Walking the path of a martial artist, we are often confronted with the past and the history behind the arts that we practice. For me, the art was Muay Thai, and its history is intertwined within the fabric of the Thai culture. Important parts of any culture are the religious or spiritual practices of its people. In Thailand, one simply has to observe the many golden statues dispersed throughout the country to know, the principal practice is Buddhism. Buddhism is also a part of Muay Thai, where the ceremonial Wai Khru Ram Muay is performed before each fight as a tribute to teacher, tradition and Buddha.
As a student of the art, I was intrigued by these practices. I found it fascinating that a sport, as potentially brutal as Muay Thai, had this strong spiritual backbone. I decided to learn more about Buddhism, what made it tick, and one of the first things I discovered was the importance afforded to meditation. A few weeks later, I enrolled in a six week meditation class and began a journey into something that became much more than just spiritual. It became a journey into the human mind and all of the mysteries that it holds.
What I have discovered about meditation so far goes way beyond the scope of a single article. What I hope to impart in this article is how the practice of meditation can benefit martial arts performance, based on personal experience, scientific research and parallels drawn from sports psychology.
Throughout this article I will discuss a variety of meditative techniques, all rooted in the same general practice but each offering their own little subtleties. As a general definition, encompassing all of these methods, I will describe “meditation” as: “making a conscious effort to control one’s breathing and mental processes in order to achieve a pre-determined goal”. This is obviously a very broad definition, but hopefully as the various techniques are introduced, a more specific one will begin to take shape.
Our automated breathing system produces on average 900 breaths/hour. For most of us, this system is designed to sustain an average energy output with an occasional increase in exertion levels. In other words, it is designed to accommodate sitting, walking and occasionally running. As athletes, or martial artists, we demand much more from our systems. As we train our body, our breathing system usually follows, but again, it does so based on an automated response to our body’s needs.
With meditative practice, you train your breathing system directly. You learn to control your inhalation and exhalation. As your system evolves, you take in more air per breath and breathe fewer times per minute, therefore increasing your breathing efficiency. As your breathing efficiency increases, so does your performance level, especially explosiveness and endurance. In most high intensity sports, including martial arts, having this advantage can be extremely beneficial. By specifically training your breathing system through meditation you can accelerate the process of gaining this advantage.
Many different schools of thought exist on meditative practice. Some preach closing one’s eyes, others suggest keeping them open. Some recommend focusing on a single point, others encourage taking in your entire surroundings. I believe that they all have a purpose and can be used for specific reasons at different times. Here are a few examples:
Visualization is a big part of sports psychology and many elite athletes are trained to use it on a regular basis, especially those practicing individual sports where strategy is important. In competitive martial arts, such as MMA, visualization can be a valuable asset in fight preparation. An athlete can recreate the various circumstances he might encounter and visualize himself performing at his best. Of course, how efficiently this translates to his actual performance will depend on his ability to visualize and control his thoughts. This can only be improved through regular meditative practice.
In some Zen-Buddhism schools, they suggest having eyes slightly open while keeping them focused on a single object. In some of my readings, they suggest studying that object until you know its every detail intimately. This practice can translate very well to martial arts, where having the ability to study an opponent and notice the smallest of details can often be the advantage needed to be victorious. As with most meditative techniques, the ability to focus depends on the ability to control one’s thoughts, to focus one’s mind, and again, this can only be accomplished through regular meditative practice.