There's a lot to be said for a class environment. If you've got a competitive personality like me, it's a great way to stay motivated. Plus you get to kick things. What's cooler than that?
...I kid. The kicking things is really secondary to the class culture and philosophy.
The biggest problem with getting in to martial arts is that there are, frankly, a lot of horrifically bad schools out there that just want to suck money out of you. I was really lucky to find my school (Shao Lin Hung Mei Kung Fu) when I did. They're a non-profit. That's pretty unusual in the realm of martial arts schools, though.
These are what I consider to be the five major red flags:
- The money: Classes can be expensive, but there's expensive and there's "you're out of your fucking mind." I pay $45 per month for up to four lessons per week; that's for a non-profit. When I was looking around for schools previously, there were some that were running $250-$300 per week, which is insane. Even if the lessons themselves seem reasonable, check to see what else your school might require you to buy. Are uniforms really expensive and required? Do you have to buy weapons? What fees do they charge for testing for advancement, and how often will you be expected to advance?
- Is it a "belt factory?" That's a term you'll hear get tossed around pretty often as a way to dismiss really crappy, money-grubbing schools. It's normally a bad sign if there are a zillion of different belt colors, and even worse if testing for them is on a set schedule - and you have to pay a lot of fees. You should not be guaranteed any kind of belt in any set amount of time. (eg: Black belt in six months!) Everyone learns at a very different pace. And this is the thing about belts. They're nice. They're an accomplishment, an outward sign of your advancing knowledge within the art. But they should not be the point of the school. If you feel like there's a lot of emphasis being placed on belts and rankings, be wary.
- What's the ancestry? A good teacher should know his lineage (as in, who taught his master, who taught his master's master, etc) back at least three generations.
- Are they teaching the kitchen sink? I've seen a lot of schools that advertise that they teach Judo and Jiujutsu and Karate and Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Yikes. Unless you're specifically looking for something more mixed (and if you want MMA that's a whole other thing I know nothing about) I'd recommend caution. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to get good at even one style. Trust me, trying to go from some form of, say, kung fu to tai chi is not easy, and unless you have a good understanding of the first style before moving on to the second, you're just going to end up learning a lot of stuff badly.
- Are they using 'kung fu' as a catch-all? This is one that really drives me nuts since I've been learning a style of Shao Lin kung fu, but it's not something most people will necessarily know. There are five major families of Shao Lin kung fu (Hung, Liu, Cai, Li, Mok) and each of those families has sub-groups within it. They're all very, very different. If someone is advertising that they're teaching Hung Mei or Hung Gar, that's good. If it's just generic "kung fu" that doesn't mean they're necessarily going to be bad, but it means you likely won't be getting the more traditional art. So you need to decide if that's important.