"Breathe, Tanner, breathe!" I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a little light sparring and I still really didn't know what I was doing. "Don't worry Tanner, we're going light so just take it easy." These were very reassuring words and yet I could still feel my chest begin to tighten and panic begin to swell in my gut. But I'm here so I might as well make the most of it, so on the count of three, let's do this. One, two, three...
And then the bell rang and the light sparring commenced. Everything was going so well. We were feeling each other out, working on footwork and technique. I felt like I was getting a lot out the sparring. It was all going so well until it wasn't, until my teammate landed a straight right flush on my chin and my fight or flight mechanism kicked in. I began seeing red and charged my opponent liked a mad man. "Woah! Take it easy! What are you doing!" The truth is I didn't really know what I was doing, I was acting on pure instinct, responding to the threat of violence against me, and that is the day it all began to change for me.
Thankfully I had the foresight to realize that I was clearly doing something wrong so I humbly gave an apology and asked for help. Amir looked over at me and politely told me that I was on the verge of hyperventilating and was in desperate need of controlling my breathing. So, we stopped the sparring session and Amir set me up in the corner of the mat, with nowhere to go, and had me eat punches for five straight minutes from my opponent. "Breathe, Tanner, breathe!" he chided me, and I instinctually listened to his voice, taking deep, steady breathes, and slowly could feel my levels of anxiety diminish.
My problem was that I was taking very quick, shallow breaths because I was in a state of panic. This is fairly normal for most beginners who are inexperienced in combat or conflict and it can take some time to acclimate to the stress of unarmed combat. So, over time I made sure to focus on my breathing, taking deep, steady breaths and exhaling out as much as I could with each strike. As my breathing improved an incredible thing happened: I noticed my energy levels increased significantly. I was breathing more efficiently, moving more efficiently and so I didn't burn out like I used to. I remember I would be sparring with Brad and say to him, "I don't know how you have so much energy man. It's like you never get tired." He chuckled back and simply said, "It's because I'm completely comfortable fighting, and you have a long ways to go my friend." Truer words had never been spoken.
As satisfied as I was to have my endurance increase on the mat I was even more satisfied to realize the many other areas in my life that this lesson was applicable to. I realized the large number of areas in my life that were stressing me out, inducing panic and anxiety, and realized that I was working myself up into a frenzy through my quick, shallow breaths. I had written myself off as someone who is just highly anxious and should simply live my life accordingly, but here I was, perfecting the art of being comfortable in a very uncomfortable sparring session, and learning to love it. Perhaps it was just a matter of making a few adjustments that would turn those dreaded board meetings into something pleasurable, those conflictual dialogues with my wife into constructive conversations, and the fights with close friends into mutual disagreements that could be discussed and hopefully remedied.
It may seem silly, but the art of breathing changed my life in a tremendous way. The truth is that, like many of my peers, I suffer significantly from anxiety and sometimes have a hard time coping with the demands of life. It is easy for me to turn the most innocent and simplest of conflicts into the end of the world and I would like nothing more than to run away from the world. I would love to avoid any and all conflict, to lay curled up in my bed and avoid the challenges of being alive. But what kind of life would that be? And the truth is that merely existing is an anxiety ridden activity. It can't be avoided and, in reality, it shouldn't be avoided. It should be embraced but it should also be conquered.
By no means am I diminishing the deep and debilitating power of anxiety, panic disorders, or other forms of mental illness. Quite the contrary, I recognize the millions upon millions of people that suffer deeply from poor mental health and am grateful that we aren't completely helpless in our attempt to live a fruitful, meaningful, and active existence. Despite the various challenges in our lives we all still have dreams. We all have that vision of what our ideal life would look like and what it would feel like to step into that world, and we should feel comforted that there are certain things we can do to help cope with the anxiety that comes along with pursuing our dreams.
The beautiful thing about martial arts training is that it imitates the stress and conflicts of life quite nicely, for there is nothing more stressful (at least for many) than the thought of being crushed, smothered, or overwhelmed by another human being. However, if we can manage a way to stay calm, relax, and take deep, slow breaths in the face of such adversity, we must ask ourselves what other life stressors can we conquer? Are there other areas of our lives that needn't be so anxiety inducing and is it possible that we can actually live a life not completely laden with fear?
For me the answer is yes. Whenever I find myself panicking at work, or panicking at home, or with friends, I imagine that I am standing across from my opponent at Lightning Kicks who is looking to do some form of bodily harm, and I take several deep breaths, and then I smile and life becomes all the more manageable.
Martial arts training isn't merely for those looking to earn a black belt but it is for everyone who is looking to gain a sense of control over their lives and stare down the greatest fears. If you are one of those individuals I hope you can take a deep breath as you take your first step towards a better life. Visit our website, let us know you'd like to be contacted, and we'll work together to conquer the stressors of life.
Author the Author
David Tanner Lauka is a member of Lightning Kicks Martial Arts Academy and author of Capturing the Ghost. He is also the founder of the Slaughterhouse Combat Team, a non-profit organization designed to equip trauma survivors to battle their fears through the martial arts. He is a childhood trauma survivor who suffers from PTSD and hopes to use his story to encourage others in their journey of healing.