National Geographic began a study in the early 1970’s wherein they identified global “blue zones”. Blue zones are specific locations that have societies of people that are longer lived, healthier, and more active into old age than the rest of the world.
Recently Dan Buettner, an American explorer and author, created a presentation discussing his research into the National Geographic blue zones. One of the locations he found most intriguing and noteworthy was the small island of Okinawa.
Watch this video as Mr. Buettner discusses his findings on why he believes the Okinawans and a handful of other cultures are so special.
There are multiple locations around the world that feature very interesting groupings of people that have achieved longevity. However, according to Mr. Bueller, Okinawa is considered “ground zero”. They have a complex social system with many built-in habits that lead to longer and healthier lives. I’d like to discuss a few of the points in the video and how they relate to the lifestyle of a martial artist.
Mr. Bueller’s Study In Relevance to Martial Arts
According to Mr. Bueller, the most important keys to longevity are:
- Eating Wisely
- Finding the Right Tribe
- Moving Naturally
- Adopting a Healthy Outlook
Within each of those categories Bueller features an Okinawan concept that achieves the desired results. Let’s look at the Okinawan habits and how they coincide with martial arts practice.
Eating Wisely – Hara Hachi Bu
Okinawans utilize “hara hachi bu”, which is the method of eating until you are 80% full. Similarly, recent western studies have shown that healthy dietary habits involve eating small meals throughout the day, and not eating excessively at any one time. The Okinawan people have found clever ways of maintaining this practice, such as eating off of smaller plates.
For martial artists, filling up the “fuel tank” with proper nutrients is critical to good study. One of the worst contributions Americans (and perhaps westerners in general) have given to the arts is the ‘master’ who is extremely rotund. Many times these portly experts can barely tie their belts around their waists. You might hear pseudo-explanations about these practitioners becoming more Buddha-like in their figure, or that the eastern arts benefit from a lowered center of gravity, but that’s all really fancy ways of avoiding the truth.
The Okinawan diet is heavy in fish, fruits, and vegetables, including the bitter and scary looking Goya:
This kind of diet has helped cultures around the world obtain and retain good health. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that some western conveniences like McDonald’s are slowly starting to creep onto Okinawa, especially in the southern regions. We will have to watch carefully how the longevity and quality-of-life numbers are effected by these changes (some senior karateka I’ve spoken to believe it is already having an effect).
Right Tribe – Moai
The Okinawans have a built-in social network of extremely tight-knit proportions. As technology increases all across the globe, humans are achieving a brand new level of social interaction. Will these online communities simulate the positive effects of Moai, or is something critical missing? We can’t be certain yet.
One thing that is certain is the kind of community that can be built in traditional dojos and study groups. As martial artists grow and train, they become closer and closer. If the group is made up of good people, they can also rely on each other and trust each other.
Moving Naturally – Physical Activity
This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of training. The physical activity in martial arts is extremely healthy as it works the whole body. While weight lifting and running both have very important purposes, activities like kata are demanding on every muscle group in the body. One can get a cardio workout and a tension-muscle workout, not to mention improved balance, fast and slow twitch muscle endurance, and much more.
The “moving naturally” aspect of Bueller’s speech is something I find very interesting. Although some arts like karate and tae kwon do appear to move practitioners toward ‘unnatural’ stances, ultimately they are designed to teach a person how to optimally distribute weight and move from one beneficial position to another. And, with enough practice, they are to be practiced naturally. Other arts, like aikido and tai chi chuan, place an even stronger emphasis on natural body.
Healthy Outlook – Ikigai
One of the biggest revolutions in thought in our time is the changing of emphasis from physical health to mental health in connection to longevity. The effects of negative stress and “inflammation” are cited more and more frequently as the cause of early death and lowered quality of life. One of the most important methods for counteracting that is ikigai, a sense of purpose.
Of course, not every purpose is ikigai. It’s quite possible to be driven and dedicated but without experiencing the true nature of ikigai. Ikigai is something that brings joy and contentment. It fills a person with resolve and a sense of satisfaction in what they are doing. Most of all, it brings happiness. I contend, as I always have here on this website, that martial arts can be that for some people. Or, at the very least, give them the physical and mental tools to find an ikigai in there life, and keep them active enough to continue experiencing it.
I hope everyone had a great holiday and is prepping up for The New Year. I wanted to share with you one Christmas present I received that I thought was pretty super cool:
My sig. other took this ethereal site known as IkigaiWay and turned it into something tangible. This mug swag is pretty hot and is very high quality.
The logo came out really nice, and I was surprised how well it transferred onto the mug. The company she worked worth definitely kept the style and font true to the website.
Did you receive anything cool this year? Perhaps something martial arts related? Let me know!
Martial artists tend to be uniquely attune to the foibles of their body. I, for example, have a finnicky lower back. If I’m not careful with my stretching and prep, I can pull it pretty easily. This isn’t a new problem, just a little piece of my genetic code that didn’t get it quite right.
This particular propensity toward back strain has made me acutely aware of an all too common problem in myself and others – posture neglect.
First let’s talk about me (whooooo), then let’s talk about you.
These days most of my work takes place on the computer. I do my writing for this blog online (clearly), and I work predominantly for online companies. That has resulted in a lot of sitting. In previous jobs during college and such I often had elements of manual labor that kept my body up and moving about. Not so much anymore.
A few months ago my sitting started to effect my training; even though I did proper stretching and warmups before class I was still experiencing back pain. I realized in short order that it wasn’t from any kicking drills or kata, but from how I operated through most of my day.
I pulled my instructor aside and had him run through my day with me mentally. I knew he had some back troubles in the past so I figured he would be able to help me spot common problems and work out solutions. One of the major mistakes I was making was slouching like the man in the picture above. Not only did my body have a natural desire to sink down into that ‘relaxed’ posture, but I also had a chair that leaned back too easily. I was experiencing constant, mild strain on my lower back all day.
My instructor offered up some suggestions, which I’d like to pass on in case they might be helpful to you:
1. Get a better chair. If you’re sitting for long periods of time, there is no reason to tolerate a chair that promotes bad habits.
2. Use ice or heat if your back starts to act up.
3. Lie flat on your bed with your legs hanging off. This will create a slight pulling and straightening sensation.
I made all of these changes immediately, but didn’t stop there.
Esther Gokhale – Posture Expert
Regular readers of this site will notice that I link into the authors@google series frequently. I think it’s a great resource wherein some really sharp people share their experiences and knowledge.
Esther Gokhale was one of the visitors to Google and, as it turns out, has been studying posture for quite some time. She even authored a book entitled 8 Steps to A Pain Free Back. Gokhale mixes western science with eastern yogic theory and has come up with a great system. Check out her speech here:
Gokhale provides immediately applicable ways of improving posture. I use her method of seated posture correction everyday. My body still tends to want to slouch, so I need to make routine corrections. It’s an ongoing effort.
One of Gokhale’s big theories is proper stacking. Consider this image:
During normal slouching postures, the spine and weight distribution is out of sync. This is a tricky problem because it doesn’t provide immediate negative feedback, like touching a hot stove. Instead it builds pressure over time and slowly wears away at the cartilage between the spinal discs. Although I’ve focused on sitting, these same principles apply to standing, especially for individuals who have a job that requires being up all day.
How This Applies To Your Martial Arts
The obvious way posture applies to your martial arts practice is good health. One of the biggest career killers is physical ailment. We have to try our best to stave off these injuries, and one way to do that is to be mindful of posture. The spine is a fickle thing, and if you don’t take care of it you will run into trouble.
Posture isn’t just a means of standing though; it’s also a way to convey your personal sense of presence and power.
In his book “Living The Martial Way”, Forrest Morgan dedicates a few pages to the concept of ‘developing a commanding posture’. He explains:
“Some say the eyes are windows to the soul. This may be true, but posture is most assuredly the reflection of one’s spirit. It tells a story, more eloquently than words ever could, of your strength, your resolve, and your confidence. Posture is an essential element of warrior bearing.”
In the dojo, especially if you are assuming a teaching role, it is critical to adopt the mantle of authority. Posture provides a subtle, subconscious hint to everyone in the room that you are worth listening to. A tall stance and keen look can go a long way in capturing the attention of students.
On the student side, proper posture indicates a willingness to commit to excellence. Slouching is a sign of inattentiveness and lack of resolve. Standing up straight suggests focus, which is the currency of the dojo.
Practicing good posture will also assist in natural body movement. The more you practice, the more you’ll realize the subtleties of body weight shifting. If you have to recenter your body every time you wish to move, you’ll be at an immediate timing disadvantage.
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My goal is to be able to continue practicing martial arts deep into old age. If I abuse my body now, I’ll never have that chance. I personally need to take posture very seriously. Perhaps you can take a moment today and figure out if you need improvement, and use some of the information above to start on a modestly paced track for positive change.