Merriam-Webster defines martial art as: any of several arts of combat and self-defense (as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.
Reference.com defines martial arts as: any of the traditional forms of Oriental self-defense or combat that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport.
Wikipedia defines martial arts as: codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a variety of reasons: self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, entertainment, as well as mental, physical, and spiritual development.
Of the three choices above the definition that comes closest is the one from Wikipedia. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to quantify and explain in one or two sentences what martial arts is and what martial arts in general represents. In my opinion the cold concise and summarized descriptions available to us really are unable to define the full scope of what martial arts actually are or what a martial art is.
Most systems seem to start with the intention of carrying out specific tasks as an end result. A quick, precise or graceful movement, an exact strike, a redirection of force at the proper moment or a mental fortitude to push the physical beyond the norm. Once you get beyond that original intention you are left with the process of getting to that end result. Have I lost you yet?
The idea of martial arts, any specific art or system goes far beyond any single intention, because the process to achieve that final result, such as throwing a powerful punch, executing an accurate kick or being able withstand someone's attack, becomes a whole new adventure. It’s really a study course on yourself, your physical body, and your mental capability.
This is where those short descriptions, like those at the begining of this article, end up lacking substance and depth. Learning about yourself, your body, its capabilities, and it's limitations can really change your life in many ways. To find how you can utilize the strengths of your physical self and mental self to accomplish precise and intentional movements which carry intentional affects outward to the environment is like researching and then writing a "how to" manual on you.
None of us came with an owner’s manual when we were born, so most of us will go through life never understanding what our bodies can do. Martial arts practice really exposes those capabilities, sometimes, in awesome fashion. But first an individual must embark on a self-discovery mission which calls for self-discipline, confidence, perseverance, and a good attitude.
The practice of many martial art systems requires interaction with other practitioners, and this in turn requires the ability to do so in a respectful manner. So, immediately the study demands respect for others. To begin you must discipline yourself to commit, to continue and to keep your personal behavior and attitude in-check. You must build the confidence to fail so you can eventually succeed and you must develop perseverance in order to not give up over the long haul.
As the practitioner progresses, the art becomes more and more integrated into their life. Thought patterns and behavior might change, physical movement can be refined and the individual’s character could be built up. It’s really quite remarkable to experience these changes first hand. I am of course speaking through personal experience and not theory. Martial arts is way more than a set of systems or a system of movements, it’s the study of oneself with the intention of accomplishing both physical and mental goals.