Breathe. Just… Breathe…

The human body is an amazing machine. At any given time, there are dozens of functions and processes taking place that are not visible or obvious. Some involuntary or automatic.

For example, your body has an involuntary system that keeps you from wetting your underoos anytime you have more than a few sips of your morning coffee. Once your bladder is full, the involuntary system releases and that’s where your voluntary system takes over and you need to hold yourself in order to prevent living your worst high school nightmare and creating a puddle in public!

That’s only one example, but just imagine everything that happens inside of you that you’re not aware of. One of the most important involuntary functions your body performs is breathing.

Think about it! You breathe constantly, all day and all night. You don’t think about it at all. Ever since your doctor smacked your butt and started you crying, you’ve been drawing breath.

We breathe because we require oxygen to enter our blood cells and help break down glucose and sugar, which we then expel as carbon dioxide. When we exercise, our respiration rate increases because we use our muscles and require more oxygen in the blood. Our heart rate increases along with our respiration to help pump the oxygen rich blood through our system.

Breathing can be both voluntary and involuntary. When doing the martial arts, we’ve been taught to do specialized breathing that helps control the flow of oxygen when executing a technique or doing forms. We control our breathing.

For folks in law enforcement and emergency response, tactical breathing helps to calm a person and lower their heart rate, making it easier to maintain control of a situation and properly assess things. When you panic, your breathing shallows and increases your heart rate. This is because shallow and rapid breathing reduces the amount of carbon dioxide and your body is trying to enrich your blood with as much oxygen as possible.

Why is this important? Well, from a Diabetes standpoint, we start to breathe rapidly when we experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This is because the lowered amount of glucose in our blood makes it difficult to produce enough cell energy, and your body thinks it needs more oxygen.

From a martial arts or fitness standpoint, controlling your breathing will allow you to keep a cool head and control the situation you may be facing. It will also help improve your level of training. By properly exhaling during strikes or techniques, you help to properly expel carbon dioxide and this will help to prevent muscle fatigue during actual combat.

Pretty cool, right? All that is happening, just based on how you breathe. With all the things left to discover in the world, it can often be humbling to realize there will always be so much about our own bodies we don’t know.

So, keep on breathing… Actually, you don’t have a choice! But proper breathing exercises and meditation can go a long way towards helping with everything I’ve mentioned above. ☯

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Do It Properly, Not Easily…

Martial arts is a special creature. I may or may not have written that, a time or two in previous posts. But it is. It’s one of the only things in the western world that combines, sport, fitness, art and mysticism bordering on the religious. It combines aspects of discipline and repetition to encourage a student’s self-confidence and growth.

However, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Encourage it, that is. From my experience, only about one in every 8 to 10 students will put in the raw effort and will to gain the experience and growth required to excel in the martial arts. All the fun stuff I described in the previous paragraph needs to be sought out and worked for. It doesn’t happen simply by walking into a dojo and following along.

I’ve seen too many students who attend class after class. I mean, their attendance is almost flawless (minus the ones who are “forced” there by parents, of course) but the effort they put into the classes is almost laughable.

Now, before anyone gets too high and mighty with me, I understand that every student is different; their needs are different and their wants are different. And I’ve met students who have joined the martial arts for many different reasons. Some people join to get in shape, some to learn to defend themselves… Some actually join simply for the social aspect of meeting others and being a part of something. No matter the reason, it IS important to you.

Sweat is the fuel in the forge of progress!

I frequently train at the rear of the class. I’ve long been a believer that a teacher can learn more by watching the students than standing at the front. And these days, I see so many students who phone it in while standing in class. Sometimes it’s easy to put in a minimum effort while the head instructor is busy monitoring so many students. But why be there if not to get the maximum return on your physical and spiritual investment?

Train from your soul! Give it everything you’ve got. When you train, take a look at the other students around you. Within twenty minutes, there should be a puddle of sweat at your feet. If there isn’t, then you aren’t putting your entire being into your training.

You can be in it for your own reasons. Just make sure that while they’re your reasons, they’re still the right ones! ☯

Why Having That Six Pack Is Bad For You… (And I Don’t Mean Beer!)

Listen, I know what you’re thinking. Having six pack abs is a trademark sign of someone who’s in shape, right? Maybe not. Trust me, I’d love to have a ripped midriff like the dudes we see in the movies. But there are actually a lot of reasons why a person shouldn’t.

Most genuine fitness gurus will agree that there are a number of health issues caused by training to get six pack abs. First and foremost, the type of fitness regime required to get and maintain ripped abs is ultimately unhealthy. The amount of work and effort required, combined with a stricter than strict diet, takes a toll on a person.

Although the current desired social aesthetic, ripped abs can cause all sorts of health issues.

The reality is that there is nothing wrong with developing those abdominal muscles. In fact, most people who exercise regularly will develop them regardless of their look. It’s making them visible that causes the issues.

You see, in order to have those nice, ripped abs, you need to lower your body fat percentage below what is recommended as healthy. It can cause all sorts of issues such as weakened immune system, hormone imbalances and bad structural support system for the body. Ultimately, we aren’t designed to have ripped abs.

Health issues in women can be even worse

Often, athletes who strive to get six pack abs will ignore or forego other important muscles groups in order to get that chiseled look. This means that as much as it’s the current social standard for someone who is in shape, having ripped abs in no way designates someone as necessarily being in good or proper shape.

The whole thing actually becomes worse for females, whose bodies are inherently designed for childbirth and serious damage can be caused to those reproductive systems while striving for ripped abs.

Men’s Journal actually put out a decent e-article about it and it can be read at https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/when-six-pack-abs-are-bad-for-your-health-w435224/

In the martial arts world, the Okinawans believe that the soul is contained in the hara, what is known in some circles as the chi. having just an ever so slight belly means you’re soul is properly balanced. They generally frown upon having ripped abs.

At the end of the day, there are a number of better, healthier ways to get into proper shape. And although there’s nothing wrong with slimming down your mid-section (in fact, SOME weight loss can lead to better overall health) getting those oily six-pack abs everyone in the movies flaunt isn’t the way to go. ☯

The Bigger Person Won’t Always Strike…

The world is a volatile place. It always has been. Violence is a predominant trait of humanity and has always had a presence within society. We simply hear more about it during modern times, thanks to mainstream and social media and the availability of the world’s information at our fingertips, courtesy of the internet.

But is it necessary? Civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi once said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

People have often asked me how I manage to consolidate the violence within my own life. Some often assume violence is dominant within me. Given my line of work (which I’ve always made a point not to specify on this blog, perhaps someday you’ll know why) and a lifetime martial artist, it can often be presumed that I have a penchant for violence.

And let’s be clear: every person is capable of violence. You don’t need a black belt or a weapon to cause harm. And I’m not exactly the smallest guy on the block. Although I only stand at 171 centimetres tall (5’7″ for you Imperial folks), I carry a hefty 95 kgs (210 pounds, again Imperial…) of which a reasonable amount is mass and not necessarily fat (although the never-ending gut battle rages on!) I have been taught how to fight from a very young age, both in class and on the street and some of what I’ve been taught will certainly do more than hurt a person.

Due to a number of the difficulties I’ve endured during the course of my life, I have an unseen cauldron of burning rage burning deep below, where I do not allow it to affect the surface. A radical mixture to be sure, when mixed with all the training I’ve received.

“But Shawn, doesn’t being Buddhist mean you don’t get angry? Aren’t you supposed to be all peaceful and stuff?”

No and yes. No, being Buddhist doesn’t mean I don’t get angry. I’m human like everyone else and I have the same full spectrum of emotions as anyone who isn’t. Yes, I am SUPPOSED to be peaceful. I actively seek out peace, in whatever form I can receive it. I am not always successful.

As humans, we shouldn’t be denying those feelings when they bubble close to the surface. Emotion is an energy; often created by endorphins and hormones, sure. But an energy nonetheless. And like any energy within our universe, it can’t be destroyed, simply transformed. So it becomes important for anyone to transform this rage into something else; something constructive.

For example, up until about two months ago I had access to a facility full of heavy punching bags and striking equipment. Speaking from experience, nothing quite helps quell feelings of rage, anger, frustration and violence quite like putting the boots to a punching bag for about half an hour. And performing an intense punching bag workout, in combination with drills and push-ups, can burn up to 500 calories per hour for an average person and help get a wicked sweat on.

Listen, no one is ever able to completely eliminate negative feelings or violence from their lives. Life, in and of itself, does not allow for such a thing. But we all have it within ourselves to take that negative energy and do something positive with it. Go for a walk. Have a workout. Renovate part of your house (ripping down walls REALLY helps burn off excess anger!)

And don’t forget to talk about it! If you’re angry, don’t be scared to SAY you’re angry. You have a right to how you feel, despite the circumstance. Whatever you do, make it a constructive choice and the outcome will never be anything more than positive. ☯

Sometimes You Just Gotta Zen It Out…

The martial arts can sometimes get a bit convoluted and complicated. Depending on the style you study, there can be so many different techniques and forms that keeping them all straight in your head can become difficult.

Martial arts are a bit like everything else in life; you can only learn one thing at a time and it takes a while to master it. This is an issue that many martial arts students frequently have while training. People in general, especially these days, tend to want immediate gratification. They prefer the high-flying kicks and fancy techniques that they see in movies, but most of what we see on screen is unrealistic.

Bruce Lee once said “Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I’d studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick.”

Unlike a lot of what you’ve possibly read on the Internet, this isn’t a made-up quote! He wrote that in his book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

I believe the quote essentially describes the growth a student a student must go through during training. When one begins the martial arts, they focus on learning the technique and practicing. Once they start gaining some experience, they focus primarily on the little details: position of the feet, angle of the joints, effectiveness and impact… But once they’ve been practicing for a length of time, those techniques become a passing thought in the grand puzzle that is the martial arts. It becomes about bringing it all together, and a punch once again becomes only a punch.

It’s important to find a balance between learning and doing. And in that learning, you start to recognize that you’re reaching a stage of understanding when you’re able to perform complex forms or techniques properly without giving them thought. This is what the Okinawans used to refer to as “No Mindedness”. It describes a state where one is almost in a meditative state while training.

But because of the time and effort it takes to master techniques and forms, many students become bored, complacent or lazy in class. Ultimately, many of these students will drop out and/or quit. Only those who stick with it and put in the maximum effort will be able to reap the benefits.

This concept applies to any sport or activity. Work hard, stay patient and focus on learning as much as you can. It will help carry you much further. ☯

On The Road To Enlightenment…

I’ve had people ask about how I came about studying Buddhism. The question makes sense; a French-speaking white male living on the Northern shore of New Brunswick wouldn’t necessarily have a great deal of exposure to eastern religions.

I guess it all kind of started in the mid to late 1980’s. Although I hadn’t become entrenched in the martial arts by this point, my religious beliefs would feed off of my martial arts and vice versa, in the years to come. I had already become an avid reader and would pick up any book or manuscript I could get my hands on and read it. My father, in an attempt to steer me away from my grandmother’s medical text books (he felt they were inappropriate for a kid) started trying to find “cool things” for me to read.

Sometime in 1987, my father found a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and provided the manuscript to me in plain text format on a 3.5 inch floppy disk (I realize how old that makes me sound, and you new age kids can Google “floppy disk” if you don’t understand). It was slow reading, especially since there was only one computer in the house and I had to wait for my father to be gone to work to get a turn.

Without getting into details, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is the western title given to one of the three main manuscripts in Buddhism. It basically describes the transitional period in which a person exists between the death of one life and the beginning of another. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. It was intense and fascinating reading, and I don’t think that my father knew exactly what it was that he had given me. It started me on a path of self-study that I am still entranced with to this day.

To explain how Buddhism gained some roots within my own life, it’s important that I explain a little bit about my family’s religious beliefs. This is not to shine a negative light on anyone’s chosen faith, but my entire family on my mother’s side was intensely religious. In fact, most of my grandmother’s siblings had studied the seminary and most had become nuns. Since my mother had also gone to seminary school, the Catholic faith had deep roots on my mother’s side and I was made to attend church twice, sometimes more, a week. Although teaching your family’s beliefs to the next generation is important, I would come to believe that a traditional church service holds no interest for a young child and can in fact get quite boring. In recent years, some churches offer child programs that allow for the teaching of their faith in a forum where young children are distracted and enjoy the experience. This was not so, for me.

By the time I had reached my pre-teens, my mother gave me the choice as to whether I would attend church or not. And like most children who are given the choice, since I had been forced through it for most of my life, I chose to walk away from it.

By the time the very late 1980’s came along, my health had waned to the point where I was facing death (I’ve written about this in previous posts, if you want to check out that story). Once I began my martial arts training, I began to learn more about Buddhism, Taoism and Zen. One began to feed of the other and I began to actively seek out Buddhist texts and study in greater detail. The more I read, the more I came to feel that the Buddhist faith reflected much more of my personality than my family’s religious faiths (I pluralize that, because my father is actually not Catholic).

My Sensei was a big help, since certain Zen precepts are very dominant in karate. What I study is called Zen Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism that originated in China but built roots as a Japanese form of Buddhism focusing on meditation and intuition. Based on Mahayana Buddhism, it combines aspects of Zen and Taoism. Although there are obviously far too many details about it to draft in a blog post, the Buddhist faith has helped me through the decades by encouraging self-motivation, increased health, focus and concentration and acceptance of all other religious beliefs.

Although my studies were akin to a starving person in front of a buffet, most studies were done on my own. In October of 2001 I travelled to Japan with my Sensei, and had the opportunity to visit a number of Buddhist temples, including temples in Narita and Tokyo. I made friends with a number of the monks in Narita and was invited to stay and become a monk myself.

I was caught in a dilemma. Although their peaceful way of life and quiet study appealed to me, I didn’t know how survival would be possible, being a Type 1 Diabetic. The monks explained that they normally used monetary donations as a means to obtain medical supplies for monks who required them. The monastery would provide my insulin in exchange for joining them.

I could have stayed. A part of me wishes I had stayed. But I came to two realizations that night as I was trying to make my decision. The first thing I realized is that the world keeps on turning. Even if I hide within the walls of a monastery, how am I genuinely promoting peace if I’m hidden from the world? Would I be contributing in a way that would satisfy me and make me feel as though I’ve done my part? The answer was certainly no!

The second thing I realized is how embarrassing it would be to have my mother hop an international flight to drag me back to Canada by my ear! Being an only child, there was no way in hell she would have allowed me to join a monastery on the other side of the world!

But there you have it. I often wonder if my path would have been the same if my father hadn’t provided me with that first manuscript. Maybe so. But as much as I would like to say it all happened by accident, it likely wasn’t. As Jean de la Fontaine said, we most often find our destiny on the road we least thought to travel.

You Can Be Much More Influential If People Are Not Aware Of Your Influence…

It seems like a good day for a story…

A wise old master recalled a story from a century ago, where a young martial arts student came to a large city in Japan. The student began asking about martial arts schools in the area, as he wished to train during his stay. The local residents provided him with a number of local schools that were considered good.

The student travelled throughout the city and found a small, unknown dojo that was nestled in a quiet back alley, away from the beaten path. He trained for several classes until his skill was recognized and spoken about throughout the city.

Some of the masters heard of the student’s skill and asked him why he was training at this unknown school. The masters indicated that this school was reasonably unskilled, their techniques were inadequate and their students weren’t very strong. The student bowed his head humbly and responded to the masters:

“No matter the status of the school, no matter their reputation… Training with them is a win-win situation for everyone. If they have something worth teaching, I will learn it. If they have nothing to teach me, perhaps I can help them learn something. Either way, there will be an exchange of knowledge. And that can only benefit everyone involved…”

The point is, we often don’t understand the influence we have on others. I’ve had instructors and teachers who have taught me so much, but they have carried on, never knowing the impact or the amount of knowledge they’ve passed on to me (you likely know who you are!)

Be certain to take every opportunity to pass on your knowledge to the best of your ability. Sometimes, the rewards of passing on our knowledge can outweigh the rewards of gaining something from the places we travel through.

That student was travelling and sought out to learn something. The important lesson here, is that we can always earn something important when we teach. And we often learn just as much when we pass on what we already know. ☯