A Non-Violent Martial Art

In my neighborhood, there was once an Aikido studio with a giant banner that read “A Non-Violent Martial Art”.  The studio was located right off the freeway exit to my neighborhood so I would drive by it often.  Unfortunately, this studio is no longer there.  Like several other martial arts studios, they closed when the COVID pandemic continued to wreak havoc on our industry for months on end.

"Gentle arts" are considered non-violent
“Gentle arts” like Aikido are considered non-violent martial art

The purpose of this post is not about studios closing though.  It is also not about specific styles like Aikido.  It should be noted that I have nothing bad to say about Aikido. I do not contribute to “my style is better than your style” or “what the best martial art is” discussions.  This post is about the terms we use in the martial arts industry and how they can be deceiving.  

First a few definitions

Violent: “using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.”

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Self-Defense: “the defense of one’s person or interests, especially through the use of physical force, which is permitted in certain cases as an answer to a charge of violent crime.”

Aikido: “The way of the harmonious spirit.”

Judo: “The gentle way.”

Jiu Jitsu: “The gentle art.”

Martial: “of or appropriate to war; warlike.”

First of all, I get why this banner was put up and why people will say Aikido is a non-violent martial art.  Just look at what the words Aikido mean, “The way of the harmonious spirit.” How can something harmonious be violent?  I understand that the intention of this statement is to inform people that Aikido is not about fighting but about an entire mind, body, and spiritual form of training. 

Striking styles are considered more violent
Striking styles are considered more violent

However, I have 2 main issues with this.

Non-violent martial art implies some are violent

If Aikido is one of the “non-violent martial arts”, which ones are the violent martial arts?  I have been involved in martial arts for over 30 years and I can’t think of a style that would be considered “violent” or aggressive.  It is highly unlikely that any studio would be operating under term “violent martial art”.  They would not be in business and no one would enroll.  As much as I am a fan of The Karate Kid, if there were martial arts studios that operated like Cobra Kai, they would be sued and shut down rather quickly.

Self-defense cannot be in a non-violent martial art

There is nothing "non-violent" about self-defense
There is nothing “non-violent” about self-defense

Unfortunately, self-defense is a violent thing.  While it is true that all good martial arts, regardless of style, teach to use physical techniques as a last resort, they still teach physical techniques for self-defense.  If someone attacks you with a knife and you are forced to use physical self-defense techniques, you will get hurt in addition to your attacker.  This is a fact.

I feel it is confusing to state you teach self-defense but in a non-violent way.  In my eyes, this means you teach only non-physical self-defense techniques such as awareness, conflict avoidance, and de-escalation tactics.  While many of these are taught in martial arts, physical techniques are also taught.

A certain level of violence is required

Martial arts teach honor and respect as well as self-control.  I think saying something is non-violent is intending to illustrate how it teaches students to use a lower level of aggression to defend oneself.  In many cases this will be a non-physical or at least non-lethal level.  However, this is not always the case.

When I first started training, my instructor used to tell us the following:

Run before fight

Fight before hurt

Hurt before maim

Maim before kill

Kill before be killed

I feel, as my instructor did, that is still teaches honor, respect, and self-control.

Be careful with what you read

My point with all of this is not just to rant a little.  We need to be careful in the martial arts industry when advertising things.  You can’t claim you are non-violent and teach physical self-defense or imply other martial arts are violent.  Don’t claim you teach self-defense and do no-contact sparring.  You can’t claim you teach confidence by having students break balsa wood boards that break when you sneeze.  You can’t claim you teach perseverance by awarding everyone a belt every 2 months.  I could go on and on.

MMA shows the violent side of martial arts
MMA shows the violent side of martial arts

Rather than telling everyone what they want to hear, or worse yet, give them what they want all the time, we need to tell people what we truly are and stay true to what we teach.  Many instructors think that this hardcore mentality will cause enrollment to decline.  Not true.  When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.  

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One Comment

  1. Solid analysis on false advertising in martial arts. I lecture on the psychology of violence before I ever show a physical technique at a self-defense seminar. So much of self-defense is a mindset as opposed to a technique. It’s hard to sell someone on “self-defense” if we also claim a stance of non-violence.

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