Ana Petricel is 17, a high school senior who plans to become a doctor, and more than once she has knocked me on my you-know-what -- despite my 70-pound advantage and enough extra years to know better.
As she should. Whether we were practicing how to defend against a punch, a grab or other attacks, her responses were all of a kind: designed to blend with the attack, avoid harm, control my balance and put me on the ground.
Contact information ( * required )
"I am not a violent person," said Petricel, who trains in the Japanese martial art of aikido at the D.C. Aikido dojo in Washington. "I don't see this as just pure exercise. It is an art as well as martial. It's spiritual. Physical. Intellectual. It's a workout. But that's not just why I'm here."
Here is the reality: A well-run dojo will be incredibly welcoming to beginners and typically filled with trainees of different sexes, ages, sizes and fitness levels. You'll also find plenty of fun, whether your aim is to learn to spar in tae kwon do, parry with your hands and feet in capoeira, master the turning techniques of aikido or learn the fine points of grappling in Brazilian jujitsu.
The spectrum is a broad one. Over time, the martial arts push you out of any comfort zone -- a mental benefit. But they also have a pretty encompassing impact on your health: Better cardio is a given, but these are activities that also improve strength, posture, flexibility and balance, all important pillars of fitness (the latter two in particular for those of us who have pushed into our 50s and beyond).
You learn to move in more diverse ways. Had you asked me five years ago whether I would ever do a standing barrel roll or survive a hip throw, I'd have shaken my head. But these are things you train to do -- gradually and safely.
None of that is surprising, perhaps. These activities have thrived for a reason, whether it is the graceful tai chi (yes, it's a martial art) seen so commonly in Chinese parks, or the vigorous sparring of Western boxing or Japanese karate.
"In my experience I can teach anyone to do anything with aikido as long as they want to learn," said Michael Veltri, the owner of D.C. Aikido and sensei to Petricel, me and the others.
To test that world beyond aikido, I went to beginner sessions at Yong Studios in Washington for a tae kwon do class and Roda Movements Studio in Takoma Park, Md., to try capoeira.
As someone with no prior training in those disciplines, would I get anything out of a first class? Would I be welcomed, or feel like the klutzy new kid on the block?
These are the anxieties that can keep us from doing things that we want to try. My advice: Put those notions on a shelf and forget it.
The first thing that became obvious is how distinct disciplines are. That is important to keep in mind. If you want to pursue a martial art, don't just rush to the nearest karate studio and sign up. Investigate the origins, ethic, style and culture of different disciplines, try a few different introductory sessions, and see what clicks.
Do you want to strike and kick? Grab and throw? Spin? Tumble? Spar? Are you an 11 on the intensity scale, or want something that works more on the mind and spirit?
Just as an example: In aikido we thrive on circular motion -- using turning movements and the energy of an opponent's attack to put them off balance, principles also applied in learning how to fall safely. As we grow older, that particular skill adds a new element to the concept of self-defense.
In tae kwon do, by contrast, "everything is a straight line," said Peter Hounsell, the instructor of a recent beginner's class. We worked for most of the hour on kicks, and the aim was to align everything from the angle of the foot through the placement of the hips and shoulders to generate maximum force.
I was lousy at it. That wasn't the point.
"This really should be like a home," said Do Yong Kim, owner and master instructor of the studio. "You can make mistakes. When you are here, it's safe. People don't judge. You're just another person training."
Capoeira adds a fully different dimension. Among advanced practitioners the workout becomes an almost gymnastic routine where seeming falls turn into kicks and "opponents" sweep and avoid each other's legs in a dance-like partnership. It's even accompanied by drums and singing, true to its Brazilian origins.
But you don't need to be able to cartwheel to participate, so don't be intimidated.
When there are new students, instructor and owner Roberto Tapia splits the class and spends time with the beginner group to teach basic moves that can be picked up in one session. And at first it does feel like you are dancing -- until you realize how the hand is positioned for a strike and the feet for a kick.
"If you want to be effective," he said, "it has to be pretty."
Once you select a discipline that seems right for you, visit a studio or dojo and pay attention to the people: how they train and interact, whether the beginners get adequate attention. In this sort of training, you are joining a community, and the more you like that community the more you are apt to stick with it.
Look also at things like the level of ritual involved; some places are sticklers on certain points of etiquette, others more relaxed, and you should be comfortable and ready to adapt to whatever customs are in play. The bowing, clapping or class mottos might seem affected. But it's part of absorbing the culture, and you'll find that much of it either involves safety or provides a moment of focus that makes the practice more effective. And pay attention to the entire class. Are the warm-ups adequate? Over the course of an hour, do you seem to get the exercise you would want?
Lastly, ask questions about the place and the people in charge. How long have they been in business? What's their training? What are their goals? If it is a studio that has been in business for a while, with a thriving membership and a welcoming vibe, there's a reason for that, and you can probably trust what you see and feel.
Most important, commit to at least a few steady months of training, even if progress seems slow and there's a temptation to quit. The benefits are real. But only if you get knocked down a few times.