All the right chops

Move over, karate kids: more adults are taking up the martial arts practice to explore its mind-body connection

Marcus Hirschberger (center) leads a class at Takon Martial Arts

Marcus Hirschberger (center) leads a class at Takon Martial Arts



It’s a familiar sound. The scene is common, too: White robes. Bare feet. Colored belts. A room full of people yelling. Arms and legs dance in set patterns, the fast audible swishes and swashes of uniforms as a punch followed by a kick flies by, and then a brief stillness before settling into a pose.

It’s something one might expect to see in dojos across America where senseis teaches kids the ancient Japanese art of karate. But, guess what—despite the things that iconic flicks such as The Karate Kid have taught us, the sport isn’t just for kids. Around Sacramento, in fact, there are several opportunities for adults to get involved with the martial arts practice—and no, not just by dropping their children off for lessons.

In fact, karate wasn’t always so kid-centric. Rather, the martial art as we know it was originally developed at the turn of the 20th century as a Japanese military art designed for adults. Over time, as it was culturally appropriated in the United States, it evolved into a popular after-school activity.

Now that thinking is shifting as adults realize that what they think of “child’s play” could actually offer myriad grown-up physical and mental benefits.

If they can get off the couch first, that is.

“Even as an adult, you actually need not only discipline, but also something and someone that might [keep] you disciplined,” says Sensei Marcus Hinschberger, an instructor at Tokon Martial Arts, where instructors teach Shotokan karate—one of the sport’s most practiced forms.

For adults looking for a health-conscious activity, karate offers a unique alternative to cardio and lifting weights, Hinschberger says.

And, besides, it just looks cool.

“It’s very good for old people … to stay mentally sharp,” Hinschberger said. “They are forced to constantly remember themselves—’Where am I in space? Where am I supposed to go?’—and then, of course, [there are] the technical aspects, too.”

Better yet, karate works the entire body. During a recent class at Tokon Martial Arts, the routines started—and ended—with a bow. Students and instructors yelled in Japanese as the class moved between poses, all in sync. To an outsider, it looked exhausting; people out of breath after practicing for nearly two hours. At the end, the class clapped for a member who was there for the first time; later, they sat on the floor for cultural lessons about Japan, its etiquette and communication.

Hinschberger says that karate offers its devotees benefits—whatever the age.

“Timing and distance, these things are very important to keep your brain young,” Hinschberger said. “One sign of aging is that you lose agility and speed, and martial arts force you to maintain that and polish that.”

Tokon Martial Arts offers several options for adults, including classes for parents who want to train with their kids.

Gene Dumpit, 46, says he started lessons at Tokon two years ago when his son expressed an interest. Now, he says, the gains have proven to be both physical and mental.

“When I come into the dojo, it’s kind of another mindset,” Dumpit says.

Since the start of his lessons, Dumpit adds, he’s lost 40 pounds, and his health is better, too.

Victoria Favorito, 52, tried karate once, then quit. But she’s back now, and has noticed similar benefits.

“I dropped weight,” Favorito said. “I used to be a size 12 and now I’m a size 2.”

For Kristin Walton, a personal trainer certified with the National Academy of Sports Medicine, karate isn’t just about weight loss—she’s seen it help people improve on overall health.

“I have adult clients who do karate on the side as a way to strengthen their legs, improve their cardiovascular health and feel more confident mentally about protecting themselves,” she says.

Still, despite such pluses, getting the grown-up to actually try it isn’t always an easy sell.

In short, Hinschberger says, many lack self-discipline.

“They say they are too busy, but it’s lazy. Laziness,” he says.

It’s true that some first-timers take on the sport and then quit, most likely due to its complexity. This isn’t just about simple eye-hand-foot coordination. Karate uses nerve pathways that most people don’t have a need to access throughout their normal daily routines. Karate requires the body to move in challenging ways—curling one’s toes while kicking, for example.

“You’ll never be forced out there in real life to lift your foot up that high and then do something with your foot and your toes,” Hinschberger says. “That requires … tremendous body control. And that is actually the real value for people [as they] get older: to challenge their brain and keep their brain young.”

Karate can also be mentally frustrating in the way that it forces people to face their own egos and physical limitations—which is almost counter-culture to today’s immediate-result ideology.

“Constantly being reminded that you need to practice more is very, very difficult,” Hinschberger says.

But that’s part of the reward. The results may not be instant, but being able to look back and realize what the body can accomplish—things it couldn’t do months ago—can feel rewarding at any age.

Karate isn’t just a purely physical practice. At Zen Martial Arts Center, Sensei Mike Oliver takes an adults-orientated approach to the studio’s practice of Isshin-ryu karate.

During a recent class, four guys and two women took to the mat, shoes off. The thwomping of feet and the echo of people falling to the ground resounded. Participants snapped into poses and then balanced as groups worked together on form and stance. Throughout, Oliver gave pointers: Shield the other way. Point your thumb down. Thumbs on top. Squeeze down like a joystick button.

The studio hosts classes six nights a week and, unlike other dojos, Oliver doesn’t put children and adults in the same classes. While kids may be eager to come out to try karate—it’s easy to blame (or thank) those pizza-eating turtles for that—Oliver says he’s found that it can still be a tough sell for adults.

“Usually the biggest hindrance for adults is fear of embarrassment, or fear of getting hurt, or both,” Oliver says. “We try to take care of that by making the classes really welcoming and warm and nonjudgmental.”

For many, karate isn’t just about being physically prepared—it has mental benefits, too.

Patrick Brownfield, 30, started taking karate almost three years ago, after a close friend was beaten to death.

“To be honest, when I first got back into it I wasn’t totally sold on that idea of, oh you know, self-discipline, confidence. I thought it was really just rooted in the physical and that was it,” Brownfield says.

But then, he says, came the tangible improvements in his work life, including a new promotion.

“I found confidence I never knew I had,” Brownfield said. “I think the level that I went to was due largely to the change in my attitude from karate practice.”

For Claudia Espinoza, 30, karate offers a holistic energy—a quality that was important to her when she took up the sport as a method of self-defense.

“I enjoy it because it helps you with your body, mind and soul,” she says.

Whatever the motivation, Oliver says, practitioners should be patient and realistic.

“Many adults, they come in wanting maybe to lose weight, or they come in wanting to learn how to defend themselves,” he says. “And then a couple months in they usually realize that ’I need the confidence that comes with the martial arts, the focus, or the mindfulness or the self-discipline.’ And that’s what they’re using to improve their lives, more so than the self-defense.”

And, he adds that “self-defense” doesn’t just mean being able to block or shield an attacker. Not eating at McDonald’s every day? Self-defense. Not vegging in front of the TV every night? Also self-defense.

“We have this big picture view of self-defense here that we think is so much more than punching and kicking,” Oliver says.

And while karate teaches these same things to kids, too, it also provides answers to questions adults typically face—because most people aren’t going to need to worry about blocking a roundhouse kick. Unless they’re Chuck Norris, of course.

“We’re going to die of things like heart disease and cancer, not being punched in the face,” Oliver says. “If we really want to defend ourselves against something real, [we need] to be defending ourselves against those things.”

That’s something that karate offers. While the common perception is of a very physical art, there’s a deeper applicability to all areas of well-being.

“Most people think they might get a healthier, more flexible body,” Oliver says “But some people might not realize they’ll [also] get a very strong, resolute spirit.”