But few people who enter their local dojo (martial arts training centre) with the idea of instantly acquiring the art of kicking their way out of trouble will have the staying power to persist with the rigorous training and slow progress of a sport in which it takes enormous discipline to attain even a reasonable level of competence. It is not a case of taking a handful of lessons and then moving on to full contact - in fact, it is quite possible never to get involved in full contact. Learning the basic skills takes years of patient build-up through the katas - a choreographed, almost ballet-like routine practising pattern and form.
Deciding which martial art to take up is fraught with complications because most countries in the Far East embrace their own variety. Japan has judo and karate, China kung fu, Korea taekwondo, and within each martial art different teachers have established an almost endless number of schools emphasising slightly different techniques. The best way to choose between them is to assess what you want to gain from your participation and to ensure that the class you attend is right for you.
Judo probably has the most contact from the outset. "The first thing you learn in judo is how to fall, which is not part of the dream most people have when they start," Paul Clifton, editor of the martial arts magazine Combat, says. However, it is arguably the most practical skill to learn for self-defence - particularly for women. The participant is constantly in a hold with their opponent, and there is a lot of work on the floor, providing the techniques which are most useful if you are attacked by surprise. "Despite its tag as the 'gentle art of judo', it's very physical and it's the only 'art' that is an Olympic sport," Ray Stevens, Britain's Olympic judo silver medallist in Barcelona, says. "And it's the toughest of all martial arts."
Martial arts are a stimulating way of keeping fit. The training is exhausting for all styles, and a basic hour-long session is dynamic, concentrating on speed, endurance, strength, flexibility and technique. Martial artists have arguably the best overall fitness of any athlete - after all, who can forget that great 1970s television institution Superstars (still seen on UK Gold), and the sliding-sock squat thrusts of Brian Jacks, pounding his opponents into submission? Equally, in Gladiators, the success of the martial arts-practising competitors is overwhelming.
Martial arts can be beneficial in terms of fitness and self-defence for people of any age but, in particular, children. "It channels their aggression in a positive way," Stevens explains. "Judo is a whole lifestyle. The discipline, mental toughness and confidence they get inside the dojo will extend to their lives outside. And any fears over safety for youngsters are unfounded - safety is paramount. They don't learn the more dangerous techniques - armlocks and strangleholds - until they are 16. It's an ancient lifestyle that still works."
But in full-contact combat, injuries are a possibility. Judo, in particular, can be punishing and, at a high level, knee and back injuries are common. Stevens, who almost missed out on the 1992 Barcelona Olympics because of cruciate ligament damage, says: "You've constantly got someone on your back and you're rotating at speed, often moving in a direction that the knee doesn't want to go. But this is really at competition standard and to a large extent can be avoided."
If the physical nature of the sport does diminish your interest, there are more peaceful, laid-back styles. Tai chi chuan and qigong concentrate on a person's spiritual, holistic and mental powers. Dan Docherty, a leading figure in tai chi chuan in this country who learnt his art while in the Hong Kong Police Force, says: "Tai chi chuan is philosophy in action, the use of the 3,000-year-old Chinese principle of Ying and Yang - complementary opposites - to teach the martial, as well as the mental and health sides. The martial aspect concentrates on evasion and counter-attack instead of the hard blocking of karate. And by contracting and expanding, breathing in and out, you can regulate the circulation and respiration to improve health, flexibility, co-ordination and balance, and harness vital energies."
The ancient art of qigong focuses on improving the "internal alchemy" - the flow of Qi, the vital fuel the body uses. Exercises in deep breathing and meditation are believed to produce chemical changes in the body that can have health and spiritual benefits. Qigong has a "hard" side as well, incorporating martial skills which work in conjunction with the "soft" - health and spiritual - element. Michael Tse, who owns a qigong treatment centre in Harley Street, London, says: "At the very highest level, the hard side can make the muscles and bones so strong you can be hit with bamboo, break a spear with your throat or be cut with a knife, and it will have no impact."
Docherty is quick to issue a warning for all prospective participants: "The Chinese say, 'Walk fire, enter demon' - meaning if you do something that is innately dangerous, it can have nasty side-effects - both physical and psychological. So be serious." Or, put another way, real life is not like a Jackie Chan movie. But we can all dream.Reuse content