The Not-So Secret Relationship Between Martial Arts and Yoga
“A man of noble character has a calm mind and does not rush things. A lesser man is not peaceable, and incessantly clashes and quarrels with everybody.” – The Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Martial arts and yoga?
The history of spirituality and wisdom in China owes many of its debts to India, from the influence of Ayurveda and herbs on Traditional Chinese Medicine to Bodhidarma, the legendary Buddhist monk who transmitted Chan Buddhism to China and is believed to have taught the Shaolin monks the physical training that led to Shaolin Kung Fu. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that there are elements and influences between yoga and the martial arts, especially as the influence of Chinese martial arts can be felt in just about every eastern style, particularly the internal styles.
Whether you look at the importance of stance and rooting to the practice of breathing and mindfulness to use power rather than strength, the universal wisdom of the sages Bodhidharma and Patanjali (compiler of the Yoga Sutras) can be felt both in your yoga practice and in martial arts—especially in Tai Chi and other internal Kung Fu styles from Mantis to Five Animals and many, many more.
It’s all in the breathing and rooting: a (very) brief summary of the parallels
“There is no other more efficient way of activating qi than with standing. The practice of standing in fixed stances is normally called chuang pu in martial arts, meaning to stand like a post. Anyone who begins this practice will soon discover how much heat is acquired in the body and hands, and initially the student will sweat a great deal.” – Stuart Alve Olson, The Complete Guide to Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu
Replace “qi” with “prana” and “chuang pu” with “asana”, and you could get something pretty close to what many would use to describe the practice of yoga.
The importance of breath is can be fond in the character for “qi” (or “chi”), which also means energy, in that qi is gathered from breath, and breath develops qi. The more qi you cultivate, the stronger your health and martial skills become. Over time, intrinsic energy develops, and it is soft and undetectable to the untrained, but can do things from breaking bricks to withstanding heavy blows to the body.
This intrinsic energy comes from rooting and also helps create better grounding, for when you are able to sink all your weight into the bottom of your foot and not in the legs or upper body, you maintain balance and centeredness whether you are standing still or moving, and it comes from being relaxed, not tense.
In short, from standing and focusing on your breathing (again, not unlike doing asanas), you develop body memory, gain balance and strength, and learn how to mobilize your qi/prana as you push it through your body, especially in the different areas where you feel it with each stance.
So what does it mean for the yogi?
The etymology of the term “martial arts” emphasizes the art—nowhere does it indicate violence, despite using warfare and combat as metaphors for purpose and balance when training. To be a martial artist didn’t mean just having the ability to kill people with your hands or be stronger than a hundred men, it meant having superior character, being principled, and believe it or not, to be a true master of a style in some schools required people to know medicine first—what use is it to kill a man when you can learn to heal a man first? To be a martial artist meant you were always prepared for battle that you hope would never arise, to be in peak health and sound mind, whether you are a youth or in old age. In short: it’s a way of finding radiant health.
Likewise, in yoga, a lot of us want to be physically healthy, and our conflict is with our egos and our own limitations. By finding that internal harmony through challenging ourselves in our physical practice, we develop the mind-intent, which then affects the flow of energy, and as the flow of energy goes through our bodies by both intent and form (asanas and chuang pus), we develop strength and a healthier body.
But the big thing to remember in the contemporary world we live in now is that people in both disciplines oftentimes focus on the results of training our minds and bodies rather than using martial arts and yoga as a way of life: people look for ways to be better fighters in martial arts and people look to develop beach bodies—both of which can come from training, but are not the point. The point, as we’ve been exploring, is balance, harmony, health, and the reward for your practice is being able to continue doing your practice well into your old age, which, with diligence and discipline, can take you to be well over a hundred years old. As always with both practices, raise your energy, but coat check your ego for best results.