Meditation has been deeply tied to the martial arts for over a thousand years, but sometimes it’s hard to tangibly explain to students why it matters. There are many, many studies over the last few decades tying meditation to mental health, but what about fitness? Sure, your meditation might help you feel more present and increase your satisfaction about life, but can it help you throw a better punch?
It can! And I’ll explain how.
As a part of my continuing education with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), I often come across some great articles that help explain the benefit of various training programs to improve athletes’ power and performance, and “A Mindful Lift – Benefits of Mindful Meditation in Strength and Conditioning” by Elizabeth Hope, Meagan Wilson, and Brian Gearity, PhD, ATC, CSCS,*D, FNSCA was no exception. My goal with this post is to summarize some of the findings of this article for you and teach you how they directly apply to your physical performance in the martial arts.
What's fun and important about the information that modern exercise science provides us, is that it can better explain the how and why behind the benefits of certain aspects of traditional martial arts training, while debunking others. By utilizing modern approaches to ancient, tried-and-true techniques, we can gain a better appreciation and understanding of them, optimize our training, and gain an edge against our adversaries!
At the Fox’s Den Kung Fu, my students have been practicing a variety of different 5-minute meditations at the end of our classes since we first started training together this Summer, including focusing on the "Tan Tien" or energy and balance center of the body, the "Ming Min" (more-or-less the root chakra) to help ground ourselves to the Earth and be more fully present in our bodies, and the "Pai Hui" (or crown chakra) to elevate our emotional energies and our sensation of well-being. We've also counted our breaths for basic focus, and begun introductory "straight flow" breathing where we count the length of the inhale and exhale of our breaths under a system of conditioning called "Ho Tien Chi".
I like to introduce variety, but all these are—at their core—different techniques to achieve the same basic result: to teach students how to bring awareness back to the body to both improve our well-being and focus, and thereby improve the efficacy of our martial arts via the mind-body connection.
We regularly get a chance to see the mind-body connection in action in regular strength gains brought on by physical exercise. In sciencey terms, the mind-body connection can be described as the amount of motor units—a motor nerve and the muscle fibers that innervate it—a person can effectively recruit to achieve whatever it is they are trying to accomplish (throwing a punch, kick, etc), and how well they recruit them for a particular action.
Neurological changes are one of the first of the body’s adaptations to any exercise program. Basically, the more motor units your mind can recruit, the stronger force you can create. Your body wants to conserve energy for survival reasons, so if it doesn’t have to recruit all the motor units in a particular muscle group to accomplish a given action, it won’t. And if you’ve never recruited one-hundred percent of a muscle’s motor units before, you won’t be able to immediately!
This is why when you first start training and forcing your body to use more of its motor units to say, kick something really hard, the first thing your body will do in response to your continued demands to kick harder, is learn how to use more of the latent motor units that are already at its disposal. This is a much more energetically cost-effective option than doing something like enlarging the muscle through hypertrophy to generate more strength and power. Therefore, many of the super-awesome, really fast gains an untrained athlete gets after embarking on a new fitness routine, is primarily due to those neurological adaptations. (CH5, NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training, 2nd Edition).
In less sciencey terms, that student has developed a stronger mind-body connection through exercise, and tapped into a greater power that was inside of them all along!
All this is to say that the mind has an extremely powerful effect on our performance, and our ability to perform certain actions well via the brain. The connection between intention and focus developed through meditation and hitting harder isn’t just philosophy, wishful thinking, or something created by the outdated imagination of long-dead shaolin monks—it’s also science.
This is what Hope et al. have to say about the link: “Attentional focus, a well-recognized aspect of motor learning, has been studied to discover how internal or external attention affects athletes. For example…the increased muscular accuracy of force production created by increased attention control allows an athlete to lift the same weight with less muscular effort. …it seems clear that reliable attentional control and awareness are valuable skills when lifting weights...”
There is no reason to imagine this would be any different when performing a punch, kick, throw, arm break, or any other martial arts technique.
Hope et al.’s article recommends to practice a form of mindfulness meditation to improve this mind-body connection, where one sits or lies down in a quiet place, and brings their total attention back to their breath. If attention wanders, the athlete “fully and non-judgmentally accepts that all minds wander and redirects their attention back to their breath… As thoughts, feelings, physical sensations arise, the athlete notices the shift and gently brings their attention back to breathing again. After three to five minutes, the athlete slowly opens their eyes and carefully resumes their routine.”
For anyone who has attempted meditation before, this should sound familiar. What’s interesting here, though, is that the recommendation is for just 3 to 5 minutes, and not the full twenty done for many meditation studies aimed at improving the practitioner’s mental well-being. This is a far more manageable add to any exercise program, and hopefully reduces any resistance to adding meditation to one’s routine!
Hope et al. also advise the use of a body scan before lifts. While martial artists usually perform a complex set of motions instead of a single lift, this advice can be easily modified. I would recommend completing the same sort of body scan before performing a form or sparring bout.
Here’s how it’s done:
Quickly shift focus from one major body part to the next. This can be done two body parts at a time as well (ex. both feet, both calves, etc).
Move up from the feet all the way to the top of the head, noticing any sensations in each area as you go without passing judgment.
“By performing a body scan during rest periods of a workout,” Hope et al writes, “one can assist the parasympathetic response while building mindful awareness simultaneously.”
“…mindful strength training is not about being quiet or peaceful, but about being deliberate with and aware of every action and thought regarding the task an athlete’s body is about to perform… By ritually practicing mindfulness, an athlete can set the stage with enhanced awareness and attentional focus that can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of training, and ultimately enhance one’s execution.”
Still don’t believe it? Try it yourself and let me know how it goes!
A Mindful Lift – Benefits of Mindful Meditation in Strength and Conditioning – Part 1. 2021. Elizabeth Hope, Meagan Wilson, and Brian Gearity, PhD, ATC, CSCS,*D, FNSCA. https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/a-mindful-lift-part-1/. NSCA Coach.
NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training. Second, Human Kinetics, 2011.