3 Uncommon Mental Health benefits.
Updated: Jan 5
There are numerous mental health benefits to be gained from martial arts. Self-esteem, confidence, discipline to name some of the more obvious ones. Though there are many left uncommon. We'll look at a few that help martial artists of all kinds. As you read, each new topic will be less common than the last.
Introducing the first one with something we're familiar with, discipline. A means to reach goals through consistent action.
I've seen students both suffer from their anger but also a lack there of. Contrary to what I used to believe growing up, anger can be useful as long as it's managed. People tend to believe anger management is for those who are quick to anger and become irrational but it's also good for those who can't express it.
I'm one who had trouble letting people know how I felt (still do in some cases). In the past I'd let people walk all over me but now I'm much better at standing up for myself because karate helped me be more expressive. Those who anger easily can feel they need to walk away from certain situations or maybe they're angry at themselves for mistakes they've made. For some they just need that separation to cool off but for others they need an outlet. What usually comes with anger is tension. During training we constantly practice to be relaxed. In order to be a successful martial artist one needs speed to help generate power, and tight muscles need to first be relaxed in order to move quickly. The only time we are tense is at the moment of impact. Whether it's while striking or being struck. The rest of the time we have just enough tension to keep standing.
A more obvious means of letting out steam is hitting the bags. If hitting targets is your thing a better way to manage anger can be to spar with the instructor who recognizes this anger. I recall three students. One student that was always so passive learned to open himself up to show spirit and power after taking a few blows. Sparring gave him the necessary frustration to push himself. The other learned to control their temper. In our dojo we're all friends, and this persons desire not to harm a friend was greater than their desire to let loose with their anger teaching them restraint. The last got angry during matches if they made mistakes. It would crush her causing her to want to give up. In time she learned to endure because she began to understand making mistakes wasn't failure, quitting was. They all learned to control their anger in different ways. As Shihan Sensei Goral said in his latest interview "Karate isn't a cookie cutter. It's different for different people."
The repetitiveness of karate at times can calm an aggressive mind too. Something else Sensei likes to say is "We come to class to make mistakes, so long as we learn from them." By practicing techniques or kata over and over gives us something apart from the world outside the dojo to concentrate on. Giving our mind a break from the mundane. This goes back to the separation from a situation. By practicing; in a way we are meditating in what's known as do-zen (moving meditation). There is also za-zen (seated) and dachi-zen (standing) were more focus is put on breathing.
One more trick to help with anger is to take a moment and simply make 3-5 deep and slow breaths from the belly. It must be from the belly. We tend to breath high in our shoulders when we're stressed but Just by breathing deep we take in more oxygen and this tells the brain it's time to relax, much like how we sleep. This decreases the release of the stress hormone cortisol and encourages the release of endorphins. Which in turn helps us feel refreshed and refocused.
Alright, on to topic two.
When I was young I was diagnosed with ADHS (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) though now I'm less hyper. In the beginning, karate gave me focus. Sensei would give me a kata to learn and I'd have to do it over and over again keeping my attention. Most sports focus on just the bodies limbs and some sports are limited in movements but in karate we go a step further. We need to know where our fingers tips are set or that our toes are pulled back or gripping the floor. It forces us to control our whole being and from this I've come up with a saying when people struggle with their own body "It's your body, tell it what to do." Now being older my attention to karate as a whole where even writing these articles and creating other content gives me focus. I've also learned to give order to my disorder. In karate we are taught to be aware of our surroundings. Which was easy because I was already distracted by my surroundings. We train to stay focused on our training partner but be mindful of where Sensei is and what he says. In time things that catch my attention can't fully distract me from what I was previously focusing on. Even as I was taking notes for this article I was reading a study for the next topic while listening to a video about personal anger management stories. To put it simply I learned to manage and divide my attention to become quite the multi-tasker. Now for the big one.
The science is still uncertain if Alzheimer's or dementia can be prevented but they can be curbed with the help of martial arts. Karate is a life long pursuit, it's meant to improve your well being. It's our philosophy at Kaze-kai that anyone can do karate. Anyone can do it but that doesn't mean it's easy. That challenge is what's so important. According to the Alzheimers association, they suggest activities that encourage social connections, critical thinking, crossing training and learning new things can decrease your risk of developing alzheimers. The same goes for dementia when including Healthy eating, exercise, good blood pressure and cholesterol.
We would not be good marital artists if we didn't stop to learn new things once in a while. Including kata, the gold mine of critical thinking. First one must learn the individual moves. Then learn the pacing or tempo of it. In time you begin to interpret the techniques to discover what they are for and in how many different ways they can be used.
The term "cross training" was something new to me but we do it all the time in class. The brain is made up of the left and right hemispheres. The left controls the right side of your body and vice-versa. Our brain is incredibly amazing that we can still live with half a brain (though some would say that's half of all politicians). The surviving half can learn to take on the roles of it's missing counter part. What cross training does is it teaches us to develop different muscle group patterns. Every new technique is a different pattern, every arrangement of multiple techniques are different patterns. Essentially karate is patterns within patterns within patterns. Looking back at the separate hemispheres; for an example we'll bring our left arm to our right side for certain techniques. This teaches both sides of the brain to work more cohesively now that one side has entered the other sides territory.
To finish off, a good school is indistinguishable from a family. To train with good hearted, like-minded people who if nothing else encourage one another to improve and succeed is a great mental stimulus. As I said before. When an activity like karate can stimulate the mind and body in increasingly challenging ways, it will benefit ones well being.
Karate is miraculous and it truly is meant for all.