Enter the Digital Dragon

ENLARGE Illustration: Dan Matutina

As someone with a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate, I’ve made martial-art training a big part of my life for the past 20 years. I’m equally committed to learning how to do things online. But I’ve always wondered: Is studying karate online a viable option for those who can’t get to a real school?

I’ve known my sensei, a 90-year-old WWII fighter pilot, for almost half of my life. When I asked for his thoughts on this question, his response was swift: “They’ve been doing that for years,” he said. “In the ’80s, they used to sell tapes you could watch, rewind and do whatever the guy on TV was doing.”

But these new online dojos are more interactive, I explained. Students can email an instructor and share video clips demonstrating their grasp of the techniques they’re studying. He acknowledged this step forward but pointed out a weakness. “You’re never going to develop a relationship like you and I have, Mr. Fruhlinger. Plus, who are you going to spar with?”

If you Google “learn karate online,” you’ll encounter a hodgepodge of sometimes-defunct websites and apps. Most I tried have little substance. Some were obvious scams, designed to take the money of those seeking a quick and easy black belt. After extensive research, however, I found three that felt like the real deal. My criteria: an active and responsive sensei, one who cared about the art form, and a curriculum that was easy enough for beginners to jump into.

While they’re no match for studying in person with a sensei, these sites are worth considering if setting foot in a dojo is impossible for you. Just remember: As good as these online schools may be, you’ll still need the discipline to put in the practice required.

For Structure: Global Martial Arts University

The Global Martial Arts University (GMAU) has produced study-at-home martial-arts curricula since the days of VHS. Indeed, with a regularly updated blog and a vast library of instructional videos in Shotokan Karate, Krav Maga, weapons and Tai Chi, the site is the most comprehensive of those I tested.

After signing up for the Shotokan course, I was presented with introductory videos in which Sensei Jon Hodge explained how the testing and belt system worked: I would record a video of myself performing the various moves I learned, upload them to YouTube, then send the school the link.

I endured a pep talk and a video about karate and anxiety (a bit touchy-feely for me). But before long, the virtual instruction began.

There I was, in my home office, mimicking Mr. Hodge as I zenkutsu-dachi-stepped across the room, striking the air and blocking fictional opponents (much to the horror of my cat). I broke a sweat. I almost broke a lamp.

GMAU tracks the hours you’ve studied and practiced, which all count toward a required-training time for each belt. According to the site’s tally, I’d devoted about five hours learning stances, blocks, punches and kicks. (I would need 43 more to test for my yellow belt.) During that time, I received multiple messages from Mr. Hodge. I was able to ask him questions about techniques. He would always respond within 24 hours.

GMAU’s videos sometimes come off as overly technical and repetitious, but they’re manageable and provide a fun at-home karate workout. This is a great way to pick up (or brush up on) Shotokan karate. $30 a month with a 30-day free trial, $75 for each grading, blackbeltathome.com

For a Bargain: WWKA Online Training Centre

The Worldwide Karate Association (WWKA) is run out of England by Sensei John Bryan. Video courses cover stretching, warm-ups, basic techniques and kata (a series of movements). Like the other sites, you watch the videos, follow along and, when you’re ready, record yourself demonstrating techniques for your belt certification. The site isn’t as slick as the others: Videos are lower quality and the web interface isn’t as easy to use, but Mr. Bryan’s explanations are clear and informed.

I spent several hours on my computer or smartphone watching and mimicking Mr. Bryan as he taught his style of Kanzen Ryu Karate. After a few days of practice at home, I felt I was ready to test for Yellow Belt. With my suspicious cat watching, I set up a camera, pushed the couch out of the way and recorded my 33-minute examination. Then I uploaded the video to YouTube, sent Mr. Bryan the link, and paid the $47 fee for my test.

Within 24 hours, Mr. Bryan wrote back. He said it was evident that I’d studied karate before but that I needed to work on the height of my back kicks. Overall, I had done well, however. He passed me and gave me a password to unlock the next level of lessons, which would include more advanced techniques and a kata. I also received a WWKA Karate certificate by email.

Costing just $10 a month—cheaper than most of the sites I found—the WWKA is tough to beat. $10 a month, $47 for each grading, online-karate.com

For Easy-to-Follow Lessons: Karate Academy Online

This site comes out swinging with some pretty aggressive marketing on its home page: “Earn your black belt in just 12 months.” This made me suspicious at first, but the introductory video in which Sensei Mark Roscoe thoughtfully explains the school’s philosophy convinced me to give it a try.

Karate Academy Online was, by far, the easiest of the sites to follow along with. Each lesson includes videos, reading materials and multiple-choice quizzes. Of the many sites I found, it was surprisingly the only one that tested students on the art form’s history and terminology.

I began my study here in the Yellow Belt course, which curiously started with kicking lessons. In karate, you usually start with stances, blocks and maybe strikes, but Mr. Roscoe explained that he starts with kicks to build up core and hip-flexor strength.

Soon enough, however, I had moved on to basic blocks, strikes and the first kata—and reached the end of Yellow Belt training videos in just a couple of hours. The site then prompted me to repeat the lessons for at least a month and submit a video of myself performing the first kata when I was ready.

The site uses what they call a “drip system,” in which more advanced levels only become available after a predetermined amount of time. Even if I submitted a stellar yellow-belt-test video, I would have to wait another three weeks to progress to the next level. It was clear that the school wants you to practice, practice, practice. This approach requires discipline—but that’s essential when studying any martial art. $59 a month or $585 for the entire course through Black Belt, no fee for tests, karateacademyonline.com

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