The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t just a war against a virus - it’s a war against the mind.
Quarantines and shelter-in-place laws designed to keep people and communities safe act against instinctual human needs for companionship. This has created an unprecedented global mental health crisis.
As if that weren’t enough, we’re continually bombarded with minute-by-minute updates about how civil unrest is spreading across the world, how COVID is causing Western civilization to fall apart, and how the systems designed to protect us from such disasters are either failing or making the situation worse.
It’s a bleak situation. There seems to be very little to look forward to in the future.
We no longer have gyms to burn off our fear, stress and anxiety as they’re potential hotbeds of community spread. The martial arts schools that gave us an outlet for excess energy and a sense of community are no longer there to anchor us.
With all the chaos, it’s important to realize that although we can’t change what’s going on in the world, we can change how we react to it. This is an important lesson that meditation teaches us.
As a martial artist, you need to train your mind as well as your body. Achieving harmony between your body and mind is a necessary part of the mental and physical perfection which martial arts practice demands.
Here’s a rundown on the best kinds of meditation for martial arts, and how to practice them.
A Brief History of Meditation
Meditation is practiced in one form or another in most of the world’s major religions, but the practice as we know it today is rooted in ancient India.. It is performed to achieve oneness with the universe, reach elevated states of mind, gain an understanding about how our emotions and thoughts influence our behavior, and explore the nature of the self.
The oldest documentation of meditation is found between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE in Indian wall art, which depicts people in meditative postures and trance-like states.
The oldest surviving written documentation is in the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedic texts. Meditation techniques have deep roots in Hinduism. In India, the practice of spiritual teachers called gurus passing down their knowledge from generation to generation of disciples is a long-standing tradition.
Between the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, meditation developed in Indian Buddhism and the Taoist school of thought in China. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu makes references to meditative practices in the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism.
Meditation spread along the Silk Road trade route, which connected Europe and the Far East, taking root in Western religions such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Sufi Islam.
In the 7th century, a Japanese monk named Dosho traveled to China to study Buddhism under Master Huan Tsang, where he learned about the concept of Zen. He introduced the practice of meditation to Japan when he returned, and opened the country’s first meditation hall in 653 A.D. Meditation grew significantly in Japan from the 8th century onward.
Meditation has become increasingly common in recent decades. You can now find Yoga and meditation classes at nearly every gym, wellness center and university in the country. It helps people to manage their stress and anxiety and regulate their emotional well-being.
The Philosophy and Different Types of Meditation
Meditation is a spiritual practice - whether you are religious or not. It’s used to achieve a higher level of self-awareness, enlightenment, and improved physical and mental health.
The physical and emotional benefits of meditation include:
- Stress relief
- Increased flexibility
- Improved strength
- Improved balance
- Lower blood pressure
Routine meditation helps you to alleviate stress, anxiety, and distressed emotional states like anger and depression.
Mindfulness meditation is the kind that most people in Western countries are familiar with. If you’ve ever used an app like Calm or Headspace, you’ve probably encountered mindfulness meditation before.
This kind of meditation is good for emotional regulation. It involves acknowledging the thoughts that pass through your mind, and gently letting them go without getting fixated on them.
Focus meditation involves concentrating one of the five senses. This is good for anyone requiring additional focus and direction in their life, including martial arts practitioners.
This meditation can focus on something internal like the rhythm of your breath, or something external like chanting or the flame of a candle.
Transcendental meditation is another popular form of meditation practiced in the West and is one of the most widely researched types of meditation.
Transcendental meditation uses a silent sound called a mantra, such as the popular “Om” sound. You sit for 15 or 20 minutes a day, silently repeating the mantra to yourself until you become lost in the practice.
In this form of meditation, you visualize positive scenes or images while maintaining a sense of relaxation, peace, and calmness.
Use all five senses to imagine the scene in as much detail as you can. Winning that match. Getting that trophy. Scoring that promotion. Asking that crush you like out on a date.
Visualization helps you to achieve something or succeed at a goal by setting your intention.
Benefits of Meditation in Martial Arts Practice
Martial arts is more than just about the art of fighting. It incorporates elements of mindfulness, concentration, and focus to form a harmonization of the body and mind.
Practicing meditation as a supplement to your martial arts practice can result in better concentration and focus, which helps you perform better in training and bouts. Martial arts requires you to pay attention to your surroundings, focus on the task in front of you and clear your mind of worries and distractions.
In Meditation and the Martial Arts, author Michael K. Raposa observes that martial artists should use forms of meditation to become better fighters.
Master Shi Ming states in his 1994 work Mind Over Matter:Higher Martial Arts that the process of refining one’s consciousness is crucial to martial arts training. This refinement is best achieved through meditation - which seeks to unite the mind, body and spirit.
Martial arts practice and meditation work together to complement your physical fitness with improved balance, coordination, awareness, and proper breathing.
Check out some of the benefits of meditation in martial arts practice below.
A State of Calm
Having a calm state of mind during something as intense as a fight helps you to maintain control of the situation. Without calm, you can get panicky and reactive and lose your sense of self-control. Losing that control lowers your defenses and makes you vulnerable to strikes.
A decluttered and unstressed state of mind helps you to plan your attacks and strikes more thoughtfully and deliberately. Meditation helps to induce a flow state at will, which makes this state of mind possible.
Focus allows you to time and coordinate your movements with precision. Without it, your technique becomes sloppy and formless.
Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center showed that just meditating for a few minutes a day can lead to increased focus and learning concentration.
Meditation can also improve your form and physical performance through visualization. Visualizing the execution of a physical task in your mind sends impulses through the nerves in your body, making the task easier to execute.
Martial arts requires you to be cognizant of your surroundings at all times so that you can react to rapidly changing situations.
A 2017 study showed that athletes who train for just 12 minutes a day show increased levels of alertness and cognitive function, helping them endure physically demanding tasks.
Regular meditation helps you fight to your full potential by being able to disconnect and take in the world around you. This state of mind helps you predict your opponent’s movements, rather than defend against them reactively.
Meditation Practices for Martial Artists
There are various specific types of meditation particularly well-suited to martial arts study - to help control your breathing, clear your mind of unwanted thoughts, and even achieve a higher state of consciousness.
The Shaolin Temple is a Chan Buddhist monastery in China’s Henan province. It’s the historical home of the world-famous Shaolin school of Kung Fu and is thought to be the origin point of most of the world’s most popular martial arts practiced today.
The popular story goes that Shaolin Kung Fu was invented by an Indian priest by the name of Bodhidharma during the time he spent at the temple. He observed the monks meditation practice and thought it was making them too slow and sedentary, so he taught them movements to circulate the blood and strengthen the muscles. The monks then discovered that they could use these movements to defend themselves against bandits and brigands, and so Kung Fu was born.
Regardless of whether you believe that story, the Shaolin monks have their own form of meditation you can easily incorporate into your martial arts practice routine.
- Find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Seat yourself in a half-lotus position with your feet resting in the crooks of your knees. Keep your back straight, and prop yourself up against a pillow.
- Relax all the muscles in your body. Keep your back and your head straight. Imagine a string pulling the top of your head like a marionette to help you maintain the correct posture
- Close your eyes, and clear your mind of thought. You’ll notice that random, intrusive thoughts pop in and out of your mind. Don’t mentally force them to go away - this will only make them stronger. Instead, just gently observe them from a detached state of mind, and gently let them go.
- Count from 1 to 10, focusing on your breathing as you do so. Breath in, count one. Breathe out, count two. This will anchor your thoughts and give you something to focus on.
Just doing this before your martial arts practice for 10 to 15 minutes a day will help you relieve stress, improve your focus and give your daily routine more structure and clarity.
Negative thoughts can be extremely destructive if left unchecked. Thoughts like “I can’t do this, I’m not good at this, I’m a failure” and “Why did I think I could ever be good at this?” can cloud your mind and inhibit your actions.
You’re much more likely to succeed at any given task if you believe deep down that you can do it.
Discipline meditation helps to clear the mind of negative, intrusive thoughts; become more aware of emotions like anger, jealousy, hatred or sadness; and be able to manage them in a healthy way. You breathe deeply and deliberately while focusing on positive, empowering thoughts.
Chi Breathing Meditation
Deep, abdominal breathing in martial arts practice is important for the circulation of energy, or chi, throughout the body.
In traditional Chinese culture, chi is a life force or spiritual energy that makes life possible. It is thought that in the human body, excess chi is stored in a cavity just below the navel. Chi breathing is meant to take this excess energy and circulate it through the rest of the body.
No Mind Meditation
This is where meditation practice gets a little bit more abstract.
No-Mind, known as Mushin in Japanese and Wuxin in Chinese, is a mental state where the practitioner frees themselves of the constraints, notions and restrictions of everyday life. It’s commonly practiced in Zen Buddhism as well as Taoism.
In his 1979 book Zen in the Martial Arts, author Joe Hyams quotes Bruce Lee, who attributes to Zen master Takuan Sōhō,
“The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death.”
As the name implies, no-mind meditation involves emptying the mind of all conscious thought; freeing it from the constraints of society, your preconceptions of the world and your own sense of self in order to tap into your subconscious.
By negating your sense of self in martial arts practice, you’re able to perceive yourself as your opponent. This way, you’ll be able to predict their moves before they even execute them.
Most meditation involves sitting still in a half-lotus or seated position. Moving meditation is an active form of meditation that involves slow, repetitive movements.
Most people think of yoga when they hear the words “moving meditation”, but it can also include qigong, tai chi, or even just simple, quiet activities like gardening or walking through the woods.
Meditation practice dates back thousands of years, and is rooted in many of the same philosophies and spiritual belief systems as Eastern martial arts.
The benefits of incorporating meditation into your practice of martial arts are both physical and mental. It provides relief from stress and anxiety, heightened focus and concentration, and improved strength and balance - all of which are key assets for martial artists.