Martial Arts — My First Yoga Teacher

While my friends kicked back after school and watched the surf roll in, I was in the local dojo kicking punching bags, and on special occasions, a few heads. Expertly of course. No heads were injured during the recording of my memory.

My mother had given me a choice: study ballroom dancing or a martial art, and since Strictly Ballroom would not bring life to dancefloors for another decade, it wasn’t really a choice. From that first class – in a poorly chosen Boy George top and mini-skirt – a seed was sown, and from that seed my spiritual world was born. Two black belts later I discovered yoga and we fell in love. It scored a powerful impression on me, more so because self-discipline and concentration were allies I knew intimately.

Martial artists were traditionally known for their honour and spiritual sensibility as much as the corporal weapons they weilded. It’s ironic, when you consider that their study was to make art out of violence. From the outside, it might seem that martial arts is all karate chops and groin tearing, when in fact, it is a play of attack and defend. A martial artist only ever steps into combat with a mind to neutralise the situation. Imagine four hundred years ago, the ability to negotiate and avoid confrontation was an intelligent survival strategy, when martial artists were career warriors, and a bad day on the job involved broken bones or death.

Little has changed in traditional art forms except for an obvious softening. Students still observe a moral code of conduct. In my martial art style the tenets of the code were courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and – my favourite – indomitable spirit. It was the eve of my brown belt grading that I heard the word correctly. Until then I vowed with all my heart to have an abominable spirit. Pledging these virtues throughout my recklessly driven teenage years definately cooled my ego and made piety a thing.

Yoga offered no fewer gifts, and I would need ten thousand more words to describe what I learned. Of my young 20 year practice, there was one habit that served to unlock so many dimensions hidden within my physical practice. (this metaphor because I totally aced Super Mario today!)

The habit is simple, and the most difficult: show up on the mat, every day.

In sickness and health, for richer or poorer, the full dimension of yoga can be perceived when it is practiced in every circumstance of life. To practice only when you feel strong and healthy, is to over-look the rich, complex, subtle, spiritually comprehensive offering in favor of  work-out-barbie-yoga. On the other hand, practice while sick, excited, exhausted, depressed or over-stretched, and yoga transforms into an experience of enduring connection to the oneness of that which is greater than us.

I forged this habit first in Martial Arts, not because I was wise, I simply knew that despite what mood life was in, I felt better after training. The fruits of this habit informed my character, and also taught me this:

  • There is always more to harvest beyond what I believe is the limit.
  • Persevere. Be hungry for achievement that comes out of great work, even sacrifice.
  • Pain is simply pain. It is to be respected, but on it’s own it doesn’t mean much.
  • Beyond the edge of my comfort zone where fear and weakness dwell, I’ll feel comfortable if I visit often.
  • I can leave my emotions at the door, and collect them again afterward.
  • To Know myself.
  • We are but mirrors.

The dojo is a place to sweat and shout and focus. The gi is not unique in style or colour. Nor is it figure-hugging, see-through or over-priced. No sitar music or sandalwood incense calms the room. Students come, pay their respect, practice and leave. On days when I despair that the culture of vanity will continue to claim more yoga victims, I miss the ascetic dojo and its austere ways.

I love yoga with all my heart.

My martial art heart.

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