16 February 2012

Martial Arts and Psychotherapy

Dr Joe Dispenza
It all began with the intersection of two events that occurred in April 2010. First of all, I had read Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza. Second, Exeter Martial Arts opened a new Dojo in between where I lived and worked.

Evolve Your Brain is a marvellous book which I was given by a counsellor peer. He thought that I would appreciate this scientific approach to neuroplasticity, i.e. the rewiring of our minds to change how we think and behave. I ended up doing a college presentation based on my findings from this book, along with The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio, Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert and The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild. The book informed my counselling approach by educating me of the how and why counselling works on a neurological and biochemical level. The handout to go with my presentation can be found here.

So, what's this got to do with Martial Arts? Well, I was inspired by Evolve Your Brain to learn new things. Dispenza reckons that our brains fall back on their innate i.e. genetic wiring if we stop learning new things, and this leads to us acting just like our parents, even if we don't want to. He advocates the challenge of continual learning to help our minds be flexible and creative rather than stuck and predictable. So when I walked past the Dojo and saw the list of available classes, and clocked that there were sword classes, I requested a taster session pronto.

Now, this post is biased towards Kenjutsu (the Art of the Sword) rather than other disciplines as it was and still is the only Martial Art I am interested in learning. Jiu Jitsui was not for me - there is a lot of grappling and rolling on the floor involved which did not appeal. However, the Jiu Jitsui classes are by far the most popular, and I believe that I was the only Kenjutsu student who did not also do Jiu Jitsui.

So during my taster session I felt completely inept and had sore arms within minutes. Yet I agreed to go back the following week and ordered my membership, insurance, bokken (wooden sword) and gi (uniform). Two days later I was sat at college and was still unable to lift a cup of tea to my lips using one arm. I hurt. Yet I was hooked.

For 18 months I went along and slowly (painfully so - I felt so impatient about this) I started to learn the sequences of moves from the Kaze Arashi Ryu traditional sword school. There are individual sequences of 10 moves (kata) of various types - stances, defence moves and attacks. Then there's the "waza" - performing the sequences with a partner - one attacking and the other defending.

What I aboslutely LOVE about Kenjutsu is that it is non-competitive. Everybody works cooperatively, regardless of their level. There is something quite humbling about being a beginner which I think is an experience that would do a lot of people good. As long as it doesn't turn to arrogance once they are "better" than the beginners - there is no room for this in Martial Arts. A peer of mine who used to fence, made many references to how an army of fencers could kill an army of Japanese sword warriors, and there is indeed an internet myth doing the rounds of some alleged battle which "proves" this. Frankly I don't think he understood why I was doing it.  Kenjustu is more akin to dancing than to competitive sport (Kendo is the associated sport - as Judo is to Jiu Jitsui), although this dancing does involve carefully placed slices to the neck, head, guts, chest etc. So there is a sinister edge to this "dance"and I admit this compelled me and added to the excitement of it.

So, what is the connection between Martial Arts and psychotherapy? Well, it ocurrred to me that there were other elements of learning in Kenjutsu which I got real value from, other than the learning of a new skill. It was a lesson in patience - patience towards myself when I was a clumsy beginner (very difficult for me to do), and towards others when they were starting out (much easier for me to do). There were frustrations with the fact that although there was a system, it didn't always fall neatly into nice little boxes. Sometimes, the rules were unpredictable and while moves 1-10 of each sequence usually followed the same movements there were exceptions to the rules which would throw us. A bit like life really. The best thing was to embrace the discrepancies rather than get frustrated by them.

One thing that was a bit of a barrier for me at first, was in the defensive moves - known as bobusuru. The basic premise is that you have to walk into the attack in order to execute a defense move that will result in you gaining control. This was hard to do - there is somebody ostensibly attempting to slice my torso diagonally from neck to hip. Okay, maybe not quite but they are mimicking this with a huge piece of white oak. To step towards that person is counterintuitive. To learn to trust the move was difficult. The best way I found of going about this, as it was of almost everything to do with Kenjutsu, was to stop overthinking it. As I'm sure some of you know, think about something too much and you'll talk yourself out of it. The move works. Don't think - do it! I did get over this in time, even after receiving a bit of a black eye one session for a dodgy move. This reminds me of therapy - to really get to where we need to be we often have to walk into the painful place in order to master control over the painful place (and we might get a few bumps and scratches along the way...)

Me pretending to slice into Mat's neck
I had to be quite disciplined  - if I missed a session it was very difficult trying to catch up - way worse than missing maths at school. So I committed to going every week that I could physically make it.

A particularly challenging day was the Kenjustu Grading and Seminar that was held in May 2011. It was 4 hours of swords drills and training followed by a gradings examination - 3 levels in one day for some of us.



Unfortunately, the time of the class is now problematic for me to attend and I stopped about 3 months ago. I'm missing it very much.

**UPDATE March 2013 - The class time changed in my favour and I have been back at Kenjutsu, training weekly since September 2012 and hoping to gain my 5th Kyu grading soon **

Apparently the famous psychotherapist R D Laing endorsed the use of Martial Arts as a therapy and for personal use by therapists. There is a link here about psychotherapy and Martial Arts.

I would really appreciate any feedback or comments from people, particularly those who learn a Martial Art.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your penetrating account of your journey into the martial arts!
I loved the serendipity of your reading of EVOLVE YOUR BRAIN and the manifestation of the dojo along your commuter route. Seems almost magical, but don't some of the greatest things emerge from two unlikely people, ideas, or events intersecting?

You were quite thorough and colorful in describing what attracted you to Kenjutsu and I love your description of the pain before the enlightenment.
Has a ritualistic feel about it, but, as you touch on later in the piece, we can never grow by remaining in our comfort zone.

You also touch beautifully upon the multifacted nature of your learning endeavour i.e. lessons in patience, overcoming and apprehending a system that wasnot conventional, not overthinking, etc...I always have wondered when we become fascinated with learning something new if we truly discover the complexity after we engage it or if we just don't realize initially the multiple levels upon which it intrigues us.

My only critique of the piece is that you had so much momentum towards the end that it seemed to conclude a bit abruptly. Feels more like the first half of an article. Stellar job! Consider me subscribed!

Thank you for citing the tantalizing titles in the second paragraph so that we may explore the biochemical and neuorological approach to human understanding on our own!

jena said...

very informative post about martial arts..

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