“Karate Kid” was a classic 1984 film that took the entertainment world by storm. The film has been remade over and over again and has been seen by millions of viewers around the world. It is the story of a young boy trying to fit in and trying to find his way through life without a male influence. It’s the basic tale of many movies, boy gets picked on, boy meets girl, girl believes in boy, boy figures out some way to fight back, boy fights back and wins, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The film also, if watched carefully, gives some of the secrets of Okinawan longevity. The mentor to the main character, Daniel, is a mysterious Okinawan handyman named Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi practices a strange discipline which he calls karate do. He refuses initially teach Daniel karate because, “karate not about fighting.” And of course eventually Daniel wears him down learns the mysterious art and beats up the bad guys.
The island of Okinawa has the longest lifespan of any place in the civilized world. Okinawans remain active into their late 70s and beyond. A study of Okinawan Centenarians set out to find out why.
The traditional diet of Okinawa is high in soy and low in meat and saturated fats. On average Okinawans have 80% less heart attacks than Americans. Okinawans tend to drink lots of water and green tea. Gluttony, and over indulging with food is frowned upon. There is an Okinawan expression which translates to “stop eating when 80% full.” Until recently Okinawans had few modern entertainment luxuries such as computers and cable TV. Okinawans tend to stay active for recreational and entertainment purposes as they age, participating in walking, gardening, dancing, and martial arts-particularly karate do. Older Okinawans tend to lead less stressed lives. No rush hour, no alarm clocks, waking with sunrise, and sleeping with sunset. Following the natural rhythms of life and having a positive outlook is a huge part of why Okinawans live longer.
The “do” in karate do translates to the word “way,” as in a way of life. Here is where Mr. Miyagi gives some secrets of Okinawan longevity. He leads a life of daily discipline, enjoying the discipline and finding it meaningful. He rises every morning and starts his day with a mindful routine of karate training based on rhythmic moves, practicing karate techniques. These routines are called “kata,” and are the heart and soul of karate do. To the uninitiated kata looks much like tai chi or rhythmic dance. After this training Miyagi has a light, simple meal, drinks some tea, practices some meditation and goes about his day. At the end of the day Miyagi may practice kata again at sunset, play his mandolin, or spend some time carefully trimming his bonsai tree. Throughout the day he avoids negative thinking, and worrying about the things that he cannot control. Karate is the frame for his day-a beginning and an end.
So why the benefit of such a lifestyle? How does karate do contribute to a longer life span? Part of the answer lies in the benefits of kata on physical health and brain health. The physical benefit of rhythmic movement done with varying degrees of intensity is obvious. What’s not so obvious is the benefits of such movement on brain health and neuroplasticity. Such movement engages mind and body allowing the brain to generate new neural pathways improving brain function and capabilities. (See also “Tough Guys Should Dance” January 4, 2014.)
In addition to increasing the lifespan the Okinawan lifestyle adds “life to the years.” Leisure activities that are mind body based, particularly those that stress physical balance, insulate the practitioner from falls-one of the leading causes of injuries as we age. The emphasis on stances, postures, and fluid movements creates a more energetic and mobile senior citizen. Balance training is very subtle but necessary if an energetic lifestyle is to be maintained.
So what’s the take home, “news you can use,” points here? A simple web search of the Okinawan diet will yield tons of good information and examples of how to change your dietary habits. The challenge here is finding mindful physical and mental activities to get immersed in and make them a part of your lifestyle. Miyagi patiently trimming the bonsai tree may be similar to you cooking, drawing, journaling, woodworking, knitting, building a model plane, or any other mindful activity that does not tax you physically. Miyagi’s kata may be your yoga practice, tai chi, stretching routine, or it could be your kata practice. The key elements in the physical practice that you select is that the moves are practiced deliberately, slowly, and are studied. In this context studied means thought about in a meditative, time altering, mind-body practice. Noticing the subtle improvements and day to day changes in your balance and body awareness are the keys to making full use of this activity.
Learning a mind-body study can be done in a formal setting such as a karate class. Look for and Okinawan system such as Uechi Ryu or Gojo Ryu which emphasizes karate as a way of living more so than a self-defense method. If that’s not your cup of tea perhaps a tai chi class or even downloading tai chi or kata videos from YouTube would be a good idea. Yoga also fills the same need and can be learned both in class and through videos. Find something that is both fun, physical, and challenging for your mind as much as your body. Study the movements, get into the feeling of the movements, and learn what it feels like to get in touch with your physical being.
The goal here is not to “beat up the bullies,” or is it? Maybe kicking Father Time’s butt isn’t a bad idea. A comprehensive lifestyle change can lead to an improved attitude and outlook on life that can’t help but lead to a better quality of life.
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