Martial Arts as a Therapeutic Tool

There is stillness in motion and motion in the stillness
Sensei Chee Ling

Photo by Steven Cotton. In this photo: Sidney Talaro and Cynthia McCreery

As I began my second year in the Expressive Arts Therapy program at Langara College, I also started training in Karate and Iaido. This was not my first time training in martial arts, but it was the first time I had connected therapy and somatic body work to martial arts and considered martial arts as a possible tool in my therapeutic practice moving forward. Martial arts embraces the concept of learning to use our bodies and to feel present in them. It does not shy away from the study of violence and death, but embraces it as a means to engage in life more fully. It provides an opportunity to feel safe within our bodies by learning how to stand up for ourselves and to own the vessel we are housed in. A good martial arts practice, in my opinion, also includes mindfulness, character building and grounding exercises. Over the course of my martial arts training in the final year of my Expressive Arts Therapy Program,* I gained so much insight into my own body’s response to the training, and the potential it holds to be used in a therapeutic context.

*Please note that this blog post is not intended as a replacement for training required to become a therapist or counsellor. This blog post is simply a presentation of the findings of my research and a reflection on my experiences. Anyone interested in incorporating martial arts into a therapeutic practice should ensure they have adequate training and resources available before doing so.

How Evolution has Programmed us to Get High

Photo by Steven Cotton
In this photo: Sidney Talaro and Cynthia McCreery

The reason we feel so good when we exercise, move, sing, and fight is because these things are tied directly to our survival – or at least they were at one point. Kelly McGonigal discusses this in her book, The Joy of Movement. Running (chasing prey), moving as a group and making sound as a group (becoming a more formidable opponent), and fighting, are all things that were important for our survival. Because of this, our bodies reward us for doing these activities. The release of endorphins and endocannabinoids gives us a feeling of elation, making us more loving and cooperative – which is also an important survival skill in the context of a community. Another interesting result of the high from participating in activities like running, fighting, group movement, and group sound, is that it relieves physical pain, making it easier to run farther and fight harder without feeling the impacts on our bodies as much. 

Movements that Bring us Joy

Photo by Steven Cotton
In this photo: Rassamee Ling and Cynthia McCreery

In the Joy of Movement, McGonigal shows evidence that happy movements are universal across cultures, and include open, big movements, and even fighting movements. She says:

“Joyful movements are fast, big, and vertical. Happiness bounces, leaps, and jumps. It is upward-facing and expansive. A joyful body reaches out, looks to the sky, and takes up space[…]Many traditional dances from around the world and the music that accompanies them share these joyful qualities. Bhangra (‘intoxicated with joy’), a dance from the Punjab region of India, is characterized by bouncing, clapping, and upward arm gestures, along with bold jumps and kicks.”  (p. 198-200).

It’s interesting that joyful movements and fighting movements are very similar, and the boundary between the two is often not clear. When we are joyful and elated, we also feel strong and sometimes even invincible. The feeling of being empowered can include feeling joyful, happy, strong, and even combative.

The Dichotomy of How Studying Violence and Death Can Teach Us About the Value of Life

Photo by Steven Cotton
In this photo: Cynthia McCreery, Dawson Chung, Ha Chung, and Sidney Talaro

In his book, Budo Theory, Richard Rowell says:

“For the Budoka[*], it is not just a matter of self-defence or learning to fight. By looking at violence and death, they realize just how precious life is. They have seen through the paradox that many do not.” (p. 9)

*Bu means military/martial, Do means path/way, and Budoka is one who seriously studies the martial way.

He also says:

There is a saying “Ken Zen Ichi Ryo, which means ‘the sword and Zen are the same’ – that through the study of the sword (Ken) one can achieve the same level of enlightenment as the study of Zen.” (p. 14).

In the Western world we learn that opposites can’t exist together and that if one thing is “good” the opposite must be “bad”. Martial arts combines combat training with the aim to maintain peace and by embracing the two opposites there is groundwork for a more balanced way of living.

Aggression in Play Therapy

In the book, Aggression in Play Therapy by Lisa Dion she emphasizes the importance of allowing children to play out the aggression in their stories without shutting them down. Children in particular need a safe place to play out aggression as a way to resolve or understand events they may be facing in their lives, and also to feel witnessed and seen in what they are experiencing. Martial arts can be a great tool in a play therapy context, where elements of sparring, sword play and other combat can be accessible to a child who needs to work through challenging emotions or experiences.

Grounding and Presence

Photo by Steven Cotton
In this photo: Cynthia McCreery and Chee Ling

Some martial arts disciplines teach very specific techniques for grounding through each movement in a pattern or sparring, including position and tension in the feet, legs, buttocks, and core, while keeping the limbs relaxed until the point of contact. My karate sensei, Chee Ling says:

“There is stillness in motion and motion in the stillness: The chi is engaged constantly. Even as we stand still, the fore foot is gently pushing forwards. The chi continues after the technique or strike ends. The core (tanden) stays connected to the opponent.” (source: email correspondence on April 19, 2020)

Chi can be taught as a way of finding roots and building resource, thus possibly widening the window of tolerance for working with those who have experienced trauma. 

Using Martial Arts in Therapy Groups

There is a lot of potential in using Martial Arts and Expressive Arts Therapy to work in groups with those who have experienced trauma. Martial Arts (active empowerment: punching, self-defence, kicking as well as grounding and centring activities) could help integrate less active Expressive Arts Therapy exercises (painting, writing, music) in a somatic way. Martial Arts can be great for working with boundaries in a group context such as the practice of projecting your chi and learning to keep your opponent at bay. Those who have experienced trauma often understand strength and power only in the context of those who abuse it; as something belonging to someone else. The repatriation of this strength and power and use of it for “good” can be a very powerful practice.

I think it’s important to note here that martial arts training is not the same as therapy. With the right instructor and outlook, it can have therapeutic elements, but more importantly, the methods and practices used in the study of martial arts, can be integrated into the therapeutic space. With the therapist to hold the space and create safety for the client, martial arts practices can be very powerful therapeutic tools. 

My Story

My research into this topic was inspiring and has sparked a passion to bring this work into my therapy practice. My personal story is one that demonstrates to me how valuable this work can be. As a sensitive kid in an imperfect world, I began to retreat into myself around the age of 11. Emotionally, I was detached from my feelings and was afraid of becoming close to anyone. As a result I was also impacted physically. The clenched muscles around my core as I tried to protect myself, soon became permanently locked in tension. As I moved into adulthood and gave birth to my son, this created further issues with tension around my sciatica and some loss of sensation in one leg. As the tension was ignored, it travelled up into my neck and manifested as migraines. Eventually this led me to a place where I felt I was out of options. I had no energy, had lost far too much weight, and was not proud of who I had become as a mother. The decision to turn my life around came at this very low point in my life.

Photo by Kristin Spooner

The story of how I made that decision is a long one, and requires more space than I want to use here, but the important thing is that the decision was made. It took some serious commitment to shifting habits and beliefs that had been with me for a very long time, but eventually I began to come back into my body. This work happened over many years and involved many hours of somatic therapy, and martial arts training. Gaining access to my body has been a 15 year process so far, and I am not yet finished that journey. Completing the Expressive Arts Therapy program has given a focus to those years of work and I now understand a lot of what I had been working on in a way that wasn’t clear to me before. Coming into your body somatically can be like feeling around in a dark room you’ve never been in. Sometimes you have to trust in yourself, and sometimes you have to trust in someone who has been there before. I look forward to being someone who has been there before.

References

Books:

  • Dion, Lisa, Aggression in Play Therapy, 2018, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, USA
  • McGonigal, Kelly, PhD, The Joy of Movement, 2019, Penguin Random House 
  • Rowell, Richard, Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles, First Edition, 1993, Second Edition, 2011, Self-Published, Nanton, Alberta 

Current Research and Practice in Martial Arts and Therapy:

  • Rice, Danielle, www.daniellearinrice.com, working on her Masters Thesis on Martial Arts and Expressive Arts Therapy through the European Graduate School, from Vancouver, BC 
  • Siminoff, Dean, www.martialartsforjustice.org, working with victims of trauma in groups, combining martial arts and therapeutic exercises, from the West Kootenay Region of BC. Click HERE for his interview on the Trauma Therapist Podcast.

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