My introduction to yoga was a class called “Get Centered” during my first semester as a college freshman. The instructor was a tiny bird of a woman with hippie white girl dreadlocks and a voice like a dark, cool, quiet bedroom. I was hooked. Yoga has accompanied me through years of education, career growth, relationship struggles and joys, financial independence, and emotional maturity. Even when I skipped class for months and didn’t give yoga much thought it was always in the background patiently waiting for me to come back.
I’m just starting to realize how much of a solid force yoga was in shaping who I am. I always attributed my broad muscular shoulders and upper back to genetics and a lifetime of swimming, but I can’t discount the endless downward dogs and chaturangas I’ve done over the past 17 years. I have been ruled by my emotions, moved like a puppet by volcanic rage and bottomless depression…yet I never truly jumped off the ledge. Something deep inside always caught me by the shirt tail and whispered, “Just hold on. It will be OK.” Eventually that calm still voice overpowered the internal demons.
My boyfriend, a long-time wrestler and purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, began joining me in class, so I get to experience yoga through a fresh set of eyes. Together we celebrate his progress, and it is often his enthusiasm that motivates me to go to class after a long day at work. Seeing how yoga is helping both of us with our respective martial arts leads me to ask: are yoga and martial arts a match made in Nirvana? How can I share my years of yoga experience with my newfound community of martial artists and fighters? Would the yoga community question me for blending their practice of peace with combat sports?
According to the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra living ethically and practicing “ahimsa,” or nonviolence, is the first step of the yoga journey. Ahimsa not only encompasses avoiding physical violence but mental and emotional violence as well. Flipping off a driver on the way home from yoga class can cancel out all the peace and oneness that floated through your blissed out mind during savansana. As a trained fighter with an arsenal of self-defense skills how can I subscribe to two seemingly opposed schools of thought?
Frankly I don’t feel the need to reconcile the two. My childhood taekwondo training prepared my body and mind for yoga as an adult, which in turn has come full circle and enhances my adult taekwondo performance. My yoga and martial arts practices are so intertwined that I have almost screamed “Yes, ma’am!” at a yoga instructor.
On a purely physical level they’re the perfect complements. The core strength and balance required for standing half-moon and warrior III lend nicely to spin and side kicks. Deep hamstring stretches help ward off the nasty tendonitis that can set in for new tkd practitioners. Deep breathing keeps you from passing out during sparring. Eagle pose is a great way to creep out your grandmaster before class.
Yoga is also helpful for calming the mind during a stressful situation. Keeping your cool while a 6’4” 25-year-old punches you in the ribs can be a bit trying. Our natural tendency is to go into fight or flight mode under attack. Oddly enough the most frequent feedback I’ve gotten from my instructors is to….relax.
Both arts emphasize a positive attitude, humility, and respect for others, but the philosophical core is at times more difficult to grasp than the physical practice. Some gym yoga classes are just Pilates with Indian music playing in the background. I doubt the kindergartner white belts are concerned with developing their courage, perseverance, or “indomitable spirit” that serve as the mental foundation of taekwondo. It takes some mental effort, an open heart, and forces larger than ourselves to meld the efforts of our bodies with our minds. Besides, martial artists are some of the most peaceful, level-headed people you could meet. Our hope is that we NEVER have to use taekwondo in an actual fight.
While we don’t lie in savansana at the end of taekwondo class we have our own closing ritual of gratitude and recognition. After a quick meditation we bow, clap, and make our way around the dojang shaking hands and thanking each other for their efforts. It’s like a sweaty prolonged namaste lovefest with the same people who spent the last 20 minutes throwing you to the ground.
Within the next few years I hope to become a certified yoga teacher. My ultimate dream is to build a client base of martial artists and pro fighters. If I am met with skepticism by the yoga certification powers-that-be about marrying my love of martial arts with my yoga practice I will invite them to join me in the dojang with the guarantee that they will feel the same endorphins, mental clarity, and bliss they experience during an intense yoga practice. Plus you get to wear comfy clothes and go barefoot for both, so I’d say that makes them a match made in heaven.