Martial Arts practices have always be associated with self-development. From developing techniques and training the body, to focusing the mind and harnessing our attention. It is in the understanding of these principles that gives us a deeper mastery of our-selves and better tools to be equipped for life.
But what specially is happening when we practice these styles and systems? What is occurring on the neurological level and how can understanding that help us develop cognitively, emotionally and physically, especially in relation to the martial art field?
In this article, I will be discussing the practice of “mindful” martial arts training, to be specific, Mindful Wing Chun’s appraoch to self-defence training and how our unique perspective not only helps develop your physical side, but more importantly in many cases, your psychological well-being as well!
Relaxation and Alignment in Martial Arts
At the heart our system lies two basic fundamental principles; Relaxation and Alignment (correct posture).
Now, while on a physical level these two principles support movement in the most effective and efficient way possible (please see supporting articles on our website(place hyperlink)), it is how relaxation and posture support our mental states that we will focus on here.
We will look at what mindfulness does to the brain, how it effects the body (mainly the central nervous system) and why the results are the cornerstone of what we believe to be imperative for real self-defence.
When we are in moments of stress, anxiety or fear, the body, through the sympathetic response system (the bodies involuntary response system), floods the blood stream with chemicals that elicit defence responses to the external dangers.
Increase in adrenaline or cortisol
These natural responses, ones such as an increase in adrenaline or cortisol (the bodies main stress hormone), are chemical reactions that the body produce’s in order to “loosely” direct the nervous system to the desired fight or flight response to deal with the threat.
The main function of these chemical responses is to help regulate the bodies unconscious reactions, that while very necessary (the hand quickly moving away from fire to not get burnt for example) are also unfortunately very inefficient in helping us move or avoid other dangers such as an attacker for example. The reason lies in what these chemicals do to the body, especially the muscular system.
The body, in most cases of threat, will increase the level of chemicals which in turn will increase the levels of muscular tension (the fight/flight response)! This tension, a naturally understandable response to danger, makes the body less mobile and unfortunately less evasive.
Through deep relaxation though, we can begin to control, or at least help assist to be more correct, the bodies natural chemical responses to these emotionally and psychologicallystressful states.
While the reaction to fear is almost instantaneous, it’s the shutting down of these stress responses that takes time (calming the mind and body for example), and because it’s a time based process, the question then becomes; can we shorten that time to such a degree that it almost seems as if we are non-reactive to the stress impulse at all?
The two automatic response systems we are interested in are the sympathetic nervous system, already mentioned, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the rest system, conserves energy by relaxing muscles and slowing down the heart rate… and it’s this system that is stimulated when we mindfully relax.
Deep relaxation and mindful practice
Deep relaxation and mindful practice allows the parasympathetic nervous system to become active by down-regulating, or reducing, the sympathetic nervous system response.
Once the sympathetic nervous system shuts down, the inhibitory (preventor) neurotransmitter called GABA (this is the neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages through the brain and the nervous system) is no longer prevented from acting on the response systems (chemical responses) responsible for helping us relax.
With the parasympathetic nervous system more active, the open flow and connection to the development of chemicals produced by relaxation slows the body developing adrenaline and cortisol and helps bring us back to a more neutral state.
In a simpler way, mindfulness, relaxation and awareness of posture can help to slow down the body’s natural automatic responses to stress, tension and fear and give us a more deliberate and efficient response system that aids our development rather than hindering it.
It rejuvenates the chemistry of the brain and through a more open, relaxed, subtle, calm and focussed mind we see that we develop a more open, relaxed, subtle, calm and focussed body. One that is extremely efficient, powerful and particularly useful for self-defence!
– Chris Tannous
Instructor at Mindful Wing Chun