The aging of the Baby Boom Generation has created many exciting trends in what has become known as mind body medicine. This generation has redefined what it means to grow old. The needs of the Boomer generation have revised many facets of American culture. Recent trends in healthcare are now focusing not only on health, but on longevity, well-being, and quality of life. Mindfulness based practices are now encouraged by mainstream healthcare providers as viable ways to improve, maintain, and enjoy life for people over the age of 40. While many are aware of the benefits of yoga, tai chi, and meditation, few think of karate do as beneficial. Too bad, because karate do is probably the most comprehensive of all mind body activities.
It is important to distinguish karate do from karate. Karate do (pronounced dough) literally translates to “the way of karate.” In its most exact translation it means “the karate way of life.” Unfortunately, most Americans think of karate as a bunch of cute eight-year-olds wearing pajamas, running wild in some “studio,” and receiving their coveted black belt before middle school. This is not what karate was developed for, and it is not the way that it is practiced in Okinawa. Such practice is not karate do and is probably the reason that the benefits of karate as a lifetime practice are so unknown. Karate do is more beneficial for adults than children, and the irony is that at the stage of life where a person can most benefit from karate do it is not even considered by those who could benefit from it the most. Too bad, because many are missing out on the health benefits to the mind, body, and spirit that long time practitioners of karate do enjoy.
Karate do, like most things Asian, has Taoist influences. A class in a karate do school is a 90 minute to 2 hour immersion in Okinawan culture. Class begins with a brief meditation as students “bow in.” There is nothing religious about the bow, it is merely a clearing of the mind to prepare the student for the class, leaving the outside world at the door so to speak. Students, while kneeling, clap their hands two times over their head in a Taoist tradition. The sound of the clapping awakens the spirit that resides in the room. A karate do training hall is called a dojo, which means “a place of enlightenment,” where one approaches the activity with an open mind and learns valuable lessons about themselves. Class begins with students going through a 10 set series of warm-up exercises called junbi undo. This series warms up the body from ankles to neck with emphasis on joint mobility. Movements are done at a pace that is comfortable so as to prepare the body for what is to come. These 10 exercises alone are perhaps the best thing one can do to maintain joint mobility and balance as one ages.
After warm-up students engage in a practice called sanchin. Sanchin translates to “three conflicts,”or the fusion of mind, body, and spirit. Exercise is done three times with a different emphasis for each. The slow one has the mindfulness elements of tai chi to it, emphasizing movement, balance, and precision. It is a moving meditation, simple in its performance, but profound in its benefits. Sanchin can be practiced in the dojo or at home. It combines tai chi principles with active meditation, and is a way to meditate for those who are easily distracted.
Sanchin is usually followed by drills that are unique to that particular school and that particular teacher. There are, however, consistent practices and basic exercises that all schools have in common. If the school is truly a karate school, the basic element of the practice is an activity called kata. Kata is where the self-defense principles are. It’s also where most of the mind body benefits are hiding. These movements are the heart and soul of karate do. Students learn precise movements that they practice/study but never fully master. Kata study is ultimately a self study of your body’s ability to move in a state of strength, speed, and balance. A students kata changes as they do, and over time students become aware of what’s going on with them physically through how the kata feels to them. While kata holds self-defense techniques, self-defense is only one reason to study kata. The mind-body benefits far outweigh anything else. Done slowly, seeking a state of balance, a student can get the same benefits derived from tai chi. The exercise can be as hard or as easy as the student chooses to make it. Kata practice can be done slowly to build strength, or it can be done fast and rhythmically to build endurance, depending on the goal for that particular work out. Aerobics class, Zumba, cardio kick boxing, etc. have nothing on a karate class.
Karate do is in its essence a martial art and self-defense principles are always lurking just below the surface. Fighting in karate do has very little to do with the practice however. Students do throw punches at each other but the goal is not to hit in most cases. In fact, if a student does get hit someone has made a mistake. The goal of striking is to come close enough for the attacker to decide whether or not to make contact. The logic here is that if I have enough control to decide to not hit you, then I have enough control to decide to hit you. Here is the ultimate mindfulness moment. While attacked the student learns to relax, remain calm and composed, and deal with the attack as it truly is, without anticipating or deciding in advance what’s going to happen. A student learns to remain in control in the face of punches and kicks. This ability makes non-physical threats in every day life a little less intimidating and improves a student’s confidence in the real world.
A third element of karate do is a practice called kumite. Kumite is a type of prearranged sparring where students practice attacking and defending, building up speed and movement. It is an invigorating activity that allows students to control adrenaline and fear in the face of an attack that should bring them to the edge of their capabilities. The health benefits and carry over to real-world life is pretty obvious here. Controlling fears and the adrenaline dump of stressful situations is very beneficial. Reacting to what is happening in the moment, as opposed to what one thinks is happening, is the essence of all mindfulness practices. Learning to relax under stress,and continue to function, is perhaps the most beneficial of all skills learned through karate do.
During the course of the class students stop frequently for a deep breathing exercise called shin kokyu, a cleansing, invigorating breath similar to breathing exercises practiced in both yoga and chi gong. Practice of karate do creates an awareness of breathing and students strive to breathe from their abdomen rather than in the upper chest. This abdominal breathing is a basic principle of all mindfulness breathing meditation practices and students of karate do tend to pick this up quickly when learning to meditate. Abdominal breathing increases lung capacity in the moment, lowers the center of gravity, and is the ultimate grounding/centering experience.
Many of the trendy new practices in the fitness industry focus on a fitness community. Crossfit, a new and exciting fitness trend, emphasizes a group of people doing the same workout sharing in the improvements in successes of peers. Yoga is similar in that students attend classes and are inspired and encouraged by others. People who workout in commercial gyms tend to do the same thing. In each instance it is a sense of community that pulls and pushes people to attaining goals. This communal aspect is the essence of a dojo. It is not uncommon for men, women, and children all to be working together in a dojo that practices karate do. Students should not be separated into advanced classes and beginners classes because both advanced and beginners benefit from interacting. In Okinawan karate do there is an expression that, “The most important student in the dojo is the white belt” (beginner.) This is because the best way to truly learn something is to teach it, and advanced students solidify their skills by helping the newcomer.
The information here, unfortunately, is not how most karate schools in the United States practice karate. I have described here the practices of Uechi Ryu Karate Do, something that I’ve practiced for the past 25 years. If you are looking for these aspects of health and wellness in a karate class, you should consider a school that emphasizes karate do over karate. If there are few adults then it is probably not karate do. While such schools have their place, they are not practicing karate do as a lifetime activity. Karate do is far more than self defense, it is a lifestyle that combines aspects of virtually all of the mind-body practices. It is not a competition or a battle against others, it is a battle with the self that leads to harmonizing the mind and body creating a meaningful, healthy life.
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