Mindfulness and Martial Arts
Mindfulness is one of the goals of martial arts. It’s an ongoing practice that we learn and improve the longer we’re in the dojo. Martial arts and even kickboxing have been quickly pushed into the category of gym or fitness centre. The physical aspect of the practice, the strength, is often emphasized but anyone who’s been inside the dojo would know, there is a mental strength that is also needed, cultivated and grown through a martial arts practice.
Mindfulness is becoming a keyword, a fad, a meme even. However, it’s power and legitimacy as a practice should not be underrated or pushed to the side. Many are unaware of or haven’t explored the difference between mindfulness and meditation yet. You may not have a formal, sit down, meditation practice but you probably have practiced a form of mindfulness at some point in your life.
I think the opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. So to be mindful is to be intentional about where our mind is. This means focusing on your current task or the present moment, and being aware of your thoughts and feelings. This is not an easy task.
We have all had those moments where we start walking or driving to a destination and once we arrive we realize that we don’t remember anything that happened along the way. This is exactly what happens when we live in a state of mindlessness rather than a state of mindfulness. When we are not mindful we run the risk of missing out on the present moment and even missing out on our lives. This is why it is so important to embrace the practice of mindfulness, in karate we do this in various ways:
Stillness and Visualization
We begin class with our eyes closed kneeling in rows in front of our sensei. Sometimes these moments are silent and other times our sensei will guide us through them. Sometimes we visualize what we want the next 45 minutes to look like and other times we sit in silence. Then, we bow to our sensei and class begins. These valuable moments are a physical reminder of the transition from the rest of our life into our time in the dojo. It is a reminder that we showed up, and that we are intentionally taking this next 45 minutes of our day to work on improving ourselves, which gives us more space to improve the lives of others. In these moments that we sit with ourselves we begin to observe our thoughts, wants and dislikes. We can begin to see who we are and who we want to be. By taking the time to check in with ourselves we practice the art of mindfulness and the art of karate.
Whether we are practicing our basic stances or our advanced katas, there is always an anchor for our thoughts. That anchor is our breath. With every movement, we use the power of our breath to move our bodies as fast and efficiently as possible. This is a moving meditation.
Focus and Discipline
Whether we are working towards our next stripe, our next belt, or even our first class as a leader, we continuously set goals and intentionally create time and space to work towards achieving them. We commit to improving ourselves indeterminately, to constantly becoming the best person we can be and sharing that progress with others. Sometimes the progress is made just by showing up!
When we connect with other students in the dojo it is always in a way that requires being in the present moment. Whether we are stretching our partner or striking our partner, we have to maintain control and precision. We cannot hurt our partner. What happens when we are mindlessly holding a kicking pad for our partner is almost a metaphor for what happens when we mindlessly walk through life. We get kicked or we trip. These intentional interactions are practice for the intentional interactions we will benefit from outside of the dojo.
Recognizing the Privilege to Practice
I think the key way you can really benefit from mindfulness in martial arts is by recognizing the privilege we have to practice this art in the first place. To be able to focus on not only our extrinsic needs like food and shelter but our intrinsic needs like self-improvement is a privilege that not everyone in this modern world can say they have. To recognize our privilege to practice karate is to recognize our place in the world. This is self-awareness. This can help you live in the present moment and understand the value of your practice and access to a space like the dojo.
So, how can you take mindfulness outside of the dojo? In exactly the same way you practice it in the dojo! Through stillness, visualization, breath work, focus and discipline. Through practicing intentionality, awareness and gratitude. Here are some actionable ways to add more mindfulness to your day.
- Set aside time to be still. To breath. To observe your thoughts and feelings. This doesn’t have to be a long time. A few moments after you wake up to take some deep breaths is a great start to a more mindful day.
- Try some online guided meditations. Master John is a big fan of Gabby Bernstein. She has tons of different guided meditations to follow along to. This is helpful if you find the initial silence of stillness to be unbearable.
- Practice your katas at home! This one definitely has Master John’s stamp of approval on it. All of our katas are on youtube if you haven’t yet nailed down the movements. Taking time to practice intentional movement like katas will not only improve your performance in karate class, but it will ensure you’re practicing mindfulness daily.
- When you notice your mind is racing or wandering throughout the day, try asking yourself “am I being mindful right now?”. This is only possible if you can recognize when you’re not being mindful and that can be challenging. However, this is a powerful tool to check yourself back into the present moment.
- Practice gratitude. Whether you schedule a 5-minute block of time weekly to write down all of the things you’re grateful for or you make a conscious effort daily to recognize, notice and be grateful for the smaller things and the bigger things that cultivate life for you, you are making an effort to understand how you impact the world and how the world impacts you. I’d say that’s a pretty mindful act.