The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

The Story of the Black Belt

My Tuesday night martial arts class students continued transformation to healthy behaviour. Instead of chatting noisily, they sat quietly straight and relaxed. They sat down on the floor without needing to use their hands. Their equipment was neatly arranged. Instead of sitting glumly or chatting idly on cell phones about the usual annoyances from the day, they mentally put them away and were breathing calmly, focusing on what we were going to do in class. Last week we worked on elbow strikes, blocking, and double kicks. This week was triple kicks, faster footwork, and spinning backfist. Each week at the start of class we have a sitting Zen called the zesa or zazen. We kneel and concentrate on a story or parable, a historical lesson, or an inspiration to live life.

This week's story told the story of the black belt. Who wears one? Why? What does it mean? First, who doesn't wear one? Boxers don't. Kickboxers don't. Wrestlers don't. Chinese Kung Fu practitioners wear a black sash from the first lesson, not only when they become accomplished. Some aerobics instructors purchase one to wear like a chef's hat as a costume to look cool for boxaerobics. Anyone can buy one. What does it mean to earn one?

Color belts were not part of ancient martial arts. Dr. Jigoro Kano, founder of modern Judo, applied a system of belt colors in the early 1900's at his school, the Kodokan, in Tokyo. Some say that part of the inspiration was the ranking by color of swimmers in the Japanese military. Dr. Kano wanted to encourage and recognize his different rank martial arts students. The belt color system spread to other martial disciplines. Who wears belts now? Mostly the Japanese arts of Judo, Aikido, and Karate, the several Okinawan Karates, and the Korean Karates like Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Tang So Do, and others.

The symbolism for transforming from novice to black belt comes from starting white - blank - with nothing. In old Asia, you would not wear white to a wedding, but to a funeral. White is the emptiness. Black is the fullness. We all start with nothing, represented in our belt. As you work and learn and train, your belt turns yellow with sweat, red with blood, brown with your toil in the earth, and eventually black with the richness and fullness of your learning. Then you know enough to begin. You continue your dedication as your belt begins to fray and grey with age and wisdom, eventually turning white again, full circle. Zen.

I told my students that a black belt is much like a college degree. In many cases, it does not mean anything. It can show you passed time, but does it mean you learned? In some schools, some upper students bully instead of help those learning. They smoke and eat unhealthy food after class. In some schools, students advance belts by ritual exercises not sparring. In other schools, students fight continuously to subdue others, never taming their own mind.

The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, envisioned a martial art that would reject destruction and show strength through compassion. His revelation reversed thousands of years of harsh tradition. He named his art "Aikido," or "the art of peace." Honorably doing right is what all martial arts strive for, and is the true black belt.

I took the photo when we lived and trained in Japan. If you look, you can find Paul. See more photos and stories of how to change exercise to health in Healthy Martial Arts

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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.