“What’s old is new again.”-Anonymous
Twenty-first century mind body science has returned to the ancient ways of medicine, exercise, and nutrition. What’s old has truly become new once again. Meditation is now touted as the solution to the emotional stress of modern living. The antidote for the hectic pace of modern life is mindfulness meditation, or yoga. If your pain management clinic fails, then acupuncture may be recommended. If your diet is poor, then you may want to look at eating grass fed beef, free range chicken, or maybe even a Paleolithic diet. Not a day goes by where at least one of these ancient ideas doesn’t pop up on your Internet home page as the latest cure for the problems of modern living.
There has always been a rift between the philosophy of the Western and Eastern worlds. The Western scientific method is interested in results that can be quantified through empirical studies. These results are broken down, dissected, analyzed, and retested. If the numbers aren’t there then the study is considered junk. Results are then considered to be anecdotal evidence, and that’s the end of it. Eastern science and philosophy has always remained more holistic and intuitive in its approach. Hunches, intuition, and even the placebo effect, are all considered valid in the eyes of Eastern science. Mental, physical, and spiritual aspects are all considered very meaningful and significant.
Perhaps one of the best Eastern wellness methods is the ancient art of karate do. According to legend, karate do was developed in the fifth or sixth century CE by Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who introduced the practice of Zen to China from India. Chinese accounts describe Bodhidharma as being appalled by the physical condition of the Shaolin monks to which he introduced Zen practices. He instructed them in a series of physical exercises to develop their physical conditioning while also teaching them moving meditation. His practice was designed to build internal and external strength, in fact his method translates to “Muscle/Tendon Change Classic.” In addition to the outside musculature, Bodhidharma was concerned with the internal physical structure of tendons and sinew, as well as with the mind and spirit. The martial or combat aspects were not his immediate concern. The goal of Bodhidharma’s training system was to create monks that were a healthy in mind, body, and spirit, equipping them with the skills to spread the Zen philosophy throughout China.
Bodhidharma’s art was primarily intended to be a way of life. The militaristic or combative aspects were secondary and merely a byproduct of the training. No doubt the defense aspects were there, but they were not the primary concern. This is what separates Eastern arts, such as karate do, from the Western arts like boxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts. Western combat arts are designed primarily for fighting and self-defense. Practitioners of these arts usually have a short shelf life, after which age and lifestyle changes prevent them from training. Karate do, and other martial arts that have descended from Bodhidharma’s philosophy, are intended to be lifetime arts that one practices as long as they are physically able. Practitioners of karate do are known to practice their art diligently well into their 80s and beyond. Practitioners, or karate ka, use their practice as a cornerstone in a healthy, balanced life in which they tend to their mind, body, and spirit on a daily basis. Like many things Eastern, balance is a critical concept of the practice.
Balance, to a karate ka, is both literal and figurative. Obviously the practice strives to create physical balance, the ability to move the body through space effortlessly and gracefully. This is achieved through training which builds the body from the inside out. Tendons become incredibly strong through karate training. The tendons are the guide wires which hold up the musculoskeletal system. The strength of the student is not always observable to the outside eye, and in fact, the student may not even appear to be strong. The strength of the student is internal, but make no mistake about it, the strength is in there. This conforms to the Eastern philosophy of internal strength, which stands in opposition to the Western ideal of external, observable muscle as being the key characteristic of strength. The Western karate student strives to have both.
The state of balance sought by a karate student is also figurative. Proper training creates mental and emotional wellness. Studies show that people who are able to move well tend to be more connected and in harmony with their environment. They feel better because they move better. The mind-body connection translates this ease of movement to improved cognition and mental acuity. Put simpler, a healthy body is more likely to house a healthy mind. A daily practice that emphasizes movement creates a groundedness and connection to what is important for physical and emotional wellness. Karate do is among the best of the Eastern arts for accomplishing these goals.
Ideally, the practice of karate do begins in late adolescence when a person is more able to grasp the more esoteric aspects of the art. If started too soon, the art becomes virtually indistinguishable from Western arts such as boxing and wrestling. While there is nothing wrong with this, it shortchanges the student. Bodhidharma’s philosophy was for it to be much more than that. In typical Western fashion, karate and other traditional martial arts have become a quick fix and instant solution to a temporary issue such as “my child’s bad grades or ADHD,” or “I just got beat up by a bully.” Too bad. Such instant solution thinking misses the mark by a lot.
There certainly are other very valid Eastern philosophical arts that combine mind and body practice. Yoga, tai chi, aikido, and chi gong are those that come to mind for most people. In seeking an Eastern practice, be sure not to overlook karate do as an option. Karate do, when combined with Western training methods, creates the ideal system for training the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. It can be the missing part in your personal wellness program.
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