This one really isn't a myth, but a misconception. The idea is that relaxation is the antithesis of power. When you are relaxed, you are weak and pliable. The average American equates relaxation with sitting on an easy chair in front of a football game, or lying on a warm tropical beach, or plopped in front of a video game. Pick your favorite one. Mine happens to be while sparring, and I'll explain why later. Relaxation is a key technology in a martial artist's tool bag. I'll go over what relaxation is before I get into what it does.
Relaxation is usually defined as being devoid of tension or anxiety. The tension is physical, such as using your muscles, while anxiety is in the mind. When your body is not relaxed, it is because your muscles are in some state of active contraction. You could be holding a tight fist, or twitching your foot, or simply have one of those feelings where you just can't sit still. It always leads to flexing some muscle somewhere. Mental anxiety is harder to classify. Most people define it using physical tension. For example, when you're upset at the results of your last math test (or marketing presentation, fill in the blank), you can't sit still. You may start pacing or clenching your fists. The way it's usually described is to "have a lot of energy."
But mental tension or anxiety is really confined to the mind alone. It's certainly possible to have a bad dream at night and be extremely anxious, but still physically relaxed. Relaxation always flows from the mind, meaning that if you can't relax your mind, you can't relax your body. When I see a student being particularly tense, I tell then to relax, but it's not the muscles they need to relax. It's the mind.
While it seems easy at first blush, purposely relaxing the mind is definitely not. When you are tense, it isn't simply a matter of flopping into a chair and ceasing all movement. Something has to happen in the mind before you really become relaxed. But how? This turns out not to be the easiest question to answer. Scientists and psychologists probably have a bazallion ways to classify every known mental aberration (obviously with suitably unpronounceable Latin names), but from a martial arts perspective it's simpler. It doesn't matter where you were (i.e. your anxiety, e.g. worried about something, scared, angry, etc...), you have to get your mind to a point where whatever distractions your mind throws your way no longer influence your actions.
A common thing people usually think when told to relax their mind completely is that they need to get to a point where they are thinking of absolutely nothing. I don't know if you've ever tried this, but it isn't easy. Though it is impossible to prove one way or the other, I'm pretty confident that no one that is really conscious can achieve this. The mind is like a massively parallel computer, with thousands of things going on at the same time. People who do long term meditation are the ones most likely to get closest to "nothingness" (a state that seems to have been the goal for the cult in the movie Conan the Barbarian. I wonder if the movies authors' meant it this way, or were just trying to make it sound mysterious...?). I've done meditation many times, usually for about four hours. What makes this state so difficult to achieve is that the mind is not simply the sum total of your consciousness. Are you consciously processing what you're seeing right now? You are interpreting it, but what comes from your optic nerve is certainly not something your conscious mind could hope to process. Less abstractly, are you consciously aware of all of your dreams? What is generating all of the imagery and interaction within a dream? Likewise, when you meditate, you don't really have complete control over the thoughts that drift through your mind. If achieving a state of nothingness is even possible, it certainly isn't necessary for relaxation.
The way I like to describe a relaxed mind to a student is to use the word "calm". It's not really the right word, though, but it does illustrate in what state the mind is relaxed. When you are calm, you certainly haven't achieved the state of nothingness. It doesn't mean that you aren't really thinking about something either. You can (presumably) calmly work through a difficult physics math problem. The difference, though, is the emotional content surrounding your thoughts. When you are calm (in the sense that most people think of it), you are almost always devoid of strong emotion. Even good emotions will produce euphoric feelings that don't equate with calmness. If, for example, you were to try to work through a very difficult physics problem without the required background knowledge, then you'd probably become frustrated. If there were consequences (like on a test), then the frustration turns quickly to other emotions, such as worry and anger. Emotion is the archenemy of relaxation.
Though I am not an evolutionary biologist, it isn't too difficult to consider a few plausible reasons why animals evolved emotions. Take for instance fear, which is one of the strongest of all emotions. Natural selection works by small stepwise changes. Given a population of animals, some will go on to reproduce and others will not. Those that survived did so because they had some trait that the others did not that gave them an evolutionary advantage. (These differences are caused by random differences within the DNA during reproduction, either from copy errors or by electromagnetic radiation. Some mutations cause beneficial changes, and others detrimental. Virtually all of these changes are extremely minor, as any major mutations in the genetic code would mean the organism would not likely survive at all, and would be even less likely to reproduce.) In this example, those that tended to "feel" some motivating urge, i.e. to flee danger, were more likely to reproduce. Exactly how it first formed (and it was probably very early, given the extreme danger of the ancient seas), isn't really relevant. We just need to know why it exists. It is a compeller, motivator, prodder, get off your behind and skedaddle thingy. It is there to make your muscles tense and get you ready to do something.
Different emotions impel different responses, but essentially that is all the basic emotions really do. There is no reason to feel if it does not provoke a response. When a person with a particularly hot temper gets angry, what is the reaction? The answer, of course, is to lash out, presumable to punish/fix/destroy whatever provoked the emotion. Evolution is about economy, and will not produce many traits that do not directly assist with the survival of the organism. (After all, life is capable of reproducing at rates far exceeding the available food supply. Therefore, life is always getting by with the least amount it can as it expands to the limit of the resources.) This may be a fairly dispassionate view (ironically enough) of emotion, and certainly seems to miss the subtlety and nuance of the higher emotions, but understanding what emotions are and where they come from are hugely beneficial to controlling them. Controlling emotion is essential for relaxation.
Humanity has evolved an extra layer of "processing" that the rest of life seems to get by without. You're using this layer right now by reading these words. It is awareness and conscious. There seems to be some debate, which I'll avoid completely, about whether or not true consciousness can be achieved without language. What is good enough for this discussion is that we can perceive the world with a level of abstraction. We have gotten to the point where we don't need emotions as much for everyday survival. Just think, if you go to work in the morning, are you doing so because you're terrified of not getting a meal, as most life forms do every day? If emotion does drive you to go to work, it might be ambition (a higher emotion) or love of family. Whatever it is, emotion is there to compel. They are not always as helpful now as they were when we were still swinging from trees, however. You might get angry when you're filling out your complicated tax forms, but it is more likely to be a hindrance that helpful. Anger probably evolved as a means of preserving possessions or as a social emotion to preserve group fairness. Rarely does it translate to such simple terms in our modern, complex brains.
Why go through all this with emotion, and how does it relate to relaxation? Primary emotions evolved to be motivators, and when you're experiencing intense emotion the response is to do something. Imagine when you're really angry or really happy, and relaxed will probably not be the state you're thinking about. (Don't confuse content with happy. If you're really happy, you won't be calm.) Relaxation is inhibited by strong emotions. You can't easily be angry and calm at the same time. The obvious thought here is that you then need to banish all emotions in order to really be able to relax. Unfortunately, this isn't possible. No one can inhibit whether or not they feel an emotion, but contrary to general perception, it is definitely possible to separate feeling from action. You can feel angry but not act on it. Separating the direct line between feeling something and doing something is an important step towards finally realizing what it means to have a relaxed mind, even when under duress.
This is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects for people to learn, despite the fact that it is built in for free. For instance, an infant is hungry, it cries. When it is scared, it cries. There is no separation between feeling something (hunger or fear) and taking action (crying). The infant acts on the feeling using the programming provided by his or her instincts. Once you mature, your mind works much differently. When you're hungry you don't cry or immediately reach for the closest compatible organic substance. You note the feeling, and use it as a more abstract variable in a future plan. "I am hungry, and it is lunch time, so I will eat." Likewise, you may reject the feeling. "I am hungry, but I just ate an hour ago, so I will not eat." You have essentially severed the connection between immediate feeling and action. The problem is that we do this selectively, without even thinking, but it applies just as easily to other emotions. Stub your toe on a coffee table and you want to do what? Hit it? If you do, then you are operating on a level of your instincts. Feel means action.
Just as you don't have to act on hunger, you don't have to act on other emotions either. Simply noting them is good enough. Use them to drive your actions, but not as the immediate cause. Your conscious mind, the one capable of reading this sentence, is also capable of making decisions independent of those made directly by your instinctive, emotional self. Your boss (or parents or siblings or spouse) has probably made you angry sometime. Your initial instinctive reaction was most likely not the one you ultimately chose. Your conscious mind was aware of the consequences, and telling your boss just what you thought of him or her would probably have future consequences.
This is especially important in Martial Arts. (Finally, you say!) If you are in a situation where your life is in danger, you will feel emotion. Self-defense training very rarely portrays the intensity of the actual encounter. It is possible to prepare for these emotions, however. Preparation is simply the state of prepositioning yourself for a given situation. You can never know for sure how you will react when a real situation happens, but you can significantly improve your chances for a positive outcome by proper preparation. Even normal training situations, like sparring or "real time" (i.e. improvised on the spot) self-defense, can bring forward similar emotions. You must act - now! The hurry and immediacy of these activities are just like the real situation. What is lacking? The emotional intensity that you will feel if your life is in danger. Even if you just imagine yourself in a dangerous situation and go through what you might do in your mind, you're one step ahead. Ask yourself - What will I do? When it happens, you will need an answer, so answer it beforehand in your mind.
If you are properly prepared, you have some "plan" for dealing with each situation (be it sparring, defending your life, or taking a calculus test). In self-defense, the plan must be extremely quick. You need to be able to retrieve and use a self-defense technique without much conscious thought. This is why martial artists do so much repetition. While it is useful for mastering the skill in question, it is also about making the techniques instinctive. Anyone who has done a lot of martial arts certainly knows about doing techniques in their sleep. Doing it over and over and over again will do that.
Now here's where the relaxation comes in (and I'm still on mental relaxation only). Emotion as we discussed is a motivator, but it does so at a very low level. Anger makes you clench your fists. Happiness makes you smile. They provoke physical reactions, and a mind that is experiencing extreme emotion will automatically want to translate that emotion into direct action. By this same token, emotion and logical thought are almost mutually exclusive. The more intense the emotion, the harder it is to concentrate. You need your logical self to solve problems. Simply running away is not always an option (though it is precisely what fear is trying to motivate you to do). Not feeling emotion is usually not an option (even Star Trek's Vulcans know that), but how you process them really does make all the difference. You can feel an emotion but not allow its motivation to directly affect your physical body. You can be scared but still do what must be done. Overriding strong emotion is not an easy task, but it is something you can practice. Just like a skier won't try the most difficult extreme downhill the first time he or she tries it, use less intense emotions to practice. If you're angry, note it, but do not let it control you. Your conscious mind is the one in control, not the emotion!
Controlling your emotional responses is necessary for relaxation under duress. Remember that control does not mean suppress! It doesn't mean anything about the value or importance of emotions, but just that in order to keep your conscious mind in control, you need to be aware of them but not automatically act on them. Whether or not you should be angry shouldn't be a completely autonomic decision. Sometimes you'll think about it and say, you know, maybe I was wrong and so I shouldn't be angry. Or, you might think about it and conclude that your anger is justified, and action needs to be taken. And, importantly, if you are in a situation that creates intense emotion, you need to be able do enact the plan (self-defense technique, kick, punch - whatever you've practiced beforehand or made up on the spot). Being able to do this plan could very well determine how the situation ends. A relaxed mind feels emotion but does not act on it. A relaxed mind decided what it wants to do with all of the information available.
Let me give you a few examples. The most common emotion a student feels during training is frustration. This is virtually always because the techniques are new and difficult to perform, and the student has not grasped them in a timely manner. Noting that "timely" defined by students is usually incredibly ambitions as defined by the instructions, you rarely just watch someone do something once, and instantly have the technique mastered. You have to practice, and the more difficult (and effortless it appears) the technique is, the longer it takes to get proficient. Frustration is a higher order emotion, but it does prompt a physical response. Imagine the most frustrated you've ever been. Would you describe it as calm? Did you want to immediately stop whatever it was that made you frustrated? I suspect that frustration is natural selection's way of saying "Give up! You're wasting resources!" But you shouldn't give up, especially if you want to improve your technique. A student that gets overly frustrated with a fancy spinning kick is doing himself or herself a disservice. I'm assigning a specific meaning to "overly", though. If you note your frustration, you can take action. If you allow the frustration to provoke an immediate physical response and stop, then you've let your instincts win. The alternative is to try again or seek help from the instructor. These are constructive ends, but they are caused by your intellectual processing layer.
Another example is pain. This isn't an emotion, but a feeling with a very physical basis. Still, it provokes an extremely similar response to a strong emotion. It has the same evolutionary goal - to motivate you to do something. Pain is a cruel development of natural evolution, but it remains because it works. It is perhaps more primitive then any of the emotions, a motivator honed by billion years of evolution. Because of this, controlling pain is more difficult than emotion. It's a matter of intensity. Few emotions can come close to the sheer intensity of immediate, blaring pain. Being able to work past the pain and keep your conscious, calculating mind in control is something that is not easy to achieve. If you do think it's easy, then you just haven't experienced enough pain yet.
Mental relaxation isn't just about an empty mind, then, but achieving a level of calm that is possible only when you no longer allow emotional and sensory impulses direct access to your physical responses. To be calm, you also have to be in a state where you're not trying so hard to be calm. I've never thought it was possible to work so hard at not working, but I've seen this so often when teaching. Concentrating on not concentrating is missing the point. Getting past this seeming paradox is perhaps the hardest part about getting relaxation. It's really as simple as "Just stop!" Don't even thing about not thinking. Imagine this mental exercise (which is easily translated into a practical one. Try it!) Find an almost quiet place (outdoors, maybe?), close your eyes, get into a comfortable position, and just listen to the sounds around you. Focus, which is such an unbelievably important concept, on the sounds only. If something about your workday pops into your mind, throw it out. If you are doing this exercise correctly, then your mind is relaxed. It may surprise you what you hear when you're focused like that. This is the state that you want to be able to return to, because this is where the mind works best. The operative phrase is "free of distraction." This isn't a terribly scientific conclusion here, but it's also not that difficult to logically see why it is true. Dividing your attention between several things makes it more difficult to do each task individually.
Most people can relax their mind if they try simple exercises like the one above. It's not that difficult, and we usually do it ever night just before we fall asleep. (As an aside, cases of insomnia are usually caused by not being relaxed. If you're physically tense, then you're probably mentally tense as well. Sometimes there isn't anything you can do about being tense, but how you deal with it outwardly can definitely be controlled. But I'm talking about martial arts here, not slumberless nights.) Being relaxed under duress is something that does not come naturally. Being focused is all about ignoring distractions, whether they are internal such as emotion, or external such as noises or people who are not an immediate threat. When you're in a potentially dangerous situation, focusing on your surroundings is vital. Who is around you? Where are you? What can you do? If you're overwhelmed with fear, other emotions, or pain, then your mind doesn't work as well. You miss things you should see. You do not form a plan to escape or attack. In this kind of a situation, you need to be able to decouple that physical response caused by emotion so that your mind can operate. It is important to realize that the emotion will still be there. Like the events of the day that happen to wander into your thoughts in our listening exercise, they can be noted but disregarded. Letting a strong emotion dominate your logical mind causes tension, which is distraction, which is loss of focus, which is an advantage you lost.
A practical example of this would be situation where you're walking to your car late at night in a parking lot. Upon entering the lot, you feel unease and fear. Your instinctive reaction might be to run away or directly towards your car. What you should do is note that you're feeling this, and attempt to find out why. Start paying attention to your surroundings. You might see someone standing near some light post, or maybe you just heard something like footsteps. Your feeling was triggered for some reason, even if it is just because it is dark. Instinctive emotions are finely tuned survival indicators. Use them! Just don't let them use you. If you did notice someone, simply paying attention to the person might be enough to thwart a potential attack or robbery. Surprise is always the best way to achieve tactical superiority, and if you're aware of a potential assailant, you've taken that advantage away. (Criminals don't do crime because it's more challenging than getting by honestly. It's because it's easier! Still, don't make assumptions. Take steps to help your chances, but keep all of the possibilities in mind.) If you are attacked, you must be able to get past any intense emotions. Note them but act as you need to. A clear head - AKA a relaxed mind - is necessary in order to function. Also, it's not just the defense part, either. If you easily overmatch your opponent, you cannot let your anger get the better of you and do more than you need to protect yourself. A relaxed mind will know this is wrong, but an uncontrolled, angry mind will act on impulse alone. Instead of coming out on top, you will go in jail.
Physical relaxation, then, is usually an extension of the tension in the mind. Remember that emotions and feelings can trigger immediate physical responses. So if you're getting taken into a seemingly nasty throw by your instructor, the sudden pulse of fear you feel will result in tensing up your muscles. Instead of helping you, your instincts have just made it more dangerous, because being tense in a throw is an easy way to end up hurt. (Granted, we're the first animals that have ever had to deal with wrist throws and break falls.) When I tell a student to relax their muscles, just about everybody can temporarily slacken the tension from their arms. But as soon as anything happens, most students will automatically tighten up again. This is because they are allowing an instinctive feeling to influence their actions.
A common problem people fall into is that they need to be "pumped up" in order to be able to properly fight or perform. Some martial arts specifically teach their students to get angry at whatever they are attacking. In order to break a board, say, the student is taught to generate as intense emotion as they can. The board is your worse nightmare, like a tax form or something. The benefit to this exercise is that it does work. When you're feeling intense emotion, it is easier to generate more power. Emotions are motivators, remember, and so like I said earlier, they are supposed to drive your muscles. I have some issues with this, though. Being able to generate an emotion at will is not an easy task. In fact, I would be willing to state that it is virtually impossible to get to the point where this is generally achievable, anytime and anywhere. If you're angry, can you just summon some happy to counteract it? Of course not. Emotions are not something we have direct control over. You don't think sad or happy, you just are. Assuming you'll be able to generate anger to help you in a dangerous situation is risky at best. (Not to mention the potential side affects of purposely trying to make yourself mad all the time.) Instead, it would be better if you could generate the same power regardless of what emotion you feel. Bruce Lee called it "emotional content." You can still use the same muscle whether you're angry or not, but you need to apply it as if you were. Your conscious mind is in control, so if you want to be intense, do it with purposeful control, not wild, raw emotion.
Being able to relax is a skill. It takes practice like any others in Martial Arts. Assuming you will be able to control your emotions in time of need is like assuming you'll be able to do, for the first time ever, a jump spinning wheel kick if you really need to. Unless you've done similar things beforehand, you will not be able to effectively perform the kick on demand for the first time. This isn't really that unobvious. Everyone knows (should know) that they will have to practice a difficult technique many times before it is good enough to use for real. Likewise, relaxation and controlling your physical responses is also something that needs to be practiced. Most of the time, people don't even realize this is something you can practice. Most martial arts have tests that advance students in rank. They are usually stressful, distracting affairs, and that is on purpose. If you never encounter a stressful situation, you will not be prepared to deal with it. Many martial arts practice similar tension producing exercises. You don't have to actually be in a fight to be prepared for one. Even if you do get into fights just to prove your skills (I'm assuming you don't, right?), it is very likely that you aren't purposely putting yourself into a life-threatening situation. Practicing with less-intense situations is really the only possibility left to those of us who aren't elite commandos.
Once you have calmed your mind and separated feeling from response, relaxing your body will come naturally. It's a matter of economy of energy. If you are able to defend yourself, you shouldn't be standing there with your fists clenched and every muscle in your body tight, ready to pound your opponent into a pile of dust. This is a waste of useful energy. You can tighten muscles, but not excessively. If you strike, you will use every ounce of power you have, but only for an instant. You are much slower when you're excessively tense, because opposing muscles (e.g. biceps vs. triceps) will work against the opposite of the pair. Without resisting your own movements, you can be naturally quicker without needing any extra muscle or practice. A relaxed body is also better able to take punishment. To visualize, just picture the difference between hitting a wet chamois vs. a piece of glass. The lesson is to move with the attack, not resist it.
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