You may have heard that many martial artists will do some form of meditation either during their martial arts practice or as an addition to that practice before or after their workout.
There are very good reasons for this practice so let’s take a look at each of them and see how you can get the same benefits through meditation.
Why Do Martial Artists Meditate?
This is complicated and mainly because the original reason that meditation was incorporated into martial arts practice is lost to history. What we do know is that many martial arts, during their developmental process in the East, would have been practiced by monks and priests of different religions.
The most famous of which would be the Shaolin monks who lend their name to the school of Kung Fu that persists to this very day. The Shaolin monks were and still are Buddhists, but you can also find Daoist and other religious influences in martial arts. There are also practices related to “qi”, the “life energy” of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that involve meditating which would have infused themselves into martial arts over the years.
However, while we can’t say exactly why martial artists meditate from a historical perspective, we can look at the reasons (or benefits of doing so) today that make meditation a very common practice in martial arts.
It is worth noting that not all martial artists meditate, mind you. Boxing, for example, is a completely Western martial art (it originates in England) and as such it has no meditative component. This isn’t to say that there are no boxers that meditate (you would expect that many do) but rather that when a boxer meditates it is a separate practice to their martial arts practice.
Those that do meditate, whether or not their martial art demands it of them, may find up to 14 benefits from doing so. Some of these benefits are “claimed” benefits and are open to dispute – but many of them are scientifically substantiated.
That is, they have been proven to work under laboratory conditions. This is important because it gives us a basis to benefit from meditation in our lives, whether or not we practice martial arts, that is not up for debate.
Here are the 14 reasons why martial artists meditate – and why you should too!
Martial arts are fighting arts. Even Tai Chi, which is not always practiced as a fighting art, has its roots as a fighting discipline. Any fighter that lacks self-control is in serious trouble, no matter how skilled they are, sooner or later they will rush into a situation that they are not adequately prepared for and catastrophe may await.
Kung Fu, for example, was a warrior’s discipline. The Shaolin monks weren’t playing at Kung Fu – they were defending their lands against invaders, pirates and more. Without the self-control gained through clearing the mind of negative emotions (something done in meditation) the monks might well have been overwhelmed and destroyed by their enemies.
Oddly, this type of meditation is almost always conducted apart from the fighting in a seated or standing position because it requires deep visualization to reach its objectives.
The Manipulation Of Chi Within The Body
It is very important to define “Chi” as “life energy” here. This type of “Chi” or qi is not the “Chi” that is found in the name “Tai Chi” and, in fact, that discipline does not recognize the concept of “life energy” even though it too utilizes meditative practices.
Whilst many martial artists believe strongly in qi, there is no scientific evidence, whatsoever, that it exists and while many experiments have been conducted to locate it – none of have found it.
But, for those who do believe in qi, meditation is an essential part of either circulating Chi around their bodies to keep the system in balance or to focus their qi in a particular part of the body to overcome a deficiency in qi.
There are specific qi breathing meditations that include both sitting (or standing) and moving forms of meditation – they may incorporate both visualization and auditory techniques to deepen the level of mindfulness to achieve the required effect.
Related article: Can You See Chi Energy? The Scientific Vs The Spiritual
The Introduction of “No-Mind” Combat
This practice hails not from China but rather Japan. “No-mind” meditation is the more traditional meditation that most people first encounter when researching mindful practices. It is the art of simply clearing the mind to the point where the person meditating becomes “one with everything”.
When this is applied to martial arts, it means that there is no longer a distinction between the martial artist and their opponent. In theory, this level of deep understanding of the other person should allow them to anticipate every move that they will make before it is made and thus to be able to counter those moves in a beautiful flowing manner.
You can learn this form of meditation from Zen practices either from a teacher or through the use of books or audio material.
Lower Levels Of Stress
Possibly the number one reason that people opt to study meditation and mindfulness is to reduce stress. When we are stressed our bodies produce a hormone known as cortisol. High levels of this hormone create inflammatory responses in our bodies and sadly, inflammation is not healthy.
When this occurs, it can lead to all sorts of disruption to our physical and mental health and our overall level of happiness.
Goya et al. in their study, “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being” decided to examine firstly the overall existing data on meditation to see if it suggested that stress could be alleviated by the practice and they concluded that it did.
They then moved on to an 8-week trial involving 3,500 volunteers to see if they could demonstrate that meditating reduced stress. It did.
One very interesting finding of further research into meditation and stress is this: the more stressed that you are, the more you can benefit from meditating. So, if you feel overwhelmed by the pace of modern life or are under a ton of pressure for any reason – you really should give meditation a try.
To Reduce Anxiety
As you might expect, if meditation reduces stress, it also reduces the levels of anxiety we experience. Stress and anxiety are completely linked even thought it is not entirely clear if stress causes anxiety or vice-versa.
What is apparent, however, is that as stress/anxiety worsens, so does the other component. This is important because as we’ve already seen – meditation helps those with the highest levels of stress, the most.
It also helps, according to Ruth Baer’s paper, “Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program” to reduce all the measurable symptoms of anxiety this is as true for anxiety linked to a phobia as to more generic stress.
There are numerous other studies which have shown that meditation or meditation combined with other practices, such as martial arts or yoga, can help to reduce the anxiety that someone feels.
To Develop Better Emotional Resilience
Emotional health is not as well defined as “stress” or “anxiety” but what we can say is that emotionally healthy people don’t tend to suffer from depression and they do tend to have a self-image that they are happy with or, at least, aren’t unhappy with.
Jain et al, in their paper, “Critical Analysis of the Efficacy of Meditation Therapies for Acute and Subacute Phase Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Systematic Review,” found that meditation substantially reduced feelings of depression in adults.
A smaller study, “Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders,” showed that a group of patients who meditated for 3 years all had long-term alleviation of their depression.
Thus, it appears that meditation and emotional resilience are connected and that the more we meditate – the more likely we are to stop being depressed and to have a healthy self-image.
This isn’t true of all meditation or mindfulness activities but there are some specific practices that are designed to help you better understand who you are and how being you has an impact on other people.
There are also exercises that can train you to see thoughts more clearly and recognize when something that occurs to you is not in your own best interests. This, in turn, allows you to take more control over yourself and to choose more positive outcomes.
The studies in this area of practice have been quite small scale such as this one where a small group of women with cancer said that Tai Chi (and the meditation associated with it) helped to develop their self-esteem and this was shown to be better than receiving social support.
To Improve The Length Of Attention Span
Possibly the biggest curse of the “information era” is how badly it has impacted on the average attention span. With notifications and messages popping up every few seconds, we’re always trying to cram in as much as possible before the next distraction arrives.
This isn’t a good thing. Short attention spans harm our ability to learn and to interact and connect with other people. Fortunately, just 8 weeks of meditation has been shown to have a beneficial impact on our ability to pay attention.
This is a huge benefit which won’t just help your martial arts practice but your work as well. Employers tend to prefer employees that can focus on the task in hand.
To Prevent Memory Loss
There have been several small-scale studies that show that mediation can help prevent memory loss in our old age. The brain appears to function something like a muscle and the more of a workout that you give it – the better prepared it is to handle the later years of our lives when things start to go a little awry.
One study based on the Kirtan Kriya style of meditation (this involves using mantras as well as intricate patterns of the fingers to aid concentration of thoughts) showed a significant defense against memory loss in later years.
To Promote Kind Thinking
While ancient warriors may have used martial arts to wage war, the majority of us will not be leaping into ninja action on our neighbors at any point in time. In fact, most of us would prefer to have good relationships with our neighbors rather than to fight them.
Meditation may be able to help with that too. It can be harnessed to promote “kind thinking” that is the development of positive feelings toward yourself, then to friends and family, then to people you know and then to everyone including any “enemies” that you may have.
It is, of course, hard to measure the success of such efforts, however, there is a study which shows that the more effort you put into these styles of meditative practice, the more rewards that you will receive from doing so and the better disposed toward your fellow human beings that you will be.
To Ward Off Addiction
There are no guarantees that meditating will help you break an addiction but there are quite a few studies that show that the mental discipline that mindful practice brings can, indeed, help you better muster your willpower and redirect your thoughts to something other than the cravings for whatever it is you crave for.
There is a study with alcoholics that shows they found it easier to handle withdrawal and another with those addicted to food, that demonstrates less desire to binge eat while meditating. These are positive signs that meditation might be able to help people get their lives under control. This is, of course, something that many martial artists seek when they take up their art.
Ensuring A Good Night’s Sleep
Martial arts and the physical exercise they bring have been long linked with an improvement in people’s ability to sleep, as you might expect, working out is tiring and releases endorphins (happy chemicals your body produces naturally) to help you relax.
Meditation is also linked to better sleep. If your mind is clear and free of distractions before you close your eyes for the evening, it is easier to fall asleep. What is peculiar, however, is not only is it easier to fall asleep when you meditate regularly – you will also stay asleep for longer.
Yes, martial arts and mediation may be the ultimate cure for insomnia and it’s all natural too, there’s no chance of falling into an addiction to sleeping pills, etc.
Resisting And Controlling Pain
Meditation can help you combat pain. This is a very useful technique for martial artists who are likely, at some point in time, to suffer from some form of mild injury – that’s not to say you should go looking for an injury, it’s not a badge of honor, but rather that injuries happen as a nature of a dynamic sporting practice.
Not only can those who meditate combat and control pain but they are also less sensitive to pain in the first instance. If this was fully understood back in the early days of martial arts and meditation’s crossover, this may have been the driving force for the adoption of meditation in the arts.
Lowering Blood Pressure
If you have high blood pressure, then you’ll know that it has the potential to be deadly. The good news is that you can reduce your blood pressure through some very simple meditation. The use of what’s known as a “silent mantra” (that is a word you don’t speak but you repeat over and over in your head) was shown to significantly reduce the blood pressure of nearly 1,000 people in a trial!
The really good news from that study was – the higher your blood pressure is, the bigger the benefit you get from meditating. So, for some people, learning meditation is about more than martial arts it can be the, quite literal, difference between life and death.
So, there you have it. 14 reasons why martial artists meditate (and you should too). While the benefits to martial arts practice have, not yet, been fully tested there are numerous scientifically proven benefits of meditation to your overall life and they will have an impact on your martial arts practice.
Meditation will make you feel better, connect you to the world around you and for some people, it may just save their life too.