Across the Pacific Northwest, people are enjoying themselves by swinging swords, rolling across mats, and practicing the best way to gouge someone’s eyes. In other words, they’re studying the martial arts.
How many Boomers are doing this, and why? Roughly 75 percent of the students at Seattle tai chi school Embrace the Moon are over 50. Some visiting masters from China are as old as 70 and are still explosively powerful. The Chinese art of tai chi is a natural choice for older adults: Studies have shown it improves balance, including in adults with neurological disorders. School founder Kim Ivy (who turns 60 this fall) mentions other benefits: Many of her students find tai chi mentally challenging in unexpected ways, and “learning Taiji is good for the brain as well as the thighs.” Though few expect to apply tai chi in a self-defense setting, practitioners find it broadly beneficial because tai chi emphasizes relaxation and aligning mind, body, and spirit.
Spencer Anthony-Cahill, 56, chief instructor at Kulshan Aikikai in Bellingham, makes similar points about aikido’s appeal. This modern Japanese art is counterintuitive for many people, because aikido students practice martial arts as a way to “de-escalate conflict.” Anthony-Cahill suggests that a practice emphasizing “self-realization” appeals to people with more experience, which may be why so many of his students (and fellow teachers) are over 50. However, aikido isn’t just about feeling good. Because aikido practices blending with attacks and taking falls, students fall less often and hurt themselves less when they do. In general, aikido students move through their lives more effectively. Of course, the price of getting there is learning to fall. That usually means a few months of bumps and bruises while students are learning to get “round.”
Even the more directly practical martial arts are drawing boomers. Greg Sluys, 59, founder of Longstryke martial arts in Bellingham, teaches practical self-defense skills drawn from World War II close-quarter combatants. Sluys says close-quarter combat attracts students because of its practicality. It emphasizes learning gross motor skills people can apply when under stress, which will be the case if they ever have to defend themselves. Realistic self-defense training starts by respecting who you are now, and what your body can do. No one will ask you to do high kicks if you can’t do them. (And actually, no school emphasizing self-defense will ask anyone to kick above the waist. It’s too easy for someone to grab your leg.) Overall, the biggest attraction for a combat-style martial art is knowing you are learning how to protect yourself from the kinds of attacks you’re most likely to experience in the real world.
Sluys, who spent decades in Goju karate before starting his own school, says any martial arts school should fit who you are as a person and respect you as an individual. Because there is no overall licensing body governing martial arts instruction, students have to find a school with a good feel and principles that mesh with what they want to achieve. By visiting schools, talking with teachers and students, and researching online, you will find the martial arts that will best help you meet your goals.
Greg Beatty lives in Bellingham and writes everything from children’s books to essays on cooking disasters. When he’s not writing, he teaches college classes online, spends time with his wife, walks his dog, takes care of the grandkids, and yes, practices martial arts.