MMA: Keep The Stress At Bay
Living in a foreign country comes with may amazing new opportunities and chances to grow as a person. That doesn't mean though, that it comes without its fair share of stress. Here I talk about how I got into Martial Arts in general and how it helps me unwind and feel physically strong at the same time.
People who know me have always commented that I am a little aggressive. Most of this is in jest, the odd punch to the arm here and an angry scowl there. I joke about it with my friends and it has become a part of my personality. Sometimes though, it isn’t a joke. Sometimes it is how I deal with things. Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to prove I was as tough as the boys, as fast and as strong. This was great for competition and sports and I did a lot of them; gymnastics, dancing, horse riding, football, netball, rounders, athletics (running and jumping mainly), bouldering and even for a short time, sailing. I had way too much energy and it had to be channeled somewhere constructive, hence all the sports. However, as a young girl, trying to play with the boys meant a lot of teasing, and testing. They would challenge me to things, arm wrestles etc and would elevate how aggressive they were around me as well. Over time there have been instances that have led me to realise that self defense may be a good idea.
It wasn’t until my first year at university though that I started martial arts. I ended up joining the Kung Fu society, where I was amongst a small number of women within a larger group of men. Kung Fu is not just a sport, it is seen as a way of being. Anything that is done with mindfulness and constant practice could be considered kung fu, even a chess game. It can also include breathing exercises and focus training. The physical training was exhausting, with 45 minutes of warm ups and muscle exercises that often included 60 push ups, with variations, in a row and holding plank for as long as you could, first to fall had to do handstand push ups. This wasn’t just physical training, it was mental as well. How far could you push your body and keep going despite the aching. Then came drills which trained technique, speed and power. Often following that we went into sparring, and, depending on your opponent, it could be painful. Here though, the men, though joking and challenging, did not treat me differently for being a women. We trained to understand each opponent as an individual, with their own unique style...and weaknesses, and we pushed each other equally. We would knock each other down and then offer a hand back up. We respected each other and had discipline. That is the main things that doing a martial arts will teach you, respect and discipline.
I did that for over 3 years, adding in a few Tai Chi classes as well, to help balance my aggressive style of fighting. Throughout that time I felt fit, bruised though I may have been from time to time, my body was stronger and in better shape than it had ever been. I enjoyed the classes and the training, it gave me somewhere to vent off my extra energy and tire me out and I became friends with the people there, a few I still keep in touch with today.
When I came to Japan I knew I had to continue in some way. I had to keep in shape and find a way to keep training. I had dreamed of training in a dojo and I knew that I would join a martial arts club in whatever school I was placed in. Unfortunately for that dream, I wasn’t based in a school but an Education Center, with a lot of sitting at a desk. I couldn’t join a school club and had to search to find somewhere I could take lessons and hopefully someone who might be able to speak a little english to train me. Looking around at the different places I could go was so difficult. I couldn’t find websites in english and the schedules looked difficult to understand. Many of the classes aimed at training children and were group classes, I didn’t really think that I could get a decent spar with 11 year olds. On top of that the fees were crazy! Everywhere cost so much money and I didn’t feel like a lot of them were right for me. Then I found a small place a few train stops away, an MMA gym.
MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts; I train in boxing, kickboxing, a little judo and a smattering of Brazilian ju jitsu (BJJ). My trainer speaks english very well and we have very few communication problems. One of the cool things about my trainer is his name, 竜彦 - Tatsuhiko; the first kanji in his name meaning dragon; so we joke about how I am being trained in a martial arts, here in Japan, by a dragon. I personally think that’s epic! He is very patient with me, pushes me, but never using aggression. A typical sessions starts with me warming my limbs up, doing some dynamic stretching and working out all the pops and clicks in my joints. From there we work on punching drills. I usually wear gloves (sometimes bare knuckle, though this can lead to bruised and bleeding knuckles that take a long time to heal) and punch into the pads doing a series of combinations, jab, cross, hook, uppercut etc. We do three 3 minute sets and that is enough to get me sweating and get my heart rate up. We might then move onto kicks and occasionally work on takedowns and floorwork, e.g pinning your opponent once on the floor using an arm bar. Every so often we will spar one another.
I did manage get my fix of Japanese martial arts I have also taken a few Kendo classes, Aikido classes and one of my co-workers offered to teach me some katana techniques using an actual katana! I have learned how to draw, strike and re-sheath the sword, which is by no means easy with a curved blade. So alongside my weekly training, I have tasted and experienced more traditional Japanese forms of Martial Arts as well, which makes me feel like I have somehow fulfilled that part of what I wanted from my time here.
I really enjoy MMA. It keeps me fit and allows me a sense of achievement as I see how I improve and do better over time. I get a great sense of pride from learning martial arts, pushing my body and getting better. It is something that keeps not only my body healthy, but my mind too. I can go and relieve some of the stress of the week over the course of an hour. If I am struggling with something I feel like I can somehow work though it in my mind whilst I am practicing my technique. I allow my frustrations at things to be physically let go so I can focus on being pragmatic about the problem. People deal with stress and anxiety in many different ways. For some it is often tranquil or requires concentration such as illustration or cross-stitch for others it may be relaxing by taking long baths and just allowing yourself to be still. For me it’s martial arts, it helps channel my aggression and energy in a safe and respectful place. It teaches me discipline and humility. There will always be someone better than me and I respect them as well as those who may only just be starting out.
Keeping my body in shape makes me feel good about myself, I like being toned and feeling strong. I am happy I found a way to continue that here. There are so many health benefits to martial arts, mental and physical. There are some downsides as well, such as joint problems and occasional injuries (my knee joint now pops a lot and I believe I have permanent scars on my knuckles). These things are all worth it for me. I now how to defend myself or, even better, get myself out of potentially dangerous situations which I have had to do on one occasion in a club here in Japan. I believe that since I started martial arts it has helped me deal with stress, given me a safe space to offload my energy and been cathartic. I hope that some of you will read this and want to try it out for yourself. Even if it doesn’t help you may just find it a lot of fun!
This piece was written for the Health Section of Connect Magazine as a submission.
To see the originally published article please visit the Connect Issue it is featured in here.