Walking the path of a martial artist, we are often confronted with the past and the history behind the arts that we practice. For me, the art was Muay Thai, and its history is intertwined within the fabric of the Thai culture. Important parts of any culture are the religious or spiritual practices of its people. In Thailand, one simply has to observe the many golden statues dispersed throughout the country to know, the principal practice is Buddhism. Buddhism is also a part of Muay Thai, where the ceremonial Wai Khru Ram Muay is performed before each fight as a tribute to teacher, tradition and Buddha.
As a student of the art, I was intrigued by these practices. I found it fascinating that a sport, as potentially brutal as Muay Thai, had this strong spiritual backbone. I decided to learn more about Buddhism, what made it tick, and one of the first things I discovered was the importance afforded to meditation. A few weeks later, I enrolled in a six week meditation class and began a journey into something that became much more than just spiritual. It became a journey into the human mind and all of the mysteries that it holds.
What I have discovered about meditation so far goes way beyond the scope of a single article. What I hope to impart in this article is how the practice of meditation can benefit martial arts performance, based on personal experience, scientific research and parallels drawn from sports psychology.
A brief definition:
Throughout this article I will discuss a variety of meditative techniques, all rooted in the same general practice but each offering their own little subtleties. As a general definition, encompassing all of these methods, I will describe « meditation » as: « making a conscious effort to control one’s breathing and mental processes in order to achieve a pre-determined goal ». This is obviously a very broad definition, but hopefully as the various techniques are introduced, a more specific one will begin to take shape.
Breathing: fuel for the engine
Our automated breathing system produces on average 900 breaths/hour. For most of us, this system is designed to sustain an average energy output with an occasional increase in exertion levels. In other words, it is designed to accommodate sitting, walking and occasionally running. As athletes, or martial artists, we demand much more from our systems. As we train our body, our breathing system usually follows, but again, it does so based on an automated response to our body’s needs.
With meditative practice, you train your breathing system directly. You learn to control your inhalation and exhalation. As your system evolves, you take in more air per breath and breathe fewer times per minute, therefore increasing your breathing efficiency. As your breathing efficiency increases, so does your performance level, especially explosiveness and endurance. In most high intensity sports, including martial arts, having this advantage can be extremely beneficial. By specifically training your breathing system through meditation you can accelerate the process of gaining this advantage.
Closed-eye vs open-eye
Many different schools of thought exist on meditative practice. Some preach closing one’s eyes, others suggest keeping them open. Some recommend focusing on a single point, others encourage taking in your entire surroundings. I believe that they all have a purpose and can be used for specific reasons at different times. Here are a few examples:
Closed-eye with focused attention: Visualization is a big part of sports psychology and many elite athletes are trained to use it on a regular basis, especially those practicing individual sports where strategy is important. In competitive martial arts, such as MMA, visualization can be a valuable asset in fight preparation. An athlete can recreate the various circumstances he might encounter and visualize himself performing at his best. Of course, how efficiently this translates to his actual performance will depend on his ability to visualize and control his thoughts. This can only be improved through regular meditative practice.
Open-eye with focused attention: In some Zen-Buddhism schools, they suggest having eyes slightly open while keeping them focused on a single object. In some of my readings, they suggest studying that object until you know its every detail intimately. This practice can translate very well to martial arts, where having the ability to study an opponent and notice the smallest of details can often be the advantage needed to be victorious. As with most meditative techniques, the ability to focus depends on the ability to control one’s thoughts, to focus one’s mind, and again, this can only be accomplished through regular meditative practice.
Peace or Wolf
Most meditative schools will teach that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of peace, to control our thoughts, clear our mind, and become at peace with everything around us. Though I completely agree with this objective, I don’t believe it to be the only option. In my personal practice, I like to experiment with another possibility, especially when it comes to training, and that option, for me, is Wolf. The Wolf represents a symbol of power, of strong primal energy, something I can focus on in my visualization. These two options are important for the martial artist but require a different approach:
Peace: According to studies, regular practice of most meditative techniques leads to a natural evolution of self to a more peaceful state. Certain physiological changes occur in our brains that allow for this to happen. Without going into too much detail, our brain chemistry changes, our brainwaves re-calibrate and our nervous system readjusts. We begin to feel a stronger sense of balance and calmness while reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and anger. As a martial artist, I believe this to be incredibly beneficial. A clearer, well balanced mind allows for a better tuned body, faster thinking and a greater sense of confidence, all major advantages.
Wolf: I have experimented with this concept in different ways, and though it is still early in my practice, I have achieved some interesting results. The idea is this: when you gain a certain amount of control over your mind, you can begin to use visualization as a powerful tool. Instead of aiming for Peace, you can visualize yourself becoming more powerful, feel the energy coursing through your body as your mind becomes completely focused on the task at hand. In a previous article I discussed achieving a primal state. This technique can help you achieve that state. For each of us, power can be represented by a different symbol. For me, it is the Wolf. Again, this technique, like any other, requires control of the mind, control of our thoughts and especially control of our emotional state.
Both of these options are important to become a well-balanced martial artist. The secret is discovering that perfect balance, between Peace and Wolf that allows you to perform to the best of your abilities.
Practice: the only way
I’ve but touched on a topic that is incredibly vast and includes so much more information. Just like every other technique required in martial arts, the only way to perfect meditation is through hours of practice and repetition. The mind is a muscle that needs to be developed in order to better its performance. Our breathing system should be treated the same way. But most importantly, one must enter this practice with an open mind and a peaceful mind. Anger and aggression will only slow down the process as they are much harder to control and clear from our thoughts. These techniques are not for everyone, but to those who are willing, they can not only lead to better performances but also a better quality of life.