year and a half of karate, I started doing kickboxing as well. Up until then, the kickboxing class had totally intimidated me. It was the class after my karate, so I always saw them hammering away at the punching bags on my way out of the dressing room.

And this wasn’t your mom’s cadrio kickbox class, either. It was legitimate, in-the-ring style kickboxing with gloves and mouth guards and jab drills that made your knuckles bleed.

But after months of my sensei and senpai begging me to stick around and just try the kickboxing class, I did…

IT SLAYED ME. I have never been so close to puking from overexertion in my life.

But the class also hooked me. All that sweat! All those endorphins! All that punching and kicking and gasping for breath—it was was so different from the focused, calm intensity of karate.

Soon, I was spending 6.5 hours a week at the dojo—and I would’ve gone more if there’d been more classes…

But all amazing things must eventually come to an end. My sensei was no spring chicken, and during my senior year of college, his occasional tremors escalated into full Parkinson’s—likely the result of decades of getting punched in the head.

He sold the dojo to a different sensei in town who was looking to expand. I didn’t like the new sensei. I’m sure he was a nice man, but his teaching style didn’t jive with me. So in the final months before I graduated, I all but stopped going to the dojo (as did many other students). Then I graduated, moved to Canada, and had a lot other things to worry about (like my masters thesis…or the fact that I had no friends at all).

I tried to find a dojo at my new school, but every place I tried was either too focused on competition and tournaments or just NOT welcoming in the way I was accustomed to and needed.

I wanted a family-focused dojo like my old school. I wanted tournaments and sparring to be optional, and I wanted to feel like I could fail in a safe place—because so much of martial arts IS failing…and then dusting yourself off and trying again.

I stayed away from karate for almost six years. It wasn’t until last fall, after an inexplicable itch to reume martial arts awoke in me—an itch to feel strong and powerful again, like I used to—that I finally worked up the courage to look into some local studios.

I wanted a place with a karate style similar to my old one (there are SO MANY forms of karate, it’s crazy), and I wanted one that was family-oriented.

And then I found one. It’s not identical to my first “home”—nothing will be—but the focus of my new dojo is on personal improvement. Competing and sparring are optional. Class age ranges from teens to sixties, rank ranges from yellow to multi-degree black, and everyone just wants to help everyone else.

After a single trial class, I felt that old martial artist inside me BURST awake. I couldn’t wait for the next class—I couldn’t wait to roundhouse and back kick and knife-hand my way across the floor.

Yeah, so it sucks that I had to drop from my old rank of purple belt (which, at my former dojo, was two way from black) back down to a squeaky beginner’s white…but that blow to my ego was good for me. It was a reminder that this isn’t about rank or how other people perceive me.

Karate is and always has been about my personal journey. It’s about sinking into a kata until the whole world falls away. Until all I am is this one pinprick of thought and movement and focus.

It’s about feeling strong and empowered. About knowing that the more I learn, the less I fear.

And above all else, karate is about striving—always, always—to be better than I was the time before.

And that, my friends, his how I got into martial arts. 🙂