Guest Writer: The Benefits Taiji Has on Mental Health

While taekwondo poomsae (forms) can be a rewarding form of moving mediation, there are many other ways to improve one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being from martial arts. Guest writer Adam Durnham shares the benefits of taiji (tai chi) in this post. If you would like to be a guest blogger for Little Black Belt, please read the contributing guidelines here

Tai-Chi

Also known as tai chi, taiji is a low-impact body-mind exercise or martial art that originated in China. In Asia, people have practiced it for many centuries and it helps improve health and fitness 

Taiji has gained popularity in the West and people use it to enhance their overall psychological well-being and mood. Many scientific studies have researched taiji as well as breathing control and physical exercises related to taiji known as qigong. Many of these studies claim that taiji may enhance the mental health of individuals.

“This combination of self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, the flow of breath, and mindfulness, are thought to comprise a state that activates the natural self-regulatory (self-healing) capacity,” according to some researchers.

The low-impact martial art is associated with reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. When individuals are unable to cope with life’s challenges, they may indulge in behaviors like abusing drugs and alcohol. They may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression. To help improve mental health and reduce the chances of abusing alcohol or drugs, individuals may want to practice taiji. Let’s examine how this martial art may help the body deal with mental tension.

Managing Stress

One reason to practice taiji is to reduce stress. People may experience stress due to many reasons. If you have a chronic disease, you probably deal with a lot of stress. You may also experience stress when you face life challenges relating to your finances, work, family, and relationships.

Conventional Chinese medicine teaches that illness occurs because of an imbalance between opposing life forces, yang and yin. Taiji helps reestablish balance and create harmony between the mind and body. It also helps connect a person with the outside world. Practicing taiji can help reduce stress and improve your mental health.

To practice taiji, people perform a series of body movements in a slow but focused manner. Deep breathing accompanies the movements. The practice encourages flowing from posture to posture without pausing, ensuring that an individual’s body remains in constant motion. The meditative movement is a noncompetitive, self-paced system that consists of physical exercise and stretching.

Improving Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL)

When people are ill, their quality of life diminishes. Health-related quality of life (HRQoL)offers a comprehensive measure of well-being. It reflects people’s perceptions of their health and their satisfaction with life over a certain period of time.

People who suffer from mental health conditions may report poor HRQoL. When you compare individuals with common medical conditions to people with mental health conditions, you may find that there is a significant difference in their level of HRQoL impairments. People with mental health conditions may have relatively larger HRQoL impairments compared to those with common medical disorders. Taiji can help improve the health-related quality of life and may be an important exercise for the treatment of mental disorders.

Help with Anxiety, Mood, and Depression

A Japanese trial conducted in 2010 evaluated elderly people who had cerebral vascular disorder. The trial studied different approaches to deal with the participants’ anxiety. The participants practiced taiji or participated in standard rehabilitation in various group sessions at least one time a week for twelve weeks. The participants who practiced taiji experienced improvement in symptoms related to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and sleep quality.

Help with Substance Abuse

For people who are receiving treatment for addiction, practicing taiji may help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances. Withdrawal symptoms are one of the greatest challenges addicts face when recovering from addiction. The symptoms can be so severe that people are unable to cope with them. They may return to using drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain of withdrawal.

Practicing taiji helps to lower relapse rates and reduces cravings. Individuals who have been treated for addiction may still experience the urge to use drugs or consume alcohol. Relapses occur when people who have received treatment return to using drugs and alcohol. Taiji may help reduce cravings, help people complete their treatment programs, and stay sober after their treatment.

Suffering from drug and alcohol abuse could create poor mental well-being. People may be unable to control negative feelings and emotions or even make sound decisions. Taiji exercises may help instill confidence, energy, and stamina to deal with life challenges. They may help reduce stress, depression, or anxiety.

If you are an addict, you may want to seek treatment at an addiction rehab and begin your journey to recovery. A rehab center will provide various treatment programs and techniques, which may include the use of mind-body practices such as taiji and yoga to help with treatment and recovery.

Author Bio: Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger and martial arts lover that primarily writes about mental health, wellness, martial arts, and how they all pertain to everyday life. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet. You can find a lot of his work at the Willow Springs Recovery Blog

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Guest Writer: How to Turn the Great Outdoors into a Martial Arts Ground

Hello Little Black Belt readers! I’d like to introduce my very first guest writer, Diamond from the health and wellness website eHealthInformer. Enjoy!

 low-block-in-sunset

Some of the most influential martial artists preach that no matter what form you practice, you can take it anywhere with you. Martial arts are about physical and mental health, radiating balance and positivity throughout the student’s life. This opens up a huge amount of opportunity for the martial artist, as it means they can and should practice anywhere they please. Ideas such as this also help students to reinvigorate their love for martial arts, as repetition and constantly similar surroundings can cause boredom that leads to bad form and concentration levels.

Martial arts can’t be confined to a dojang or studio. They can certainly be taught and practiced there, but it’s a lifestyle choice, not a hobby. Now we’re going to explore the possibilities and opportunities for how you can turn the great outdoors into a martial arts ground.

Use Your Imagination

When you put your mind to it, almost any environment can be transformed into an area to practice martial arts. Whether you’re in a forest or a field, it doesn’t matter; nature has everything you need to master certain elements of your chosen style. Fulfilling an exercise routine using what you have around you in nature can be a fun and educational experience. Try using strong tree branches for pull ups or utilizing the exercise equipment at your local park.

Also, many teachers advise students to use meditation as a part of their daily routine. Why not meditate in an undisturbed, peaceful environment, such as near a lake or on a hilltop? Get creative with your local area and see what ideas you can come up with.

If you’re already outside in the wilderness and are finding it difficult to use your imagination, you can scan YouTube and the rest of the internet for ideas, as there are many martial arts based exercises, drills and meditation techniques you can learn from the platform.

Be Safe

hipster-on-a-rock

Nobody wants to be a spoilsport, but it is worth mentioning that the risks and dangers of injuring yourself in an unsecured environment are higher than in the dojo. Without safety mats and your Sifu, Sensei, or Sabumnim (depending on your chosen style) present, you must take precautions and be realistic as to what you take outside of your regular studio sessions.

Also, understand the laws in your area. If you aren’t allowed to take certain weaponry out into the open (especially without the correct licensing), you could be arrested or have your equipment confiscated.

In the spirit of safety, it’s worth mentioning that if you do choose to use YouTube while outside to learn exercises and drills, you’ll be vulnerable to hackers. It is worth hiding your IP address so that your information is secure and can’t be stolen.

Embracing the Unknown

middle-punch-in-sunlight
Practicing your martial arts outside is beneficial for many reasons, one of which is conditioning the body to react with accuracy in all types of weather. The outside training ground gives us a unique and unpredictable area to practice in, which heightens our senses and spatial awareness. Also, the predictability of the environment in a dojang is obvious to most students, since the temperature, ground condition and personal space is so familiar.

In the outdoors, the ground may be uneven, the temperature is constantly changing, and who knows what will enter our personal space. We can put ourselves in situations that test our abilities to the next level outdoors, as there’s a wide range of circumstances and environments to explore.

Nature gives us a new dimension to experience when practicing martial arts outside. Hearing wildlife, water and the sounds of your surroundings induces a sense of connection and wonder into your immediate location. You might find yourself conjuring up images of Kwai Chang Caine from the legendary series “Kung Fu.” However, don’t let this take away the seriousness of the practice. The fact that you’re learning a way of life that will protect you and give you a sense of balance and health in life means a great deal.

Have any tips or experiences for training outdoors with martial arts? Please leave us a comment in the section below.

About the Author: Diamond is a martial arts practitioner who enjoys spreading the lifestyle and its many benefits through blogging. She also likes to practice in all environments and believes that the “dojo” is taken with the student wherever they go. Check out more of her articles on fitness, healthcare, nutrition, and technology at eHealthInformer.com.

My Guest Post: Using Martial Arts Forms As Moving Meditation

Check out July’s guest post from Book Martial Arts!
Discipline of the Body and Mind: Using Forms as Moving Meditation.

Poomsae_Training (Medium)

Nothing, and I mean nothing has helped me practice presence better than taekwondo. This month I go all hippie in the dojang and discuss how the martial arts student can use their poomsae, kata, or other type of form to quiet the mind, focus the body, and ultimately improve their practice.

Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

The Poomsae Series Part 10: Keumgang, or Why Do We Make the Simplicity of “Being Present” So Damned Difficult?

mount-kumgang

The Poomsae Series is BACK! This series of blog posts discusses the life lessons I’ve learned from taekwondo forms, or “poomsae” in Korean. Forms put the “art” in martial arts, and are one of the best ways to practice discipline of the body and mind. I’ve begun learning the two forms required for first dan black belt, and am just now starting to uncover what these forms are challenging me to do beyond stances and strikes.

Today’s post is about Keumgang, a form named for a beautiful mountain (“Diamond Mountain”) in the eastern portion of North Korea. Since there are many resources on the web about the history of this form and the region from where it derives its name and influence–plus this lovely song–I’m simply presenting insight gained from practicing the form.

This form is RAW. There is nothing pretty or lyrical or intellectually complex about it (one could argue against that, but we’ll save that for a different post). The movements are thick, heavy, and forceful. Other than a few palm-heel strikes and knife-hand blocks at the beginning, it’s all popping fists and stomping feet. To the untrained eye it might even appear boring and crude. If Koryo, the other first dan black belt form, were a conversation, it would be a razor-sharp battle of wits (and knee breaks), whereas this form simply says, “Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”

It’s been surprisingly difficult to learn Keumgang compared to how I learned the color belt forms and Koryo. For whatever reason I have a mental block that sets my brain into panic mode rather than letting me muddle through the learning process with ease. I still have a long way to go before I feel comfortable flowing through this supposedly “easy” form on my own without the guidance of an instructor or the visual cues from more experienced black belts.

As with my other forms, I’ve opened my mind to what Keumgang can teach me aside from the physical movements. I think I’ve figured out the lesson from this form:

Be present. Stop avoiding it and making everything so difficult. Seriously.

I’ve mentioned before how taekwondo, whether I’m free sparring or doing forms, forces me to be more focused on the present moment than any other venture, including yoga and traditional meditation. There’s a sense of mindfulness and presence with all the forms, of course, but this form, this simple flow of anger and brute force, shoves the ugly truth in my face: I, like millions of other people, am still stuck in my head more than I thought I was.

Just as the busy, chattering mind can wander during meditation or a car ride or a conversation, it’s very easy to get lost in this form if you’re even stuck in your head for just a moment. Before you know it, the repetitive, simple movements can lock you into a continuous loop, a purgatory of horseback stances and side punches. Even my instructors have gotten caught up in the hypnotic nature of it, urging us to continue after the form has actually ended, and leaving my classmates and I to glance at each other helplessly while we do yet another mountain block.

How often does your mind wander when you’re trying to be present? Focusing on the present moment can be unappealing and difficult if we don’t practice. We love to make simple things needlessly complex. We’re in our heads all the time, telling ourselves stories and worrying, and meanwhile we’re just sloppily going through the motions with whatever we’re doing at the moment. Just as I go into mental overdrive as I continue to learn Keumgang in class, my mind, if unchecked, tries to unleash hell when I’m seeking peace and quiet. I make it too complicated. I’m sure I’m not alone in this: I avoid resting in the stillness of presence even though I know it’s the best thing I could do for myself.

I’m looking forward to the day when I truly experience the quiet depth and meditative power of this unusual form both in the dojang and in daily life.

Stop.
Breathe.
Be still, and you will be strong.

Minimalism, Nihilism, Whatever; I’m Just Gonna Hang Out for a While

still lake

Happy New Year! Now is the time to kick things into gear, to start new ventures, to try new things, to add things to your to-do list, right?

…or, maybe it’s not.

Maybe now is the time to do the opposite: slow down, simplify, prioritize. I was fortunate enough to get about a week and a half off to spend the Christmas holidays with family, close friends, and of course my brother’s sweet little dog, whom I mentioned in a post last year. That gave me a lot of time to think about how I was managing my life and where it was taking me. It reminded me of the people and things that are truly important to me.

More and more I felt the pull to disconnect—physically as well as emotionally from certain aspects of my life. A few weeks earlier I was thinking about starting two different new blogs and began an intense amount of effort to learn what I could about successful blogging and starting an online business. I quickly burned out and realized that it would be better to let things happen naturally and not approach it with any desperation (my law of attraction followers will understand that). I also started thinking about getting another degree and went on a frantic search for information, but I realized that was yet another ploy to escape my current situation, which in the grand scheme of things is very pleasant…I won’t say another degree will never happen in the future, but for now, the only school I feel like going to is the dojang.

All of these distractions, wishful thinkings, desperate searches we create are attempts to “save” ourselves from our current situation, whether it’s really bad or actually quite nice. It’s easy to get sucked into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction: if only we had the right job/relationship/body/amount of money…THEN we’d be happy. 

Happiness is right here in this moment, and I’m tired of running around like crazy searching for it. I’m staying right here for a while. 

After I had this realization over the holiday break I decided to just relax and enjoy the present moment as much as I could. My personal life is pretty sweet and low-stress, so instead of searching for something new to add to it, I’m just going to enjoy and focus on what I have. I’m not feeling very ambitious right now, and I’m not seeking new opportunities or new people to come into my life…which is right about the time when those things manifest, am I right?

So rather than set a bunch of new goals or start new ventures or new work explorations I’d rather just focus on what I have now: the few relationships that are truly important to me, the few things I really love to do (taekwondo, exercise, yoga and meditation, taking care of my house, walking through my pretty neighborhood, reading and writing), the things I like about my current job. If I do get involved or excited over something, I want it to be something I TRULY care about, not just all the extra stressy gunk in life.

Maybe I’ll start a new blog, and maybe I won’t. Right now I have this blog, and that’s plenty. The mental, spiritual, and emotional journey that taekwondo has taken me on is far from over, so I’ll have plenty of material, plus something funny usually happens in class (like how a few days ago I got kicked so hard while holding a practice pad for someone else that I scooted back about ten feet and fell on the floor, my eyes wide open in surprise the whole time like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.)

I’ve also wasted a lot of time on social media and the bottomless pit of web surfing, as I’m sure many other people have. I’m tired of it. I must be so introverted that even virtual interaction became overwhelming. I’ll still be connected and spend time online, but much less than I have been lately.

As for my professional life, I’ve always been much more detached than I have been with my personal life. I don’t always have a choice in what projects I’m involved in at work, but I always have control over how emotionally attached I am to them. I put in effort and do my part and sometimes do get excited or annoyed about things going on at work, but I never lose sleep over it. If I could adopt that emotionally detached mindset in other aspects of my life…well…I’d be pretty damn blissed out.

Even in taekwondo we’re slowing down and narrowing our scope. The first week or so back is always focused on basics, and it’s a good reminder for the advanced students (especially the black belts) to work on the fundamental skills and techniques that ground us in our practice. I’m learning new things, but more importantly, I’m improving what I’ve already been taught. The advanced stuff will come. It can’t be forced. Last year I set a bunch of goals that I kind of sort of met. This year I’m just setting one taekwondo goal: to perfect my spin kick. I want to make it beautiful, efficient, and powerful. (And I’m thinking about all the picky technical details, but I won’t get into that here).
That’s it.

I do want to improve in certain areas, but more importantly, I just want to BE. If I’ve wasted hours on the internet, then I’ve wasted nearly a lifetime ruminating over the past or fretting about the future. I’ve wasted years letting my mind run around like a headless chicken instead of just being present and taking life moment by moment. It’s time to just be quiet for a while.

Sometimes in moments of silence and stillness, the most progress can be made. Stillness can be fullness if you let it.

As we were driving around the Texas hill country during the last week of December, my mom pulled a folded and faded piece of paper out of her purse. Unbeknownst to me she’d been carrying it around with her for months. On her folded paper was a quote from my November 2014 blog post about the sixth form Palgwe Yuk Jang, reminding us to be mindful and even take advantage of the quiet moments in our life. I was so touched that my words meant that much to her. (And she’s going to kill me when she reads that I’m sharing it here, so it’s been nice knowing all of you).
Here’s the quote:

“What adds complexity to this form are the pauses, the silence, the negative space that floats in the air after a staccato palm-heel strike or a dramatic leap into that rear cross-foot stance as your yell echoes into silence. My very quotable yoga teacher asked us during class one day to be mindful of the pauses in our practice and in our life. A pause can be a moment of decision and precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”

That’s what I feel drawn to right now: silence and stillness. Not forcing anything, not pushing anything, not searching in vain for something to “save” me from the present moment.

I just want to hang out and be chill for a while.

Will you join me?

…And if you STILL need some motivation to throw everything to the wind, I invite you to listen to the “F*ck That” meditation. (Not while your children or boss are around of course.)
Yep, that’s how I’m feeling right now. F*ck it all….ahhhhhh…….

So Just Chill Till the Next Episode

take_a_break

“To surrender,” my yoga teacher said as he looked around the dark room at our upturned faces, “you sometimes first have to build heat.”

It was my first yoga class in about a month. When asked about my long absence I gave the ubiquitous answer of “I had things going on” with a Robert De Niro-esque shrug. I did have things going on (laundry doesn’t fold itself), but that wasn’t the entire answer.

Sometimes I avoid my practice on purpose when I am dealing with tricky issues or need some mental downtime. As I’ve said in previous posts, my mind does not shut off and focus in yoga the way it does in taekwondo. About halfway into the practice my mind quiets down, but for the first thirty minutes thoughts bounce around in my head like a racquetball. When a sticky issue is top of mind it likes to crab-walk down my spine as I dangle in forward fold, crawl into my ear and whisper, “Let’s think about THIS.” It’s even worse when I try to meditate on my own or using guided meditation. And you know what? I just don’t like meditation—there, I said it. Revoke my hippie card.

My reluctance to surrender to my practice reminds me of when I did some individual coaching sessions for a team about two years ago. One of my clients, a young woman I’d known for years, said she had put off meeting with me for quite some time because she knew a sticky issue would probably come up. We peeled back layers carefully, and by the end of our session she was relieved that she had finally talked about it and figured out how to address it.

It felt fantastic to be back to yoga. My body unfolded into the poses as if I were smoothing out a crumpled piece of paper on a cool kitchen counter. The old familiar pinching pain in my left shoulder was gone (perhaps since I hadn’t done yoga in four weeks) so the million chaturangas we always do didn’t have to be modified. About halfway into the practice my mind was finally quiet.

My teacher continued his original thought as he gently tugged my arms up and away into a fuller expression of locust pose.

“When you think you’ve reached your end,” he said, “Notice the tension in your body…and ease off.” He lowered my hands an inch. “It’s a life lesson. When you hit a plateau in your practice or your work or relationships…just ease off a bit…and then you can get back into it.” He released my hands, and my arms and legs felt twice as long as they floated to the ground. It was just what I needed to hear after mulling over the burnout I had been experiencing.

Plateaus and burnouts aren’t necessarily bad things if we don’t let them overrun us. They are cues, feedback to us to ease off for a bit in order to rest, recharge, and make any necessary changes. They are an opportunity for us to surrender and let go so the heat we’ve built doesn’t burn us to the ground. A healthy practitioner, no matter the trade, knows when to recognize these cues and surrender to the needs of the body, mind, and spirit.

In other words, it’s OK to chill! (After I get home from sparring and red and black belt class)