Garage martial arts – are they any good?

A garage dojo in Seattle, Washington. A garage dojo in Seattle, Washington.

I have a friend coming from out of town this morning to work on knife defense and tactics. We will practice in my garage.

Some people look down on garage training. They think a “real” martial arts school should have a well-equipped dojo with heavy bags hanging from the ceiling, weapons on the walls, and thick mats on the floor.

That’s all good. But no one should ever look down on garage training, and no student should be embarrassed to study in someone’s garage or home. Some instructors are traditional, and prefer to teach only family or individuals they know and trust. They do not promote their arts. A student should consider it an honor to be allowed to train in an instructor’s home.

Many instructors teach out of their garages, or at the park, because their primary pursuit is the art itself. These types of teachers are obsessed with learning and honing their abilities. They don’t want to invest their time in running a studio, doing paperwork, marketing and sales. They would rather focus on training and even traveling great distances to learn from other masters. Instructors like this can be the most gifted martial artists around, even if no one knows their name outside of a small circle. Bobbe Edmonds comes to mind, or the legendary Professor Wally Jay (who taught in his basement, and was scorned by other masters for years because of his innovations to Japanese Jujitsu).

I once tried a Wing Chun class in a garage with a young man who had advertised online. He didn’t want to be paid. He just wanted a loyal student. I didn’t continue because I found that Wing Chun did not suit me personally; but it was obvious that the young man was extremely skilled. He seemed to live, breathe and eat nothing but Wing Chun and heavy metal music.

One of the pioneers of Hapkido, master Ji-Han-Jae, studied with various teachers in his youth. These included of course Hapkido founder Choi Young Sul, a monk he called Taoist Lee Dosa, and a woman he called Grandma. Grandma taught him for three years from a hospice for the terminally ill. Somehow I doubt they had heavy bags hanging from the ceiling.

The training environment is not the measure of the martial artist. Nor does his/her value as a teacher and fighter correspond to the cost of his uniform or the square footage of the training space. The measure of an instructor lies in his/her sincerity, character and skill, and the sincerity, character and skill of his students.

I am sure that there are amazing martial artists teaching in garages, living rooms, basements and backyards all over the world. These men and women are hidden masters. The important thing is that they continue teaching, so that their skills may survive and perhaps one day be shared with the world.

Wael Abdelgawad, Founder
Hammerhead Hapkido

19 Comments

  1. As my students know, I myself taught at the park for years, as well as at a church hall. At the same time I studied three or four different martial arts simultaneously. My focus was on learning and improving, not on running a studio. I think that made me a better martial artist in the end.

  2. Great article. Martial Arts is is for real life situations that can occur in different places, settings, and environments. Why should training be any different?

  3. Small gym, big heart…that’s my garage gym in Citrus Heights CA. Liahona Warrior Arts Intermnational

  4. Well i have done many styles of Martial arts and i find that today in this ecconomic climate business and money idea has hurt alot of martial arts and sometimes made expensive for some martial artists. Whether in a park or garage or dojo it does not matter. The new style gym dojos just about turning money and business. You can find some real rubbish teachers with alot of money but complete rubbish teaching, art and personality. It does not matter. Its the teacher itself. 🙂 Cheers keep training.

  5. In my 50 years in the martial arts I have been all three, I have taught just a few students at my house, I taught at a Boys/Girls Club for free for 15 years, and it has been my business and living for the last 16 years.
    Here is my take on this subject.
    When I taught out of the Garage or Club i never had more than 25 students, we were able to have an influence in their lives, but only for a small amount.
    Since it has been my business and livelihoodwe can now reach many more, but it was hard to blend the teacher that taught for free and the man, father and businessman, I needed to be, but have since been able to reach MANY more lives, and because of community outreach I am able to raise funds to continue to teach for free those that want to train but cannot afford lessons anywhere else, win win!
    If this was not a business we would not have reached so many, and oh, BTW, the program we teach in local high schools has thwarted 6 kidnap attempts in the 16 years we have taught it.
    So if I personally had stayed in the garage this program would not have had that impact.

    • Thanks so much Ron. This was a timely message for me. I taught for free for several years, and now I teach a paid class in someone else’s space. But in the last month I’ve begun the process of looking for my own space to rent. So your message is encouraging.

  6. Great article! I like your comment about equipping your garage school. Since I don’t have to pay rent, utilities, etc, I have more to spend on equipment for my home kwoon. With a heavy bag, a top-and-bottom bag, weights, bench, wooden dummy and various home-made training aids of my own, I have a better equipped kwoon than most commercial dojo and gyms.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree. At age 16, I trained in Pakua-Chang Kung Fu under Sifu David Irving in his back garden. At age 17 I trained in Wing Chun under Lucas Castrounis in his garage and in 2007 when I moved to St. Cloud Fl, I did Penjak Silat under Guro Sean Stark. All were superlative martial artists who taught me so much and shared everything with me. Hooray for the garage senseis the world over!

  8. Great article, Mr. Abdelgawad! Thank you for the recognition of the garage dojos and backyard senseis of the world.
    I studied kendo from a Master John Santiago for 5 years in his garage.

  9. Years ago a great teacher named Master Art Rott of Longwood taught hundreds of his students over the years under his carport of his home Chito Ryu. The cost was FREE! He loved his students and vice verse! He eventually sold his home and property and purchased land off Keller Road in Apopka and built a huge Dojo with his own hands. We continued our training there at the same cost!
    Art is missed by all those he taught and loved!

  10. Some of the best martial arts lessons I’ve learned in the last 33 years of training came from environments and instructors that taught in rec centers, garages and some commercial schools. I run a small commercial program but I still teach a few students for free out of my garage.

  11. Thanks for your comments everyone. It’s cool hearing about all these dedicated instructors.

    I’ve noticed that this article is getting a lot of traffic lately. Is there a link to it somewhere that people are clicking on?

  12. Our dojo is a gymnasium we rent from the local school district in the evenings. We don’t have anywhere to store equipment, so we have to haul whatever we choose to use in and out in the same night. Our sensei runs free classes at the park near his house when the weather permits and does private lessons in his basement. He’s one of the most knowledgeable martial artists I’ve ever met, very dedicated to and passionate about his art, and he works to instill that in all of his students.

  13. Love this article. It is very inspiring. I used to teach martial classes for free in the Seattle area for years. I taught in the parks or wherever I could find space. I never really advertised-people usually found out by word of mouth of current students. I used to get chastised by other instructors for teaching for free. I was never into for the money and did not owe money for rent. At the same time never wanted to turn a student away or have a student walk away feeling that if there was a charge for the class that they could not afford to pay.

  14. The school in the photograph is Northwest Wushu, founded and led by Sifu Tianyuan Li. Sifu Li is one of the few recognized female wushu masters – and she has no shame teaching out of a garage. She is m daughter’s kung fu sifu, and she is my tai chi sifu.

  15. This has been a most enjoyable page and topic. Here is a page i will visit again because of the martial fellowship that’s felt in the thread. I started my martial arts training in my parents basement 46 years ago, I’ve done the free/pay community centers for over a decade, and from 2005-2013 a commercial kwoon. Now I’m back home and it feels good. I only take serious students to pass my dedication in the martial arts to. That way what my martial ancestors have given me will live on through me and my students as what my Sifu’ have passed down to me lives on in me.
    Thanks again for a great read.

  16. HI, this is surafel, can you send me same self defense training video

  17. Great Article, love the name Hammerhead Martial Arts! A Matted garage is a great way to learn and train. Great for beginners, or people who just want a break from the politics and nonsense that go on in some commercial studios.

Leave a Reply