In Spirit: What Fighting Teaches Us

I have been practising martial arts for a few years, exploring various styles along my life’s journey. Last summer I have had the first real confrontation with myself during a fight training. A confrontation of the ones that push you beyond your limits and your safety zone, where the references explode and all the mechanisms rise to the surface to reveal themselves. Gift of the moment.

A dear friend told me one day: “It’s a pity that gurus cannot be put into the arena, it would help put things back into perspective.” In the boxing ring, the being cannot cheat with himself. A quiet, ascetic, solitary life, or a life of a spiritual master, can hide many unrevealed things. But crises are the best way to know where we really are.

Martial arts, like all other practices (yoga, theatre, corporal arts in general) can be approached in two ways: by voluntarism – which reinforces an exacerbated desire for control and thus fuels the fear from which this dynamic comes – or a deep desire to know myself better, understanding that every practice that is placed on my path is an opportunity to better discover myself within my limits, a chance to face what I am without judgment, without intervention, without the need to fix anything. As Jean Klein writes about the orientation he teaches:

“This approach is not an emotional or voluntary path, it is not a path of discipline, but of discernment. We analyze something very clearly and we see all the reactions that are superimposed on this vision “(Klein: 34)

During this fight, I felt stifled, overwhelmed. To give all that you have, and realize that it is not enough, that in real life I would have been killed, it is like being caught by a car while crossing a road thinking that nothing can happen to us. It’s fast, we do not expect it, we do not have a second to anticipate. We must face what is, no subterfuge or negotiation is possible. Suddenly, I saw myself mortal and limited, and I realized the spectrum of the emotional space that was lying there, behind this close combat. Frustration, fear, doubt, I understood that these emotions are the ones that I confront daily. In everyday life, when too much falls on my shoulders, I feel overwhelmed. Fear jumped on me just like the attacker when he is too close to me which, in a combat situation, makes me panic and lose my means.

At the end, it is in the face of emotional shocks – a separation, the death of a loved one, an attack – that one reveals oneself. The problems of life are just like the attacker in the combat arena. The way I react to this attack reflects the way I perceive the problems that surround me. Jealousy, hatred, fear of being abandoned, incomprehension or defence are many states that manifest themselves, and if I am watching them as if I were training, allow me to know myself better.

In one of the past articles, we had talked about Indian wrestlers. The art of the ground, spirituality rooted in the concrete, that’s what the art of combat brings back to. Combat, in its traditional form, is spirituality in its raw form before it is named or conceptualized. It’s a direct encounter with self-inquiry, a place where I cannot hide anymore. The devotional or spiritual form of a fighting art points toward that an orientation, a vision, that directs the practice, that is, a more global perspective of how the reality’s mechanism. It is a way towards oneself, a path that reveals the limit and the ignorance because I learn at the core of my flesh, the functioning of the world.

It’s not about becoming better. It is only in the modern world that people have started to receive belts and ranks. It is neither a question of feeling good, of being comforted in what is comfortable for us. When I do not want to go to my training, my friend tells me it’s the best because it’s when you do not want to train that the other part of the brain works, the reptilian, “you do not do it because you want it to, but because you have to. ”

The space of combat teaches tranquillity in the face of my limit, in front of what feels uncomfortable and disturbs. It is not here to make me feel good, or better, it is there to teach me what is, without the fear of looking reality in the face. Nobody asks you to succeed, or even to survive. We only ask you to look at the situation as it is.

As Loïc writes:

“It will, therefore, be necessary to leave free the discomfort, the unpleasant, to let go of any intention to correct anything. During the practice, as in daily life, the loving observation of our tensions and other reactions will create a space, a breath in which will immerse the sensation of a great freedom. It is about letting the question be, as well as the discomfort or the chaos that lives in us, in order to let ourselves be transformed by them.

It is within this space that, naturally and without seeking it, certain tensions will eventually unfold, burn and dissolve. The slightest voluntary intervention will compromise the process.

In martial practice especially, the training partner will be the incarnation of what prevents me from turning in circles, the one who bothers me. ‘There is no bad partner,’ just reactionary tensions that we were not expecting and that we usually put on the account of the person we have in front of us.

It is indeed easy to believe that you are free and relaxed, but if you try to sit for 10 minutes on a mat without moving or to receive a slap voluntarily, we will see then the limits of our disponibility to listening… it is the practice of yoga, martial arts or other. We naturally immerse ourselves in a framework favouring the emergence of situations pointing towards the limits of our tranquillity. ”

The body carries all the mental states of our psyche. It is a reflection of what we feel, and our perception of the world. More than that, it is the reverse of the coin that is our mind. In bodily practices that question the body structure through a listening and “loving” sensibility, the work is to decondition the habits that are crystallized patterns. A routine movement is a dead mind. Our apprehensions of time, space and the world are anchored in our body. To observe our limits, to discover the traumas, makes it possible to become aware of the hidden states and thus to unpack them. Practices such as martial arts or traditional yoga allow to touch and visit these blockages for the body/psyche to find back their initial flexibility. It is here that time and space will also find their breathing.

“He, who advances in life by following a kata in the rigour of the guô, is not lost in boundless temporality. He does not have a body, he is a body that breathes time. ” (Keinji Tokitsu: 111)

The practice of kata is a traditional art in which is hidden a way to return to the essential principles present in each of us. Time stretches, space is organically reformed to those who know how to apprehend it not as an imposition, but as a free exploration of references and crystallized knowledge. In the kata, the opponent exists. He is visualized and felt. The martial form allows the body to free itself from the contextual and takes the practitioner to the whole. Whoever sees only the opponent’s fist punching is going to be slow. Only the global vision of the partner’s body and the space around it can allow me to respond functionally to what is in front of me.

In everyday life, when an obstacle arises, one looks only at the details of the conflict. Fear causes vision loss in all its aspects; it functions as blinders that block the periphery. An obstacle, just like an attack, must not be apprehended in isolation. When the body begins to panic, it thinks he should act very fast, too fast in fact. This sensation of absolutely wanting to find a solution at the moment, to get out of it, to justify or explain, is the result of a mind that has lost the sense of globality. The non-doing, taming this state of fear, panic by returning to the feeling is paramount. Feeling those states rising in me without struggling is a crucial part of the martial journey. The sensation of violence, one will quickly realize, does not come from the hit or even the partner, it comes from my resistance to the sensation that overwhelms me. When fear is not there, the global vision allows the body to dive in a time that dissolves completely. It is no longer linear, “but it extends to infinity. It is a question of placing oneself in the bursted time or, in other words, of grasping on the same plane all the aspects of the situation” (Keinji Tokitsu: 108).

The traditional art of the body is, like the katas, a state of “walk-pray-meditate” (Keinji Tokitsu) where those three are both successive and simultaneous, carrying the potential of the other two in one, inseparable forms. The art of combat is an art of returning to oneself, a path of complete non-duality. The obstacles of life can be approached as training: they must gradually be stripped of their reference of difficulty and reaction, to be discovered and explored as tactile areas. It is through the body and only through it that a space of tranquility will be able to happen. The mind must understand the possibility of another direction, but the body will allow me to fully embody and dissolve what past experiences have crystallized in me. The idea of “combat” must be cleared off from its reductive images of violence and barbarism that sticks to the concept. In the light of the traditional approach and the metaphysical orientation that it hides, one can perceive that combat is the active ingredient of spirituality. In other words, the dynamic of the one who’s searching, ready to confront oneself, to die to oneself, to let emerge the unthinkable reality one can sense.




Analoge by Mariette Raina, featuring Sensei Eraldo Cardoso Pereira, 4 dan (Japan Karate Shotokan, JKS) – Shotokay, centro de ecologia do ser


  • Loïc, (À paraître). Immergé dans le chaos : Regard croisé entre Art martial russe et Yoga du Cachemire
  • Keinji Tokitsu, 2002. Les Katas
  • Jean Klein (1968), L’ultime réalité

These articles are written as part of monthly publications of Never Apart magazine. Although based on academic content and field observations that follow an anthropological methodology, the articles are written in accessible language. They are presented as a form of travel diary where mingles narrative of direct experiences, reflections and academic references. Mariette feeds her stories with photos she takes during these trips, some of ethnographic nature while others are more artistic.

Mariette Raina has a master degree in anthropology from the University of Montreal. She teaches a yoga practice that echoes the philosophy of non-dual tantric Shaivism from Kasmir. She is regularly travelling to India to follow up on her research on esoteric traditions from the Tantras. Mariette is also a visual artist, using photography as field notes and cultural exploration.

View Comments

No Comments (Hide)

Leave a Comment

Required fields are marked with a *.
Your email address will not be published.