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Musings for the Modern Mystic

Martial arts training offers a number of psychosocial benefits, including the creation of inner peace and self-confidence.

How Learning Martial Arts Can Be A Potent Form of Spiritual Development

To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person. ~ Bruce Lee Share on X

Traditionally, learning martial arts has been conceptualized as learning a system of hand-to-hand combat. When most people hear the term ‘martial arts,’ words like ‘self-defense’ and ‘competition’ immediately come to mind.

Most depictions of martial arts in action usually showcase flashy striking techniques, such as punches and kicks. But mainstream culture’s perception of martial arts is only one aspect of what it actually entails.

Learning Martial Arts Is About Far More Than ‘Learning How To Fight’

Today, martial arts has transcended notions of gladiators fighting to the death, or even the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) where two combatants attempt to incapacitate one another while locked within the confines of an enclosed cage.

Beyond these depictions of senseless violence and brutality lies a much calmer, therapeutic message. Ultimately, the practice of martial arts is about spiritual development. This is why Hong Kong action film director, Ronny Yu, described martial arts as “a spiritual challenge, not a physical one.”

Specifically, when it comes to spiritual development, learning martial arts offers a number of psychosocial benefits, not the least of which include honing an ongoing sense of inner peace and self-confidence. Its lineage is deeply rooted in mental and spiritual development, but this important facet of the tradition has been largely ignored due to the combat and commercial applications of martial arts that are perpetuated by the media.

Preserving the historical roots of martial arts training will allow more people to be educated and made aware of martial arts’ potential for enhancing quality of life.

Below are 5 specific points, garnered from personal experience, relating the most potent benefits in physical and spiritual development (all ‘physical’ development is in essence spiritual, but it is much easier to relate the two in traditional lay terms) you can gain from learning martial arts.

1) Martial arts makes you kinder.

“These attributes carry over beyond the confines of the dojo, and they linger into your private and professional life where you can leverage them to become a more positive father, mother, sibling, co-worker, or boss.”

Mainstream culture has a tendency to synonymize martial arts with violence. Hollywood films love to portray martial artists as brute warriors with murderous intent.

Similarly, mixed martial arts events on television showcase ultra-violent no-holds-barred fights where competitors’ bodies are smeared with blood. Does this mean that training in martial arts automatically makes all participants ruthless brutes?

Rest assured, the empirical evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Interestingly, longitudinal studies that have looked at routine practitioners of various martial arts, such as hapkido, judo, and jujitsu found that the students of these disciplines were generally less hostile, less angry, and had higher levels of self-esteem compared to the average population. The findings also described this cohort as being ‘easygoing’ and ‘warm-hearted’.

Definitely not the kind of terminology that is associated with aggression or violence.

2) Martial arts will refine your behaviour.

Martial arts is about more than just trying to dominate your opponent. Unlike many other physical activities, martial arts values everyone as equals, including your opponents, your instructor, and even the training ground itself. This is why martial arts is inherently beneficial for personal development: training revolves around an aura of positivity.

In martial arts schools, students are encouraged to meditate in class. They are instilled with an obligation to respect their sensei. And perhaps most importantly, students learn to develop mutual respect for one another. This is why sparring sessions can take place without devolving into an uncontrollable brawl.

True martial artists realize that their craft is an avenue for releasing their psychological frustrations in a manner that is tempered, and exceptionally cathartic. They do not manipulate their arsenal of skills to commit malice. Instead, they are disciplined, controlled, and groomed to act as pacifists when confronted by an obstacle.

3) Martial arts can be an alternative to psychotherapy.

“The core of martial arts practice is about being able to stay calm when placed in a situation of adversity, and being able to confidently discharge oneself from the altercation without having to impose an act of aggression.”

Paying for a professional counsellor can be costly, especially since there are no guarantees that you will overcome your problems by the end of the treatment. Instead of trying to get someone else to alleviate your symptoms, why not consider learning martial arts?

In a 1997 psychological study, researchers found that karate training was beneficial for women who were recovering from sexual abuse, eating disorders, substance abuse, and a dysfunctional upbringing.

It’s no surprise that recreation and fitness affords a plethora of mental and physical health benefits, but who knew that physical combat was effective for more than just self-defense against an unruly attacker?

4) Martial arts builds your muscle memory.

Developing your motor skills is important. Whether you are riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, or practicing martial arts you are tapping into your brain’s muscle memory.

Learning to fine-tune your muscle memory involves a lot of repetition. Eventually, your motor skills will become seemingly effortless, and you will perform certain activities without much conscious thought. This is why people can easily adapt to riding a bicycle, years after they may have originally learned to ride one.

The same principle applies to martial arts. Once a martial arts practitioner has learned to throw the perfect jab from years of training, for instance, they have essentially rewired the connections in their brain to allow them to showcase a particular set of techniques without having to think about it. It simply comes naturally from the rigour of practice.

So what does this translate to in terms of spiritual development?

Well, imagine that you’re about to perform a live demonstration in front of a crowd and you’re anxious about how the audience will react. Now imagine being asked to perform that jab that you’ve practiced to endless perfection. Chances are you’ll have an easier time than someone who has never thrown a single jab in their lifetime, because your muscle memory will step in and take over.

Just like practicing the perfect jab, people with psychological issues like anxiety can benefit from being repetitively exposed to what’s haunting them, and then eventually, they’ll learn to not associate such situations as being a perceptible threat.

5) Martial arts helps you achieve inner peace.

“Ultimately, the practice of martial arts is about personal development. This is why Hong Kong action film director, Ronny Yu, described martial arts as ‘a spiritual challenge, not a physical one.'”

Contrary to popular belief, learning martial arts does not involve beating down an aggressor with wild punches and kicks. Instead, the core of martial arts practice is about being able to stay calm when placed in a situation of adversity, and being able to confidently discharge oneself from the altercation without having to impose an act of aggression.

In this sense, martial arts training equips practitioners with a greater degree of balance in their lives, since they become empowered with the tools to resolve any potential conflicts that would otherwise impinge on routine activity. Because they’ve been trained in exercising calmness and clarity of vision even in the most heated exchanges, their personal ‘centre’ becomes more and more familiar and grows in strength.

These attributes carry over beyond the confines of the dojo and into the private and professional life of the practitioner, where they find these tools being leveraged in becoming a more effective father, mother, sibling, co-worker, or boss.

In this respect, learning martial arts can act as the perfect intervention for managing a hectic life. In training, you are conditioned to get back on your feet after you have been taken down to the mat by an opponent.

Similarly, you are metaphorically thrown down every time you try but fail. With martial arts, you are taught that failure is an inevitability. On some days, you will succeed in landing the perfectly executed technique on your opponent. On other days, you may continuously fail despite your best attempts.

Such teaching is also one of the keys to spiritual development, no matter the discipline. Because martial arts trains you to look up with a positive outlook, and instills you with the gumption to press forward, learning to remain comfortable amidst the chaos, you will also find yourself living a fulfilling and far more harmonious life outside of the Dojo.

Hutton Ho
Hutton Ho


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