Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fitness and the Martial Arts - Another Perspective

My Attempt at Bodhidharma
The Purpose of this article is to explain to the general public the fitness benefits of traditional martial arts training. In this endeavor, perhaps it would be best to begin with the progenitors of stylized traditional martial arts – The Monks of Shoalin.

“The Shaolin order dates to about 540 A.D., when an Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese), traveled to China to see the Emperor. At that time, the Emperor had started local Buddhist monks translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. The intent was to allow the general populace the ability to practice this religion. Tamo parted ways and Tamo traveled to the nearby Buddhist temple to meet with the monks who were translating these Buddhist texts. When Tamo joined the monks, he observed that they were not in good physical condition. Most of their routine paralleled that of the Irish monks of the Middle Ages, who spent hours each day hunched over tables where they transcribed handwritten texts. Consequently, the Shaolin monks lacked the physical and mental stamina needed to perform even the most basic of Buddhist meditation practices. Tamo countered this weakness by teaching them moving exercises, designed to both enhance chi flow and build strength. These sets, modified from Indian yogas (mainly hatha, and raja) were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography (e.g., tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake, dragon, etc.), were the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.” –

From the above text, we can see that though martial arts training can teach one how to fight, that it’s origins and original purpose was one of fitness of mind body and spirit. Most Asian styles that claim (or in some cases even deny) any historical connections to Shaolin, practice moving exercises like the ones describe above. The movements are variously named – “Kata” (Japanese) “Quan” (Chinese) and “Hyung” or “Poomse” (Korean). These movements, that originated with the practice of Yoga, and that began with those 18 animal forms have evolved and multiplied over the millennia into hundreds of forms, styles, and ‘fighting systems’, however their primary benefit of fitness has remained unchanged even if it is often misunderstood by those whose knowledge of ‘martial arts’ is limited only to sports aspects such as “UFC”.

So what are these physical benefits are gained by training in Martial forms that are shared with “Yoga”?

Your Nervous System:
Credit: Free images from

On a physical level, yoga asana practice (yoga postures) is designed to make the central nervous system vibrant and healthy. Since the nervous system directs all activity of the body-mind, if it is healthy and vibrant, than so are you. The consistent practice of yoga postures (or ‘stances’ in martial arts) achieves this result by bending, lengthening, and twisting the spine so that it is flexible and supple.

Your Digestive/Elimination System: Similar to the effects on the spine, the bending, twisting and lengthening actions of yoga postures massage and stimulate the internal organs of the digestive and elimination system (e.g., stomach, small intestines, liver, kidneys, and colon). This in turn promotes regular and effective digestion and elimination which is crucial to good health.

Cardiovascular System: Many students have achieved significant weight loss through consistent ‘forms’ practice. In addition, specific breathing systems employed cleanse and purify the blood while improving the efficiency of oxygen delivery throughout the body. Furthermore, ‘sparring’ added to this regimen can give a practitioner a cardiovascular workout that is unmatched in intensity and fun!

Strength training, stretching, and Balance methods will result in a body that is flexible, strong, and balanced. When coupled with a healthy diet, martial arts can be a complete method to achieve holistic health.

So you after all this, may ask: Why should I train martial arts as opposed to yoga with which martial arts shares so much history and method, or the gym if all I want to do is get in shape?

Teen Black Belts
What we have found through personal experience and testimonials through decades of teaching thousands of students is that one of the largest obstacles to consistent training is lack of motivation or discipline required to achieve one’s physical goals over long periods of time. An aspect of martial arts that is not usually found in yoga or exercise videos or the going to the gym is that a Karate instructor is part mentor, part personal trainer, and part drill sergeant. A martial arts practitioner is learning interesting things and having fun in class which motivates him/her to keep coming back, and when class starts they have a skilled teacher who has walked the same road as they have who teaches them and enforces the discipline of mind and body needed to reach any goal, let alone physical ones. When one’s fitness program becomes integrated into the practitioner to such a degree that it becomes a way of life, then ‘fitness’ throughout one’s life can be achieved.
The author, Dan Stewart has been training in martial arts for more than twenty years and is a 4th Degree Master Black Belt in Tang Soo Do, and Senior instructor at McCoy’s Action Karate. In Sturbridge, MA.

1 comment:

  1. So true Mr. Stewart. I enjoyed that video as well.