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Martial Arts for Stress, Balance, and Happiness

During the 15 years that I had a career in the corporate world, I was often asked how I was able to not display signs of stress when everything seemed to be going wrong – as it very often does when you work in IT!


My standard answer was, “Because I spend every evening and weekend punching things!”


For over a decade, I lived almost a dual life: martial artist and an IT (sometimes) professional, working a 40 hour week in the office, and dedicating anywhere between 20-30 hours per week to training, and later teaching my own classes. All the time whilst bringing up my daughter and somehow managing to keep a few friendships along the way!


What was really happening was that practicing, and later teaching, martial arts provided me personally with a balanced and meaningful life, one in which the daily stresses were kept into perspective and when things were not going right, I had an outlet to help keep me in check and quickly recover. 



Life can be pretty damned tough at times. Even taking out of the equation our current pandemic, we’re constantly juggling work and family commitments, squeezing time out of our busy schedules to try to keep physically fit, looking after our health or that of a loved one, educating ourselves, balancing our finances, managing debt, keeping up with friends – not to mention the constant bombardment of commercialism, media and social media that is ever present as an outlet but in actuality is often compounding our stresses.


In a 2018 study a YouGov poll with a sample of almost 5000 people – and the largest study into mental health in the UK – a whopping 74% of people reported feeling stress and having had feelings of overwhelm or of being unable to cope in the previous year. This led to 51% of respondents feeling depressed and 61% reporting feelings of anxiety. (Source: www.mentalhealth.org.uk)


I can only imagine what those statistics are now after more than 6 months of living under a global pandemic. 


We need an outlet

In martial arts we are concerned primarily with balance. The Chinese martial arts in particular spring from the perfect representation of balance, the taiji (yin and yang). 


Without a balance between all of the aspects of our life, we suffer, either physically or mentally, possibly in the short term but definitely in the medium and long term our physical and/or mental health is bound to suffer.


Of course the search for balance is, like anything worthwhile, a lifetime pursuit and not something which will be perfected by us mere mortals but in the attempted achievement of our aims. However, as the saying goes, it’s the journey not the destination. We can choose between a meaningful or a hellish journey!


I have known so many people who focus on work and family/home life at the neglect of themselves. Finding balance is difficult but, if like many people, you find yourself focused on the first two and slipping on the latter, you may not be doing yourself – and in turn your family and career – any favours.


I always stress – you need an outlet, you need to do something for yourself to discover balance and meaning.


Balance and Meaning

Notice that I recommend finding balance and a meaningful path. The pursuit of a stress free and happy life is not going to happen and I don’t believe it should be sought.


We need the right amount of stress in our lives. We’re designed for it. We shouldn’t be worried about nothing! In the right dose it can cajole and encourage us to try harder, improve ourselves, and help those around us. Like anything, we need to find a balance where it serves us well, but does not overawe us. 


If you’re looking for a happy life, unfortunately you’re going to be sadly disappointed (or worse) for much of your time here. Bad things, ranging from hard days at work and petty arguments, to the harshness of betrayal and the death of loved ones and ourselves are inescapable facts of life. They will happen. 


Where a balanced outlook will help with the stresses that we inevitably face, a life of meaning and purpose will keep us in check when those things which bring about unhappiness serve us their blows, big or small, and give us the focus and determination we need to recover. By not seeking a state of happiness as a final destination, you’re going to be much happier along the way!


For me, I derive much of my balance and meaning from a practice of tai chi and other martial arts.


What Martial Arts Can Offer 

I see three key areas where training in the martial arts can help with stress. I break them down into mind, body, breath. 


The first kung fu form that a student learns in the White Crane syllabus is called Three Wars, or Three Battles. The three things that we need to bring into balance are the mind, body, and breath.


Whether it is punching pads, running, lifting weights, or learning a traditional martial art, if entered into with the right mindset, they are all a microcosm of your life. How we do one thing, is how we do everything, and the lessons to be gained from pursuits such as the ones listed above are more relevant than we often think.


 – Mind

Meditation is great and it is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do for yourself, especially if you have a stressful and very busy lifestyle. 


However, many find it very difficult as well as potentially time consuming, sitting quietly can often compound problems by making them race through our heads even more – and there simply isn’t the inclination or the guidance available to get through those difficulties. You don’t need to sit in quiet contemplation, try a punching meditation.


Meditation for me is the ability to clear the clutter of my mind. There are many ways you can do this and if approached in the right way, physical exercise – whatever it is – is a tremendous form of meditation.


Some of my best ‘meditations’ have been whilst lifting weights… from the mindful preparation of the equipment, the focus on my posture and positioning – if it’s not right, it’s going to hurt, to the lifting itself – especially an overhead lift, one mistake and it’s a ruined floor, or foot, or worse! Total focus from start to finish, and no random thoughts entering my head. 


Repetitions of punches are the same – or any other technique you might want to choose – there may be a little less danger involved than a weight but with the total focus first of all on the basic positioning and posture, your monkey mind can attune with the body and the thing that I like about technique meditation is that you can do hundreds of repetitions, getting to the point where there is nothing but the technique and everything else has dropped away, also bringing a physical relaxation into the body, which brings us on to the next ‘battle’…


 – Body

Tai Chi is a body awareness practice – other martial arts, and forms of physical training should be treated in the same way. Having a finely tuned ability to use the body correctly is something that we should all be striving towards in our chosen endeavours.


Our upbringings and lifestyles are often not conducive to feeling an integration between our mind and our bodies. Confined for hours a day to a seated position for decades through education and our corporate careers, it seems the problem is becoming increasingly compounded.


Spending a day working at a desk in front of a computer, followed by an evening sitting on a sofa is a slow form of decay and torture for the body. You evolved to move!


Having an overly stimulated brain, yet a body still (and often in a position that is not good for us), can only add to the stresses of our daily lives. 


Over millions of years, it was deeply encoded within our DNA that we are physically active. We needed to move for our very survival, chasing things in order to eat and running away from things in order to survive! As we moved into more of an agricultural based society we were still required to be physical beings. The nature of the movement perhaps changed and became less free in its nature, more repetitive, which would no doubt have been the case during the industrial age. In our current era – of technology – the vast majority of us have just stopped moving! 


Whilst I would rather be safe on my armchair than hunted by a sabre toothed tiger on the savannah (if that’s where they lived!), the point is we have drastically moved away from what we evolved to do over the past few decades. 


We still have stresses, we still have the hormonal spikes of cortisol – nowadays the elevation is triggered by an annoying email from a boss or colleague – the difference is that we don’t have the physicality of running away before the email can catch us and the post-chase decline of the stress hormones that fighting or fleeing would give us, they remain elevated for long periods of time, causing health issues such as high blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, anxiety, depression, etc.


You need a physical outlet, you were born and evolved to have a physical outlet – it’s a fundamental, core part of your being. Neglect it at your peril!


 – Breath

The Tao Te Ching verse 10 tells us: 

‘Can you focus your breath as supple as a newborn child?’


Genesis 2:7 says: 

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’


I’m not a practitioner of either Taoism or Christianity but the message is clear from the foundations of our civilisation: breath is rather important! 


It gives us our very life and retains our health. 


Yet, how often do we really focus on it? Something so simple and vital, yet until I purposefully started learning arts such as qigong, tai chi, kung fu, etc… I don’t recall anyone instructing me of the benefits to focusing on my breath. 


Why don’t schools offer classes in how to breathe properly!?


Sadly, I see it in my practice as a teacher of tai chi and qigong, people do not have the capacity to breathe properly. Just like our mind and our bodies, we have become disconnected to our breathing. 


The simple act of taking a few deep breaths can drastically transform our physiology. Almost instantly the stress hormones coursing throughout our bodies in stressful situations are reduced, bringing about an increased clarity and calmness. (You can follow one of our free videos on www.whitecraneonline.com and try it for yourself!). 


Back to Balance

Finding balance between and within the mind, body, and breath is ongoing, it will never stop, you will never master it. However, that shouldn’t stop you from trying! 


The pursuit of this balance is where we derive our purpose and our meaning –  and the benefits. If you’re looking for a stress free life, good luck, life is going to be incredibly stressful at times. If your end goal is happiness, well you’re going to die and so is everyone you love – your search for it is futile. 


I believe that we can find balance and live a happy life by following a path and having a meaning and purpose. For some it may be religion, for some it could be yoga, a time honored philosophy, or whatever it is that serves you. 


For me, it is a daily practice of traditional martial arts, particularly tai chi, and an ever present focus on the mind, body, and breath, that even when day-to-day stresses, as well as life’s major catastrophes occur, I’m as equipped as I can be to keep my stress levels in balance, retain my optimism, bounce back stronger than ever and enjoy the journey.

2 responses on "Martial Arts for Stress, Balance, and Happiness"

  1. Thanks Mark, a really good post!

  2. brilliantly said ! Breathing is the first thing we do on entering this world, and the last on leaving. In between we forget about how important the focused/conscious breath is for us.

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