With fingers spread wide, she jumps backward into a high plank, spine straight and eyes forward. Slowly, she lowers her chest toward the mat, then slides forward, through her arms and lifts her head up toward the ceiling. Her back is curved, her legs are strong and her heart beats rhythmically within her chest. Just for a moment, her mind wanders, wondering how much time is left in the class, how much more she’ll have to push before a rest. But it only lasts a moment. Realizing her drift, she focuses on her breath, drawing her attention back to the moment, where she is fully engaged.
At the surface, yoga and martial arts seem to aim for very different things. Without real knowledge of either, one could be forgiven for thinking that yoga is about peace, and most martial arts are about fighting. The truth is they can share many qualities, including calm mind, effortless movement, self development and physical prowess. Yoga makes for an excellent compliment to any martial artist’s training regime, and there is much that said artists can learn from the way that yoga studios choose to teach their art.
For a practice that is based primarily around breath and flow, the idea of immersion is quite important for a yogi. Ideally, students are focusing on their breathing for the majority of the class, listening to their instructor’s commands and moving through poses in time with their breath (at least, this is what I’ve come to understand). Breaking that flow can be detrimental to the point of practicing yoga (moving meditation) and so immersion becomes one of the hallmarks of a great yoga practice.
In the martial arts, many students yearn for one to two hours of immersive practice, where they can let go of the daily stresses of their lives and engage in their art of choice. When students are brought into a different world, be it competitive, developmental, traditional, combative or whatever, everyone can benefit from less distraction and more concentration on the moment.
In both cases, good instructors create an environment in which it’s hard to get distracted. This relates to tone of voice, class content, dojo or studio location, music, other students, etiquette and more. It’s important to realize that immersion into a style, no matter what style it happens to be, will produce better and happier students.
Invocation of Personality
A friend of mine recently said “it’s hard for a dude to be an earth mother, you know?” He was referring to the different types of voice that yoga instructors use while teaching. Perhaps its because yoga is such an individualized practice, but many of the instructors that I’ve experienced have a very unique way of presenting their material. Some sing after class, some read poetry, some push you hard, some make it easy. There is a great flexibility within yoga to teach in a way that is a reflection of who you are and what you like.
That can be used for martial arts too. While I’m not saying one should throw the rule book out and teach things completely differently, what I am saying is that one’s personal approach to the martial arts should shape the way one presents it to their students. Martial artists should not be afraid to experiment with their practice, to try new ways of conveying ideas, to practice skills in different and perhaps challenging ways. This creates a more sincere interaction between students and teachers, and creates an authentic experience for those within the dojo. In short, students and teachers should be who they are, and teach from that place, rather than attempting to be something they are not.
Concentration upon Principle
I always secretly smile when a yoga instructor says “and then one day, you’ll jut pop into a handstand” because at the moment, I’m so far from performing a controlled handstand that it seems comical. But they’re right. One day, it will just happen. Through continued practice, the performance gap will get smaller and smaller until it happens of its own accord.
The yoga classes I’ve been to seem to place a great deal of emphasis on being where you’re at – concentrating on your own challenge and not pushing yourself before its time. Very rarely will an instructor “force” you to do something you’re not capable of. Instead, you’re asked to walk at your own edge, making tiny improvements with each practice, while concentrating on the bigger picture stuff.
Martial arts work very much the same way. Although many instructors will concentrate on the nitty gritty details and make continual refinements to their students, progress is made far more slowly. One cannot be taught in one day a picture perfect shoulder throw – only through continuous repetition is the lesson learned. Only by practicing principle is enough learned that the throw comes into shape. It’s a puzzle solved little by little, not realized in a single moment.
While there are definite differences between yoga and martial arts (especially when it comes to the application and practice of self-defense) that necessitate different training methods, certain aspects of yoga can be adapted to benefit martial arts experience. Obviously it depends on what your martial art is like, how it’s practiced and what its goals are, but for me personally, the practice of yoga will only serve to enhance my ability to teach and train in the martial arts. As always, reaching beyond one’s knowledge can provide insight and new ways of thinking that serve to improve and develop one’s art.
Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.