Classical Martial Arts

An Eastern Inspired Path to Wellness and Empowerment

After being on the road for ten months and doing only sporadic training, I am back into my regular martial arts routine, and what a joy it is! Most people know about the health and wellness benefits of yoga, but few are aware of the benefits of another Eastern tradition: classical martial arts training.

Before I started seriously training eight years ago, I was like many women who pictured karate as a “sport” for teens or twenty to thirty-something men, like my two younger brothers who practiced it. I had dabbled in yoga over the years and taken a few continuing education classes in tae kwon do and karate, but saw them as means of exercising, not much different than the aerobics classes that I loved to attend.

It was only when I started doing classical martial arts training in a dojo (a place of the way or centre of spiritual enlightenment, or a school of martial arts) that I began to understand what was meant by “training” as opposed to taking yet another fitness program that lasted about as long as it took me to get bored of it.  It was this idea of training, of progressive improvement towards a goal, the goal being mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being, that has allowed me to “stick with the program” and to reap some of the rewards.

Back in the days when I was an undergraduate student in Genetics, I was the studious keener who got good grades because I spent lots and lots of time studying – sitting in front of books, typewriters and later my computer. My diet wasn’t all that great and I loved to reward myself for all my hard work with yummy goodies, so needless to say I was few pounds over weight. This had been my pattern since high school. Being an achievement oriented person that came from a family and a culture that sweated the small stuff, I had learned to push myself to the max and to really stress myself out at exam times, when I had to do a presentation, or whenever I found myself in a time crunch. Trying to do more was always better.

The aerobics classes I took during my undergrad years and the dance and yoga I did in grad school helped to reduce my stress and maintain my weight, but I never really lost weight and my lung capacity was not the best. Furthermore, when the time crunch arrived, the first thing to go was the exercise. My stressed out mind would always tell me that I didn’t have time for it!

When I was working full time and finishing up a doctorate in environmental studies, the stress of work and school and the bodily fluctuations of peri-menopause began to catch up with me in the form of more and more sleepless nights and less and less energy. One day I walked into a dojo that I had passed almost every day for four months since I started working in the area and it changed my life, or maybe saved my life.  I was 39 when I began training. I was, at the time, one of the older beginners in my dojo.  At first I started doing Tai Chi because I wanted to relax and the truth was that even though I had been working in health education and health promotion for years and knew all the theories, I was still not fully applying them to my life.

In fact, overachiever that I was, it took me twice as long to get things as some of the other people who started at the same time, but already know how to really relax and go with the flow.  I was so busy trying to “get it”, to figure out how to move like the black belts and instructors, that I didn’t really tune in to the thing that was so different from all those aerobics classes, dance classes and hours at the gym – the flow of chi or vital energy in my body, the importance of my breath and that present moment awareness. I hadn’t yet learned that less can be more – less thought and slower movement.

It was three years into my tai chi training that I really began to be able to go with the flow of my energy and the energy of the chi field created when a group of like minded people are focusing on the same movements at the same time with the same intent. It took me three years of focusing my intent on feeling the energy in the movements. I went from practising twice a week, then three times a week, then daily to let go of my need to always be right and to always know what I was doing. I finally started learning not to sweat the small stuff.  As I practiced tai chi chuan and ghi gung regularly and with intent, I learned to be more relaxed, not only while I was training but at work and in my studies.

In my early 40s, after a lifetime as a type A worrywart, I was learning to develop inner peace. Once I began to feel the chi, I understood in an experiential way, not in a theoretical way, that there was a flow and a harmony to the Universe. There were forces greater than myself that I could not comprehend or begin to understand, but which I could tune into if I slowed down and quieted my mind.

Research on Tai chi has found that it increases focus and mental concentration, enhances circulation and helps to balance the functioning of the internal organs, promotes proper posture and helps to calm the mind. My experiential knowledge has corroborated these studies. Through my training I learned to pay attention to my breath and in times of stress, how to co-ordinate my breathing with my movement. On a more spiritual note, the meditation and inner exploration taught me how to connect to our inner self and to become a more balanced and whole person.  Tai chi had started me down an incredible path towards mental, emotional and physical wellness.

After training in tai chi for a couple of years I became interested in Iaido, Japanese sword, and began to train in that as well. There is a hardness and a rigidity to iaido that is so different from the softer more internal martial arts, yet there is also a grace and flow to the movement. It is similar to tai chi and chi gung, and requires an incredible attention to detail as one repeats the 12 cuts, over and over and over again, ever refining the detail of the body movement.

I had always been an ideas person, a big picture kind of gal, and the detail and repetition of iaido combined with what I was learning from my tai chi training forced me to focus my attention and allowed me to begin developing a more zen-like mind, one that could focus on many details at the same time, even in stressful conditions. When I had reached a basic level of proficiency in tai chi and iaido, and was exposed to kobudo and goju-ryu karate at a dojo seminar, my enquiring mind, wanted more. I started with kobudo and later added karate to my plate.

Both kobudo and karate are more external arts, which focus methods of formation of power and on expressing one’s internal power. I found them both physically more demanding than tai chi, chi-gung or iaido, but my solid footing in meditative movement that I had developed through my tai chi practice was to serve me well as I ramped up into a more physical martial practice. While I was not training as many hours in each of the arts as many of my dojo colleagues who focused on one art or the other, there was an element of cross-training that benefited all my arts and the chi or energy development was common to all.

Training is indeed training, and learning to integrate the hard and the soft elements of the different arts has taught me valuable lessons for everyday life. When I finally learned to apply various principles from each of martial art to the realm of everyday life, I was better at making spontaneous decisions, at interacting with difficult people, diffusing potentially challenging situations and at maintaining a positive mental attitude.

My one mistake with my training was that in spending a lot of time in the dojo (up to 18 hours a week), I had given up the daily home-based practice I had developed in earlier years. I would learn how important the personal practice aspect of martial arts training was when I went on the road.

Over the past ten months I have been travelling in the US and Mexico. Although I started off with great intent, after a while my regular practice diminished and I found myself only training periodically. Physically, my body has felt the effects and this recent respite has allowed me to see really clearly what I was getting from my regular martial arts training. As a form of physical exercise, martial arts training in a dojo is not only an active individual practice, but also a social endeavour. It involves aerobic conditioning through cardiovascular exercises that work the muscles and help practitioners to develop strength, speed, balance, coordination, awareness, stamina and endurance. I lost a lot of this during my hiatus, though it happened so slowly that I didn’t really notice until I entered a heritage run sponsored by the American Indians in Texas and found that not only had I gained back much of the weight I had lost through consistent training, but my lung capacity was nowhere near what it was when I was training and my endurance had rapidly declined in less than a year of not training regularly.

My poor placement in that race made me reflect on what I had been missing over the past months. I had the technology. I know more katas, chi gung exercises and tai chi sets than I can shake a stick at. I had assisted and taught kobudo, tai chi and karate classes for several years. But despite my commitment to my physical health, the social environment that the dojo provided me was not there. Gone was the comraderie of the two women who had gone from white to orange belt in karate with me. Gone was the cohesiveness of the group of six, five guys and myself, who had graded for shodan together, and assisted each other with difficult moves and combinations. Gone was the spiritual bantering with the other tai chi instructors. I slacked off.

However, my time away has taught me how valuable my training has been. While in Arizona I found an Aikido dojo, and began learning a new form of healing chi gung. I realized that the variety of movements and exercises we do in the different martial arts I practice are not only beneficial for health and fitness, but they also kept my mind (which seems to require a lot of change and stimulus) from getting bored with the same old routine.

A few years ago I read a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM, 2004: 143-147) and can now attest that my experiential knowledge substantiates what they found, which is that martial arts training is a complete form of exercise which decreases body fat and promotes physical strength and flexibility in middle aged practitioners. Over the years the constant challenge of moving from one belt to another has helped me boost my confidence and my self-esteem in a way that none of my many academic achievements did. It taught me how to take control of my life and not let circumstances control me or stress me out. Martial arts training has been a path to empowerment for me where I have learned important lessons about energy, vital life force and mostly about power and methods of formation of power.

As an academic, I lived in my head and spent most of my time out of touch with my body.  Martial arts training showed me how to tap into my internal power as well as how and when to externalize that power. I learned how to be assertive and balance that assertiveness with a sense of respect for myself and for others, something assertiveness training workshops never quite managed to do. It showed me tactics and tactical thinking and gave me the confidence to avoid conflicts and provided me with methods of conflict resolutions when conflicts arise.

As well as techniques for avoiding conflict, I gained the confidence which allowed me to go off and travel for ten months, putting my life in the hands of various people I didn’t know and hanging out in places I knew little about. The ability to just jump off the cliff and know you will be taken care of is a really valuable asset to have in one’s mental health and wellness toolkit.  These lessons I learned from my years of martial arts training about present moment awareness, living in the now, being confident, resolving conflicts, and knowing how and when to defend myself are mind-body wellness tools that are particularly importance to women, but also to men, living, working and travelling in our increasingly complex and chaotic world.

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