I’ve had many conversations with my son, my friends and my workout partners trying to get to the bottom of this question:
Why do martial arts have a profound spiritual effect on people?
In 9 out of 10 folks there seems to be a correlation between practicing martial arts and feelings of spiritual improvement — even when the specific martial art an individual is studying has no obvious spiritual components. In addition to the aforementioned conversations I’ve done some research and some reading on the subject. But what I’ve done mostly is a ton of soul searching and meditation.
My conclusion is that there are three primary reasons for this.
Exercise is spiritual medicine. Exercise creates the ideal brain chemistry for spiritual experience by stimulating the production and release of endocannabinoids (the primary chemical responsible for runner’s high) and endorphins (natural pain killers). This sets the stage for the next two reasons why martial arts correlate with spiritual experience. The second one is…
Fraternity is a shared spiritual experience. Working out with other people, in fact just being with other people, stimulates the production and release of vasopressin and oxytocin, the so-called “bonding molecules” which are linked with feelings of attachment, friendship and love. Physical touching seems to be extra good and stimulating this release, and there’s a lot of touching other people in the martial arts.
That’s two reasons. Now for the final one, the big one, the monster reason why martial arts and spiritual development go hand-in-hand.
Martial arts are about being a hero — doing battle with the Chaos Dragon — and that’s about as spiritual as it gets. Sure, there’s some more brain chemistry involved here, but it’s more than that. Setting goals and achieving them releases dopamine into your brain and overcoming challenges releases serotonin. Dopamine is creates the sensation of pleasure and positive rewards, while serotonin, body’s natural anti-depressant, is tied to feelings of self worth, belonging and most of all confidence. Fighting releases adrenaline, and that’s kind of fun and energizing too. But the thing to focus on is that martial arts are another version of the hero myth. As Joseph Campbell described it, the myth goes like this:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
When you’re doing martial arts you’re venturing into the unknown, facing down God-knows-what potential challenges, and practicing how to protect yourself and the people you care about from harm. That’s the essential, central story of human civilization, starting with Marduk fighting Tiamat — the world’s oldest known story! — up through Hercules vs. the Hydra, Beowulf vs Grendel, St. George, and so on.
When you’re doing martial arts you’re acting out a story so ancient, powerful and important — how could it not be spiritual? That’s why in Cabal Fang we fly a flag with a black dragon on it.
Here’s a great article that sums up, and backs up, the assertions about brain chemistry I just made.
And now for the workout of the week.
Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #67
- 250 kicks as fast as you can. If you want to kick as fast as a snake and as hard as a mule, you need to do more than 10 or 15 kicks a day. My prescription is a minimum of two kicking sessions per week, one light (say a hundred kicks) and one heavy (approx 250 kicks) to a max of 1,000 per week. More than that you’ll be wasting time and putting unnecessary wear and tear on your body. Split your kicking time between heavy bag, shadowboxing, and focus mitts/pads. Advanced folks should be able to get these done in under 12 minutes, but if you’re just starting out it’ll probably run more like 20. If you’re not sore the next day you’re not working hard enough.
- 10-Count Bodybuilders. Beginner and intermediate players, do 50. That should take you 7 to 12 minutes. Advanced folks do 100. See if you can beat my record of 16:54 or my son’s record of 16:11.
- Confront the dragon and make a Hero’s List. Restriction and adversity breed creativity, not freedom! This is why your teachers gave you assignments like, “paint me a picture using just these three colors” and “make something functional from this pile of wood parts.” Set a countdown timer for 5 minutes. Before the timer beeps, list of 10 things you could do in your life that would exemplify the hero myth. You might not make it to 10 but you’ll definitely have a list of things that you know you need to do but have been putting off. Start being a hero today.