Covid-19 swept across the world in a flash. Cities and countries quickly got overwhelmed. Schools, events and small businesses shut down and for the first time in history the world acted as one and stayed home.

Martial Arts Schools were some of the first businesses to realize the danger and close. The nature of these schools inherently requires congregation and for now, that is off-limits. With a near ubiquitous unison that closely mirrored the collective action of the rest of the world, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, MMA, Karate, Tae Kwon Do and many more types of schools shut down.

Like most brick-and-mortar small business, shutting down, even for a month or two could spell disaster. My own school, OpenMat MMA in Toronto was one of the first to heed the call. Indeed, it has been a difficult time.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on the value of the martial arts academy in modern society. There are a number of vital social functions these schools serve that should not only not be overlooked, but might well be integral to the continued flourishing of a strong, healthy, connected society.

One could speak endlessly about the benefits of martial arts training, from health and fitness to confidence and one’s ability to protect themselves and their family, earning a sense of accomplishment, developing grit, a sharper mind and even meaningful connection.

It’s this last part that we should consider. As the world becomes increasingly secular and more and more people refrain from joining temples, churches and synagogues, there are subtle benefits lost. These places of worship were not just places to celebrate deities, but, in a sense, to celebrate each other.

Martial arts schools facilitate secular congregation.

Congregating, the coming together of people, is a vital social function that nurtures and nourishes community. Speaking, listening, laughing — just being around others. One of the things that makes the current stay-at-home movement so challenging is that modern Western society is already submerged in a flood of loneliness. While we evolved as social creatures living in families and tribes, the modern professional often either lives alone or is so overloaded with gadgets, notifications and other distractions that even those of us with partners, children and other forms of family are often disconnected from them.

A conversation might change someone’s day.

In the martial arts school, those distractions stop. We bow onto a mat or into a class not just to pay homage to the space and its people, but to enter another space, internally. We put on a whole different set of clothes, put the phones and tablets away and for one or two hours, immerse ourselves in another world. Many call Jiu-Jitsu, for example, active meditation. But unlike meditation, you are not alone. In the dojo, academy, school or simply gym, you are part of a group of people who regularly go out of their way to learn, push and grow. You not only get lifted up by others, equally if not more valuable, in time you get the opportunity to lift others.

For those new to a city or town, it is a chance to quickly develop a sense of belonging, a network, and even grow new roots. Countless marriages had their start on the mats.

But it’s now, in the age of a pandemic when we see the real value of a martial arts academy.

These pocket communities that were so regularly used to connecting physically in order to make each other tougher are now forced apart. Or, rather, they would be if not for the one thing that ironically causes so many of us to disconnect — the internet.

Through the internet, these communities of athletes, philosophers and warrior friends have come together to cheer on, support and buoy each other through this challenging time. Many instructors who are white belts with technology are quickly pivoting to video calls, webinars and live classes in order to maintain their connection with their students. They are showing leadership by exuding the principles they teach — perseverance, determination to win, work ethic and an open mind.

A brand new student who had recently moved from another country, tried a class and quickly fell in love with BJJ. Almost immediately, things shut down. A week or two later, I was calling students to check in and found out she had gotten quite sick (with something completely unrelated to coronavirus) and, not having OHIP coverage, ended up with a huge medical bill. At this stage, young, unwell and in a foreign country, this could be seriously damaging. One of the most powerful benefits of a martial arts school Is the network it brings together. Everyone from front line workers and medical professionals to students, those between jobs, executives, university professors, first responders and entrepreneurs.

Inquiring in my instructor WhatsApp group, which happens to include a doctor, a professor of public health and health inspector, the doctor sent a link that I passed on. This was the exchange.

A conversation might change someone’s day.

This is just one of countless examples of community impacting someone’s life in a meaningful way — in my school, alone.

The martial arts school is a space for people to congregate, connect, learn, challenge and grow together, independent of the things that normally divide us — or the things that used to unite us, religions, background, nationality, etc.

Not only does the martial arts school help us become tougher, which might be vital in coming years, it helps us not need to be as tough because it nests us in a web of tough people. One pencil is easy to break. One dozen, much less so.

Though no school or instructor is perfect and there may be things we don’t get in a martial arts academy, nonetheless, as an institution, it is a vital, empowering new secular church of health, fitness, strategy, community and personal development.

If, as the world reassembles itself, we have any say in what it will look like after things settle down, perhaps we should consider insisting that in whatever form makes sense, the marital arts school both survives and thrives.