The Tao of Enlightened Combat: Fulfilling Your Core Needs Through Martial Arts
The martial arts are a paradox: How can an inherently violent activity lead to higher states of awareness and spirituality? On the surface it doesn’t seem possible. Yet martial arts history is filled with examples of fierce warriors who were also highly evolved beings.
In order to explain how the martial arts create a path to your higher self, you need to understand your core needs. As individuals, we all have basic needs. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual desires form the foundation and structure of our lives. Your ability to realize those needs has a direct influence on your health, happiness, and sense of fulfillment in life. It’s how the martial arts help meet those needs that start the spiral to evolved beings.
What do these needs look like? Over the years, different schools of thought have explained these desires through the framework of their specific disciplines. However, as a student and teacher of yoga, I’m going to describe these needs as components of the subtle anatomy or energetic body.
In yoga, the body isn’t confined to just the material level. A more refined layer of life is described as the subtle body, or the energetic field that envelops the physical body. Contained within the subtle body are Chakras. Chakras are energy centers located along the central channel of the spinal column. These energy centers are like junction points through which energy moves to accomplish a specific purpose. Each Chakra is associated with a specific nerve and organ plexus in the physical body, even though the Chakras themselves don’t exist in the physical body.
One way to think of the Chakras is like the rooms in your house. When you go into each room, you typically perform a specific action in that room; in the kitchen you cook food, in the bedroom you sleep, in the living room you relax or socialize. The energy in your subtle body behaves in a similar manner. The Chakras are associated with specific physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs or functions. When the energy is active and realized in the Chakra, those needs reach fulfillment. When lacking, the needs are left unrealized.
Consider the Chakra system as a map leading us to higher awareness and self-fulfillment. Connecting the practice of martial arts to this map helps explain how training in the arts can help you accomplish so much.
First Chakra: Survival
The first Chakra is located at the base of the spine. In Sanskrit, it’s known as Muladhara, which means “foundation” or “root.” It’s related to the core needs of survival, security, and safety. As the energy center closest to the earth, it supports your sense of feeling grounded and connected.
The most basic criteria for any complete martial art should be self-protection. Whatever other reasons motivate your study, the ability to effectively protect yourself from attack must rank pretty high on the list or you probably wouldn’t have chosen the martial path. The feelings of security and safety that you get from self-defense training fulfill your needs for survival and protection.
Second Chakra: Creativity
The second Chakra is located in the pelvis, in the area of the reproductive organs, and is known as Svadhistana, or “the Self’s dwelling place.” It’s associated with creativity and relates to vitality, sensuality, and potency.
Martial arts training gives you the opportunity to tap into your creative potential. Through your practice you quite literally create something new—a new body, a new reaction to a threat, a creative response to a situation rather than a predictable and reactive pattern of behavior. As your skills grow, you start to feel more of the freedom and joy of creativity as it flows from you naturally and spontaneously.
Since this Chakra also relates to vitality and potency, the physical training itself energizes the body, helping you feel vitalized and invigorated.
Third Chakra: Power
The third Chakra is localized in your solar plexus. Manipura, or the “place of the shining gem,” governs your sense of personal power and your ability to manifest your intentions and desires into the world. It’s related to feelings of empowerment, confidence, and strength in your abilities.
Through training in the martial arts you experience the growth of your personal power in the world. On a simply physical level you feel yourself growing stronger and more capable of coping with life-threatening situations. Your body becomes a channel for that power, resulting in an increased sense of confidence in your skills and abilities—both in combat and in your daily life.
Fourth Chakra: Harmony and Compassion
The fourth Chakra is located in the area of the heart. It’s known as Anahata, “the place of openness.” The heart chakra is the seat of emotional consciousness. It’s related to the core needs of peace, harmony, and love.
Through training, you’re exposed to the violent side of life in the form of aggression, hostility, and potential injuries. Facing these realities creates a newfound respect for the brutal nature of combat. You’re better able to recognize the fragile nature of your existence and how quickly another can be injured or even killed. You start to experience a deep and abiding compassion for yourself and others, along with a desire to avoid needless hostility and violence. Your compassion for others helps you to handle potentially violent situations in more humane ways. And that gets us closer to what we really desire, which is to live in harmony, rather than in conflict, with each other.
Fifth Chakra: Expression
The fifth Chakra is known as Vishuddha, meaning “pure,” and is located in the throat. This is the center of expression and fulfills the need to confidently express your truth to the world.
As you gain confidence in your training, your art begins to take on unique and subtle nuances that are an expression of your individuality. Internalizing your martial art experience allows it to become personalized and an inseparable part of you. Like a fingerprint, the expression of your art takes on the distinctive qualities of who you are. Your martial art literally becomes the canvas upon which you can create through form and movement. At this level the techniques of two martial artists of the same style may appear very different as they demonstrate or articulate the same fundamental quality of movement.
Sixth Chakra: Insight and Intuition
The sixth Chakra is located in the region between your eyebrows. This is the third eye or Ajna Chakra, meaning “infinite power.” It’s associated with a sense of inner knowingness and connection to the quiet voice of your soul. It also relates to a feeling of being guided in your choices to fulfill your purpose in life.
As you continue the training of your mind and body through combative drills and exercises, you begin to tap into more subtle senses of intuition and insight. Combative drills, such as stimulus-response exercises or sparring, help you develop a heightened state of awareness in which you become increasingly adept at anticipating the movements of your opponent. Over time this ability grows, allowing you to feel or read the intentions of another before they actually make a move.
These are tangible skills that can be cultivated, rather than otherworldly superpowers. With continued practice, this intuition can expand into the environment allowing for a deeper communion with the world and your fellow human beings. Ultimately, when turned inward, this intuition and insight allows you to tap into your higher self, the guidance system that governs the course of your life and leads you to happiness and fulfillment.
Seventh Chakra: Spirit
The seventh Chakra is known as Sahaswara, meaning the “thousand petal lotus.” It’s located at the crown of the head and is the seat of divine consciousness. This Chakra fulfills the need for wholeness and the connection to unbounded awareness. When fully realized, this Chakra restores the memory that you are a spirit in disguise as a person.
Martial arts training can be demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally. It can push you out of your comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory. It can force you to confront your fears, demons, and weaknesses. It can push you to the point of complete and total exhaustion. But despite all this it can also catapult you to the heights of peak experience.
As you progress through your martial arts journey, you experience milestones, successes, and triumphs. Each new rank, each accomplishment opens the door to transformation and inspiration. You may have had moments of expansion following a successful sparring match, a belt ceremony, or a training session during which you were completely “in the zone.” Perhaps during a drill or exercise you had the experience of slipping into a timeless state of complete and total oneness with your movement. During such moments your sense of self expands and you feel a powerful connection to something larger than yourself.
In a word, these experiences are transcendent; they go beyond a limited view of the world and tap into a higher level of consciousness. This is Spirit, or pure awareness. Through such experiences, you glimpse a more refined level of reality and experience the integration of mind, body, and spirit as one. Ultimately, according to the science and philosophy of yoga, this is your true nature. You are not a human being having occasional spiritual experiences; you are spirit having a human experience.
Every essential human need can be met through martial arts. With regular training it can be a powerful path of growth, integration, and enlightenment, and ultimately help you to realize your full human potential.