Choosing a Dojo

Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail. Apparently, she’s looking to take up a martial art, and wanted ot know my thoughts on what she should look for. Of course, my first reaction was: Aikido! But, after a moment, I realized that there is quite a lot to say on the subject.

For your interest, I thought I’d post my reply to my friend here:

Well, you’ve definitely asked me about something to which I can speak at -great- lengths. As both a martial arts practitioner and instructor, I’ve wrestled with what you’re thinking about numerous times. I hope the following helps:

First, you’re already one step ahead because you’ve defined your goals. Most people join a martial art unsure of what they want. Is it self-defense? Physical fitness? Inner harmony? While I never expect a student to clearly identify these goals off the bat (especially since they are likely to change over time), it’s good to at least have an -idea- of what you want. What I’d recommend is that you prioritize these goals a little bit–especially between physical fitness and self-defense. Why? Well, in my school, I focus on self-defense first. That sometimes means that you can come to class and actually not get a “full” workout, because we’re working on strategy and/or tactics. If you’re primarily looking for a good sweat, then that methodology can be frustrating. On the other hand, if you’re school focuses primarily on getting a workout, you may get frustrated later on when you realize you don’t really know much about how to apply your technique in a meaningful way. Don’t stress too much about this, however. It’s a bit like Elvis versus the Beatles. You can like both, but you probably like one more than the other.

Second, choosing a school depends on a variety of factors. I don’t know the style of Aikido that you were looking at (and there are many kinds), but there are some general questions I ask myself (or the instructor!) when I visit a new dojo:

1. What is the overall strategy of the martial art?
2. How does daily training implement that strategy?
3. How does the instructor conduct him/herself? As a stern kung-fu master? As a laid-back ex-hippie? Something in-between?
4. How do students conduct themselves? Friendly? Cold? Are they respectful to each other, their instructor, and their training area?
5. What is the history of the martial art? How does this style/school fit into this history?
6. What is the instructor’s background?
7. Do they require a year-long committment?

In the end, you have to go with your gut. If you walk in, and you think that the place feels weird/creepy/military/anything else you don’t like, then go with that. I also highly recommend that you allow yourself the chance to -try- the art first. See if you can train for one class for free. In all likelihood, the class will be confusing and/or difficult. But if you leave it feeling as if you had a great time, then you know you can continue.

Third, the Physical Fitness/Age/Gender issue. In my opinion, a solid self-defense system is applicable regardless of whether you are male or female, young or old, fit or not. In this regard, Aikido excels. I can tell you, right now, without ever having met you in person, that if you can walk across the room without difficulty, then you can do Aikido. However, you -must- be patient with yourself. I’ve seen many people start a martial art and quit because they don’t live up to some inner image of themselves. When you start training, you need to remember that, just like anything else, it takes progress and time. And, in the end, you’re only competition is yourself. With luck, you’ll join a club that has a friendly atmosphere. When you do, make friends with other students! Nothing helps you overcome feelings of frustration than chatting with someone who is feeling the same way or has felt that way before. On a similar note, if your friend joins along with you, that’s great! But I recommend you each make a committment to yourselves that your training is your responsibility, and is independent on whether the other one is able to get on the mat. For example, I have a father/son team as students. They used to train together–if one couldn’t make it, the other one wouldn’t either. Today, they both realize that their training is important to them as individuals, so if one can’t show up, the other one will anyway.

In case you can’t tell, I -love- Aikido. It forms a fundamental core of who I am. I am always happy to talk about it and help others decide if it is right for them. I’m also happy to help find good deals on uniforms, weapons, and so forth. So… if you decide you have more questions, I’m really happy to help


I think this pretty well states what I recommend students when they are looking for a dojo. It really does come down to the following questions:

  • Does the strategy make sense?
  • Is the environment serious, yet friendly?
  • Is the instructor both competent and compelling?

If you answer yes to these three questions, odds are you have found a place in which you can successfully begin your martial arts career.

2 thoughts on “Choosing a Dojo

  1. I would add, do you get along with the Sensei and other instructors. Martial arts can be confusing, and often involve esoteric concepts like Ki, energy flows, etc. If there isn’t a good fit with the person who is advocating these ideals, it can be very frustrating for both sides.

    Great site!

  2. Hi!

    I’m the friend who is looking into Aikido. I went to the local dojo with all these things in mind and I think it’s going to be a great fit. The Sensei that was teaching the class what exactly the kind of person I can see myself learning from and getting along with very well.

    I am planning on looking at a couple of other places, just to see what else is out there, but with this advice, I am thinking Aikido might be it for me.

    Now I get to scour your site and absorb as much information as I can while I make my final decision.

    Thanks, Dave! You’ve been a great help and I’m sure once/if I get into this, we’ll get to have all kinds of interesting conversations!

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