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Health and Fitness mental health Philosophy

In Praise of…Boxing

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Bruce Lee

Three years ago my mental health took a huge hit. In an act of desperation I forced myself to join the local gym. I was told there was a kickboxing class starting that Friday evening and so I went along to the first session. I must have felt nervous, but not about the activity itself. Oddly, I felt fairly at home with martial arts. Had I watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager? (No. There can never be too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Chinese traditions were given a lot of respect in my household growing up. On some mornings, usually on the weekends, I would come downstairs to find my Dad in the garden practicing Tai Chi. He talked to me about Taoism and introduced me to Bruce Lee. Many of us carry bad memories of P.E. lessons into adulthood. I was usually on the outside looking in when it came to school sports. Perhaps I felt restricted because of my gender; although my apathy for team sports is a more likely reason. I left home for London and immediately signed up for women’s-only Muay Thai. I had joined with a friend, but during one session we were instructed to spar with other training partners and I was taken aback by my disinclination to get involved. I remember thinking it felt unfair to pit one woman against another, as if the separation instigated by our patriarchal society wasn’t enough. This is how I rationalised my reluctance. When those classes stopped I still wanted to train, so I found a boxing club in New Cross. The impulse was always there, humming away quietly in my subconscious, but I didn’t find a club where I felt completely comfortable.

When I started kickboxing training in Oxford my motivation for anything else was zero. I was existing with little purpose. I seemed to have only two settings: intense irritability or emotional numbness. One day would bleed into the next. Then Friday would come around again and I would drag myself back to the sports hall for another kickboxing session.

I will try to describe the many ways my mind and body objected to this change in routine after being inactive for so long. In the beginning you feel sick and your limbs feel like lead. You worry whether you will get through the whole hour without crying, fainting, or starting an argument – or a combination of all three. Your head hurts and your eyesight blurs as you strain to concentrate. If you have experienced depression, or know someone who has, you will be familiar with the fatigue, flat affect, barrage of self-criticism and brain fog that goes with it. But you are so focussed on hitting the pads and getting the combinations right that the noise in your head quietens down. By the end of each session my brain fog had lifted.

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk shows how traumatic stress manifests in the body long after the threat of harm has passed. Psychological trauma fragments the mind. Our bodies keep us trapped in the past with wordless emotions and feelings. This expression of trauma creates disconnections – within the mind, brain and body. Van der Kolk explains how trauma sufferers can heal by reconnecting their thoughts with their bodies, with one way being through physical yoga.

This mind-body connection is what sets martial arts techniques apart from other forms of exercise. Van der Kolk writes, “when our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive.” Martial arts training reawakens the senses. A strong stance depends upon being grounded, both physically and mentally. It means paying attention to proper alignment and transfer of energy. It even gives physical expression to suppressed feelings. You learn to tolerate certain physical sensations, regulate the breath and work through strong emotions. Kickboxing exercised the traumatic stress I continued to hold in my body. I could harness the force of it and channel it into something productive and cathartic. It was possible to shift a lot of negative energy this way. As I grew in confidence I found my feet in other situations too. This discipline rewards you with courage and self-belief.

If you have spent your formative years or any significant time in the fight-or-flight response, then martial arts might come naturally to you. It suited me for this reason. It was a natural remedy for my hypervigilance. It sharpens ones focus and stops overthinking in its tracks. In the moment the only choices are to pay attention or be hit. I began to experiment with achieving a healthy level of alertness. Learning to relax my muscles minimised stress-induced tension, helped along by the pain-reducing release of endorphins. I worked through my frustrations during training, which had the added bonus of better sleep. Taking all your anger out on the pads leaves you with that walking on air feeling afterwards. Eventually it felt good to inhabit my body. It is also teaching you a new skill, and with continued effort and encouragement you start to see progress.

This became my one commitment. I never missed a training session. Back then I didn’t realise how restorative this discipline would be. All I knew was that it stopped my overthinking, but truthfully it made me feel alive.

This was my only reason for returning each week. The structure of a martial arts class is inherently social. Everyone was pleasant and respectful, but initially I was not in the right frame of mind for conversation. Having to talk to other people was an uncomfortable necessity. As my confidence grew this started to change. It turned out to be a training ground for interpersonal skills. Because pad work involves partnering up I began to open up to others, which reduced my self-consciousness. Each person had their own strengths and each personality revealed something about mine.

I missed my group exercise classes during lockdown. Since establishing my kickboxing routine, this was how I had maintained my wellbeing. With the gym closed I returned to trail running instead, adding the occasional burst of jump rope skipping. Meanwhile my gloves were hanging in the hallway gathering dust. In the spirit of acquiring new skills during lockdown, I coached the other members of my household in the four basic boxing punches (I was meant to receive piano lessons in return, but I never found the inclination). Watching them try it out for the first time gave me such vicarious enjoyment, my enthusiasm and energy soon returned. I am grateful for the opportunity to resume my own training recently. It has reminded me of why I gravitated towards martial arts in the first place.

What I’m about to say will almost certainly sound cliché, but with martial arts you reveal the inner demons you have left to fight. There is a reason why Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) is my all time favourite sport biopic.* Martial arts training is a mind-body therapy. It promotes trust and increases self-awareness – offering us a unique opportunity to heal.

*Ali (2001) comes a close second.

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Muhammad Ali