Martial arts is better than a healthy diet, meditation, getting regular sleep, visualization, and even having a life purpose. Now, I don't say this to belittle any of those things - they are all excellent, and worthwhile things that will dramatically improve your life - just not as much as four to six years of martial arts.
Sincerely pursuing martial arts brings all of those things with it, and more.
Martial arts teaches you to raise your standards. Like most sports or hobbies, you suck at it when you start, and so does everyone else in your beginner's class, except for the people who've been there for a couple of months longer than you - they suck a little less. And, like most sports, your head coach seems like a borderline god with their abilities. An insurmountable achievement. Something you could never be, but it is fun to think about.
And then, just like every other hobby, the instructor proceeds to tell you exactly what you'll have to practice in order to surpass them. They tell you how to do what only moments before you thought impossible, and they inspire you to pursue that.
As you progress through the years, the people around you progress as well, making comparing yourself to others less useful. While they make useful points of reference, and functional "pace cars", you ultimately learn to work on yourself. You put in more hours of practice in order to outpace yourself. Unlike team sports, there are no excuses or scapegoats hidden within martial arts.
In order to get better, you're going to have to become comfortable looking very silly doing things very badly for longer than most people can. You're going to have to get good at asking the right kinds of questions, and observing body language and human movement. You're going to need energy - taking care of your body suddenly becomes a means to an end. You can stop running on the treadmill with zero consequences, but stop sparring in the middle of a match and you're gonna get bonked in the nose. Context and motivation become intrinsic. You eating a Twinky will make it more likely you'll lose your next sparring match. You skipping class means your skills decrease. Consequences. Goals. Fuel.
You're going to get better at recovery, both mental and physical, and will incorporate better sleep schedules and meditation into your life. You'll become more aware of your body, and thoughts - learn to relax under pressure and embrace doing hard things.
You will learn how to raise your standards, and you will have a reason why.
You'll learn to laugh at your own misfortune, and seize opportunities others will not see, because the students who excel will be doing that, and you will learn from their examples - by osmosis if nothing else.
But so far, all of this is true of most sports. I could just as easily be talking about dance, or bowling.
So, what makes martial arts special?
It levels up courage and one's ability to enter a flow state under stress.
True, other sports can achieve this to higher and lesser degrees, but many of the alternatives do not tend to be centered as much around personal growth, nor do they inherently come with their own built-in support group.
In martial arts, you will constantly and habitually be surrounded by awesome people with awesome goals doing awesome things, being awesome with each other. The length of time you train is important - not because of the color of the belt, but rather, because of the quality of your friends. Martial arts will distill the weak, leaving only those strong enough to stay by your side.
Take martial arts long enough, and you will only have awesome people in your social circle.
Unlike skydiving or windsurfing, martial arts is a regular activity that you can do about three to seven times per week, and whether we want to admit it or not, momentum in life matters more than we like to admit. Life will kick us all in the stomach and leave us crying on the ground. It is up to us to decide how long we stay there.
As silly as this sounds, if you have a lifetime habit of never missing class, you'll get up and go, even when your emotional or physical world is crashing down all around you, you'll get up and go to class, even if it's just to watch. You might not even notice you're going, or that you have a choice. Habitual, unrelenting awesomeness.
That momentum... that moving towards something rather than stagnating and wallowing in grief is SO HUGE I have a hard time expressing it. Surrounding yourself with awesome people who are all filled with powerful momentum... if you're feeling like slowing down, that'll help you keep moving.
It gets better.
The way you breathe, the explosive way you move, the posture and the flow state you have to be in to properly express martial arts is the kinesiological anthesis of depression. The camaraderie-filled and growth-oriented environment is the mental antithesis of depression. Because you've spent years building the habit of going when you're not in the mood, and overcoming whatever limitations you thought you had, you'll go, and it'll help. You'll get up... and keep moving forward.
Martial arts teaches you how to fall, and how to get back up - both literally and figuratively.
Martial arts teaches you how to look at something impossible, and break it down into manageable steps. Most worthwhile arts take a decade to get good at. Being able to chunk that down into a monthly goal and into an hour class is a skill that will translate into areas you wouldn't necessarily link to intuitively, but it does.
Lastly, there are only two skills I know of that will save your life. Swimming, and martial arts. There is a huge... huge difference between being weak, and being gentle. Some people think that martial arts is violence - and while it certainly enables one to be violent, it teaches one how to peacefully end or escape the majority of situations - and if push comes to shove, it makes the probability of you being the one lying dead on the ground less likely.
Bad things happen to good people every day. Some of those good people could have avoided those situations with situational awareness, but there are some that - no matter how much preparation they might have had, simply are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Someone tried to stab me once in Las Vegas because I was eating eggs. Crazy happens.
I once heard that it is better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war. I think martial arts allows for both. It is a beautiful thing to study, full of laughter and love - but it is also... very useful. I believe it is better to be gentle, than to be weak.
Mr. Burns is weak. Superman is gentle.
I've only scratched the surface, and I'm sure I'll come back to this article over the years, but I'll leave you with this, for now:
I cry every time I watch Mulan.
Not just because I'm proud of her - but because I am reminded of the countless times I've seen that moment in my students.
That moment when they transition from knowing - not just thinking - knowing they can't do something... to realizing they just did.
That moment when they apply some knowledge and do what they felt was an ability reserved for someone else - someone taller, shorter, stronger, faster, bigger, smaller - whatever.
That moment when they realized I was telling them the truth when I told them they have the perfect body for martial arts.
Because the truth is, if your instructor is skilled enough, it is true.
You do have the perfect body for martial arts. Which art? Well, that's up to you and your instructors to find out. Your body will change over the years, and so too will your expression of your chosen style(s).
That's the art within the martial. You are both the canvas and the painter.
I hope that I have inspired you to find a local dojo, school, gym, dojang etc, and to call or email them for a free class. Or just go and watch.
Yes, you'll want to see if the style itself appeals to you, but more than that, you'll want to see if the instructor appeals to you.
Are they someone you'd like to become more like? Watch a high-level class. Are the students treating each other the way you want to be treated? Watch a children's class - are the instructors treating them the way you'd want your inner child treated? Are the students laughing and enjoying themselves? Are they intense and pushing themselves? After each class, are they sweaty, smiling, and smarter? Are they empowered? Is what they're learning useful? Is who they are becoming useful?
Try out more than one school. Most will give you a free month. Take your time, and find a place that fits. You have a lifetime to explore, so decide which foundation you want to work on first. Ask a lot of questions. Be open to hearing the answers.
Martial arts will change your life for the better, if you let it.