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Karate as a Somatic Therapy in an Uncertain Age

Karate as a Somatic Therapy in an Uncertain Age

By Kyoshi Hayes

Karate has always s been considered as an appropriate activity through which to develop a strong body as well as a strong character. Funakoshi wasn’t just thinking about physical threat  when he wrote in in Karate Jutsu in 1922, “ If prolonged fair-weather lulls one into a sense of security, escaping the ravages of wind and rain when they finally occur will be impossible. The essence is simply to be prepared.”

There has been a growing interest in recent years in somatic or body-oriented therapies, particularly in relation to the treatment of anxiety and trauma. With increasing awareness of the limitations of talk based , or cognitive therapies, therapists are becoming more aware that our emotional responses to our fears and anxieties play out in our bodies, and that our “body keeps the score”. This helps to explain the link between anxiety and physical complaints such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue.

Martial artists have been aware of this for centuries and constructed holistic training regimes to promote both mental and physical health. It is important to note the difference between traditional, holistic martial arts and modern, sports oriented martial arts, where the emphasis is on athletic excellence. In traditional martial arts, the elements of training involve both repetitive and rhythmic activities as well as group or paired activities such as grappling and sparring in either prearranged bunkai  and nage waza or “free” interplay, such as kumite. Importantly, there is also the component of training that promotes deep introspection through meditation or moving mindfulness such as the various  doin exercises utilized in Ryusei karate. This variation in training is important, as practitioners experience different responses to the stresses and trauma in their lives. We understand that our levels of arousal can vary significantly even in one day, and our “river of tolerance” can be a narrow canyon or a broad and calm river. The karate student needs to understand whether they have a tendency toward “hyper” arousal or “hypo” arousal when they are not in an optimal mental state. Some people need to learn self-regulation skills that calm them, such as kata, doin, standing and sitting meditation, while others need to be more active to avoid an aggressive or surly “hypo” state by doing more vigorous kata and bunkai, sparring, bag work, callisthenics and running.  

With a range of activities and modes employed in training, the student is able to better regulate themselves thorough an understanding of the different strategies they can employ. One moment may require deep breathing and calm meditation, while another may require a more active approach. As trauma researcher Dr Bruce Perry states: “ Patterned, repetitive and rhythmic somatosensory activity elicits a sensation of safety. Rhythm is regulating. All cultures have some form of patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity as part of their healing and mourning rituals – dancing, drumming and swaying”. This is particularly true of Okinawan culture, where dance and karate have many similar moves and postures.

The human nervous system is made of two parts, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system, which is made up of everything outside of your brain and spinal cord. This peripheral nervous system is further split into two division, the somatic, or voluntary nervous system, and the autonomic or involuntary nervous system. For this article, the autonomic nervous system is the focus, and the superhighway of information carried by the multi branched vagus nerve. Interestingly, the vagus nerve has a front, or “ventral” pathway, and a back, or “dorsal” pathway, and these do very different things. The front is associated with social engagement , connection and safety, while the back or dorsal pathway is associated with shutdown, immobilisation, withdrawal and disconnection. If the environment sends signals that we are safe, the ventral or front vagus nerve is activated, but if we feel danger or threat, the dorsal or back vagus nerve is activated. What does this have to do with karate training? Because if we are overstimulated or mobilised, we shift from parasympathetic (calm autopilot) to a sympathetic or excited state, and we activate the  dorsal pathway with different effects. We can go into a fight/flight state or freeze, collapse or shutdown. The hyper (mobilisation response) and hypo 9 immobilisation responses can be damaging, particularly when they are brought on by trauma or anxiety in a  modern world full of imagined threats such as social, financial or time pressured anxieties.

Where does karate come in? The key in terms of polyvagal theory is the promotion of vagal tone, where we more easily activate our ventral (parasympathetic) system, and allow a state of calm, connection, mindfulness and interest in our relationships and surroundings. Understanding that the body comes first means that we can train our nervous system so that we respond better to stress and feel safer and more resilient.  This self-regulation allows us to move more effectively between the different levels of arousal we need to cope with different situations. When we are in control of our environment, we are self-regulated, but when we are dysregulated or not in control, we cope badly, and also contribute to the dysregulation of then people around us.

It is this understanding that is directing therapists and educators  back to the tried-and-true activities and therapies that have worked for centuries. Learning to stand strong is fundamental to vagal health, as is a deep understanding of breathing patterns that lead to better self-regulation. The practice of kata such as Sanchin is an appropriate  of the practitioner developing profound understanding of breathing in relation to physical and mental self-control, as well as exploring the complex tensions in the body in a deliberate way. This conversation with the body is an essential element of vagal tone, or health.

Somatic means “of the body”, and karate by its nature falls into the definition of a somatic therapy. The practitioner uses movement to connect with themselves and their emotions, but also with the world around them. It is what trauma therapists such as Besel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score) refer to as “bottom-up” approaches, as they focus on the body first, and then try to explore the cognitive responses to bodily states.

It is extraordinary to note the depth of understanding that Sakamoto sensei shows through this construction and development of the Ryusei curriculum. I have not seen a karate program elsewhere that balances the hard and soft aspects of martial arts in the same way. The student is invited to have a deep and meaningful conversation with their body through the developmental stages, taking care to build foundations that employ from the beginning a deep connection to centre through breath control and understanding of hip movement, promoting a calm and mindful practice of kata. At the higher levels there is a synthesis of hard and soft technique with an ultimate goal to embrace the softer elements through dep introspection, (doin and Sanchin) and a more symbiotic approach to bunkai ( me and you rather than me versus you). Others can claim to do this, but after studying many styles, observing training in Japan and Okinawa as well as around Australia I haven’t seen it. Sakamoto sensei wrote recently.

“Karate is a path of absolute self-perfection. To this end, it is essential for karate practitioners to conquer their own weak minds with an overcoming spirit, and to always be calm and composed. Even if a practitioner faces a hostile opponent, they must strive through practice to cultivate true grit and courage so they can disarm the opponent’s will to fight. Thus, the way of karate is the way of man (human beings)—the karma of transferring the techniques of mastery to one’s own body in accordance with the laws of heaven (nature), in order to attain the supreme state of oneness of spirit and body.”

It is important that our parents and students understand this profound purpose of karate training. This essay has been an attempt to explain using contemporary insights and emerging theories, what Sakamoto sensei put so eloquently in a paragraph. We have a strong desire in the modern world to only accept what we can measure and prove, but it is difficult to measure the degree of physical control, mind over body, deepening calm and with it a greater appreciation of nature and loved ones, improved self regulation as well as group regulation that the experienced practitioner feels. For this author, these benefits far outweigh the value of medals and ribbons, fading and gathering dust in a far corner of the cupboard or in boxes stored in forgotten corners.