By Dr. Isaac Eliaz MD, MS, LAc
You’ve seen the demonstrations: a martial arts master focuses energy on breaking seemingly unbreakable objects — cinder blocks, bricks, stacks of wood. Then, in seconds, he reduces the items to rubble.
Martial arts are often associated with remarkable feats of strength and agility, as well as self-defense. But these accomplishments are simply by-products of another, more powerful process being cultivated in these practices.
The real achievement in martial arts is in reaching a powerful state of mindfulness.
These arts are not just about physical strength. Martial arts enhance mind/body connections to elevate every aspect of your being, translating into significant health benefits. In addition to powerful stress relief, cardiovascular protection and anti-inflammatory effects, martial arts practices such as tai chi are shown to improve neurological health, enhance immunity and even support recovery from cancer. The list of how they help the body is extensive.
Ancient Healing Systems
As a teenager, my family lived in South Korea where I had the opportunity to study tae kwon do alongside the Korean national team. This training offered me the tools to cultivate an extremely focused, yet very relaxed, state of mind. Such a mind-state is one of the keys to martial arts — and to healing in general. This marked the beginning of my journey into integrative and traditional Chinese medical systems, shaping the way I practice medicine today.
Martial arts are deeply entwined with traditional Asian medicine. Tai chi, for example, is closely connected with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is often prescribed together with other TCM modalities such as acupuncture, herbal formulas and other therapies. With a focus on breath-work, slow movements and visualization, tai chi enhances the flow of energy, or chi, throughout the body. Many other martial arts offer similar benefits, using tools to cultivate mindfulness and focus, together with coordinated breathing and specific movements. When practiced regularly, these exercises can be deeply transformative on every level of being — physical, mental, emotional, psycho-spiritual.
Among the martial arts, tai chi is well-researched and demonstrates significant benefits in numerous areas of health. It reduces inflammatory signals in the body, limits the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and improves circulation. Tai chi also benefits cognitive abilities and neurological health. One study found that seniors who regularly practiced tai chi actually increased the size of their brains. This is a key finding, since loss of brain volume is often associated with dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions. Though it’s uncertain how tai chi increases brain volume, it may have to do with the cultivation of mindfulness and a meditative state, which are also shown to increase brain size.
Another study found that tai chi was helpful for people with Parkinson’s disease, improving their gait and decreasing falls. Research has also shown that martial arts benefit children with ADD/ADHD. The focus they develop helps them cultivate greater self-control.
While other physical exercises and activities may offer similar benefits, a key advantage in martial arts is the emphasis on mindfulness. We cultivate a tranquil, meditative awareness first and apply specific exercises to expand this state of consciousness. In the presence of true mindfulness, seemingly amazing things are possible. Masters can break bricks. “Miracles” become commonplace. Health and healing can take a quantum leap.