One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.
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 yearofbruce.com.
The Science Behind the Benefits of Martial Arts Training
As 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”
In 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).
These 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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We have a great question today from Nicholas regarding wellness and diet:
Most of us as martial artists practice arts that come from east Asian countries. For the sake of performance, do you think that our diet should mirror as closely as possible the diets from the region of our respective art? Obviously, eating Sheppard’s pie before a training session might not end so well, but do you think diets deemed ‘healthy’ by Western standards really lend themselves to maximum performance in a discipline that is not?
Here’s my take on it:
I’ve always believed that the wider the understanding of an art the better a practitioner can express it. There are subtle factors that go into the growth of a traditional art that are built on generations of ritual and cultural subtext. It may seem that learning an art (say karate for example) shouldn’t involve much more than punching, kicking, kata, and fighting. Yet the expressions found in those kata, and the methods of movement, have foundational cues that are informed by the rest of the surrounding culture.
In karate, you’ll often hear terms like “low block” and “augmented block” for fundamental movements. However, if you look at the Japanese term for low block it is “gedan barai”, which is better translated as “lower level sweep”. True, Gedan Barai could be a block but it could also be much more. Understanding the language in this instance hints at the bigger picture for a seemingly open-and-shut case of technique execution. “Augmented block” is even more interesting. The Okinawans had a term for it known as “meotode”, meaning “husband and wife hand”. Without getting far off topic, let’s just say that meotode as a concept has little to do with augmenting a block, and somewhere along the line the real context got lost in translation.
Diet fits into this puzzle in a similar way.
In his book “My Journey with the Grandmaster”, Bill Hayes Sensei discusses dinner at Shimabukuro Eizo’s house (his instructor on Okinawa). After an evening of training Shimabukuro Sensei and Hayes Sensei would occassionally retire to the kitchen where they were greeted by Mrs. Shimabukuro, who would ask them what kind of training they had done that day. Depending on the intensity, method, and duration of the training Mrs. Shimabukuro would concoct different meals. The intent of her meals was to directly counteract negative effects of the day’s training.
Most people don’t think of diet as a direct part of their training program. They realize that eating healthy is good and eating fast food is bad, but don’t go too far beyond that. In an art like karate the body can be intentionally (or unintentionally) degraded in certain ways using vital point striking, joint locking, percussive striking, etc. Some of the old Okinawan masters had developed an attuned eye for the effects of herbs and natural pharmacopia on the body. They then used natural resources at hand to help aid the body in withstanding the specific rigors of karate training.
As you might imagine, practitioners like Bill Hayes gained a significant advantage by paying attention to these seemingly mundane details.
Hayes Sensei did something else important – he investigated dietary science even after leaving Okinawa. When he got back to the United States it became evident that the day-to-day diet of the Okinawans was going to be extremely difficult and expensive to maintain. Instead of reverting back to a standard American diet (a trap many of the American GI’s fell into) Hayes Sensei decided to study how he might use supplements and healthly local foods to replicate the specific effects of the strategic Okinawan meals as prepared by Mrs. Shimabukuro. He attempted to find Western equivalents of things like the Okinawan Goya, which was an extremely bitter vegetable that happened to be jam packed with antioxidants.
In Hayes Sensei’s story we see both sides of the answer to this particular question.
Should practitioners adopt the diet of the home country of their art? Potentially yes. The diet may have been specifically suited to enhance the art in question. Furthermore, countries like Okinawa and Japan naturally have more foods that are known to be extremely healthy – things like fish, vegetables, green tea, etc.
That being said, Eastern diet isn’t a unique and unreplicatable necessity for understanding a traditional art and can be replaced but smart Western eating. Science is starting to unlock some of the secrets of nutrition and a healthy, balanced diet can be established using more Western means.
I think perhaps the most important takeaway here is lining up training intent with dietary action. Going to GNC and loading up on Muscle Milk and Creotine may help a person achieve a bulky, muscular body that appeals to Western eyes but such body development is hardly ideal for classical martial arts training where flexibility, fast twitch muscles, and balanced physique is desireable. Furthermore, a one-size-fits-all diet plan for general health (lots of veggies, water, low sugars, etc) is a good starting place for any martial artist but doesn’t take into consideration the specific kinds of damage the body may go through in a particular art. In that way, observing that art’s classical diet may prove informative.
Lastly, looking at global blue zones like Okinawa, Sardinia, Icaria, and Loma Linda can help provide a basis of understanding for good longevity. Studying these places can provide ideas for integrating dietary decisions from different parts of the world with indigenous diet to form a personalized and effective wellness regiment.