It’s hard to explain to Muggles why we do what we do, given that it can be uncomfortable, stressful, embarrassing, and downright painful. Despite that—perhaps, in some weird way, because of it—martial arts can also be a hell of a lot of fun.
I still have difficulty articulating to my non-martial arts friends the exact reason that it appeals to me. My Sensei has broken down the pursuit into five distinct goals: sports, business, physical fitness, self-defense, and lifestyle. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and we often have more than one of these outcomes in mind.
Personally, my primary goal in training oscillates between these. I don’t do sports Karate, and my few attempts in submission grappling competitions have been remarkably pathetic so far. I get paid to teach my classes, but I’m not business-oriented and certainly couldn’t make a living the way I run things now. Martial arts helps with physical fitness, and was my inspiration to start a strength and conditioning routine, but I also don’t think it’s sufficient on its own, which is why I supplement with hot yoga, cardio, HIIT, and weight training. Functionality in training has increasingly become a priority since my conversion to Koryu Uchinadi, but I also feel that traditional martial arts will, by definition, contain some historical baggage—obsolete techniques that fit a contextual premise that has ceased to exist.
So, by process of elimination, that leaves “lifestyle,” which is probably the most accurate description of my relationship to this pursuit. Many of my students, however, train once or twice a week, may take summers off, and skip classes when it’s time for exams. Does that relegate them to the realm of doing martial arts as a hobby?
In my circles, “hobby” is a bad word; it implies a lackadaisical, casual attitude that is not conducive to the true spirit of Budo. It implies a lesser degree of dedication to a way of life that should demand the upmost commitment to ideals that transcend our era and society. It implies a relationship of convenience towards training versus one of sacrifice to make it work.
That’s probably what most of my contemporaries, a few decades into their martial arts careers, would tell you. Is this reasonable to expect from the average person—or even from yourself?
Quitting is an Option
If you pursue martial arts as a profession, you don’t give yourself the option of giving up. If it’s not going well, you have to persevere and push through. There are lessons to be learned from such adversity—personal growth and insight often results from failure more so than success.
However, how meaningful is tenure in martial arts if you never truly gave yourself the option of getting off the highway? Treating martial arts as a hobby means you’re making a conscious effort to continue training because it inspires, motivates, and challenges you rather than riding on necessity.
Many martial artists proudly flaunt the number of years they’ve trained as if it’s a qualification in and of itself. There is a vast difference between continuing and improving. The choice to do the former is easy and can be done out of obligation; the latter is difficult and only worthwhile if the blood, sweat, and tears is rewarding as a process in and of itself, regardless of the immediate result.
Martial Arts Identity
Dave Lowry writes that he prefers an instructor who has experienced adult life outside the Dojo. Personally, I agree with this premise. Career martial artists often don’t have the same perspective on what they teach that their students or peers who do it as a side project may have. They sometimes assume it is the central pursuit in everyone else’s life—it isn’t.
As I’ve discussed in previous works, the notion of “Sensei” has been deeply distorted as a result of mainstream myths that traditional martial arts instructors are supposed to be role models in all facets of life, not merely relegated to their own area of expertise. Nowadays, this is gradually changing. Students more often understand that they are paying for someone to develop their skills, not someone to become their life coach.
Though Budo is supposed to strengthen character and instill a strong sense of ethics, for many career instructors, it seems to have the opposite effect, leading to rampant egotism, personal vendettas, and blatant manipulation in an effort to elevate their own legacy. This proves Yasuhiro Konishi’s statement that “Karate aims to build character, improve human behaviour, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it.”
On the other hand, hobbyists have often proven their value in other avenues, leaving them liberated from the demands of recognition or validation through martial arts. This spares them from the insecurity that fuels so many conflicts in the Dojo.
Interestingly, having a self-image that is too wrapped up in martial arts doesn’t seem to be particularly psychologically healthy. Nowhere was this more evident than at the onset of the COVID pandemic, when martial arts almost immediately became a criminal activity worldwide. For those who run a business, there were obvious financial impacts, but more drastically, the identity that many had used to justify their own self-worth was stripped away in the course of a few days.
Martial artists were amongst the most vocal individuals on social media, demanding that governments put the pursuit of Budo above public health—ironic, given that martial arts’ original design premise was personal safety. They also seemed the most prone to waves of depression and bouts of self-pity.
As a hobbyist, though I miss my regular training schedule and the challenges it entails, I was pleased to have affirmation that, despite the profound impact Karate has had on my persona, I do still have a distinct identity outside of who I am in the Dojo. It may be as a struggling, underachieving writer and sarcastic jackass—but it is a distinct identity nonetheless.
Purity of Intention
If practiced for business, sport, or fitness, outcomes dictate that the pursuit itself becomes altered. In sport, strategies and techniques are designed to take advantage of the rules; presentation becomes paramount to earn favourable scores rather than pursuing the art for its utilitarian purpose.
For business, many school owners become enslaved by birthday parties, movie nights, and grading fees—things that can make a profit tenable, but distract from the actual path. Almost every school owner I know has complained to me about doing something for the sake of their business that they actually hate.
If pursued for fitness, the all-too-common out of shape black belt has to be ashamed. Some instructors take things to the opposite extreme, spending so much time on physical conditioning that they fail to actually teach martial arts. My brother-in-law quit Taekwondo as a child because all he remembers doing is running and push-ups.
However, taken as a hobby, the stakes are not so drastic. Failure can be tolerated. Loss is not humiliating. There is room for error, and in this way, pursuing martial arts as a hobby actually becomes the truest undertaking, untainted by conflicting interests.
There was a time when I would have looked down on anyone who declared that they trained as a hobby. I considered hobbyists less mature, less dedicated, and less qualified.
Naturally, the intensity, frequency, and duration of your practice will have a bearing on the level of skill you acquire—alongside with natural athleticism, tenacity, and ability to accept and implement feedback. However, the elitism and trend towards style snobs in martial arts (especially in traditional schools) has not benefitted our community nearly as much as it has hindered it.
Ultimately, what we do is, in modern society, not necessary. As a result, what draws people to martial arts is a spark of interest. No matter what causes it, we should seek to nurture it into a flame, rather than judge that spark insufficient to keep the water of our respective traditions at a boil.
McCarthy, Patrick. “On The Shoulders of Giants.” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPMc9621I04&t=5648s> 2020.
 Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 129.