A healthy balance between war and peace

The fitness test: Budokon is the perfect blend of yoga and martial arts.

Becky Hart (left), 31, teaches Leah Oatway the budokon "single arm sweep".
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When I received an email from a colleague telling me about a new martial art called budokon I was instantly intrigued. It may sound like a variety of sudoku, but in fact it's a combination of mixed martial arts and yoga, which seemed like the perfect pairing to me, if a little unusual. Martial arts tend to focus a lot on strength and forward motions, leading many practitioners to seek out yoga or something else that offers flexibility and backward movements to even their bodies out.

This, explained Becky Hart, 31, the UAE's first and only qualified budokon instructor, as we prepared for my first lesson at Wafi Pyramids' Cleopatra's fitness club, is why she has taken to the new practice. "It seems to pull together best bits of all the martial arts, including taekwondo, karate-do, jiu-jitsu, capoeira and kung-fu and then uses yoga," said the British expatriate, who has been practising it for four years after more than 18 years of karate experience.

We take to the mats, meditative music playing in the background - not a prerequisite, Hart informs me, but it helps her to concentrate. To start, there are some simple meditative breathing exercises to calm and centre the mind on the hour-long class ahead. A typical class opens with five minutes of breathing exercises followed by a series of yoga-inspired movements, then a series of martial-arts-focused movements including kicks, punches and blocks, before closing with another five minutes of meditative breathing.

The yogic series begins with a variation on the downward dog, which stretches out the hamstrings and calves, achieved by tucking the chin, activating the core and curving the back in a wave-like motion. From there leg movements are introduced, such as raising one leg behind us, then bringing it forward in to the chest, across and under the other leg. It is followed with a graceful, sweeping arm movement that opens up the chest. The leg is then swept back through and up, before returning to downward dog and repeating on the other side.

It takes a while to master the graceful part if you're anything like me and have a problem with co-ordination, but once you grasp the basic movement you have time to work on technique, fluidity and control, and Hart is relaxed and encouraging throughout. There are several more plyometric movements on the floor, designed to increase dynamic and explosive power in your muscles. It doesn't take long for me to break a sweat and I can feel my arms working as I use them not only to balance but also, on several occasions throughout the class, to support my own weight, albeit briefly.

A series of sumo-like squats also gets my thighs burning early on and Hart regularly checks how my wrists are doing because of the amount of time spent bearing down on them. From the ground we move to several standing postures that focus on balance, such as a variation on the yogic "warrior" pose before a couple of movements from the animal series, such as the floating frog where you squat, placing your hands on the floor in front of you, and spring your feet to the outside of your hands in one smooth movement.

The term "mixed martial arts" has, of late, become synonymous with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and cage fighting, but if you're looking for a combination of that and yoga this is not the class for you. While there is an option, Hart tells me, to progress to a level where you can take part in contact sparring and even acquire belts, for the most part this class is non-contact. That doesn't mean it is not challenging, both physically and mentally. It is not difficult to see why those who practise it have good, lean, muscular physiques.

At the end of the session Hart shows me the 10-minute budokon kata - a beautiful and dynamic, fluid series of movements that are almost dance-like in their grace, though as she wipes away the perspiration afterwards and regains her breath she is quick to point out that while many dancers enjoy the class, this is not a dance session. "It provides both a cardiovascular workout, as you can see, and strengthens the body, but when you are first learning it is more about the technique and everything is broken down and slow," she explained. "As you learn more it becomes more of a cardiovascular workout."