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“I want to learn to defend myself!”

“I want to get in shape!”

“I want to improve my mental focus!”

Japanese Martial Arts

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The Mind is Upright

The late Yamaguchi Katsuo Sensei, Iaido Meijin 10th Dan, wrote a forward to my first book The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship. He wrote, in part, this:

The secret to iaido is a calm spirit. With a tranquil heart you put your hand on the hilt of your sword - in a split second your hand moves to cut down the opponent and resheath the sword - then return to your composed mind. A serene spirit must be cultivated at all times. It is said that the sword is like the mind, and if the sword is upright, the mind is upright. But if the mind is not upright, the sword can never be wielded properly.

It Only Sounds Simple

I've been teaching iaido since the fall of 1992 - that's 25 years if I'm counting correctly - and among the few things that I am absolutely sure of, this is one: keeping a composed mind during iaido practice (or the practice of any other martial art) is incredibly difficult. How do I know? Well, besides struggling with it myself for all these years, every martial artist who comes through our doors struggles with it.

Men typically fall into the trap of believing they need more strength. That tends to make them seek out weight lifting or other activities that don't improve their core skills much (and may actually get in the way), and it also tends to make them excessively focused on trying to "win" when their time would be better spend trying to learn.

There are exceptions, but women typically fall into the trap of self-doubt. They are less likely to move forward independently. Some personal exploration is necessary to become very, very good at a martial art , even if it means a little time apparently wasted. With more deep independence would come more spontaneous growth. Also, some women seem reluctant to demonstrate physical strength, though I am happy to say this trend is diminishing recently.

More self assurance for the typical woman, less muscle headedness from the typical man - each would go a long way to help.

But besides the generalizations, there are all sorts of mental traps that prevent us from being as good as we can possibly be. Being too thoughtful, comparing ourselves to others, a low self-opinion, unrealistic dreams of becoming a Samurai, believing that getting high is a good substitute for clear-headed practice, focusing on combat effectiveness during times when the point of the training is to learn new skillsets ... the list goes on and on.

The analysis instead should always be: how do I do the basics very, very well, with no excessive muscle tension, with full presence in the moment, and without assigning a tactical value until my understanding of the exercise (kata, ippon kumite, nage waza, etc.) is very deep?


So How DO You Do That?

Start here:

Learn to breathe properly. Focus on maintaining your breathing according to the dictates of your art.

Learn to relax. Focus on staying as relaxed as possible, using just enough muscular effort to accomplish the moves.

Learn to perceive. Focus on knowing what your body and mind are really doing rather than accepting what your senses tell you. This is a lot harder than you might think.

Learn to meditate. It will help you breathe properly and it will help you learn to relax, but there's a more important reason. Becoming adept at meditation will help you separate yourself from the nonsense that your mind constantly spews at you. You'll be less inclined to accept your own bullshit, and less inclined to become dependent on the bullshit of others. You'll learn what it feels like to have a composed mind, so you know what to look for in the midst of martial arts training.

If I Could Share One Thing...

If I could share just one thing with you today, it would be this: find some way to stop.

Stop trying so hard to beat others in randori. Stop trying to be the fastest. Stop trying to know it all about your martial art. Stop thinking you need to get a new kata or a new rank. Stop letting your smaller self rule you and get quiet enough to hear your higher self. That voice is very quiet, so you will have to listen carefully.

One other good way to quiet yourself is to immerse yourself in martial arts practice with no expectations. Move smoothly. Keep your eyes open. Don't strive. Let the joy of the techniques sink into your heart. Smile.  

I have faith in you and will continue to have faith in you until you have faith in yourself.

Yamaguchi Katsuo Sensei, Iaido Meijin 10th Dan

Serving Southeast Michigan:

JMAC students come to practice from throughout Southeast Michigan, from such areas as:

  • Ann Arbor
  • Birmingham
  • Bloomfield
  • Brighton
  • Canton
  • Chelsea
  • Clinton Township
  • Detroit
  • Dexter
  • Dundee
  • Fenton
  • Fowlerville
  • Grass Lake
  • Howell
  • Inkster
  • Jackson
  • Lansing
  • Livonia
  • Manchester
  • Milan
  • Milford
  • Monroe
  • Novi
  • Okemos
  • Pinckney
  • Plymouth
  • Rochester
  • Romulus
  • Saline
  • Southfield
  • Tecumseh
  • Troy
  • Whitmore Lake
  • Wixom
  • Ypsilanti
  • University of Michigan
  • Eastern Michigan University
  • Michigan State University
  • Washtenaw Community College
  • Oakland Community College
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Ann Arbor - Martial Arts Mecca

For the prospective martial arts student, Ann Arbor is a mecca in the Midwest. More than any other location in Michigan, Ann Arbor has a wide variety of martial arts styles taught by many well respected sensei (teachers). You can find training opportunities at community centers, college and university gyms, health clubs, fitness centers and dojos (training halls). Among the styles available are: aikido, iaido, judo, jiu-jitsu (also called jujutsu), karate, kendo, kung fu, MMA (mixed martial arts, sometimes called BJJ) tae kwon do, tai chi, and many westernized martial arts systems. At JMAC, we offer world class instruction in judo, jiu-jitsu, iaido (Japanese swordsmanship), and karate for kids.


Aikido is a martial arts descended from jiu-jitsu. It includes joint locks, throws, takedowns, and pins. The philosophy of aikido is a peaceful one - to use the attacker’s energy to neutralize his or her attack without causing injury. Aikido is taught in several forms, such as Aikikai, Ki Society, and Yoshinkan. Aikido was founded by Ueshiba Morihei, who studied with Takeda Sokaku, the most famous practitioner of Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu. Its principles can be found in almost every Japanese martial art, especially jiu-jitsu and judo. Read more about the physical and philosophical principles of Nihon Jujutsu.

Iaido in Ann Arbor

Iaido is Japanese sword drawing. It was created by the Samurai to defend against surprise attacks by an armed opponent. Most iaido involves the practice of pre-arranged forms, which are excellent tools for training the body, improving concentration, and entering into a meditative state. Finding a talented instructor in iaido with legitimate credentials is rare … in the Midwest it’s practically unheard of. For those with a desire to compete in swordsmanship for sport, kendo is the activity of choice. Those who are willing to endure an occasional whack on the head may pursue bokken kumite (sparring with wooden swords) with our director’s authorization once they reach black belt at JMAC. Read more about iaido at JMAC.

Ann Arbor Judo

Judo was founded by Professor Jigoro Kano. It is both a martial art and an Olympic sport. It includes throws, pins, joint locks, and chokes. It is among the most vigorous of martial arts and is very popular with children as well as adults. The Japanese Martial Arts Center offers classes in judo for children as young as 6 years old, and for adults (starting at age 16). One fact not widely known is that sport judo is a narrow cross section of the complete art of judo. Proponents of the entire art, such as Satoh Tadayuki Sensei of Waseda University in Tokyo, recognize that the founder’s vision encompassed not only “judo” throws, but joint locks, takedowns, redirection, strikes, vital points, dynamic ukemi, kata, and weapons. Judo training at JMAC includes many of these opportunities. Read more about Judo at JMAC.

Ann Arbor Jiu-Jitsu (Jujitsu / Jujutsu)

Jujutsu - which is also written "jujitsu" and "jiu jitsu" - is the ancestor martial art of aikido and judo. Although it includes many of the techniques found in aikido, as well as many more combative techniques that did not find their way into aikido, the philosophy of jujutsu is more practical. Techniques are applied more directly, with a greater emphasis on pain compliance. Those who study jiu-jitsu over the long term improve their fitness, concentration, and ability to defend themselves. The Japanese Martial Arts Center offers serious jiu-jitsu classes for adults starting at age 16. You can learn more about the differences between Japanese jujutsu and Brazilian jiujitsu.

Karate – Kids Karate in Ann Arbor

Karate involves mainly strikes, kicks, and blocks. It was originally developed in the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa), and was later exported to Japan before finding its way around the world. Karate is an excellent martial art for those who prefer striking, and helps develop physical strength, stamina, and confidence. There are many forms of karate taught around the world today, including Shotokan, Shorin-ryu, Chito-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Kyokushinkai. If you’re looking for a way to help your child learn enthusiasm, fitness, discipline, and manners while having a lot of fun, consider the kids karate program at JMAC. We have an incredible core of talented instructors who have made it their business to inspire kids to be their best. Read more about our karate program for kids.


Kendo is a sport descended from Japanese swordsmanship. In Kendo, participants wear padded armor and attempt to score points by striking vital points with bamboo swords called "shinai." Practice is fast paced, involves much spirited shouting, and is a lot of fun. The Japanese Martial Arts Center does not offer kendo, but can refer you to a reputable kendo instructor in the area.

Kung Fu

Kung Fu is a Chinese martial art that actually includes many sub-styles. Like karate, kung fu involves strikes, kicks, and blocks, but also includes many esoteric motions that can be applied to take down or otherwise defeat an opponent. Kung fu often appeals to imaginative people because of the many references to animal forms, but it is also a very challenging and practical martial art.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

MMA (mixed martial arts) to a modern competition-based collection of techniques. Most MMA schools teach striking as well as grappling. Although not a traditional martial art - and thus lacking many of the character development and spiritual aspects of ancient Asian arts - MMA is nevertheless a fantastic form of exercise and a lot of fun. Because many MMA fighters have employed judo and jujutsu successfully, the Japanese Martial Arts Center offers private instruction to top-level competitors as well as occasional workshops for our members.

Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do is the Korean counterpart to Japanese karate. As a striking art, it includes punches, kicks, and blocks, but typically Tae Kwon Do emphasizes more kicking than does karate. Competition (usually for points rather than full contact) is very common among Tae Kwon Do practitioners. It is an excellent form of exercise, but seems more susceptible to commercialization than more traditional arts such as aikido and iaido.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is another form of Chinese martial art. It is usually taught with slow, controlled movements and deep stances. There are many health benefits associated with Tai Chi, including strong bones, cardiovascular health, and calmness.

Getting Started in Martial Arts in Ann Arbor

If you are considering taking up martial arts, you will find many superb opportunities in and around Ann Arbor, including outlying cities such as Brighton, Canton, Howell, Northville, and Plymouth. Students from the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, Cleary College, and even Michigan State University have supplemented their education with martial arts and found that the physical activity helps them concentrate on their studies. We think the Japanese Martial Arts Center offers the best programs in Michigan, but we’re interested in people who are willing to work hard and do what it takes to become truly accomplished. We encourage you to look around to find the martial arts club or school that best meets your needs.