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Yes, I’ve Heard of Karate, but What Exactly Is It?

Recently, I sat down to relax and watched my oldest boy flail in the middle of our living room. While he was aimlessly punching and kicking the air, I asked if he was interested in taking karate. “Is that kicking and punching?” he asked.

The Karate Kid, Ralph Machio, Pat Morita“Yeah. I think so.”

Honestly, all of my knowledge on karate comes from The Karate Kid, so I decided it’s time to research the martial arts. For the next few Fridays, I will be researching and discussing different martial arts. As I write about each one, I will compare it to the others so we can have a good idea about what they have in common and the ways they are different.

From what I can tell, karate is the best known martial art, so we’ll start here.


Literally, kara means “empty” and te means “hand.” Empty hand refers to the lack of weapons or tools in this self-defense training.

Sometimes, you’ll see the suffix -dō. This means “the way or path.” According to the website for the Tulane Karate Club, “Karate-dō, implies karate as a total way of life that goes well beyond the self-defense applications.”

Parts of Karate Class

According to the University of Michigan website, karate practice is divided into three parts:

  • Kihon (drilling of stances, blocks, punches, strikes and kicks)
  • Kata (pre-arranged forms simulating combat situations)
  • Kumite (sparring)
  • “In each category, the beginner is given instruction at the most basic level until the techniques become spontaneous. As the student progresses technically, he or she progresses physically as well, and advanced practices demand greater stamina. At this stage, the student becomes involved with more intricate and difficult katas and more dynamic forms of kumite. As the student approaches black belt level, technique, stamina, speed, and coordination become natural as a result of strong practice. It is at this stage that the serious student discovers that his or her study of karate has only just begun. The object of true karate practice is the perfection of oneself through the perfection of the art.”

    The Attire

    Students should wear white, loose pants and a jacket tied with a belt. The belt is an indicator of your skill level. From beginner to experienced, the belts colors are:  white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black, red. According to, the red belt is rarely awarded.

    Styles of Karate Class

    There are four main styles of karate taught in Japan:   Shotokan, Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, and Wado-ryu.

    For more specific information about different styles of strikes, kicks, and blocks, I recommend the article. Their page 3 shows different striking styles and discusses the physics behind karate. Page 4 discusses the defensive moves. (These links should take you directly to these pages.)

    History of Karate

    In 1922, an Okinawan named Gichin Funakoshi brought karate to Japan. (Please note that, since I presume many of my readers read English and would list the first name before the last name, I have done that here. Keep in mind that in other readings, many Asian cultures places the family name before the first name.)

    According to,

    “Modern karate developed out of martial arts forms practiced in Okinawa, an island that is now part of Japan. For hundreds of years, Okinawan martial arts experts honed a variety of combat styles, in part due to the political situation in the area. From time to time, the ruling authorities would ban peasants from possessing any weapons, leaving them with only their own bodies and household items to protect themselves.”

    Later, Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, steered karate toward the more peaceful approach that it takes today. Instead of intently focusing on learning to defend yourself from potential attackers and showing your skills in competition, modern karate encourages physical, spiritual, and mental self-study and development.

    Have you practiced Karate? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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    About Sarah Stockett

    Hi, I'm Sarah! I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. I believe you can use simple exercises to relieve your aches + pains. AND, I believe I can teach you how.

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