At this point, nearly every American is familiar with down dog as well as the sense of calm, flexibility and strength provided by yoga. Others know of the martial arts with strikes, clinches and take-downs.
How could these two have anything to do with one another? More than you’d think.
I am a competitive kickboxer and a yoga teacher and I know that there is no one on the yoga mat or in the ring but you. The difference is that in the ring you are truly alone until your opponent steps in and then you really come to understand yourself – just like on a meditation cushion. Do you stay in the ring and battle by adapting to what comes in each moment or do you balk, cover your eyes and turn away only to repeat the same habits again and again? We are our greatest opponents.
With that idea in mind, YogaCityNYC has asked me to interview other yogis / martial artists about the commonality of these two Eastern traditions. I spoke to Yanti Amos, owner of Earth Yoga NYC and a second degree (Nidan) in Shotokan karate, Melvin Amin Glover, a competitive kickboxer and yogi who practices at Yoga Union, Isauro Fernandez, a Black Belt in Judo and yoga teacher at Earth Yoga NYC and Pure Yoga and Ariel “Smash” Sepulveda who recently won his 11th Pro MMA fight in Atlantic City and credits his weekly private yoga practice with me to increasing his superior skills.
Gina:What does it mean to be a martial artist?
Ariel: I see being a martial artist as being an artist with one’s body. We train, build, and create – it’s almost like what a painter does, and then we display it to the world for them to understand what we have gone through, what we have created through the months and months of training. In the cage, it all comes out. Joy, sadness, anger. The painter has the gallery show. I have the cage.
Yanti: As a child I started with Tae Kwon Do. I was drawn to it because I was sporty and I felt a need to learn how to defend myself. I loved the self-confidence it gave me and it served me well growing up. Just the fact that people knew I trained in martial arts was enough to keep potential bullies at bay. I have lots of stories of times when my quick reflexes and training allowed me to help others in need. Today, as an adult practicing and teaching Shotokan karate I feel an enormous duty in carrying on a tradition and sharing it with others.
Mel: I've always felt a heightened level of self-awareness through the various arts I've studied. The intensity of training and competition has forged mettle into my being. This is what being a martial artist means to me.
Isauro: Through my specific martial art of judo and by practicing and teaching my brand of yoga called ki power vinyasa, it is my intention to better myself and others through the unique and authentic expression of my self. Fusing mind, body, and intentionally flowing into spirit...life force ...KI. This ki becomes and is a way of life.
Gina:What do you see as the correlation between martial arts and yoga?
Yanti: It keeps everything real for me. Karate, like yoga, is a metaphor for life- and the only way forward is to remain humble with the Zen beginner's mind. I see both as being forms of inner cultivation through training and practice. Through repetition and practice one learns about mastery and self-discipline. Both arts are as much about understanding internal energies: chakras and nadis on one hand, and ki and life force on the other. And, both yoga and karate cannot be learned in isolation, or from books and DVDs. The transmission of teachings through a teacher lineage tradition is absolutely key to learning both arts. At the end of the day I think both areas prepare us for the complexities of life. Like it or not, life is full of violence, injustice, misunderstandings and unpleasantness. We need to accept the way of the world in all its glory and ugliness. We live in a world of contradictions.
Ariel: Yoga and Martial Arts...it’s like rice and beans. If you don’t combine them you don’t know what you are missing. Through yoga I get in touch with my body and mind. I know myself better. Yoga also makes me a better fighter – it changes how I strike, roll in Jiu Jitsu, the way I walk and most of all how I “feel.”
Gina:How do you reconcile yoga's ahimsa (non-harming) with martial arts?
Yanti: I don't see ahimsa and fighting as needing reconciliation. Refraining from violence is a good principle to observe. In karate we have two principles that speak to this – 1. Refraining from hot-blooded behavior and 2. There is no first attack (karate ni sente nashi). We follow these two rules very closely in our daily life, in competition it's obviously different. You can still fight but be very honorable about it. It's very mental and it's about self-control. I don't take the ahimsa principle too literally. I can see how some people would see it as a paradox, but this is the whole point about yin and yan - male, female, light, dark, soft, hard. Everything exists together and we need to acknowledge all forces within us. If you don't train or practice fighting within our martial art then you're not acknowledging or accepting the presence of these different characteristics.
Isauro: To me, no reconciliation is necessary. Ahimsa literally means the avoidance of violence, which is what I practice every time I step onto the judo mat. Ahimsa also means kindness and non-violence towards all. It is rooted in the belief that all living things are connected but it also recognizes self-defense when necessary, as a sign of a strong spirit.
Ariel: It is never my intention to harm anyone but when I step in the ring and someone is literally trying to kill me I kill first.
Mel: It’s about karma and intention. I try to pay it forward with everything I do.