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While practicing martial arts is no doubt good exercise for the body, it's also much more. Experts see it as a way of life, rather than a workout. The arts also offer exercise for the mind, improved self-discipline and self-confidence, as well as self-defense techniques.

Many versions of martial arts exist, each originating in a different country or region. The martial art of jujutsu comes from Japan. Tae kwon do is a Korean martial art. Kung fu comes from China.

There's even an art called Brazilian Capoeira, which is combined from African and Brazilian slave dances, according to Trirata "Chai" Earmsmuth, martial arts instructor and owner of the Active Edge Fitness and Lifestyle Center in Lansing, where Brazilian Capoeira is one of the classes offered.

"It looks almost like break dancing," he explained.

Although martial arts training hasn't quite caught on in the Midwest like it has in other areas of the country, you'll find several schools in the region where classes are available for kids and adults.

Increase awareness of yourself

Self-defense classes teach you how to use your mind

Martial arts training allows students to acquire both physical and mental skills that can significantly impact their lives, with a ranking system that provides motivation to excel without the competition of a team sport.

Depending on the instructor, the art and the school, those taking martial arts can move up in different ranking systems. Many classes have a system of awarding colored belts as students master certain skills, with basic belts being yellow, green, blue, purple, brown and black, Earmsmuth said. He also noted that a common misconception is that earning a black belt is the ultimate goal.

"The black belt is what you get when you master the basic skills," Earmsmuth explained. "Some schools go up to a 13th or 15th degree black belt."

Earmsmuth started taking martial arts as a child, earning his black belt in tae kwon do at age 16 and then experimenting with other martial arts and starting a popular martial arts club for fellow classmates at Brother Rice High School in Chicago.

Rick Miller, of Glenwood, got some martial arts training in high school from a friend who had a black belt in karate and offered him private lessons.

"I never had formal classes, but got private lessons and learned a lot," Miller said. "It helped me to focus mentally and was a great workout. It keeps you in great physical shape. In some ways I wish I would have stuck with it."

Miller, who is an elementary school principal, believes that martial arts can be very beneficial for youngsters.

"Some want to take it to learn to beat up the kid next door, but really it teaches you how to avoid that," Miller said. "It's a self-defense art, but the self-defense part isn't what I got out of it. You learn that there are things you can do if you put your mind to it. That's what I got out of it."

The art of kickboxing has gained popularity among adults in recent years. Earmsmuth teaches an American kickboxing class and a Muay Thai class, which is an art that originated in Thailand.

For adults, martial arts classes offer a great cardiovascular workout, says Dale Hestermann, owner of Kempo Jujutsu Martial Arts Academy in Highland.

"It also helps improve concentration, confidence and helps you learn a better sense of awareness of your surroundings," Hestermann said.

Like many schools, both Active Edge and Kempo Jujutsu offer classes that combine different arts. Active Edge has jeet kune do class, which teaches the art and philosophy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Kempo offers classes that combine jujutsu with tae kwon do.

Earmsmuth emphasized that martial arts are more than a sport, they support a healthy lifestyle and attitude. He offers free use of the gym with adult martial arts classes to encourage regular exercise routines and weight training.

Martial arts classes

* The Academy, Valparaiso, (219) 531-0603

* Active Edge Lifestyle and Fitness Center, Lansing, (708) 895-6542

* Aikido of Northern Indiana, Merrillville, (219) 736-7854

* Arts of Wisdom Kung Fu and Tai Chi, Whiting, (219) 659-8513

* Azatos School of Karate, Schererville, (219) 865-5425

* Corral's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Schererville, (219) 688-7363

* Extreme Martial Arts Academy, Schererville, (219) 865-6766

* Fighting Arts Dojo, Lake Station, (219) 962-9200

* Garcia ATA Black Belt Academy & Karate for Kids, Valparaiso, (219) 477-5554

* Hobart Karate & Kickboxing, Hobart, (219) 942-0660

* Karate for Kids, Kouts, (219) 766-0009

* Kempo Jujutsu Martial Arts Academy, Highland, (219) 838-9875,

* Kiyama School of Martial Arts, Portage, (219) 763-4541

* Kwak's Tae Kwon Do KTA, Schererville, (219) 865-5444

* Kwak's Tae Kwon Do KTA, Lansing, (708) 895-4411

* Martial Arts America, Chesterton, (219) 926-5425

* Moravec's Tae Kwon Do, Portage, (219) 764-9985

* Olympic Karate School, Hobart, (219) 962-4811

* Tae Kwon Do USA of St. John, St. John, (219) 365-3850

* Tiger Tae Kwon Do, Chesterton, (219) 921-1171

* Valpo Martial Arts, Valparaiso, (219) 477-6542