Notes from a Yellow Belt: What I Have Learned from Studying the Martial Arts


Photo via Tam Tam

Photo via Tam Tam

I wanted to start karate lessons at thirteen when I saw Ralph Macchio kick the bad guy in the face to win that tournament. I still remember the way Elisabeth Shue rushed out of the crowd to congratulate him.

When I saw the Karate kid, I wanted to be the Karate kid. I did not immediately begin my studies of the martial arts. Instead, I put it off about thirty years. When I eventually started, I found that even decades later, the benefits of a disciplined approach to such self-defense skills were still there.

After a while, I attained my first belt, the yellow one. Soon, it will be time to test for the next rank up, the orange belt. Being an orange belt means you’re still a beginner, not a total newbie, of course, but far from being a master.

Still, that doesn’t mean I’ve learned nothing. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve been pursuing this path.

Karate is Hard

Everything worth pursuing is difficult, and the martial arts are no different. Just looking at someone practicing, you might be deceived about how hard it is to do the right thing in the right way. There is much to remember and every martial art demands a level of control over your body that takes a long time to gain. Throwing a punch or a kick might be easy, punching and kicking the right way takes real effort.

Form Matters

It’s not just about knowing the moves and knowing when to use them, it’s about repeatedly making those movies in a crisp, efficient, powerful way. Anybody can strike. Basically anybody can get lucky and block a punch once in a while. But, the whole point of studying the martial arts is to cease being just anybody.

The dividing line between the guy who just gets lucky in a fight and someone who has taken the martial arts seriously is not just what he does, but how he does it. In other words, form matters. Certainly good form shows when you are watching someone who has it, but it’s not just about aesthetics. Good form is the key to power. Good form is about taking energy lying dormant in other parts of the body and putting it to use at the point of contact. In this sense, the study of martial arts is the study of form above all.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Even those who become black belts never make so large a jump in their knowledge of the martial arts as those who move from a white to a yellow belt. The white belt, the absolute beginner, moves from knowing nothing to knowing something. That is as big a jump as it is possible to make.

Along with going from knowing nothing to knowing something, the student goes from being very vulnerable in a dangerous situation to being less vulnerable. Even knowing the basics, how to stand, how to block, how to kick and throw a powerful punch goes a long way to making you less of an easy target.

You’re Going to Get Hurt

The Martial Arts are just a part of life and the reality about life is that sometimes you’re going to get hurt. You’re going to get hurt even more often in studying the martial arts than in a lot of areas since, obviously, it’s a discipline whose object is to hurt people.

You’re going to be sparing, and your opponent is going to strike a little too hard. You’re going to lose control of a kick and slam your shoulder into the floor when you fall.

But, studying the marital arts throws into high relief the truth that the only right response is to fight through it. Learning to get back up, to shake it off, to keep yourself focused on winning in spite of the pain is a skill too few really develop.

Hierarchy is Real

The martial arts studio is different from almost every other setting in American culture because it is unapologetically hierarchical. Nursing the illusion, as a beginner, that you are the equal of the master is a good way to get some bruises, if only to your ego.

Of course, the outward signs of the hierarchy are artificial. The belt system only indicates your level of recognition. Ideally, your level of recognition would match your level of skill, and in a good school there will be a high level of correlation between the two. But, as in everything else, it is not the outward visible signs that matter.

There is a deeper hierarchy that has as its only outward sign ability. The black belt can do things the beginner simply cannot, and that is the mark of a deeper, inflexible hierarchy. Disregard this one, and suffer the consequences.

These lessons don’t only apply to what happens at karate lessons. They apply to the real world, to everyday life. The greatest benefit of studying the martial arts so far has been to see this: that what happens in the lessons is only amplified reality, a bright light thrown on normally more hidden truths. And that is why, so far, karate has not been merely an exercise for the body, but also one for the soul.


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