Life Lessons of Martial Arts

I was seventeen years old when I put on a gi top and white belt for the first time. I was a lifelong fan of the martial arts but for various reasons, I had never taken an actual martial arts class until college. When I arrived on campus, the first thing I looked for during the activity expo for new students was a martial arts club to join. I ended up joining an all women’s Self-Defense and Tae Kwon Do club and it’s not an exaggeration to say that my life would never be the same.

Photo by Catherine

Martial arts have been a major part of my life for almost twenty years now. I met my husband in a martial arts training hall (aka “dojo”) and have made many lifelong personal connections while training in the martial arts. I’ve trained in many different schools and styles of martial arts over the years, from softer arts like tai chi to harder ones like karate. I spent my college years training in taekwondo (TKD) during the school year and the summer but when I got out of school and moved out of state, I switched to karate as my primary martial art while also practicing capoeira and kendo at times.

For me, martial arts have always been more than physical exercise. The lessons I’ve learned in my years of martial arts training have served me well in every area of my life from parenting to my career. These days I don’t train regularly with a group any more. Once I had my daughter six years ago, it became harder to make it in to the studio for group training. Instead, I’m more like a lone she-wolf these days. I still have my techniques and drills that I work on at home; I come back to those regularly as part of my overall workout routines. In today’s post, I want to share a few of the life lessons that I learned in my martial arts training and how they apply to my daily life.

You Can Grow Beyond Your Limits

When I was a beginner in taekwondo, I could not kick above my waist, let alone above the waist of the women I was training with at the time. I am a shorter person and there are rules in sparring that do not allow for kicks below the belt for good reason! Because I physically could not kick above my waist, I essentially could not use my kicks during sparring and that can make things especially difficult in taekwondo. For the three months leading up to my first belt test, I spent hours in the college “boxing studio” (read: empty racquetball court full of heavy bags) relentlessly working on the flexibility of my kicks to get them higher. I repeated the same stretches and exercises again and again until I could reliably kick above my waist and eventually learned to even land a roundhouse kick to the height of my own head.

This was one of my earliest lessons from my martial arts training. I learned the value of having a clear goal and the importance of working towards that goal a little bit every single day. I’ve been able to take this lesson and apply it to other goals I’ve had later in life: small steps done consistently can lead to big results. Stick with your goals, don’t give up and eventually you can grow beyond your limits!

Attitude is Contagious

One of my greatest teachers (Sensei in Japanese martial arts) was always quick to remind all of us that our attitude is contagious. Bring a lazy, negative attitude into practice and soon the entire group is dragged down and not performing their best technique. Bring your strongest energy along with your best effort and the group will rise with you.

I think about this idea often as someone in a formal leadership position in my day job but it’s true of everyone, no matter what your position or role is in a group. I like to imagine that there is an “attitude” thermostat that my energy automatically adjusts when I walk into the office (or turn on the VPN in these virtual days). If I bring a negative attitude to work, the thermostat adjusts down and my attitude will affect the people around me. Similarly, if I bring in a positive attitude, I will raise the spirit of the team. This also helps to keep a stressed out team stay calm in the face of challenges. Be mindful if the attitude you bring to the group, you may be surprised by your own power to both lift the group and bring it down.

It’s All Part of the Training

Practicing sports and martial arts often forces us to pull on both our physical and mental strength. Unlike other sport activities, though, the martial arts have no season: they tend to be more of a lifestyle activity that you practice every day, all year round. Our Kendo Sensei taught us that “everything is a part of the training” and this idea became like a life mantra especially for my husband who was a serious Kendo practitioner for many years.

“Everything is a part of the training” means that the challenges you encounter in your daily life help support your martial arts practice and your martial arts practice helps support you through the challenges of your life. My husband uses this idea to help motivate himself in his daily life. When the going gets tough, he often reminds himself: “it’s all part of the training.”

Just as we face mental, emotional and physical challenges during our training in martial arts, we face the same types of challenges in daily life. Learning to deal with those frustrations and challenges in life prepares you for the challenges in the dojo and vice-versa. You may find yourself feeling frustrated with your technique during class and wanting to quit but you must stick with it if you hope to improve. Over time, with discipline and practice, you learn to manage your emotions and stay calm in the face of the challenge of your opponent. Everything that happens to you during your life has a lesson to teach you, it’s all part of your training to improve.

Having the mindset that “it’s all a part of the training” helps me take on a more proactive attitude in the face of difficulty. Instead of fearing or complaining about challenges, I take them on as a part of my training.

The Way of the Warrior

This post is just the tip of the iceberg of the life lessons that martial arts have taught me. At the core, practicing the martial arts introduced me to the way of the peaceful warrior. Karate dojos often have a set of mottos or sayings called “dojo kun” or “training hall rules.” In my years of practice, I learned many dojo kun but these have always stuck with me. Even in these days, as I train on my own, I come back to these as personal affirmations:

I am Strong

I am Powerful

I am Honest

I am Peaceful

I think for myself

I am me!

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