As men and martial artists, Lyoto Machida and Jon Jones appear to be from different worlds. Machida is the poster boy for traditional martial arts: the son of a Japanese Shotokan Karate master, his breed of MMA is an almost quaint throwback to the genteel and quasi-mystical traditions of feudal Japan. Jon Jones however is the modern archetype: bred in the gym rather than the dojo, his path to fighting ferocity was a more typically Western one devoid of ceremonial and spiritual ritual. However, both have one thing in common: they put meditation at the center of their martial practice.
Is this necessary? Many modern martial artists and MMA practitioners view meditation and other rituals derived from traditional martial arts with suspicion or indifference. Some think them at best superfluous, at worst silly. Bowing, quaint uniforms and lotus positions are surely irrelevant to the primary purpose of training a person to fight effectively, aren't they?
Perhaps not. In 1968, as New Age mysticism took hold in the West, Harvard Physician Dr. Herbert Benson was pressured by members of the Transcendental Meditation movement to scientifically study the benefits of meditation. Though initially skeptical, he did so. The result was the best-selling 1975 book "The Relaxation Response", a science-based proof of the many health benefits that can be derived from a regular practice. These include:
- Reduced oxygen consumption during meditation
- Reduction of blood lactate levels, which are an indicator of stress
- Better sleep, and overall better health including improved immunity to disease.
The relaxation techniques practiced during meditation were found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This counters the possibly deleterious effects of the sympathetic nervous system, which manages our instinctive reactions to threats and manifests as the "fight or flight" response". This response is activated by our many daily stressors including angry spouses, unpaid bills, demanding bosses, chronic fatigue and bad drivers. It is the root of many of the stress-related ailments that are the bane of modern life including obesity, insomnia, anxiety, substance abuse and heart disease.
Different Eastern traditions teach various approaches to meditation. However, most have the same common elements, which are also endorsed by modern scientific meditation practices. They include:
- Deliberate full-body physical relaxation
- Deliberate mental focus on a single object or concept
- Deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing
- Recitation of a mantra
- Passive detachment from worldly concerns and openness to altered states of consciousness.
A regular meditation practice can deliver the benefits mentioned above. But how relevant are these to the specific needs of the martial artist? Some of the MA/MMA specific benefits of meditation are:
- Focus on training: Meditating before the start of each training session helps the fighter detach from the emotional baggage of daily life. This ensures a calm and productive focus on the business of learning, practising, and cooperating with training partners without undue aggression
- Stamina: Meditation reduces muscular oxygen consumption, thus enhancing the efficiency of the cardiovascular system. Every experienced martial artist knows that a relaxed fighter lasts longer than a tense one, as unnecessarily tense muscles deplete muscular glycogen faster. To gas less, relax more.
- Pre-fight nerves: Anticipating an MMA fight, competition match or even routine gym sparring sessions can be stressful. This can cause the dreaded 'adrenaline dump' which sees fighters exhausted by their body's own prolonged state of physical preparation for conflict. By the time the fight starts, their muscles have depleted their glycogen stores and just want to rest and recuperate. Thus even the fittest fighters can find themselves gassing prematurely due to nervous tension. Nerves can also cause negative mental associations with training, causing many martial artists to abandon their practice.
- Learning and retention: Numerous studies have shown that stressed people learn more slowly, perform worse on tasks requiring cognitive engagement, and exhibit poorer memory and retention of learned skills. People who meditate however, have been shown to display better cognitive ability, coordination and memory. This means that the fighter who meditates will simply learn new skills faster, and retain more knowledge after training than the stressed, distracted or chronically fatigued one.
- Fighting reaction times: Great fighters like Anderson Silva owe a large part of their effectiveness to the ability to stay physically and mentally relaxed while fighting. The relaxed mind reacts faster to stimulus, meaning reflexes are speedier. The relaxed fighter is also quicker to identify and seize opportunities in the heat of battle. Tense and nervous people rarely make good decisions, and the vaunted 'fight IQ' is simply the ability to make the right decisions under the pressure of combat. Meditation goes a long way towards preparing you to avoid the unseen punch that knocks you out, or the brain fart that causes you to make tactical errors.
- Emotional equanimity: During a fight, the habitual meditator is unlikely to succumb to emotions like anger or embarrassment which negatively affect tactical judgment. If a Diaz brother slaps you in the hope of riling you, or Chael Sonnen insults your wife hoping to enrage you, those tactics will fail if you have the serenity that comes from regular meditation. Emotional fighters make mistakes, attack carelessly and fail to recognize hidden threats. Calm ones are formidable and steady in their path to victory.
- Dealing with adversity: Much like life, fighting is punctuated with adversities. These include defeat, injury, failure, and interpersonal conflicts with coaches or teammates. By improving emotional detachment and self-control over ones' emotions, meditation equips the practitioner to deal with these setbacks. This could include staving off depression after a loss, allowing one to let go of resentment towards an antagonist, forgiving a teammate for a slight, or rebounding quickly after a setback like serious injury or getting cut from the UFC.
- Character development: Martial arts are an excellent way to develop character as a person. A successful life requires the ability to relate successfully with other people, avoid self-destructive practices and make good life choices in real time. The pages of MMA blogs are often festooned with colorful stories of fighters engaged in bar fights, domestic violence, criminal activity, conflict with teammates, cheating, and even suicidal behavior. Meditation develops self-control over impulsive behavior by suppressing the limbic lizard brain. The result is a more calm, humble, socially adept and ultimately successful human being.
- Spiritual advancement: This point is most controversial, but cannot be overlooked considering the millions of people who swear by it. Chinese, Japanese and Indian spiritual traditions believe in the dormant power of chi, ki, qi or prana, a form of spiritual energy which we can all harness with practice. For martial artists, this form of energy is believed to increase tolerance to pain, enhance striking power, improve alertness to exceptional levels and give psychic powers.
Meditation has been an essential part of martial arts practice for centuries. The modern martial artist who overlooks this crucial aspect of holistic self-improvement may thus be losing out on an opportunity to be not just a much better fighter, but a healthier and more effective person. Now someone please tell Matt Riddle that you don't need a blunt to relax.