6 January 2014

Mindfulness and Martial Arts - Good for Mind, Body and Soul





Following a recent appearance on the Happy Sundays show on local Radio station Phonic FM where I was interviewed about my passion for kenjutsu, I decided I would like to expand on the idea of martial arts being a very meaningful exercise. I previously wrote a piece on martial arts and psychotherapy and also mention martial arts (and similar activities) in my post on the Top 5 Things to do Alongside Counselling.

I often recommend a mindfulness based exercise, such as yoga, pilates or a martial art to my clients because this type of exercise "flexes" our frontal lobe as well as our muscles, and it is in doing so that we pop out of our automated way of thinking and provide our minds with the space to change. That is what learning is all about - forming new neural connections. This is also what unlearning is about - severing the neural links that have been long established and which cause us to react in the same old unwanted ways…unless we utilise our incredible frontal lobes and literally change our minds. This process is known as neuroplasticity and was introduced as an idea in the West by William James  in 1890, and was largely rejected until the 1970's. James stated:

"The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind". 

It took us a while to get with the programme but getting there we are with the NHS embracing mindfulness and the University of Exeter investing in the clinical development and research of mindfulness based therapies.  

Here is a short video by Professor Williams from Oxford Mindfulness Centre, on The Science of Mindfulness:




Mindfulness alters our perspective and gives us the mental space to develop a new way of thinking, as well as calming down our emotional reactionary circuits.

So, my martial art of choice is kenjutsu which is the art of the Japanese sword. I attend weekly classes at Exeter Martial Arts.  I joined whilst I was training as a counsellor, and apart from a long break when the class time changed, I have been doing it pretty much weekly for 3 years or so. It has helped me when I have been stressed, or busier than I'd like to be, or had challenging times in my life.

There is so much to learn and I value the extensive curriculum that this particular sword school delivers. We train with three different sizes of wooden practice swords (bokken). There is the full size daito (long sword), a shorter sword called shoto (equivalent to a battle damaged daito) and a tanto (dagger). As I explained in my previous post, kenjutsu is cooperative and is about perfecting reactions rather than "winning". Every move has a reason or purpose, whether it be due to the weaknesses in Samurai armour, to leave a wound with visual impact as a warning, or to maximise the opportunity of when somebody has already committed to a move, leaving a window, a fraction of a second, in which to react and respond with a deadly preemptive-attack (my favourite - "Sen Sen No Sen").

Richard Catterick, the Sensei, who owns and runs Exeter Martial Arts has been trained in many disciplines and the club offers many different classes, from Tai Chi to Brazilian Jiu Jitsui. I always figured that Sensei must have big ole brains in order to remember all those moves in all those disciplines. Just remembering the intricacies of kenjutsu is enough for my noggin. I also was aware that Richard has a PHD in oncology, and wondered how he was lured away from a career in medicine to the edgier, less structured career of being a martial arts teacher. Richard kindly allowed me to ask him some questions:

Amanda: When did you first start learning a martial art? 

Sensei: When I first went to uni in Sheffield in 1988

Amanda: I see that you have a PhD (I thought I read somewhere it was in oncology?)  - what was your first choice of career?

Sensei: Yes I have a PhD in oncology for Leicester Uni - I worked in International Clinical Trials after my PhD for 6 years in most of the big cancer hospitals in the country i.e. the Marsden in London etc.

Amanda: When did you decide to make the teaching of martial arts your career?

Sensei: My wife is from Devon and she wanted to return home when we had our first child. Plus I was getting so busy with Oncology; was away from home a lot and only teaching once a week (protected time). Something had to give and it was the day job, company car, pension etc. It was a really hard decision but the best one I have ever made, bar asking my wife out :)

Amanda: Can you give a synopsis of the styles and levels of training that you have accomplished?

Sensei: 5th Degree black belt in Seishin Mizu Ryu Tatakai Jutsu
3rd Degree black belt in Jikishin Jiu Jitsu
1st Degree black belt in Aiuchi Jiu Jitsu
Instructor the Jitsu Foundation - another Jiu Jitsu style
Oku Iri (2nd Dan equivalent ) - Kaze Arashi Ryu Kenjutsu
1st Kyu - Ryukyu Kobujutsu
Purple belt  - Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - Sidney Silva Association
Plus other lower kyu grades and experience in Nin Jitsu, Wing Chun, Judo and Wrestling
Medals in numerous nationals Jiu Jitsu championships
Tai Chi Instructor under Master Ma Yue - 17 yrs.

Coaching:
Have 11 clubs in my own Jiu Jitsu association across the country - have taught 20-30 people to black belt level.
Lvl 4 International Coach with Sport England
Coach for Exeter MMA - current UK MMA league champions
Professional Coach with over 500 personal students in the UK
Associate Lecturer - Exeter College

Amanda: Mindfulness is very fashionable in therapy circles these days. I personally find kenjutsu to be sort of like a meditation, in that I switch off my mind, and I regard it as a mindful activity. Would you agree with this, and how do the other forms of martial arts you teach fit into this "mindfulness model"? Do you see a link between mindfulness and martial arts? 

Sensei: I am unfamiliar with the term mindfulness however in the Japanese martial Arts there is a term called Mushin - no mind. This is a big concept and I couldn't do it justice in a few lines. A start for you could be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin

Mushin is a pillar in all martial arts. In my opinion it is a goal and a journey.

Amanda: What do you perceive as being the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of studying martial arts?

Sensei: It depends on the person and the martial art studied as all are unique.

Amanda: I get the impression that with martial arts the learning never stops and that, like life, there is always room for further improvement and development. Would you agree with this?

Sensei: Yes the way is always ahead of us as in all things in life. We must live in the now but always to be conscious of the future.

Amanda: What can martial arts teach us about life (apart from self-defence) 

Sensei: If this was a 200000 word dissertation I maybe able to scratch the surface - sorry no nutshell answers; only everything and nothing.

Amanda: Of all the martial arts you teach, which is your favourite discipline? 

Sensei: I like them all as I chose to train in all of them. I have always looked at many schools and instructors the ones that teach/train suit me best.

Amanda: Any advice for people considering taking up a martial art? 

Sensei: First; for getting involved in anything, just get out there and do it. Procrastination is the enemy of all. Find an instructor and a club/style which suits you.

Once you have gotten out there and found an instructor and an art you like and which suits you stick with it. There will be peaks and troughs as with all things in life but the benefits easily out weigh the sacrifice.

Note that most pressure we feel is usually from within not external so be mindful of yourself putting barriers in your own way. Finally enjoy every class as it was your first and delight in the small victories and you can't go wrong :)


So Sensei mentions Mushin which does seem to be similar in concept to mindfulness. I suppose that kenjutsu for me, is one way of practising mindfulness. I am lucky in that my counselling work is very mindful in that I am aware and present in the moment with my clients. It is easier to be mindful when we are doing activities which promote mindfulness. My enabling work with an autistic teenager is also very mindful. William is perpetually mindful of the immediate here and now. I had a dream about him, about 3 or 4 years ago (around the time I started training in kenjutsu). I was in a forest, taking part in a gruelling assault course. I was struggling to climb over and under things at breakneck speed. I glanced over at the other competitors and all I could see was William, skipping up and down on a tree stump, flicking a ribbon, whistling and smiling, totally at peace with the world. I learned to calm down from that dream.

I have many clients who are aware of the concept of mindfulness and have read books or attended a course but struggle to integrate it into everyday life. There are ways of weaving mindfulness into our everyday lives. Walking is an excellent way - thinking about what we can see and hear right now as we walk, rather than losing ourselves in thoughts/concerns/worries that are miles away from where our feet are…

A great martial arts class can be a highly effective way of developing strength of body and mind, of switching off the old, habitual thought processes and turning on that part of us that makes us uniquely human - our frontal lobes. Flex that frequently and you'll have a young mind as well as a young body.

Finally, I asked many people I know who do a martial art to tell what their Myers-Briggs type is. I was hoping to see a pattern. I had assumed that they would be mainly introverts rather than extroverts but actually, there was a fairly even spread. However, the majority of martial artists were *NF* types, that is intuitive and feeling (as opposed to sensing and thinking). Hmmn. Food for thought.

I'd love to hear what others think about martial arts, why they do it, what they get out of it, and also their Myers-Briggs type!

For further information:

http://exetermartialarts.co.uk



Amanda Williamson is a BACP registered counsellor working in central Exeter

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