Finding the Greatness Within You Through the Practice of Real Martial Arts

The two most common reasons people decide to take martial arts classes is self defense and exercise. In reality, when training in real martial arts, these benefits may be the draw, but they are really just a side effect.

It’s unfortunate that so little is understood about martial arts by most, and the practice is seen as just another activity.

The fact is, the sophisticated and complex movements of a real martial art has a profound positive effect on the student. The practice actually rewires the brain to accommodate and comprehend more complex information and therefore, actually raises one’s IQ and directly effects one’s ability to learn and grow, at any age. I know of nothing as complete in its effects on a person than the practice of real martial arts.

Historically speaking
In China, during one of the most peaceful times in their history is when Chuan Fa (now known better as Kung Fu) was growing and developing the most.

If it was strictly for fighting, or more specifically for self defense, then it would be during the most peaceful times where people would lose interest and practice would decline or even cease.

Clearly, it was the effects experienced by the practitioners, (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) that attracted them to it. It certainly wasn’t because it was easy. In fact, that’s how it came to be known as “Kung Fu”.

As the story goes, when the English were in China and they witnessed some martial artists practicing, they asked, “What’s that?” To which the response was, “Hard work!” But the words they used from their language was, “Kung Fu!” (which translates more literally as, “work and time” or “achievement through effort over time “).

Changing lives
The term “Kung Fu” itself speaks volumes. In a society like ours that wants everything yesterday, patience and perseverance are uncommon virtues. And hard work is not usually something most will jump at the chance to be a part of. But this is specifically how Kung Fu changes lives. It teaches that nothing worth having is easy.

In countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and Okinawa, whenever possible, parents would bring their child to learn martial arts because they wanted their child to have the influence of the Shifu or Sensei. This is specifically how the father of a young Park Bok-Nam brought his son to learn from Master Lu Shui Tian. Master Park says that morality and how to live in this world was as much a part of the practice as health and self defense. It was for these things that he is most grateful.

My teacher just prior to Master Park, Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, had this to say about his teacher, “He said the final goal of learning is to discover the meaning of life. Therefore, what I was learning from him was not a martial art, but a way of life.”

In Okinawan Karate, high level black belts are given the titles of Renshi (for 4th to 6th dan), Kyoshi (for 7th and 8th dan), and Hanshi (for 9th and 10th dan). Respectively, these titles mean: “polished man,” “more polished,” and “even more polished.” This is a powerful message that demonstrates how the practice of martial arts was seen historically to refine, or “polish,” one’s character.

Just another activity?
Growing up I played all the major sports, and loved it. In high school football we even made it to the state championship. It sure attracted a lot of attention. At the time I enjoyed all the intangibles that went along with that scene, including some bad habits that can easily lead someone down a destructive path in life.

As we get older we become less and less able to compete in physical sports. How many people today are in horrendous physical condition who still talk about having been an “athlete’? How many are still talking about their “glory days”?

Master Park, now in his sixties, still moves around like a man at least half his age. That speaks volumes to me.

Sports are great, and they are fun. However, unless you are an elite athlete or find a way to make a living at it, sports will only be a footnote in your past and can easily become a distraction in your present.

By distraction I mean that we must be careful how much time we use on entertainment and other methods to “pass the time”. Watching sports, TV shows, movies, playing video games, etc., are all distractions from reality that take us out of our lives. How we spend our down time says a lot about us. It determines what life will bring and whether or not you will have an active hand in making life better, if that is what you want.

“Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound.” – – James Allen

As soon as my high school sports career ended in the winter of my senior year, I went to work so I could pay tuition for Kung Fu lessons. When I got to college I wasn’t even interested in playing sports there. Kung Fu was more than enough to keep me interested, and growing.

Competitive sports are not martial arts, and a real martial art is not a sport. Even with all the years of competitive sports that I experienced growing up, it was not until I studied and practiced Kung Fu that my life, and way of thinking, dramatically improved.

Making you better at everything you do
One of the more surprising yet convincing experiences I had about the benefits of martial arts practice occurred about five or six years ago when I stepped into a batting cage. Even in my youth I wasn’t very good at baseball, especially hitting. I only played until I was about ten or eleven years old. I haven’t picked up a bat to hit a baseball since that time (probably 25 years prior to this batting cage experiment – not counting the three softball games I played over that span!).

Well, to my surprise, I was not only hitting the ball but I was hitting it hard and straight. For fun, I stepped into the fast pitch lane (about 88 to 90 mph) just to see if I would even have a chance. The results were the same, with lots of solid hits – something I didn’t experience in my youth. And all I did all these years was consistently practice Kung Fu. The consequences of the practice go far beyond the obvious.

I attribute this experience almost entirely to the mental side of the practice. When I tried to hit the ball I failed. I really couldn’t even see it. How the bat was finding the ball I don’t even know. But it was only when I completely relaxed and let go that I was able to make solid contact with a ball thrown at that speed. No thought – just do. I didn’t know or understand this when I played baseball as a youth.

A discipline of the body and mind
Nothing in the body works independently. For example, people may think of the cross-over crunches as a workout for the abdominal and oblique muscles. Sure, they work those muscles, but this movement also greatly effects the brain.

It is important for a baby to learn how to crawl as it helps their little brains to develop. Children who began walking very early sometimes lack sufficient crawling experience and this has been called into question when a child later has learning disabilities.

Take this concept a few steps further and you realize that this is precisely something that has been extensively incorporated into the practice of real martial arts, especially Kung Fu. The cross-crawl concept (i.e. punching with the right hand while stepping with the left leg) is actually one of the less complex concepts within the practice.

The body-brain connection
In an effort to increase learning in schools the education system has made a grave error. Physical education has been all but removed from the curriculum. It has been reduced to just one time per week in many areas and even eliminated altogether in many others.

Learning is a whole body process. The senses, emotions, and movement play an integral part in a person’s ability to learn and experience life. Intelligence is not about how much one can memorize. This brings to mind the “book smart genius” with no grip on reality or ability to respond to day-to-day life.

“Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.” – – John J. Ratey, MD, Harvard Medical School.

The brain actually grows relative to the complexity of what the whole body experiences. The music of Mozart, the use of the full field of vision, complex art, calligraphy, and the sophisticated movements required to perform the arts of Kung Fu such as Shaolin Long Fist or especially Ba Gua Zhang (which has been referred to as the “graduate school” of Chinese martial arts) are all examples of brain-building endeavors.

Certainly the traditional three R’s of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic are necessary, but on its own these are a far cry from what actually develops a practical and useful intelligence. Add to that the rote memorization of facts used for testing and what is created is a person who virtually cannot think, reason, or problem solve in the real world.

Cross-training for a higher IQ
The generally accepted belief is that we get what we were born with and that’s it. A person with a lower IQ can only do so much, and hopefully make the most of it. If a student in school wants to get better grades, especially in a weaker subject, the only way is to spend countless hours studying. This is simply not true. The optimal approach to learning differs from person to person. Each and every one of us has the capability to be a genius.

Additionally, the brain will change depending on the demands put on it, and complex physical movements are what has the most profound affect on actual brain growth and development.

From the book, “Smart Moves” by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., the author mentions a study done by the California Department of Education comparing academic test scores with fitness test scores, and what they found was a direct correlation: higher fitness levels matched with higher academic achievement. She also discusses how numerous studies have shown that the more complex, coordinated, and challenging to balance that the movements are the greater the growth in the brain of both new cells and connections (known as neural nets). What this means is an increased ability to think, comprehend, learn, and therefore experience.

An important discovery
Scientists used to believe that the part of the brain known as the cerebellum was only used for gross motor movements, but more recently they have discovered that it actually has the fastest routes to reach all other parts of the brain. What this means is that if you are using your body while trying to learn or create something you will actually learn it faster and easier.

A practical approach to using this information for learning or to complete an important work project would be to take frequent breaks, at least every 2 hours (more often when feeling sluggish, stuck, or unfocused), and use your body – do some Kung Fu or Ch’i Kung for even just a few minutes – and you will stimulate the brain to open up and be better prepared and receptive to the use you want out of it.

I have successfully used this approach going all the way back to my college years. I’ve also noticed how creative my mind gets during any given practice. My best ideas always seem to occur when I’m in the middle of a morning practice session. I have no doubt that the brain is greatly stimulated by the complex movements coordinated with the breath and the concentration. Every practice is a total body-mind experience.

An interesting note about the cerebellum is that it is most active during learning or while performing complex body movements. It is virtually shut down during an activity such as watching television. In older non-active adults the cerebellum becomes greatly atrophied. There’s no coincidence that there is an increasing incidence of older adults gradually having more difficulty with basic skills such as walking and the incidence of various forms of dementia are increasing each year.

Just like an arm in a cast shrinks from non-use, the brain too will atrophy from non-use if it is not consistently stimulated with challenging physical movement.

Our experience is determined by how our brain is wired.
Your practice develops within you a greater capacity to experience the world around you. When a person fully engages him or herself into the complex physical movements that require a focused mind, it activates a part of the brain called the frontal lobe. A more active frontal lobe gives a person a greater sense of purpose. It is also where we experience joy and happiness. So, activating this area of the brain has a direct affect on how we experience life (more on this next issue).

Performing skilled movements that challenge the coordination and balance will stimulate the growth of existing nerve cells, cause the need and creation of new nerve cells, and increase the number of connections throughout the brain.

As we learn and practice, new neural nets are created and laid out in the brain. What this means is that more parts of the brain are activated as well as being able to communicate information faster and more efficiently. It is very much like having more roadways available to get where you want to go instead of having to drive way out of your way. The more direct route will get you there faster and more efficiently saving time and energy.

As the movements are practiced regularly these neural nets, or new connections, become thicker and stronger much like reinforcing a rope with more strands or carving deeper into a piece of wood by repeatedly going over the same spot.

Repetition teaches you to see and understand more from the same information. A deeper understanding is attained by seeing or feeling it over and over. Just like catching more from seeing a movie or reading a book multiple times, refinement of any skill comes from mindfully doing it repeatedly, even after you think you’ve got it. That is when it begins to get ingrained into your nervous system.

Incidentally, the same thing happens with any regular thoughts, emotions, or actions you take. A repeated thought, feeling, or action creates a habit, and therefore an experience, that’s hard to change (such as: a certain person being able to push your buttons; believing that relationships never work out, or that a meal must include desert). This shows how important it is to discipline the mind and to control your thoughts. You can control your experience on many levels. Your belief system is developed from what you’ve experienced. And what you’ve experienced is always skewed by your perspective. A refined mind is better able to use reason and change perspective, and thus change the experience.

A gradual process
Only when these movements are deeply carved into the neurological system can the next level of complexity be expected to have a positive effect on the practice and the person. If the more complex physical movements, demanding a greater level of concentration are added too soon, the system never attains the “deep carving” (strong neural nets) described and only gets confused. The practice remains at the surface.

One must realize that in the beginning, what appears to be the simplest movements are complex enough for the system to attain great benefit. As the complex becomes more simple with practice over time then the system can respond and benefit from the gradual increase of complexity.

It takes time for the new pianist to be able to play Mozart. Going for that complex piece of music too soon will only lead to frustration. The same is true of the martial artist: trying to do techniques and combinations or movements that require highly refined body control and coordination will only frustrate the student and frequently destroy the student’s ability or willingness to continue. Without patience nothing of value can be attained.

Get out of your own way.
Let the practice, and time, do the work. If you are overly concerned with your progress or how well you are doing instead of just doing it – with focus, intention, and the most effort you can muster – you will lose the extra benefits that happen automatically with practice. Just practice, have patience, and you will find your greatness within.

Go to Part 2 “Allowing The Art To Work Its Magic”


Originally Published December, 2005 under the title “Finding The Greatness Within”

Finding the Greatness Within You Through the Practice

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.



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