7 Lessons I Learned From Practising Martial Arts
how the ancient art of body and mind control can change your life
I started to train martial arts 16 years ago, I knew this art of living will shape my life forever - and accompany me in every step I take. I am eternally grateful to all my masters for teaching me the art of living - through the practice of martial arts.
These are the 7 lessons I learned from practising martial arts - all have the potential to change your life:
Discipline is something that many of us are lacking - we might have a morning routine, steady working hours and a well-planned schedule we follow, but that has, in my opinion, nothing to do with discipline.
Real discipline is not what you do on the outside, it is how you are able to manage your inside.
I started to train Karate when I was a teenager, so my inner world was even more in turmoil than it is now. The discipline of martial arts lies in the thousand-year-old tradition, which teaches ancient secrets of life. Back then I probably was not aware of the great significance of my training, but looking back, I recognise how it shaped my development.
When you start to train any martial art, it might appear to you that there are way too many rules. Literally, everything is taken care of - how you enter the dojo (道場 Japanese for "place for immersive learning" - the training space), how you address other martial artists, where you stand, how you greet, what you wear and how you wear it, what you are allowed to say, what you learn when… - to name just a few.
But those strict rules are not just there for fun, each and every one of them has a deeper meaning and teaches you discipline.
More than your body, it trains your mind.
I remember when I started to train karate, we were not allowed to drink water in the dojo - only before and after, and in a specific break in the middle of the training.
This was very hard for me at the beginning, as I was used to drinking when I am thirsty. And sweating that much, the need for water increases. But the idea behind this rule is to learn to control our mind, as we do not have to follow each impulse we receive.
Martial arts helped me to discipline my body and mind, and not let them control me.
Do you respect yourself?
If you are thinking "of course!" now, think again. We torture ourselves with toxic thoughts and consuming emotions all the time. Most of that happens unconsciously, and because we are always distracted on the outside, we never even realise it.
Then think about your body - do you respect your body? Junk food, alcohol excess, drugs, stress, laziness - are you really honouring the temple that has been given to you?
The truth is, most of us do not have enough respect for ourselves. And if this base does not exist, the respect for everyone else is lacking, too. How do we treat our parents, our brothers and sisters, our partner, our close friends, our teachers, the neighbour, the lady which works in the corner shop, the homeless, the street animal, …? Are all your relations perfectly harmonious? I highly doubt it.
Especially as a young teenager, you lack respect for adults. And this pattern just continuous when we grow up - as adults we lack respect for the elderly. We put them into retirement homes and do not really value their experience.
In martial arts, and in Eastern culture in general, respect for experience is highly important. For that reason, when you train martial arts, there exist different grades (in the form of different coloured belts) that indicate your experience. And depending on your grade, you are given different benefits and also responsibilities. As a white belt (beginner) for example, you will always stand on the far left side in the back of the dojo, moving right and forward with every change of belt.
You show your respect to your fellow martial artists through different gestures:
- you greet each other with a slight bow and a specific hand gesture and spoken word (differing in every martial art)
- when you start and end your training, you knee down and bow your head to the ground
- before starting and after ending a fight, you take a distance and bow to each other
- in a fight, there are certain keys you use to indicate your defeat
- you are not allowed to talk during the whole training, which teaches you to listen
For a reason, every person who trains martial arts is obligated to wear the traditional garment. This garment is usually very simple, made from robust material and one specific colour. The colour depends on the practice - in Karate we were wearing a white suit, in Kung Fu the traditional clothes are black.
Every student and master of martial arts wear the exact same garment - the only difference is in the colour of the belt. The uniform helps to take us out of the shallowness of today's culture, where we define ourselves by how we look on the outside. In the dojo, no one cares how pretty you are, if you wear makeup or not, how well-shaped your body is or which clothes you can afford.
All superficial ideas are stripped away - what stays is the pure essence of each individuum.
This taught me to be more modest and humble and to not define myself or others by their looks - because there are much more important values that shape a human being.
In martial arts, there is usually a higher percentage of men than women. When I first entered the dojo I felt a bit intimidated by all those men - and I was supposed to train in the midst of them? Physically, men obviously are mostly stronger than women - but:
Pure muscle strength is not everything.
As a woman, my advantage has always been my agility and speed. In martial arts your body weight or muscles does not matter - what matters is the technique, how you use what you have to your advantage - that is your real strength. Of course, your body will become stronger, but that is more of a nice side effect.
I discovered that my agility and speed are my secret weapons. Martial arts taught me to explore my strength from different angles - not just physical. And it gave me confidence in my own skills no one can ever take away from me.
Body memory is something fascinating. And it is something most of us lack. It is like a muscle you need to train before you can use it properly.
In martial arts, you do not just train your muscles, you train your brain.
In Karate, the choreographies you learn are called "Katas", in Kung Fu they are called "Forms", in Taekwondo "Poomsae". These patterns combine different techniques into a kind of martial art dance - which is meant to help you to remember all the different postures. In the beginning, learning these forms is a real challenge, as you need to remember every little detail in order to perfect your technique.
The body memory of most people is pretty weak. Due to constant distraction and lack of movement, our bodies are stiff and our minds are weak. Putting in the effort to really learn martial arts, you will start to recognise a huge increase in both your body and brain memory - which in turn helps you in your daily life.
When you are in a one on one fight, there is no time to wander off with your mind. One second without close attention and you lost - possibly more than just a tooth.
The truth is, our minds are constantly distracted by this crazy world. And if we are not distracted by the outside, we distract ourselves with endless chatter on the inside.
Did this never happen to you - you are somewhere, but in your head, you wander off to a situation that has not happened yet, a person you miss, a future event you want to get to, a precious memory from the past, a task you still need to do - and just like that, you lost your attention and are not really in the present moment.
You should not, or better cannot do that in martial arts. Close attention is your best friend, you need to take in everything - from the slightest movement in your opponent to the tiniest change of your surroundings and the most deliberate control of your own body - in order to succeed. This is a wonderful exercise to quiet your noisy mind and learn how to focus your attention on the task at hand.
The truth is, I did not know my own limits. In our day to day life, we are almost never forced to face our limits. We mostly move inside our own comfort zone - where we feel safe and rarely never challenged.
Training martial arts, I am constantly confronted with my own limits and fears.
I remember one scene very well - I just finished my exam for the green belt. But before receiving the next grade, there was always a "celebration", which honestly was the real test. Everyone, from black belt to white, formed a circle around me. And then they started to attack, without warning. I swear I never sweat so much in my life. I thought I would not be able to stand this for long - but at the same time that they were attacking, they were encouraging me to keep going.
At that moment, I just wanted to cry, but I took a decision to step outside my comfort and extend my limits.
Nothing felt more empowering than this moment, this one decision. A decision we should take not just in the dojo, but in our daily lives. When we face an apparently unsolvable situation, we can take control of our mind and body and, instead to shrink, take the decision to grow.
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If you are now motivated to try out martial arts, check out this beginners power workout I created, combining the ancient Chinese arts of Tai Chi and Kung Fu:
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