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February 19, 2024

Mindfulness and Mental Resilience in Martial Arts

Shawn Folmar

Mindfulness and Mental Resilience in Martial Arts

Image: Matthew Barton.

Today is the day, you tell yourself. Today will be different. You stand ready, poised. You’ve watched the latest instructional, you’ve gotten that tip from the seasoned upper belt that’ll finally let you finally turn the tables on your gym nemesis.

They sit there, calm and inviting, hands lackadaisically held out waiting for your next move. You spring into action. Yes, they may have shut down your passing attempts repeatedly for what feels like years, but they surely can’t be ready for this new flavor of technique you prepared.

Suddenly, against all odds, in some mystical, arcane movement, you’re swept off your feet and a crushing weight replaces the optimistic hope you had just so dearly held.

But this isn’t the first time you’ve been in this position, sadly not even the hundredth. You shoot up an underhook ready to counter, but your opponent shifts his weight and you’re pinned, helpless as the weight sinks in and restricts your breathing.

They play calm and calculating, slowly increasing the pressure, waiting for you to panic and make a mistake. You may be in a bad spot, but from practicing BJJ, being in a bad spot is something you’ve become unwilling friends with. You calm your mind, focus on breathing, and wait for any opening to miraculously appear.

[The Art of Breathwork in Martial Arts]

The pressure increases as iron-like grips begin to cut off your shallow attempts at breathing. Your brain starts to panic, but you’ve been here before. You override your impulse to flail and instead fight for the desperate centimeters that will allow you to breathe again. Your opponent shifts and now the pressure overwhelms you, driving your brain to frantically scramble for any decision to make it stop.

You focus on your breath and calm your mind. Yes, you’ve landed in a bad spot, and, yes, it sucks, but when you ean into the calm, you begin to hear the whispers of your rational brain amongst the panic signals.

Then — your opponent makes a mistake, their weight now centered too high up from trying to force your reaction. You shoot for a reversal, bumping that suffocating weight forward and off you, and you scramble back up to your feet. You give a chagrined smile; they may have shut down the last attempt, but you escaped and lived to try again.

You prepare your next move, that high level pass you just watched on Instagram minutes before class. This time, surely you have them…

Image: Matthew Barton.

Benefits that reach beyond the surface

Practicing martial arts has a lot of physical benefits. You get stronger, more flexible, have better cardio. You show up every day to do something hard that most people don’t do, and your body adapts and becomes stronger as you repeatedly overcome that physical adversity. But you can get that benefit from a range of physical activities.

The true benefit of martial arts lays in the mental faculties it cultivates. Yes, it has a positive social element, but you could find that in any club. Where martial arts differs is in the mental aspects it grows within its practitioners, building and rewarding mindfulness and mental resilience merely for regularly showing up and participating.

Mindfulness and mental resilience can sound like ethereal concepts and often mean very different things to different people, but to break it down: mental resilience represents a person’s ability to adapt and change in the face of uncertainty. Mindfulness means being intensely aware of your senses and feelings.

Many martial arts share similar philosophies about using technique to overcome aggression and brutality (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu even has the moniker “the gentle art!”) but all are demanding physical arts which confront you with your own weakness on top of the aggression of others.

In learning martial arts, you will routinely face physical and mental adversity that you can’t always overcome with the tools you developed prior to martial arts. So, every martial arts practitioner has had to face down these inadequacies to grow as a fighter and as a person, and the most important growth wasn’t in the physical adaptation — rather, the mental.

When you first start training, you have no idea what’s happening. Tossed around like a small, rudderless boat amidst a storm, you can only flail about lost in this new, chaotic sea of fighting. You leave your first day of training bewildered. How did you get so effortlessly tossed about?

Image: Matthew Barton.

Maybe it’s curiosity that brings you back, but as you return and get tossed around more, your brain — now familiar with the process — begins to notice things. Your opponent moves in a certain way; when you’re getting crushed, only when you panic and begin to flail do the next moves come.

You keep coming back, and small things begin to fall into place. You get tips from more experienced people — focus on your breath, don’t panic here, keep your arms in — and slowly that overwhelming storm that blew you away becomes something manageable. You begin to exert control over your mind in a way you couldn’t when you first walked through those doors.

Every night, you go somewhere you can fight and repeatedly overcome hardship and struggle, and you learn how to accept that pressure, to remain calm in the face of it. A mental transformation begins to take place, and it’s not isolated to training only. Now, when you encounter challenges outside of the gym, your mind has formed the callouses it needs to face them head on.

You will still have inconveniences — stress from work or relationships, whatever chaos the universe decides to throw at you — but instead of reacting with impulse as you might have before, martial arts has trained you to breathe, calmly face whatever it is and rationally maneuver despite it.

More mentally resilient and mindful of your mind and body, things that would have previously set you off or ruined your day now become easier to handle, and whatever may linger despite your new resolve won’t stick around long as you return to the mat and survive another storm of martial arts.

I wrote the initial excerpt to show how this process looks in my own head, as I apply this to my life outside of the gym. You can always find some minute movement or mental shift to make that will open the path to breathing and rational thought, and it’s a skill I wouldn’t have without having practiced martial arts. I want to leave you with a stoic quote I think is fitting.

Like Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”  


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