Mindful Martial Arts

By: Jeff Hutchings

Martial Arts, in its truest sense, is about the self, about building confidence and self-esteem, and having the ability to defend oneself is part of that


“Sensei, I get hit in the head a lot. I get bullied at school and some kids just come up to me and bump into me or slap me in the head.”

That was a young guy, age 11 (I’ll call him Jeff) in our Martial Arts class last night. The discussion was on how it feels to hit someone or to be hit. As instructors, we were taken aback a bit as this student rarely speaks up. Jeff’s sincerity was clear; this was a very troubling thing for him to deal with, and as his Karate instructors, it was hard for us to hear.

Building confidence

Martial Arts, in its truest sense is about the self, about building confidence and self-esteem, and having the ability to defend oneself is part of that. Just as important, though, Martial Arts is about Zanshin or ‘continued awareness.’

Sensei’s response to Jeff’s statements was considerate and serious. “Everyone sit. Let’s talk about this for a minute.”

We asked the kids about dealing with a situation like this, and the responses were honest and helpful to Jeff. ‘I’d tell my teacher!’ ‘I’d fight back if someone hit me!’ ‘If someone is in your personal space you have to tell them to STOP!’ ‘I’d just walk away!’

Sensei then took back the conversation and talked to the kids about situational awareness, or understanding your surroundings in an effort to mitigate awkward situations or confrontations.

It’s not about avoiding everything – it’s about being aware of everything.

In the Karate Dojo, Zanshin means always alert and prepared when engaged in Kihon (Drills), Kata (Patterns) or Kumite (Controlled Sparring). Outside the Dojo, Zanshin means being ever mindful of your surroundings. 

Target risks

We covered some basic stuff such as the risks of becoming a target by having your head buried in your locker, or having your attention tunneled into your smart phone in a busy hallway. The analogy I used was that you don’t typically walk out into a busy parking lot with your head down!

An alert target is less of a target. 

After that, we talked about composure. Specifically, body deportment as you go through your daily routines. Good posture in karate is a fundamental teaching as it portrays confidence, and it shores up your ability to act and react appropriately to deliver an attack or parry one. Scientifically, we know that consciously watching your posture and body demeanor actually tells your mind you are happier. Jeff was less likely to be hit if he composed himself to be more confident and aware.

Not looking like a victim may make you less of a victim. Just as important is the fact that looking positive attracts more positive. A senior Sensei of mine recently commented on the value of a positive attitude:

“Every soul that you meet on this road should be glad they met you,” Sensei Don Owens, 9th Dan, WJKA

Going through your day feeling destined to be met with turmoil increases you chances of meeting the same. There is no trouble to find someone to wallow in your sorrow, or in Jeff’s case, to open up a confrontation. On the other hand, increasing the chances of positive encounters during the day is often as simple as being open to them.

Dark clouds are only one small piece of the brilliance of Mother Nature.

Don’t carry the hurt

We then got the kids in groups of three and did some role-playing – as realistic as possible – to look at dealing with an aggressor. 

The final part of the class briefly dealt with the aftermath. In the karate Dojo, or in a competition, how you deal with losing a match or being hit is more important that the act itself. We discussed deep and conscious breathing as a means of gathering composure again. 

Life is about what you do next – how you react. 

We also talked about mental clarity after an incident; the effects of the hit (physical or emotional) can only stay with you if you let them. An incident may occur, but we don’t have to carry the hurt or embarrassment from that around with us for an extended period. We can feel the feelings, let the emotions pass through us and then focus our energy elsewhere. Carrying a grudge impedes our ability to enjoy what comes next.

The bully can’t take what you won’t allow. For Jeff, learning to avoid attacks is one thing, and fighting back is another, but dealing with the aftermath – of either outcome – was even more important. 

As humans, we have a tendency to hang onto the hurt someone causes us, even though we have absolutely no means to change what has already happened. Dr. Wayne Dyer said we should not waste another second trying to change what has already happened.

Therefore, in the Dojo, as well as on the street, we reminded Jeff not to allow anyone to steal his peace of mind by him dwelling on it; just breathe, think about it, feel the hurt… and then let it go. Stay heads-up for something positive to come.

Bullies are less inclined to bully those who won’t let them steal their joy.

Jeff looked more self-assured as the night went on. We did some blocking and counter-attacking in teams and his techniques were strong and confident. 

He’s beginning to realize that he can probably defend himself or get out of an ugly situation if he ever needed to, and sometimes that’s all kids really need – the confidence to walk away. That, armed with the knowledge not to hold onto the negative energy they encounter, is a combination for success. 

Principles of confidence

Karate, like most noble martial arts, is about combat skills that enable one to quickly put an end to a physical confrontation. Surrounding that, though, is the teaching of the principles of confidence and respect – for yourself as much as for your fellow human.

Ours is a traditional Martial Art where there is a place for self-defense, but the other side of the teaching is that every moment is a new moment, fresh and full of possibilities. 

Don’t waste all your energy looking back; you may need it to enjoy what is ahead.

In the end, the message for Jeff was to take responsibility in keeping a positive attitude, to stay in a place of awareness, and most importantly, not to let the foul plays spoil the game.

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