Ask any martial artist and they will probably tell you that the most prestigious or coveted belt is the black belt. And it’s no surprise that this is the case. Most martial arts disciplines require anywhere between 3-10 years of continuous training to earn a black belt. That’s no small feat. As worthy as the black belt is of being held in such high regard, there’s another belt that is equally as important, if not more so…and it may not be what you think.
The most important belt in the martial arts is the white belt.
Wait, what? The lowest ranking belt is the most important? How can that even be true. Allow us to elaborate.
The martial arts is a practice rich in history and tradition. During the earliest days, a student of the martial arts put on a white belt for two important reasons. 1. To hold their pants up (yes, really). 2. To symbolize a new beginning.
Interestingly, while in some cultures the color white symbolizes purity, in Japanese tradition, it actually also symbolizes death. You see, when a student approached a martial arts master they wanted to train under, they were expected to leave their previous life behind to pursue something more. If the master accepted them as a student, they would tie a piece of white cloth around their waist to represent the death of the old self and the start of their new training and way of life.
Stories are told of how over time, the white cloth would change colors from the sweat, dirt, and even blood that would get on it during training. Eventually the white cloth would become so dirty, it would look closer to black than white. Because of this, the belt was held in very high regard as it was the visual representation of a students progress in their training and development. Great care was taken to ensure that belts were properly folded and stored when not in use. It was seen as highly disrespectful to place the belt on the ground since any discoloration on the belt had to be earned through training.
Many traditional and modern styles still incorporate belt rank colors in their disciplines. While every style has their own rank/color order and meaning, some of the most popular traditions base their color progression on the new life of a flower as follows:
- White– new beginning, innocence, purity
- Yellow– the seed
- Green– the stalk
- Purple– the flower
- Blue– the sky
- Red– danger
- Black– maturity
Regardless of what color belts your martial arts style uses, the most important aspect is that there is a clear and visible way to measure your progress. There often comes a time in every martial artist’s journey where they doubt themselves, even briefly.
Progress isn’t always linear.
Sometimes we don’t live up to our own expectations. Sometimes we regress into old habits that don’t serve our new goals. Fortunately, as martial artists, we know to expect these kinds of obstacles in life. We train to persevere through these obstacles and choose to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if and when our steps are less than stable.
During challenging moments like these, our belts offer a visual and physical reassurance that while we may not be perfect, we have made progress. And it all started when we made the decision to pursue a different way of life, with a different community of like-minded people…to say “yes” to transformation and growth, by receiving our white belt. So, we dust ourselves off, we tie on our current belt, and we begin again.
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