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Making the Most of Martial Arts as Therapy

Many people have discovered the healing power of martial arts, as they strive to get a grip on emotional issues that may have followed them for years.

Confronting your fears

Often, what holds people back in life is fear. People are afraid of failing, as well as succeeding — afraid of speaking up, and at the same time, remaining silent. No wonder folks feel stressed and anxious.

But learning martial arts is a powerful antidote to all that fear. The first time someone hits you or throws you to the mat, you're probably going to be afraid of getting hurt. The first time that you hit or throw someone else, you're probably going to be afraid of hurting him. But soon you realize that people aren't that fragile. You learn that you're strong, you can defend yourself, and even that you're worth defending.

Martial artists who have been abused often find themselves confronting the abuse during their training because all martial arts involve, essentially, violent physical action directed at you. This can be a tricky, emotional time. Learning to defend yourself can help you come to terms with the abuse, but you may need a little extra help. Talk to a trusted friend, join a support group, or talk to a counselor with experience in helping abused people.

Building blocks: Confidence and self-esteem

When you begin training in the martial arts, you feel pretty awkward and stupid. Be comforted: You also look pretty awkward and stupid. But that stage soon passes. In no time at all, you'll be performing the throws and locks as if you'd been doing it all your life. Physical mastery of skills like this makes you feel more self-confident and builds your self-esteem. It's our achievements that make us feel good about ourselves, whether that achievement is a perfect front kick or a good score on a math test.

At least one martial arts instructor tells her students to enjoy the beginner phase. "Revel in your awkwardness," she says. "Marvel at how you've had this body all your life and yet don't know what to do with it!"

As you learn the skills, you also develop the self-confidence to face your fears and to live your life the way you always wanted to. You begin to learn that you're a competent person and that you can take care of yourself (and others if you need to). Besides, if you can do a flying side kick, you can pretty much do anything: rebuild that Mustang's engine, start your own business, and earn a graduate degree.

Developing emotional muscle memory

Emotional muscle memory builds on the idea of muscle memory — simply the result of thousands of repetitions of a single technique. If you do a side kick 10,000 times, the 10,001th time that you do the kick, you don't really have to think about it. You just do it. If you've been practicing it perfectly, then you'll just do it perfectly.

The less you have to think about what you're doing, the more successful you'll be doing it. Imagine what it would be like if every time you stood up to walk to the refrigerator, you had to think: "Now, put one foot in front of the other . . . "

However, emotions can take over. Practicing a side kick in class is one thing, but doing it when you're scared is another thing. You may panic, you may forget what to do, and you may miss.

That's where emotional muscle memory comes in. Just as you can practice your kick 1,000 times to build muscle memory, you can practice your techniques when you're scared in order to build muscle memory. In this way, you'll rehearse the emotions, so when they hit, your emotional muscle memory automatically takes over, and you just think, "Okay, I've felt this way before, but I did fine then, and I'll be fine now."

What this means is that you should put yourself in situations where you're nervous. You can build your emotional muscle memory by simply performing despite your nerves. Thus, competing in a tournament can help you build your reserves of emotional muscle memory. (It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, as long as you did something.) Think of rank promotion examinations as just another way to build your emotional muscle memory. Agree to do a martial arts demonstration for the local scouting organization. Performing in front of an audience might be scary, but it's good for you.

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