It’s impossible to completely separate the elements of mind, body, and spirit because we as human beings need the mix of the three to mold who we are, both as individuals and as martial artists. But studying these elements separately help us to understand how they contribute to an individual’s journey as they learn to be martial artists.

I recently shared time and breakfast with a group of martial artists. We always talk about martial arts, of course, but on this particular day the conversation centered around what makes people gravitate towards the arts, and why they often consider serious training, but procrastinate about actually committing to the learning.

Often the reasons are practical: lack of time, lack of money, inability to find a dojo they feel comfortable in. But a closer look reveals that these practicalities are often a screen for deeper reservations. Are they intimidated by a misconception that it’s too violent? Or do they see it as not as a serious endeavor, but more of a recreational activity? Interestingly, the one I hear most is ” I need to get in better shape before I start.” This one is particularly puzzling as the student will eventually get into shape as they train. It seems the reasons for beginning the martial path are more complex than for beginning standard types of recreational activity.

At breakfast, the other martial artists gave short testimonials about what originally brought each of them to the martial arts, and how it has enriched their lives. As each person told their story, we noticed that there were common threads: the mind, the body, and the spirit. Discussing how these three elements became so important in the growth of each individual during their training was food for further attention.

The Mind
What gets a person to step into a Dojo for the first time? Is it the mind that prompts the decision to join up, or is it the body? A few of us, including me, thought it was the body, or more specifically a threat to the body, that was first. For example: perhaps the person had been physically attacked, or abused in some way? It would make sense that he or she would not want such an act repeated, and would take steps to learn to defend themselves. But others around the table noted that in this scenario it be still the mind making the decision to research different institutions of self defense, and then join.

So let’s start with the most abstract part, the mind.

Once the person decides on a style of martial arts and finds a school that fits their needs, then the lessons and commitment begin. The mind begins its journey to learn the exercise, movements, and techniques that will become habit at a later date. The mind is very much like a computer in that it needs input, and must process that input by focusing on the new task at hand.

The first step is what I call “The Dance,” which is a structured set of non-intensive movements that are practiced slowly and methodically. These teach the mind to focus, and get the body to perform the actions needed to build a solid base. A strong foundation is critical, and every student is different in the way they process information. We as their instructors must always be conscious of this, and try to tailor the lessons to each student. In martial arts, one size never fits all. Students thrive and learn more quickly when we work with them on an individual level. It is important to recognize and work their strengths, and strengthen their weaknesses.

Once the students mind has the pattern down, we can begin to fine tune what it already knows or is familiar with. This approach builds confidence in most students because they begin to realize they can achieve more than they thought they could. This part of mindfulness will carry on throughout their martial arts training, and hopefully their lives. As long as they train they will consistently experience moments of self-discovery and realize they are tougher than they think they are. They learn to push themselves further. This portion of the mind’s journey is a delicate one — students often must deal with the fear of looking stupid, the fear of doing it wrong, the fear of possible failure. Even something as simple as learning to kiai (a warriors battle cry) can derail a student at this point.

It’s the support and reassurance of the instructors and fellow students that help to put the worried mind of the novice to rest. It takes time and it takes patience, which is another aspect of training the mind. The student’s growing assurance in his/hers progress, tempered with the fear of failure or other concerns, will gradually build both humility and confidence at the same time. Failure is a great teacher, and builds character. Going through each stage of learning self-defense is never easy, and it never should be.

But patience, and learning to slow the mind down when in a stressful environment, is of utmost importance. If a student loses control of themselves while training it can greatly impact their lives both inside the dojo and in a life and death situation. But the tension between humility and confidence is a difficult line to walk. And I always say, if you’re comfortable on the mat, then you aren’t learning anything.

I believe that a large part of being a good martial artist is learning to control one’s emotions. It’s not easy. The mind does what it needs to, to try and protect itself and the body from harm or humiliation. But to remain as clear headed as possible is the key to effective self-defense and long, hard training is necessary. Depending on the ability of the student and how much he or she trains on their own, the techniques will become more fluid, and more accurate. With continued training, the mind will become strong, and begin to pick out alternate targets, and the student recognizes how their own body and the attacker’s body moves, and provides ways to capitalize on these motions.

Still, at this stage of training the students still need constant review to achieve continued growth in lessons. Reinforcement allows confidence to build, along with positive reassurance of what they are doing. Simultaneously the instructors must require them to not let past lessons fade, and let them know that they are on the right path.

Once the dance has been elevated to exact, technical moves the student’s mind seeks to learn new things. Curiosity about variations on techniques is a sign the student is ready to learn more, and should be encouraged as this shows a true martial arts mind beginning to blossom.

Eventually there will be a point during training when students are required to begin thinking for themselves, and to start putting together fighting combinations, reactions, and responses on their own. This is essential to building self-confidence, to achieving better awareness, to learn patience, and to becoming proficient in slowing the mind down under stress. Successful independent thinking will also help the student develop a feeling of self worth and assist them in reducing stress levels, both in the dojo and in the real world. In addition all these elements are essential in dealing with everyday life. When a student enters the dojo, he/she is told to leave all their mental baggage outside. And then pick it back up when you leave. And hopefully they will look upon it with a different attitude. This positive build up of the practitioners mind is critical, but the instructor must also make sure that the ever-present ego doesn’t rear its ugly head. I always say, don’t leave what you have learned today in the dojo; take it with you, and apply your mindfulness out in the world. Be aware, and be humble.

The Body
Eventually the Body knows the routine, which some call, “muscle memory.” There is really no such thing. It stems from the mind, and becomes an automatic reaction that the mind pushes to the back burner to allow the body to move on its own.

Once the mind is properly acclimated to the martial arts routines and is accustomed to the patterns and techniques taught, there is a point in time where the mind and body begin to compete with each other.

This is a grey area I see often while training or being trained. Each person learns at their own pace and has their own timeline for reaching the point when the mind is confident enough to let go and not get in the way of the body when responding to danger. With more training (repetition), both on and off the mat, this automatic response will come sooner rather than later. This, of course, is essential in actual self defense application. As Bruce Lee said, very poignantly in the movie, “Enter the Dragon:” “A fight is like a small play but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. When there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” This should be our ultimate goal.

An important layer of training that must be addressed is body conditioning. People say all the time, “I will join but I need to get into shape first.” Nonsense! This is only an excuse to delay. Often this goes back to a basic misconception of what the martial arts is all about. Most people only have observed MMA in UFC, or Bellator. I’m not saying that there’s anything bad about the sport, but civilians often believe that this is all there is to training in the martial arts. I believe martial arts is for much more than kicking, punching and violence.

How well do you know your body and what is capable of? How long are your arms and legs, really? Believe it or not, most people don’t know the answers. They may know by a measurement, but not by distance. In a real fight, knowing the correct distance between you and your attacker is crucial. How close must the attacker be before you flip the switch and leap into action? And last but not least: who are you really inside? Some like what they find out about themselves and some are disappointed. And for the latter? They may need guidance to work on that to make it better. That’s part of our jobs as their coaches and mentors: to help them become the best they can be. I do not have enough words to drive home the importance of this. The more you train, the more you’ll learn about yourself.

As the students grow and learn, their distancing and reaction times will improve. The darker the belt, the tougher the cardio and the harder the hits. We must constantly work on strengthening our weapons ( hands, arms, fingers, feet ,legs and core). Why? Because we can’t always depend on having a weapon on us, or nearby. We have to use our bodies. Martial arts really about self-discovery, and about avoiding violence and violent situations, and treating others with respect.

We’ve learned that if we immediately teach students to strike each other hard and when most have never experienced being struck before, the risks of severe injuries – even mild shock increases. It’s counterproductive to beat on each other all of the time, and if this happens most students will become discouraged. If we do things this way we wouldn’t have any students, much less partners to train with. Obviously, we must condition the body and mind to recognize and be ready for the oncoming impact, but it’s best to work up to it gradually. This keeps us from freezing up, or going into shock. Training should be real enough to illicit the proper response, to understand what the strike feels like, to do a millisecond assessment as we block and counter. It should be enough so the student becomes desensitized to the attack, and develops the control to prevent sending their partners to the hospital. As instructors, we must think of the safety of the students first, and the safe way is to start slow, and slowly build intensity.

To create control, the type of exercises we do are important. Different schools have their own protocol in this department, but in essence one should be good enough shape to handle a longer-than-normal fight. Some schools teach only self-defense techniques, others may burn 30 minutes of an hour on conditioning only, but that decision is up to the student at sign-up time. The practitioner will figure out what needs to be done physically, so their body is in the condition it needs to be in to sustain the actual martial arts training. Optimally, the student will address conditioning outside of the dojo.

No one ever really gets used to taking a hit, but when the practitioner becomes accustomed to it and learns the correct ways to cover up and respond, taking hits gets easier. It depends on the situation; sometimes in a real fight you may need to sacrifice your body in order to get close enough to your opponent to be effective. There will be times in an altercation when one must make that snap decision to take a kick or punch from an opponent, just to get in close enough to return fire.

The previous generation of martial artists said, “In order to give pain, you have to learn to take it.” This style of thought and training also requires building a tremendous amount of trust amongst all the practitioners. They need to trust each other, because at the advanced level they will be training spontaneous and non-compliant reaction drills, which teach them to defend and get away within 2-3 seconds. In these drills the fight isn’t over until one participant is subdued. Up to this point the students have had structured techniques to learn in order to teach the body how to move efficiently, while gradually beginning to think outside of the box and start reacting to any target that is exposed to them.

As the training intensifies and the time for actual thought gets shorter, the ultimate goal is to finish any altercation within seconds of it starting. Accurately striking any available vital point is successfully achieved through quick reflexes and good foot work, and you might only have one chance at it. The only way to reach this level is repetition, repetition, repetition. This way the possibility of damage to one’s self is greatly diminished.

It’s important for the student to realize that getting out of a fight unhurt is nearly impossible. This mindset, coupled with training the body, is very important. Yes, getting home safely is the goal, but to be realistic is to understand that, when there is no other choice, you need to do what it takes to get home, and inflicting damage on the attacker as quickly as possible is first and foremost. The person being attacked needs to have the correct mindset when defending themselves. The vital parts of the body and head should be the first targets attacked. Make each strike count with no wasted techniques. One must engage with the serious intent to end this violent encounter quickly. In order for this pattern of thinking to be possible, it needs to be coupled with training in flexibility, and cardio.

Having good flexibility aids in reducing injuries, during training as well as real street situations. The more flexible the body the better, so when the student throws a kick or punch they won’t pull a muscle or tear a tendon or ligament. The move can be smooth, and not restrained. Flexibility also allows a wider range of techniques, and more target options as well.

The importance of training cardio is obvious. The student, at best, wants to be in good enough shape to be able to absorb a series of punishing blows, including blocking and deflecting, as well as striking. But as mentioned earlier, the practitioner never wants to become exhausted during a fight. We are taught to be aware of the adrenaline spike, how to conserve energy during a physical altercation, and how and when to counter and strike back. Once the stamina is spent, you automatically lose the fight, and losing means you may not make it home. It’s a scary thought.

So train like your life depends on it, because it does. Training your body is like an insurance policy. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

The Spiritual/Soul
As I’ve lightly touched on earlier, there is no clear separation of mind, body, and spirit or soul. There are areas where they overlap, and one cannot be a complete martial artist without all of these elements. Without first laying down the foundation with mind and body, the development of the spirit/soul would be nearly impossible, and incomplete at best. I speak about the spiritual not necessarily in a religious sense, but more in the way of being aware of your actions, and responses to things around you. We train to protect ourselves and our loved ones, to inflict severe injury on a human body when there is no other option. We need to learn how to pick our battles, and learn how to walk away. We need to learn to be aware of our surroundings – to case the room, quickly to observe all living things in the room, to see where the exits are, and to be conscious of who walks in and out of the room. We need to learn to listen to the little voice in our head, telling us that something is not right. These are all part of our human animal side, warning us of potential dangerous situations, and should never be ignored. It’s a message from your spirit.

Another aspect of the spiritual is of self discovery. What kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be? Assuming the student has been consistent, dedicated, and trained seriously with complete focus over many years , and knows the local laws pertaining to their training, they now have the tools to defend themselves and know what kind of martial artist they want to be. We train to hurt bad people, and that’s a huge responsibility. How does a student react to that notion? There are different paths to walk.

  1. Walking through life in peace. To spread love, happiness, truth, and joy with all others. To be honestly humble and to be respectful to others. To be a caring person. To allow your training to help you be better than you were the day before. To live aloha, and the way of Budo.
  2. Cocky or arrogant. To walk around with an attitude, to bully others, to inspire fear.
  3. Attention junkie. To do for others only if it boosts your own ego to demand acknowledgement, trophies, rank, and accolades that they may not have earned.

Examples two and three unfortunately exist in the martial arts world. It is difficult to believe that anyone who truly trained, spilling blood, sweat, and tears would ever think in this manner, but like this are out there, and they give all legitimate martial artist a bad name. Beware of these types. This is not the path of true martial artists, and their attitudes have nothing to do with proper etiquette or respect.

But there are martial artists who have chosen the first path, or the way of Budo. Budo is a Japanese term meaning “martial way,” and refers to those martial disciplines whose ultimate goal is spiritual, ethical and moral self-improvement. The characters “bu” and “do” in “budo” are rich in meaning and have many secondary interpretations. True dojos, or houses of learning, teach of this and work to instill in their students this way of living and treating others. The ones on the other side of the fence are easily recognized because they have no manners or respect for themselves or others, and they show it in their words and actions. These are the ones who are “Ronin” – these who never had a real master to teach them the correct way of Budo. They are fakes, trying to capitalize off the martial arts community for their own benefit. I have no patience, or time to waste with them. I’m too busy trying to live the first path.

What I am trying to say is that being spiritual is the sense of being good to others at all times. To be good to yourself, to gain confidence in one’s self, to like the skin you walk in, and to like and love the person you are inside. Help where you can. Mentor those who are seeking some guidance. Feed your soul by feeding others. GGM Uncle Allen Joe once told me that our generation needs to right some wrongs in the martial arts community, things that the elders haven’t been able to address. We need to continue Bruce Lee’s philosophy, ideals, and legacy by sharing more with each other, and becoming one family. We need to stop feeding into the classical mess and train with each other, and learn from each other. We need to share openly. This is a promise I am trying to keep, and I’m going to carry it on as best I can out of love and respect.

This is what makes me spiritually happy. Now it’s time to go find yours.

If you feed the mind, body, and spirit/soul, they will give back, exactly like yin and yang. Everything comes full circle sooner or later. The mind, body, and spirit/soul will flourish with proper guidance and training. The three elements cannot exist alone and are the foundation to becoming the martial artist the practitioner wants to be. The martial arts are not about violence. They’re about avoiding violence and protecting one’s self and loved ones from it. It’s much more than punching and kicking, it’s about self-discovery.

Mahalo for walking this path with me, because as a martial artist, I am willing to walk your path with you.

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