Health and Wellness
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The Science Behind the Benefits of Martial Arts Training

This is the second article in Reader Week II. Author Jason Knight is a Nidan in Washin-Ryu Karate-do with the Pacific Martial Arts Federation. He holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling where he studied the psychological benefits of martial arts training. He has developed karate programs for non-profits and school districts focusing on character development throughout San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. He continues this work in his dojo in Los Angeles and writes about personal transformation through karate-do training in his blog


The Science Behind the Benefits of Martial Arts Training

mental healthAs martial artists, many of us are familiar with Eastern philosophical descriptions of the benefits of martial arts training. Just as Western medicine has begun research into understanding the possible benefits of Eastern medicine, Western research psychology has begun to investigate the possible benefits of Eastern approaches to psychological health due to the tendency to focus on preventative mental health as opposed to waiting until problems become visible and more entrenched. In traditional Japanese culture, this would often take the form of parents recruiting an adult role model who would lead their child on a path of learning involving a traditional art. These arts have included iaido, ikebana, chado, and karate-do (Suzuki, 1970).

Seeking to understand the benefits of the martial arts, Western research in disciplines including education, psychology, and sports psychology have begun to explore how the martial arts can effect mental wellness. Alan James and Richard Jones (1982) were among the first researchers to describe the benefits of karate-do as a means of cultural development. In their research they describe how through karate-do’s systematic form of training, individuals go through a process of acquiring a new social identity and consequently begin to absorb the dojo’s belief system. The authors discuss character development along two processes: physical and mental (pg. 343):

“An important accomplishment of many novice karatika comes from pushing the body through a sequence of strenuous physical exercises … By pushing the body to the limits and beyond, the karatika becomes aware of an inner strength, and gains the confidence in being able to perform exercises previously regarded as impossible … Increased fitness and suppleness, an awareness of what has been achieved on the physical plane, penetrates the psychological make-up of the karatika and contributes to the emergence of a new, confident self-image.”

In this case, the authors describe the process as pushing the body in order to develop physical awareness, which in turn will improve psychological awareness. As a result of this new self-image, the authors describe a state of preparedness “which is expressed in the normative expectation that once a karatika enters the dojo he becomes and remains, fully alert and prepared … (involving) concentration on one’s own efforts and ignoring everything else” (p 343). The authors further state, “In time, longer and more intense periods of concentration (occur), thereby enhancing self-confidence and diminishing self-consciousness” (p. 244).

Schmidt (1982) describes martial arts training, as it is thought of in Japan, as philosophical education. This training unfolds as a process that emerges from the relationship between the student and Sensei and progresses in a predictable way. The author explains further (p. 71):

“Reflective of the Zen method of training, the emphasis is on a non-verbalized, intuitive approach, rather than intellection … It is the total involvement of one’s physical and mental powers to unceasingly struggle for a solution to a problem.”

In the above statement, the problem can be conceptualized as the attempt for perfection, while the struggle could be conceptualized as a progressively increasing set of goals. The author further describes how this training develops across four stages: gyo, shugyo, jutsu, and do (p. 72):

“The gyo, or introductory, stage represents the initial level of training, where the Budoka, is introduced to his chosen martial art, its customs and etiquette, his teachers and senseis, as well as his training hall, the dojo. The trainee learns that budo techniques must be practiced assiduously. At this level, training is a process of trial and error. (At the shugyo stage), the trainee attempts to reproduce the actions of the master teacher. … The master teacher presents the trainee with physical koans (kata in karate-do), which force the trainee to solve the various conceptual problems associated with this particular art. (At the jutsu level), the trainee has acquired a mastery of basic skills but still senses an incompleteness in the techniques. Movements once requiring conscious thought processes are now fully internalized and executed automatically. At the do stage, training becomes an ‘artless’ art where the expert, who has transcended the outer forms, is both master of himself and the art.”

Additionally, Kauz (1977) explains (pg. 83):

“The intention is to learn to focus the conscious mind on something other than our everyday concerns, which usually receive its exclusive attention. Moreover, the students attempt to maintain their focus for longer and longer periods of time, undistracted by intruding thoughts or sensations (italics added).”

Weiser, Kutz, Jaconsen, and Weiser (1995) describe martial arts training as a more effective psychotherapy (pg. 123):

“The physical learning through the nonverbal exercises of the martial arts can improve mental health. It fosters recognition of the integration of mind and body, teaches practitioners to relax, to focus, to communicate, to persevere, and to be self-aware and self-accepting, while striving for improvement. In addition, it emphasizes minimizing fear and anger in order to maximize focus and concentration.”

Improved Attention Through “Flow”

risuke_otakeIn researching elite-level athletes and entrepreneurs, Csikszentmihalyi (1990), appears to have discovered individuals who are highly adept at seeking out and creating ‘do’ experiences in their lives. He called this process “flow” based on the subjective report of feeling “in the flow” described by many of the subjects that he had studied. He describes a phenomenon that occurs with many elite individuals whether through rock climbing or running a Fortune 500 company. When engaged in the activity in which they had achieved an elite status, these individuals described the following psychological processes:

“A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over. … Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. … People are willing to do (a flow activity) for it’s own sake.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 71)

This definition describes how flow is essentially the experience of a participant in a specific type of activity that provides rules, structure that can facilitate growth, and is action oriented. The psychological effect of an activity such as this can be quite profound for the participant and can include the psychological processes described below.

Challenge-skill balance is characterized by the perception of a balance between situational challenges and individual skills.

Unambiguous feedback can be described as clear, immediate feedback regarding the activity.

Action-awareness merging is characterized by the participant’s deep involvement in the activity so that it becomes “spontaneous or automatic” (Jackson and Marsh, 1996, pp. 18-19).

Total concentration in the activity is one aspect of the flow experience, which “leaves no room in the mind for irrelevant information” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 58).

A sense of exercising control can be experienced in the flow process, without consciously thinking about exerting control over the self. The action of the activity dominates consciousness and the sense of the independent self can be lost.

The participant may have a perception that time feels either slower or faster, or time may feel absent from consciousness as objective time is superceded “by the rhythms dictated by the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 66, 1990).

Zen MeditationThese flow states appear to be quite similar to the state that is described as mushin (“no-mind”) in Zen Buddhist philosophy. When an individual is involved in a do-zen activity it has been described as feeling like one is moving automatically without will (flow state of action-awareness merging), with single-pointed concentration (flow state of total concentration), feeling totally in control of oneself and indeed one’s opponent (flow state of sense of exercising control), and feeling as if no time had passed (flow state of time feeling slower or faster).

It is through developing these heightened awarenesses that karate-do students may develop increased concentration and develop a sense of calmness, relaxation, and freedom from agitation (Columbus & Rice, 1998). It has even been postulated that juvenile delinquency may be a result of a lack of flow or do-zen experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 69):

“Much of what has been labeled juvenile delinquency—car theft, vandalism, rowdy behavior in general—is motivated by the need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges, and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, we must expect that violence and crime will attract those who cannot find their way to a more complex autotelic (self-directed flow) experience.”

This is, of course, a process of development that involves a lifetime of training and involves many experiences, but is an attempt nonetheless to explore how traditional martial arts training aids in character development. This article highlights that if actions are continuously repeated in slow progression toward mastery until actions and thinking become spontaneous, major benefits occur. In Zen philosophy, spontaneous action is the natural state that allows the mentally unencumbered individual to act in a continuously tranquil, yet powerful manner. This is the ultimate desired outcome and has natural ramifications for positive mental health.


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