What is the Best Martial Art for Self-Defense?

If you live in the city, you will find a martial arts school on nearly every street corner.  If you live in the country, you might be lucky to find one school in your area.  There are as many different styles and schools as there are instructors.  Each instructor takes the best of what he knows and teaches that.  You can go to three different schools that teach the same style of martial arts and see three different ways of teaching.

A Brief History of the Martial Arts

Buddist Monk

The martial arts began with the Shaolin monks in about 5th Century A.D.  A Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma traveled across the Himalayas and the Gobi desert from India and came to a Shaolin Temple.  There he found the monks in poor physical condition, spending all their time in meditation and none in physical activity.

Bodhidharma established a routine of exercise and nutrition for the monks, and taught them a simple form of defense.  Through his rigid discipline and training, the monks became strong and healthy.  A group of monks perfected these techniques, and when the temples were destroyed by the Chinese government, the monks scattered throughout China and taught their art.  This is why there are many art forms of what we know as kung fu.  This is a general term that encompasses all the Chinese martial arts.

The Chinese were great seafarers and often visited the islands of Okinawa and Japan.  These were two separate countries until the 16th century.  Unknown exactly when, perhaps hundreds of years before then, while Okinawa was still an independent country,  a ship of sailors landed at the village of Tomari, and commenced to teach the villagers their martial art.  There were three villages close together, Tomari, Naha, and Shuri, and here was the beginning of karate.  In 1921, Gichin Funakoshi took the Okinawan karate to mainland Japan where he taught in the schools for many years.  And so began Japanese karate as we know it today.

man hitting makawara
Gichin Funakoshi

Taekowdo originated in Korea, Karate in Okinawa, and Kung Fu in China.  Judo was invented by Jigaro Kano in the late 19th century, who was also Japanese.  Morei Ueshiba was another Japanese who introduced the style of Aikido.  As youcan  see, all of these styles came from one place, and dispersed through time to all parts of the globe.

The martial arts came to America full force in the 1960’s when Ed Parker opened his dojo in California.  After that, schools began opening up around the country, and today there is a vast choice of martial arts to study.

A Breakdown of the Styles

woman in karate stanceKarate

Karate is one of the most popular martial arts.   Japan and American Karate are different in the teaching styles and expectations of the students.  If you want a serious traditional education, then Japanese karate is for you.  American karate is less traditional but just as effective.  Weapons are generally taught to the upper ranks, a beginning student is taught to block, kick, and punch.  There is also sparring, which is no-touch fighting.  Kata, or moving meditation, are prearranged forms for practicing attacks from different directions.  Most martial arts have some kind of kata.

You will learn to throw different punches and kicks, how to use elbows and knees, and how to work from the ground.  Most fights go to the ground, so this is an important skill to have.  Karate is a mixture of the following martial arts.

judo throwJudo

Judo is all about groundwork.  The object is to use the opponent’s weight to bring them to the floor, and then restrain them with holds.  This is tough on the body as most of the work is on the mat, a lot of rolls and falls.   How to fall is a good thing to know, it may save you later on in life.  Once you learn to fall properly, when slipping on the ice, for instance, your body immediately does what it was trained to do.

Techniques are like riding a bike.  Once they are confirmed to memory, they will come to good use when you need them.


Aikido is like Judo in that it uses locks and throws, but all from a standing position.  There is little groundwork, other than the throw the person being attacked will experience.  This is a fluid art, and takes many years of practice to perfect.

one man kicking anotherTaekwon-do

Known as the kicking art, most of Taekwon-do is centered around high kicks.   Kicking high takes flexibility and practice, and are not practical for a woman defending herself.  Despite this, Taekwondo has great self-defense techniques, and these schools are easy to find.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is recognized as the slow-moving forms that many people in China practice together in the parks.  Tai Chi has many health benefits because of the breathing and slow movements.  Self-defense moves are softer than the other styles, using circles to deflect rather than punches and kicks.  Do not be mislead by a tai chi practitioner.  This is a very powerful art, both spiritually and physically.


group practicing tai chi
Practicing Tai Chi

What is the best martial art for self-defense?

This is a perfectly personal decision.  Do you prefer lots of kicks, or kicks and punches?  Perhaps you like to throw people to the ground, either by grappling or joint locks.

The idea behind any traditional martial art, however, is not about the defense, even though that is what is taught.  A good instructor will caution you not to use what you learn anywhere but in the dojo (training hall) unless you are backed into a corner and have no other choice.   You will be taught to show respect (bowing at the door to the dojo, to the sensei, and to one another), how to control your temper, and how to think fast on your feet.

There are many benefits to be gained from the martial arts – the self-defense aspect is the gravy.  The real meat lies in the philosophy and building of character, which is incorporated with intense physical training.  Do not think you have to be in shape before you go to your first class.  Give the classes three months, and you will be amazed at the change in your body.  Your clothes will fit better, you will feel better, and your confidence will begin to soar.


Sensei Carol