Hara, the ocean of energy
Ocean of Energy
Healing in the Martial Arts

by Dan Russell

In this article I am restricting myself to the two kinds of martial arts about which I feel qualified to speak: Okinawan Goju Ryu (hard-soft style), as taught by the renowned Higaonna Sensei, and the Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan which I have practised for many years with teachers in the Republic of China.

Healing and martial arts might appear to be conflicting pursuits, yet the ways of the Shamanic Healer and Martial Artist are often interwoven - being equally ancient aspects of the human response to life. In Taoist and Buddhist culture there is a tradition of the martial artist as healer. This is partly due to the fact that practising martial arts can have a profound and dramatic healing effect that is hard to duplicate with any other physical regimen.

The human body has evolved over millions of years with astounding complexity and sensitivity to respond to a natural world. Our bodies, however, are becoming increasingly burdened by the scourges of modern life - stress, urbanisation, poor posture, poor living accommodation, pollution, chairs and tables for bodies designed to sit on the floor, W.C.s for digestive systems designed to function in a squatting position. Processed food, processed lives.

Many aspects of ageing and ill-health are culturally conditioned. There is an old and highly respected Tai Chi teacher in Tai Pei who has few of his own teeth left, yet whose posture is straight and supple. I've seen numerous elderly, balding instructors and one or two plump ones but back problems?

Even the accepted image of ageing is culturally conditioned. In the west we characteristically think of old people as stooped over, hand resting on an aching lower back. In cultures where bodily habits are very different -e.g. no chairs or desks to damage backs, or W.C.s to slow up digestive labours, people are generally able to walk upright or squat down well into old age. In other such cultures, failing eyesight, hearing or rotting teeth perhaps characterise better the onset of old age.

So, do you go to a Healer or to a doctor; to a Shaman or to a psychiatrist, for help? How many times, for example, do you need to visit an osteopath for lower back pain due to stress and poor postural habits? If the osteopath knows what he's doing you might walk out feeling better, but if your life stays the same you'll soon be back!

A good Shaman or Hypnotherapist can uncover the effects of abuse: childhood traumas and humiliation... and the muscular holding patterns that we adopt to suppress continual fear, hurt or anger. It is often the muscular response to these abuses that can cause us from childhood to stiffen up, to be tight, inhibited, headachy, chronically sick or to have a myriad of other symptoms and illnesses.

And we are not just talking about the extreme kind of sexual or physical abuse of children that periodically hits the tabloids. I am referring to the culture of abuse, which we live in and in which almost every one of us has had to grow up; an acceptance that children are to be humiliated or even violently punished by their parents. Even when lucky enough to escape parental scorn, neglect or cruelty, who can escape the effects of our school system? Emotional expression generally being put down mercilessly by our peers because of their own, unspeakable fears. The lauding of the strong and successful child and the abandonment of the weak. The accepted degradation of the "working classes" - the culturally disenfranchised "welfare community". Repression, fear, humiliation is such a part of our culture that most of us don't even notice the pain 'it is always like that'. 'Everyone is like that.' Or to a shaman, 'It's all right for you, you're different', (How? Why?).

Through trance work or healing of western hypnotherapeutic types, a deep understanding of our own programming or social conditioning can be achieved. We can be helped to understand our own response to the traumas we have experienced and become free of the habitual pattering.

We can learn about self-esteem and about our own innate lovableness. We can learn of the treasure of Buddha-mind that lies waiting to be uncovered in every human being. We can learn at the hands of a healer with compassion and experience what it is like to be free of fear, to love and be loved, to trust with intelligence, and most of all to find our POWER.

Such a healing, unlike a visit to a doctor's surgery or a spell on a shrink's couch is the beginning of a path or it is nothing. They are no more a spiritual awakening than a dose of LSD is - you get the insight but have no ability to pursue or sustain it.

Unlike the average modern doctor who completes his training and then sets up in practise, the way of the Shaman is one of continual refinement and it is that which can be passed onto many of the shamanic healer's clients... not just a cure but also a way of life.

So what means are available to us to stabilise and continue that healing process beyond 'therapy'? Of what use is 'insight' or event temporary alleviation of stress and negative emotions when those habitual body patterns are still there, when the physiological responses built up over years will just force us to revert to a negative state? This is where the healing, regenerative and refining aspects of correct martial arts training can have a dramatic, almost magical, effect.

Let me describe several of the benefits you can expect if you are fortunate enough to find the right school of martial arts for you: first on the level of physiology. As with most kinds of benign exercise you will notice an immediate improvement in circulation of 'local-chi', that energised feeling in the body musculature.

Simply by practising barefoot, for example, you will begin to revitalise the body (via reflexology treatment), your digestion will improve - a good teacher will give you helpful advice on feeding and even excretion! Martial arts can even have a beneficial effect on one's lovemaking as your breathing patterns are improved and the nether regions are conditioned. The whole body becomes supple, lithe and to some degree slimmer (at least slimmer than one would be without exercise!)

The physiological effects, of course, also profoundly affect the psychological state. Many Taoist Yoga exercises (Chi Gung as it is sometimes called) have the effect over time of breaking down the body armour that has been built up over years.

As obvious and immediate as are the physical benefits of training in a traditional martial art, the psychological benefits are even more dramatic.

The Goju dojo or Tai Chi school must provide a safe environment for people to work together with emotions that are often too intense to be safely expressed elsewhere, such as fear, anger, or low self-esteem. The environment must be supportive and uncompetitive - that is to say, everybody must receive attention and help - the limits of on become the responsibility of the others. No one gets left behind. No one gets dumped. People practice with each other to develop their own skills and help their partner. Not to win. Winning is the arena of sports competition Karate or Kung-fu which is not the focus of traditional training. Indeed, such training can encourage egocentric behaviour or feeling low worth and is frequently responsible for bodily injuries which lead to disillusionment and cessation of practice (as well as ill-health and discomfort!)

Yet training is intense - unquestionably more intense than competition oriented sport because the goals are much more significant. To refine oneself - to improve one's life - requires great effort and persistent determination. Nonetheless, don't imagine this discipline is wholly ascetic. The results are very pleasantly enjoyable and begin immediately with your training, probably from your first lesson, increasing bodily health and resultant calm and well-being for a start - followed soon after by increased confidence and self-sufficiency.

The effective Karate/Tai Chi Sensei, like any Shaman, needs to be a good actor to help create this intensity, to recreate your worst nightmare - the man or woman you'd least like to encounter - the abuser, humiliator, yob or rapist. A timid woman asked me last week, 'was I really angry?' Of course I wasn't! I was just shouting - like an angry person. As her instructor, I'm here for her for one reason only - to help her and nurture her till she is strong enough not to fear such behaviour.

I used to try so hard to get things 'right' when I was beginning to learn martial arts. My first teacher used to change the Karate forms and then humiliate me for 'forgetting' them: that is, I thought he used to humiliate me until one day I realised that neither he nor anyone else could humiliate me - I could only do it to myself! - I remember the precise moment in class when I had that insight and knew the Sensei knew I knew, and that was that - he never did it again. The abuse was for me, not at me. To portray a person's fear in combat or just generally, I pull up my shoulders, tense my stomach, heighten my breathing, raise my voice, become paralysed with fear so that the student sees what he or she is doing. You teach the student that he or she is creating fear or anger, not responding to it or being a victim of it. But to do this you need to deal with real emotion, not just spout Tai Chi philosophy or Karate tactics - so many people talk about Chi or Ki but so very few instructors have understanding of it.

In literature, one talks of the 'willing suspension of disbelief, that is, one reads a thrilling or moving novel or watches a horror movie but at any time you could close the book or leave the cinema; you know that, but you don't; you endure the terror. Like the combat, Tai Chi class or Goju Training, nobody forced you to be there. No one forces you to continue to encounter fear, terror, anger, violence, exhaustion - all you've got to say: 'Thank you, that's enough, I'm off', but you don't because you know you're there for a purpose and you're ultimately SAFE. The session will end and you'll be exhilarated with your training brothers and sisters supporting you - you won't be mugged, raped, abused, put down, abandoned, etc.

Occasionally, I am asked to give private tuition in Tai Chi combat. Whilst this concentrated one-to-one attention is beneficial in many ways, I tend to encourage students to train as much as possible in class. It is an important benefit of martial arts to be working in an intense and supportive group. The sharing of group energy is a very different experience from working alone. There is a Zen proverb that if you want to clean a lot of potatoes, you put them all together in a bucket and swish them around - it's a lot quicker than working on each one individually. Then people practise together in any positive spiritual discipline, they affect each other... positively. People learn to trust each other in a remarkable way, especially in combat styles of martial arts.

In Israel shortly after the Yom Kippur war, I happened to be teaching unarmed combat to several factions normally at lofferheads - Christians and Moslem Arabs in the old city of Jerusalem - Ultra Orthodox Jews and non-religious Israelis in the west of Jerusalem. Pretending to ignore the sectarian conflicts (and to save time for myself) I insisted that all these people train together at least once per week. This was hitherto unheard of, Christians, Moslems, Arabs, Ultra Orthodox Jews training with Israeli men and (Jehovah forbid!) women!! It was one of the most moving and significant experiences of my life to see what happened. The factions were deeply suspicious of each other, yet, when brought together from their desire to learn the art of fighting, they soon formed intense bonds of friendship and trust that cut across deeply entrenched political hostility and age-old religious enmity. In a similar vein, a recent survey conducted by an educational trust sponsored by the musician Yehudi Menuhin, renowned for his interest in yoga and education rather than martial arts, has shown that in 'problem area' schools in which martial arts are taught there is generally no discipline problem!

Many people who come to our school express at first fears that they are not 'up to it', that their bodies are physically not capable of doing the training and their minds are too fearful to commit themselves to the path. Our response is at first: 'Look, all you've got to do is get yourself to the lessons, that's the hardest part - to avoid all the excuses. If you come to the lessons, we'll do the rest. Of course, that's not strictly true because the student quality effort is important, but this encouragement nonetheless works. Students learn very soon that the limitations they put on their body/mind are just habitual - they can accomplish far more than they ever thought they were capable of. That is a wonderfully liberating and encouraging feeling.

This applies particularly to 'accepted' gender roles. For example - that men are powerful/exploitative and women powerless, exploited, or that men are active agents and women passive victims. By practising martial arts the nature of such culturally conditioned gender traits can be exposed - both sexes can develop their real power to be gentle and strong.

Tai Chi or Goju Ryu training also has a profound effect in developing one's ability creatively to express emotion. In encountering others with skill - rather than simply by opposing their energy by, say, arguing - one learns that to yield is not the same as to capitulate; that one can be gentle and powerful at the same time and to recognise that brute force is, oddly, often a sign of weakness.

The use of shouting and mantra in Taoist Yoga and Martial Arts often unlocks emotions that have long been inhibited from expression. One comes to terms also with the grotesque shyness and disgust with the body that our society often inculcates. So, Classical Martial Arts encompass dance, yoga, Reichian therapy, primal scream, bioenergetics, self-hypnosis, Gestalt, trance healing, shamanism, all rolled into one, and more - sounds wonderful. Sadly though, the reality of the average Martial Arts School falls far short of this. There's a lot of misleading talk nowadays about 'internal' and 'external' styles. The naive understanding of this is that 'internal' styles are somehow of the spirit, and 'external' styles are low quality and brutish. In fact most famous teachers have started with 'hard' training and progressively refined their art to the 'ju' or soft. The average student, however, with the average teacher, ends up either practising a 'hard' style which lacks the power of 'softness' or a soft 'Tai Chi' style which is (maybe) aesthetically pleasing but only mildly emotionally or physically healing and as far as self defence is concerned, useless.

Why is there this emphasis on understanding the martial applications of Tai Chi or Goju Ryu when, in the case of Tai Chi, 95% of the students are training primarily for the purpose of increasing health and maintaining serenity: freedom from stress? Similarly, there are one or two styles of Kung Fu (Chinese Wu Shu, for example) whose primary goal is aesthetic/gymnastic - not martial. The movements look beautiful - sometimes breathtaking - and must be very satisfying (I certainly wish I could do them!) but they relate only tangentially to martial arts - i.e. real fighting.

Well, does it really matter? It does, because one is also teaching the body to move effectively and powerfully; to hold postures which are both powerful and economic in terms of energy. It doesn't cost extra to do the movements right! I have seen diligent students of Tai Chi who obviously have been given no understanding of what the movement might be used for or why the classical admonitions of the Old Masters - such as: 'sink the elbows'; 'move from the waist'; etc. are so important. Such students deserve better instruction!

However, to be on the Shamanic path of the Warrior Healer does not mean that one needs to be preoccupied with self-defence. Nor even is the desire to be able to defend oneself as an essential motive

for undertaking Martial Arts training in the first place. Most real Masters of Tai Chi or, indeed, any martial art, have long since abandoned such preoccupations. Nowadays, only those of paranoid inclinations - there are a few about - would practise for hours every day just to learn self-defence. It would make more sense and be cheaper to hire a bodyguard or two - or buy a gun! We practise Tai Chi Chuan or Goju Ryu so intensely in order to pursue our goal of continual self-refinement - just as a Zen Buddhist, for example, practises meditation. This goal can be expressed in many other ways: to learn who we really are, or what our real limits are/are not; to understand the nature of human relationships and healing power or to enjoy bodily health and the resultant calm, confidence, well-being and self-sufficiency for example. How then to find a teacher? A superb teacher, such as Morio Higaonna Sensei, embodies softness and simplicity both in his demeanour and his art. This is not an act or false modesty but is born out of real understanding and is extremely powerful. Sadly, many martial artists are attracted by such power and see only the force, not the softness which is its origin. There are a number of Tai Chi teachers around, on the other hand, who feel it necessary to disguise the fact that any power they have comes from previous Kung-Fu training - or from some other kind of force orientated fighting system. These 'instructors' claim to have expertise in Tai Chi and impress their gullible students by arduous kung-fu or karate training but really they have only a small mastery of the effortless strength of Tai Chi Chuan. On a training weekend in London, I was sadly disappointed to see one famous teacher of Taoist Yoga perform the guru trick (often seen in the Indian guru business): 'I have the power/chi/energy/divinity or whatever, and I'm putting it into you.' This is completely contrary to the path of Shamanic healing and in Buddhist terms, is creating further bad karma. The aim of Shamanic healing and all martial arts is to empower the practitioner and student. Then a teacher behaves in this way he doesn't empower but weakens or, at worst, even enslaves. The teacher will be surrounded by subordinate dependent minions, not students in a loving and growing relationship or trust and equality. Yes, equality, because in Buddhist psychology, we all of us have the innate Buddha-mind - Bhodhicitta - this deep oceanic intelligence which far outweighs any difference in skill emanating from experience. At a very deep level in Buddhist or Taoist terms we are all profoundly intelligent. Sadly, though, some human beings are so covered with the garbage of negative abusive conditioning that it is even hard to believe it ever existed - a diamond buried so deep in the ground that no amount of compassion can ever bring it to the surface (in this life.. ?).


Tai Chi Chuan, shamanic healing, Goju Ryu Karate do... all these and other like arts have one thing in common - most important is the increase in mind and bodily power. Empowerment. Power in the physical sense has obvious benefits yet shamanic power enriches the whole fabric of our lives. You begin to learn that you are responsible for yourself. It is not skilful just to blame other people for your condition in life - it doesn't do much good usually. Yet, at the same time, you don't have to accept all the garbage and hurt. The message is that, if you choose, you can stay the way you are, but that if you make the effort, you can change. The choice is yours. The power is yours. The power of the Shaman, or Martial Artist - or both.

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