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How To Relax In Martial Arts (or any) Class

Relaxation is aided by a reduction in tension caused by fear. For martial arts classes, this comes down not only to researching the instructor and their interaction with students but also knowing your expectations and eliminating those that interfere with the learning process. This article will bring you a clearer understanding of yourself that can eliminate fears and lead to a positive outcome regardless of the learning institution.

Understand why you want to train

This is key to any process of learning. It’s like taking a map in your hands and saying you wish to get to Australia. Everything is clearly laid out on the map—shipping lanes, longitude and latitude demarcations, clear country, city and roads designations—everything you could possibly need to get there.

Except for the fact that you don’t know where you are.

It’s one of those “can’t get there from here” sayings that apply simply because you don’t know where here is.

Realize first that everyone trains for different reasons—and this is perfectly okay.

Some people train because they saw something cool in a movie and want to be able to do that cool thing.

Some want to learn self-defense because of an attack they just suffered and they realized that, with training, they would have saved themselves a lot of pain or loss.

Some wish to train because the group represents a social support system, a creative outlet, a meaningful exchange of ideas and connection to like minds. 

Some people just want to try something new. Though this is not a particularly long-term thing, as this type of person frequently needs new stimuli to feel satisfied, it can certainly enrich and give new perspectives in life.

Some people may desire a long-term, healthier lifestyle of quality mental and physical fitness. While there are some martial arts that are rather harsh on the joints and ego, there are quite a few that support an individual in a long-term lifestyle of creativity and physical fitness that have the side benefit of keeping one safe during threat-to-life situations.

There are some people who just want to prove themselves in front of a group, usually bypassing the safety of the class to promote their ego over those who are weaker or new to training. These people are usually weeded out by a quality instructor so that the rest of the class can train without the worry of injury because someone wishes to stroke their ego.

Research well ahead of time

Understanding why you wish to train is important because it helps tune your search.

There are many websites listing instructors and training environments that also have an associated Youtube channel that shows exactly the kind of training—and instruction with student interaction—that takes place.

Qualities for a good instructor are:

  • Confidence without bullying
  • Actively listening to students to understand their questions or concerns
  •  A history of clear, high quality instruction that makes sense
  •  Satisfied students

Some people want strict rigidity and a formal discipline style of training, while others want a freer, more creative approach. 

Regardless of the style, each should represent a functionality against a wide variety of attackers in a wide variety of environments for your body type. Smaller students have different strategies and techniques that work better against larger students in some cases. This adaptability should be present.

Notice I didn’t say anything about the style, lineage or certification of instructors. These things are important if you wish to adhere to standards defined by a particular instructor or founder of a system or if you wish to be an instructor in that system.

Martial art styles are as different as there are individuals. This isn’t shocking, as different individuals create different styles—even in the same systems. Martial art techniques and actual functionality against present day threat-to-life attacks vary quite a bit depending on the surrounding culture, physical environment, daily threat levels, historical reverence to founders or past warfare influences, etc.

I will be writing about styles in another article, but for now, your research should begin with:

  • What you wish to get out of the training
  • How comfortable you feel with the instructor and students


Be aware of and also accept your present state

Once you’ve selected a martial art, you must be aware of and accept your present physical, mental, and emotional state. You must accept how long it takes you to absorb information and translate that into physical action to the point it becomes a natural, unthinking movement. 

You must also be aware of those things that trigger an emotional or egotistical response.

The more knowledge and in-the-moment awareness you have about yourself, the more readily you will intercept, diffuse and dissolve those things that interfere with your ability to receive information well.

If you have spent any time in reflection, you are aware of how you respond to certain triggers. If you have unresolved issues from childhood, authority figures, group dynamics, etc., then you must deal with those as coming from you, not your surroundings.

Know this: Your responses to triggers are your issue, not anyone else’s. 

This doesn’t mean that other people don’t have issues. We all do. Our lives are filled with little nooks and crannies of experience that help define us, debase us, glorify us. In the end, we understand that each of us is this way, no matter how we appear on the outside.

Most of humanity get along because we suppress those things in us that we know are detrimental to a positive social interaction and, instead, choose more positive expressions. 

Unless you are a narcissist (grandiose or vulnerable) or a sociopath, you recognize that other people have as much right as you to stand on this planet and share in the opportunities present without being manipulated or having your boundaries being broken.

Physically, accept that you are where you are because of the level of activity or lack of activity you have promoted in your life to this point. Don’t go with the mentality that “Oh, I have to get in shape before I take a class to get in shape.” 

Seriously, that one has been tried on potential instructors more than you can imagine. It’s a delaying tactic that would otherwise make you confront your apathy or self-image directly. If you are going to take a martial art or self-defense class, clearly understand that the instructor is there to help you get in shape during the training.

I am extremely happy when I see a student go from zero to great progress in skill, functionality, speed, power, cardio capacity and overall fitness. I am sure that most other instructors share this inner joy as well. We welcome whatever level you come to us. We will get you in shape.

Mentally, be prepared to push yourself. Be prepared to accept a strenuous exchange of sweat for functionality. It’s worth the cost. 

Expectations of self

If you are expecting others to accept who you are, then you will accept them as individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, intentions, and purpose in life.

One thing that screws up a great many people in life are expectations of self that are unrealistic. Having trained thousands of students over 20+years, I can tell you that my expectations for you are probably not as high as those you have for yourself. 

This isn’t because I don’t believe you can’t reach incredible heights or levels of achievement that might astound you. It is because, for the most part, very few humans on this planet can reach those unrealistic expectations you have for yourself.


Get rid of the idea that you must perform perfectly. In fact, just get off the planet right now if you have that in your head. Such a goal is not achievable by things that are not machines built with tolerances too small to be seen without a microscope.

People waste a lot of time and effort trying to be perfect. In fact, the effort of being perfect tenses muscles and saps energy that otherwise could be used to relax into the movements of the moment, rather than trying to adhere to something in your head.

I get it that parents do this stupid thing of drilling perfection in a child with sometimes overwhelming negative consequences for failure. It speaks to their lack of ingenuity and patience. A child will reach greater heights with positive feedback for achievement rather than negativity, beratement, or verbal or emotional abuse.

Remember, children become adults. And adults remember what their parents did to them.

Note for instructors: If you are skilled as a human being, you can come up with ways to challenge students to new levels of functionality. If you are not, then work on becoming skilled at learning how to do this. Your future students will thank you.

Your expectations as a student are to understand, then follow directions and execute actions. If you do not understand, speak up. Any good instructor will define and redefine the information several different ways so that you—and others who may have been too afraid to speak up—can understand it.

My students know when to ask questions, and they ask well. They don’t let something slide if they don’t understand. I find that if I can come up with a way that reaches them clearly, I have learned something. It helps me become a better teacher, and I am always looking to refine myself in that.


Be okay with failing

I frequently tell my students, “If you’ve tried all the ways that don’t work, only the proper ways are left.”

To paraphrase the great Bruce Lee, this is a method of whittling away our own ignorance.

Failure in Core JKD means intimately understanding those paths that lead to lack of opportunity. Opportunities lead to openings through which we can express ourselves.

Not knowing where these failures denying expression are is not something we wish to find out in a street encounter or other threat-to-life situation.

Each individual must progress into or through them with great eagerness so that they are understood. If through the fear of always wanting to be perfect you only practice left turns, then when only a right turn is available to prevent falling off a cliff, you will be at quite a disadvantage.

Failing helps define our limits at the time.

With training, you break past those failure points because of your familiarity with them. They reveal weaknesses of strength, speed, technique, or simply what you with your body type cannot do in that situation against that particular person with their body type.

A good instructor will show you how to modify a technique to fit your physical body vs any other physical body you encounter. Sometimes, it may even be as simple as a change in mindset, focus or, dare I say, relaxation. 



As a matter of experience, I have observed that the person who wishes to be perfect is also the one who is the most stiff, jerky, prone to injuring themselves or others, and frustrated.

This person is the one who is often filled with expectations to which they try to rise and then castigate themselves when they cannot. They are frequently unpleasant to be around as their self-anger and dour countenance sometimes bleeds onto those who train with them.

There are those who have high expectations and who can also make fun of themselves. These people are more enjoyable to be around, but they still take longer to achieve functionality against resisting opponents in real life threats than those who relax into the possibility of failure.

Being functional against single and multiple opponents with or without weapons in threat-to-life situations happens to be the goal of Core JKD. Other martial art systems have other goals. 

Some systems require students to perform with a severe discipline of body and mind, a clarity of action and “perfection” of movement that is often used for displaying the maintenance of a historical and cultural expression. 

Some people enjoy this. It is often beautiful to witness. If that fits what you are looking for in your training, then by all means: to perfection with you.

If you want training that deals more with the live, dynamic messiness of real threat-to-life encounters, well, those martial arts are a bit different. They don’t require perfection toward an end result, but rather the openness of many paths to success. 

Perfection in the latter case is with how much of yourself you apply in the training, not necessarily how well you do it. How well you do something is refined over time. That you put everything you have into the training—including complete relaxation at times—is far more important.


Expectations of future self

There is no future except that which we create in our minds. We have this moment that passes into the next moment of awareness, and that is all.

Every human has a vision of what the future holds for them (and others). Every single individual. It could be the future of the next five minutes as to where they are going to eat. It could be that five-year plan thing people sometimes hold onto rigidly. 

That means there are, at the time of this writing, nearly eight billion futures people are contemplating.

That’s a lot of energy going to something that doesn’t exist.

If there’s one thing that we can be sure of it’s that change happens independent of us more frequently than that caused by us. The variables in life, with all its natural changing states, combined with all us small humans with our billions of future plans are staggering. 

If you wish to hold onto one expectation for yourself that will serve you immensely well, it is that of adaptation to changing systems. Train for it mentally, physically, and emotionally; then you will achieve far greater success moving through this life with less stress and the ability to see opportunities present all around you.


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