Martial Arts: The Ultimate Wellness Vehicle?
By Gary Lescak
Martial arts are about many things: perfection of character, respect for others, freeing one’s mind, and battlefield combat to name just a few examples.
One of my teachers, an American who was schooled in Adlerian psychology, used to say that the practice of martial arts is a psycho-therapeutic experience. My current teacher, an elderly Chinese master, differentiates one’s level of understanding and accomplishment in martial arts by dividing the category into those who view martial arts as a tool to accomplish a task (such as self-defense), as compared to those who see martial arts as a vehicle to take them someplace.
What all of these intellectual concepts, areas of interest, and definitions tell us, is that martial arts offer the practitioner an extraordinary vehicle with which to develop and understand the mind-body-spirit connection. Balance and harmony of the mind-body-spirit are valued states of being by all senior martial artists as well as all well-developed martial systems of any depth. This is true for practical, not just philosophical reasons. They all know that calmness and relaxation “under fire” are the essential foundation for optimum performance.
This is what the Japanese call the “mind of no-Mind” (mushin no shin) or “mind like moon, mind like water” (munen muso). The moon bathes everything equally in its light, the water reflects everything equally. In this most natural state of awareness, balance and harmony exist P. 1
without intent. This is the most effective state of mind during a martial encounter. This is also the definition of wellness.
Of course, these are also the goals of many other disciplines as well: Zen meditation, yoga, Reikki, etc. I say martial arts is an extraordinarily valuable vehicle, because martial arts require balance, harmony, and relaxation while “facing Hell under the upraised sword” as the Japanese say… not while calmly meditating in a quiet room or next to a beautiful waterfall.
This is why the lessons learned in martial arts are the lessons of life. No matter what challenges you face in your business or personal life, nothing is more extreme than a life or death struggle. When you study martial arts and achieve balance and harmony in this context, it extends into all aspects of your life. This is why, when people ask me to “show them” my martial art, I point out to them that it is present and demonstrated in everything I do.
My goal here is to give you a taste of the depth and breadth of martial arts beyond the punch-kick mentality you see on TV and in the movies. The topic of wellness is a thread that runs through the depth and breadth of what martial arts has to offer on many different levels, let’s see how.
Physical and Survival Aspects
The physical exercise / direct wellness benefits of martial arts are obvious. The physical benefits of stretching, cardio-vascular endurance, power generating techniques, coordination, and timing derived from martial arts practice are reasons enough to show us the value of including
martial arts practice as part of a wellness lifestyle. When I say a wellness lifestyle, I do not mean merely when you are in your 20’s or 30’s. The practice of martial arts is a life long learning activity: physical, mental, and spiritual.
In a physical sense, this is because fighting is not about youth, speed, and strength; fighting is about knowledge, experience, and cunning. In practical terms, this differentiates Eastern martial arts from Western traditions such as boxing; that is, the 60 year old boxer with 50 years of experience is no match for the 30 year old boxer with 20 years of experience. The opposite is the case in Eastern martial arts. There are some abilities that only many years of practice can provide.
All higher functions are rooted in one’s physical security and survival. In essence, the classical Japanese samurai did not need to be concerned about wellness unless they survived on the battlefield. The same is true today; the 21st century man needs to survive on the battlefield of life before wellness enters the picture. This basic survival is the raison d’etre for martial arts. This is usually thought of in merely physical terms / physical self-defense. However, the Japanese and those knowledgeable in martial arts know that the application of martial principles to all aspects of life, from interpersonal relations, making money in business, to personal character development, is the bigger picture.
Once one has established and secured one’s physical security and survival needs, the next step is to enjoy that success (read “quality of life”) for as long as possible. Is that not the point of a wellness lifestyle?
Martial Arts and Healing Arts
Most people are unaware that all classical comprehensive martial arts systems contain a healing art component. This manifests itself in many different ways.
Obviously, the rigors of martial arts practice will produce a variety of sprains and strains, muscle soreness, and injuries, regardless of how safety conscious one is, as an unavoidable by-product of practice. The knowledge and abilities required to heal these types of bodily stresses and problems are essential to long-term practice. These are the necessities that produced the original, ultimate sports massages.
In very advanced techniques, the points one stimulates to help someone heal are the same points one stimulates (in a different manner) to kill someone. The Japanese have specific techniques for resuscitation (for stopped heart, stopped breathing, etc.) called kappo that they refer to as kappo / sappo (cure or kill techniques) for this very reason.
The Chinese martial arts techniques known as dim mak (delayed death touch) are based upon TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) / acupuncture theory and chi gung (energy cultivation exercises). In other words, there are two sides (yin & yang) to the energy “coin;” you cannot develop either to its fullest without developing the other one equally.
Lessons Learned Lead To Wellness
Through martial arts training, one becomes more sensitive and in-tune to one’s own body and energy as well as the bodies and energies of others. This is central to a
The most discussed mental aspects of martial arts training are usually positive virtues like concentration, inner tranquility, decisiveness, etc.; but how one learns to develop and enhance these traits is seldom explained. As I mentioned earlier, it is not via quiet, contemplative introspection. When you face real life problems, struggles, and gut-wrenching emotional issues, are you usually sitting serenely next to a waterfall?
All of the lessons of martial arts are not necessarily easy to learn, or pleasant and agreeable in nature. Through martial arts training, one becomes desensitized to, and learns to cope with, mental and physical pain and stress in a realistic and practical manner. This is central to the development of the mind part of the mind-body-spirit connection and a wellness lifestyle.
The ultimate goals of martial arts are perfection of character and to open one’s mind. Are these not also the goals of wellness?
In conclusion, my hope is that the next time you see someone practicing a martial art, you understand that it is as much about the positive aspects of life that we all value as it is about the negative; even better would be for you to try it for yourself.
Gary Lescak has over 40 years studying, practicing, and teaching martial arts and traditional Japanese restorative massage therapy. For more information: