Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Wellness for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Moving From Fear to Fullness:
How Martial Arts Changed My Life


Nathan Perry works as an Information Technology Specialist at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

For Nathan Perry, learning martial arts has been an important part of wellness across all areas of his life, from self-defense to social connections. In this interview he talks about his experience, including the challenges he’s faced and lessons learned.

Nathan Perry has practiced martial arts for a half dozen years, finding both rewards and challenges in the process.

You do a lot of things to have health and wellness in your life. One of the things you do is karate. How did you get started doing that?

I got involved in karate originally for learning self-defense and how to take care of myself. Before I started taking martial arts, I lived in fear because I ran into some trouble in my neighborhood with some shady people. I was attacked just right outside the house. Someone came up behind me and gave me a bloody nose and black eye and chased me around the neighborhood. I didn’t know what to do. I was screaming, “Help, help” and no one helped. So I realized I need to know how to defend myself. When I started learning self-defense, I became much more confident that I know how to handle a situation that doesn’t feel right. 

I can do stuff that’s really simple to diffuse a situation that I had no idea about before. Like one of the things that just never dawned on me is that if somebody’s following you, cross the street or go into a building. There are all sorts of different tactics to take care of a situation without having to use any physical interventions. Learning how to read people and be aware of your surroundings was helpful. We don’t pay attention to where we’re going and what’s around us. Usually there’s some kind of warning or something that leads up to something happening. Rarely does it just come out of the blue. As far as the physical martial arts, I’ve also learned how to do a do a lot of pressure locks – using pressure points on people to control their movement – and how to disarm someone if they’re coming at you with a knife.

I went in to learn how to defend myself, but was also able to get physical exercise, have social interaction with people, be out in the community, lose weight, and feel much better about myself

In karate there’s a belt system. Can you explain what that is?

You go in as a white belt, for beginner. And then you take classes a couple times a week and within a month or so go to yellow belt. Then you go into more intensive training for three, four, five months and you go for the orange belt. And then your training gets even more intense, and you stay in that for about five or six months and go to green belt. And then the belts are spaced out longer because the skills are harder.

How long have you been doing this and what belts do you have?

I’ve been doing karate off and on for the last six or seven years. I have several belts in different styles. I was a green belt in Shorin Ryu karate. I’m an orange belt in Shotokan karate. I’m just starting Tae Kwan Do and Hapkideo in the next couple of weeks.

So you went in with a specific need that was met – you wanted to feel safer, be safer, in your neighbohood. Did you get other benefits out of participating?

I got a lot of benefits. It filled a social void in my life. It had the exercise component. I met people there, one of whom became my girlfriend. I learned how to defend myself. And in the dojo – the school – as a whole we would do things outside the dojo too. Like we went to a Japanese lantern festival and did demonstrations. So I went in to learn how to defend myself, but was also able to get physical exercise, have social interaction with people, be out in the community, lose weight, and feel much better about myself.

Are there some things you’ve learned in martial arts that you’re now taking into other areas of your life?

I have learned to trust my gut on things. I’ve also learned not to immediately trust people. That was kind of hard for me because I used to think everyone was good. Life circumstances have taught me not to immediately trust people. It now takes time for me to warm up to people. So when I first meet people, depending on their body language, what they say, how they look, I might be a little cautious until I actually get to know them. And I was also very controlling and had to learn to let things go, and be okay with myself. Karate helped with that.

How has it helped you learn to let things go, and be okay with yourself?

I had done Shorin Ryu karate for a few years when I had a falling out with my sensei, my instructor, and I wound up leaving. I went to another school where I tried Shotokan style and it just didn’t work right for me. Then I went into Tae Kwon Do trying to start over. I went in with the wrong view of things, the view that I’m a green belt in karate and can do more advanced stuff in Tae Kwon Do, and that backfired on me. I actually hurt my arm and leg. And also I was really, really hard on myself. I thought this has got to get done this way, this has to be perfect – I thought the whole setting had to be perfect for me. After trying Tae Kwon Do for awhile in a setting that was really beyond my skill level, it wiped me out. I got discouraged and quit again. I decided at that point in time that I was done with martial arts altogether.

But every once in awhile something would come back to me. You know, Nathan, you used to be a lot healthier when you were in martial arts. You used to meet a lot more people when you were in martial arts. You were a lot more relaxed when you were in martial arts. About three weeks ago I was talking on the phone with one of my support staff and I was upset because I was lonely, and wasn’t meeting anybody, and was bored. I had nothing going on in my life. And we went out for a walk to talk about that, and he said, “Nathan, I think you really need to think about getting back into martial arts.” And so I thought about it, and decided that if I go back into it I’ll start this time as a beginner in Tae Kwon Do and Hapkiedo because they’re different than what I had learned before as a green belt. And the reason Tae Kwon Do and Hapkiedo didn’t take off for me before was that I was pushing too hard and taking more advanced classes when the foundation wasn’t there for me to be taking advanced classes. So I’ll start out as a beginner this time and do that for a couple months, then move up the natural rank.

It sounds like there was a lot of problem-solving going on, a lot of learning what works for you and what doesn’t. That was hard, wasn’t it?

It was hard.

What’s next for you in martial arts?

I’m restarting it in the next two or three weeks. My goal going into it this time is whatever happens, happens. Just be okay with yourself and let things progress naturally instead of trying to influence everything and control everything. So I’ll take it one day at a time. I’ve also learned, painfully, not to push myself so I don’t injure myself, because I had to have physical therapy from the injuries. I had to learn I’m not 22 anymore and have to take that into account.

Through all your journey you’ve had to be open to not only learning new things, but also be open to things not playing out exactly as you thought they would.

Yes, and it can be really hard to be open to everything, to accepting your limitations, and to things not being exactly as you want them to be. You have to work through that and get over that to move forward and better yourself.

One of the things I struggle with is that I have depression. And depression lots of times just zaps everything out of me and I just stay in bed and don’t do anything. There have been times when all I would do is go to work and come home and go to bed, go to work and come home and go to bed. I also have autism, and depression and autism go hand in hand. In the winter depression is especially bad for me. This winter I became bitter with myself because I’d see my family doing things, and my nephew who’s 17 and has a girlfriend out doing things, and here I am not wanting to do anything. At times that gets tiring. So I finally got mad one day and was talking to my support person and was upset with myself and saying this just isn’t working. And he brought up the idea of getting back into martial arts. By doing that, hopefully I’ll be able to meet some people. And getting exercise will help with the depression symptoms. And I’ll be involved in the community as a whole again. And I’m hoping I’ll have a nice group of friends come out of martial arts.

This time I’m also taking two different kids of karate, and they’re the more popular types that have lots of schools where they’re taught. So if something doesn’t work out for me at one school I have lots of options for going somewhere else. I’ll have a Plan B this time.

Is there anything in particular out of the lessons you’ve learned that might be helpful to others?

Take it one day at a time. Be open to suggestions. Don’t beat yourself up. Give it time. And be willing to try a new thing.