In my recent blogs I have been exploring the concept of mindfulness as it relates to the practice of martial arts and personal safety. Mindfulness, in essence, involves fully paying attention to the present moment, without judging or reacting to it. Living mindfully is good for our health and wellbeing. It enables us to gain control over our attention, attitude, and actions. This means we can break the cycle of worry and negative self-talk, focus on and live fully in the present moment, and act in ways that are well thought through and beneficial to us. This makes us feel happier and our life richer and more meaningful.
Mindfulness is not easy to achieve and does not come naturally to most of us. Our minds get flooded with thoughts and judgments, we get distracted, and we often try juggling too many things at once. We rarely completely focus our full awareness on each present moment, without any form of judgment. Mindfulness therefore, is something we need to practice.
Mindfulness can be practised at anytime, anywhere, and while undertaking any activity. This includes mindful movement, such as martial arts. Here are five exercises you can use to bring mindfulness into your regular martial arts practice.
1. Mindfully warming up: Observe your body when you are doing your warm up. Really focus your attention and awareness on each part of your body. This includes noticing for example, the sensations in your muscles as you are stretching them. For example, are they tense, relaxed, sore, or tight? Notice your thoughts and gently let go of any judgments, such as, “I am not flexible enough” or “I’m in pain and will really struggle tonight”. If you find your mind drifting off, gently bring it back to observing your body.
2. Observe your breathing: Focus your awareness on the air flowing in and then flowing out. This involves observing the movement of your lungs, chest and belly, the sensations in your nostrils, and the pauses in between the in and out breaths. Observe your breath not only when stationary, but also when you are moving, such as during your kicks, techniques and martial arts forms. Experiment with lengthening your in and out breath. When doing a kihap (kiai or martial arts yell), observe the sensation of the air being forced out of your lungs.
3. Move mindfully: When undertaking a specific martial arts movement, such as a kick, follow the sensations in your body as you move. For example, when doing a roundhouse kick, focus on the sensations in your body when you are in your martial arts stance. Observe each change in movement as you prepare for and execute the kick. Focus on the sensations in your muscles and joints when for example, lift your leg to chamber, you pivot on the ball of your base foot, you extend your leg to kick, and when you return back to your stance. Slow each movement down and really focus on the sensations in your body.
4. Observe your thoughts: When doing a series of martial arts movements, such as hyung or forms in Kuk Sool Won™ (patterns in Taekwondo or kata in karate), we often have a mixture of thoughts in our head. Some of these can be quite negative, such as “I can never remember”, or “I’m never going to be good enough”, or “I can’t get low enough in my stances”. Sometimes we are on autopilot, with no conscious thoughts in our minds or with our thoughts distracted by something else. Even positive thoughts can detract from being fully present in our bodies. To achieve a better balance between our thoughts and movements, we first need to become aware of our thinking. We do this by observing our thoughts, without judging them or trying to control them. This exercise enables us to become aware of how our thoughts intrude on and distract us from fully experiencing each present moment.
5. Participate with awareness: Once we become aware of our thoughts, we can then begin to gently let go of those which are negative or distracting. If we pay full attention to what we are doing in each moment and let go of everything else, we are participating fully in that moment. Once you have practised observing your thoughts, try to do your forms while letting go of all those thoughts and judgments that are distracting or negative. As they come into your head, notice them and then gently let them go rather than fixate on them. Refocus on each movement. While it is not easy, over time it will come more naturally to you. It will add to your ability to improve your form and make your training much more enjoyable.
Mindfulness is something which needs to be practised. Try these exercises for several weeks and observe how they affect your training. You can also try finding other ways to incorporate these types of mindfulness skills into your other martial arts activities (such as breakfalls and technique training), and then into other aspects of your daily life. This will not only improve your martial arts training, but also act as a great stress reliever.
JKN Jane Hurst
First degree black belt and school owner
Kuk Sool Won™ of Onewhero
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Caroline is a 4th degree black belt and Jane is a 1st degree black belt in the traditional Korean martial art of Kuk Sool Won™ . They run 2 Kuk Sool Won™ martial arts schools in New Zealand.