Muay Thai and Meditation
You see this quote all the time: You are your biggest enemy. When you get overwhelmed in a spar, or loses a fight, it isn’t only because your opponent is better. You get hit a few times and you start panting harder, you tense up, you lose your concentration and focus, you forget everything you were taught, you lose your temper and you start to go at your opponent with your drunken moves in futility. The kung fu masters were right: The only opponent is within.
In most competitive sports, especially fight sports, the training emphasis is naturally placed on qualities such as physical strength, speed, endurance and conditioning. Mental training is an often neglected aspect of almost every sport including Muay Thai. Mental conditioning can -and should- form an integral part of a fighter’s training routine and one of the best ways to do this is to meditate. Conor Mcgregor, Jon Jones, and Diego Sanchez are some of the MMA fighters who incorporate meditation as part of their training.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is an important component of many religions, particularly in the eastern world. Its objective is usually to induce a mode of consciousness particular to the individual teachings of the different religions or sectarian groups. Ultimately, meditators seek to attain a state of well-being or to be equipped with a set of attributes (psychological, mental, emotional etc) in line with these teachings.
This can be performed with techniques ranging from contemplation, visualization, chanting, rituals, and observation (of the mind). The methods are numerous and varied. While the roots of meditation trace back to spiritual and religious origins, meditation in essence, is simply a form of mental training.
Benefits of Meditation
Through years of research, scientists and psychologists have found many scientifically-validated benefits of regular meditation practice. Do not discount meditation as merely some religious mumbo jumbo. Although meditation is an important practical aspect of many religions, regular practice on its own can bring about many benefits even for the spiritually- or religiously-averse. Here are some reasons why you should incorporate meditation as part of your training and lifestyle:
Focus is frequently cited as the key to success. If you can’t focus when you train, spar or fight, obviously, you have a lot to lose. When you don’t concentrate on what your trainer or Kru is teaching, you are missing out on getting your techniques right. When you are sparring with your training partner and you can’t focus on the present moment, you are just going to be throwing futile strikes while receiving plenty of blows in your face. Meditation helps to increase your level of focus, attention and concentration. In a fast-paced game like Muay Thai, a moment of distraction can be all it takes to end the fight.
The most widespread application of meditation in modern life is stress reduction. Psychiatrists and psychologists have been recommending meditation to patients for a few decades. Stress is a double-edged sword. An appropriate amount of stress can motivate a person to train harder to gain a competitive edge and prepare one to perform at optimal level during competitions. Conversely, too much stress can cause performance anxiety and regular stress can lead to cause harm to a person’s health. Stress has been known to cause a multitude of health problems such as gastritis, autoimmune diseases, ulcers and even heart disease.
The level of intensity during sparring sessions is typically quite light and the mood intended to be fun. But we have all encountered jerks at some point, who spar like they are trying to knock you out. The objective of sparring is to practise techniques, hone your reflexes and sharpen your instincts. The objective is NOT to win, or to knockout your sparring partner. But losing your cool during sparring, retaliating and leveling things up into a brawl is the most uncool thing to do. As Bruce Lee once said, “A quick temper will make a fool of you soon enough”. Anger can make you strong, but also make you stupid. When you are consumed by anger and rage, you will be punished by your anger rage. Meditation practice increases awareness, this lets you keep your temper in check before it even gets a chance to flare up.
Improved Sleep Quality
Muscles rebuild themselves and grow when the body is at rest. As an adult, you need a recommended 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep everyday. Adequate sleep is vital for muscle repair. If you aren’t resting enough, it’s hard to get stronger. Meditation calms the mind and improves the quality of sleep and the better your quality of sleep, the faster your recovery time.
How to Meditate
There are so many different meditation techniques it is like an intercontinental spiritual buffet. While meditation in itself is an art of stripping away complexities, there are many subtleties with each technique that requires a lot more than an article to do it justice. Here is a general guide to get you started:
Where to Meditate
The stereotypical image most people have of meditation is that of a person seated in a picturesque and tranquil location, eyes closed and looking serenely at peace. While a scenic and peaceful location can be ideal, it certainly isn’t practical for most of us city-dwellers. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “wherever you go, there you are”. As a daily practice, it doesn’t make sense to drive a few hours and then hike up to some isolated spot in the mountains just to meditate for 20 to 30 minutes. Most of us simply can’t afford this luxury of time.
All you need is just a dedicated space in the privacy of your room, where there will be no obtrusive noise (such as television, music or ringing phones) or disruption during the time you meditate.
When to Meditate
Set aside a specific time(s) for meditation when the mind is free from everyday concerns. It helps if it is a quiet time of the day such as dawn or before bedtime. The Indian gurus recommend waking up at 3 am in the morning but the godliness of this ungodly hour again isn’t practical for the majority of us peasants who need to work. The key is to choose a time and place and sticking to it so as to condition the mind to settle into a meditative state more easily.
Where physically possible, it is recommended to meditate in a sitting position. The ancients have found sitting on the ground to be the best posture for meditation as it is stable (compared to standing) and meditators have less tendency to doze off (compared to lying down). The 3 most common sitting postures -in order of descending difficulty- are the full lotus, half lotus and the easy sitting pose as illustrated in the image above. The palms can placed on the knees or on top of each other on the lap facing upwards with the spine erect.
The ability to meditate in any of the sitting postures is determined largely by the flexibility of your ankles, knees, and hips. In cases where sitting on the ground is too difficult or painful, using a chair can be a last resort. As with sitting on the ground, the back should be kept in an upright position with no slouching and no leaning against the back of the chair.
As highlighted above, sitting meditation is the most common posture adopted. Most of us are accustomed to sitting in a chair, so to sit on the ground in a cross-legged fashion for an extended period of time can be a challenge. Pins and needles are part and parcel of meditation practice in the beginning. Meditation cushions are blessings for us stiff-hips, improving our sitting posture and the level of comfort during meditation.
Breathing meditations are the most common methods of meditation. They are simple and easy to learn, and with no elaborate visualizations or mantras, they will suit a person of any religious background. Set a timer for 10 minutes at the start and place it at a distance as the alarm can be jarring when you have settled into a calm state.
- Sit comfortably in a position of personal preference.
- Place your palms on your knees or facing upwards on each other on your lap
- Although it is easier to focus with eyes closed, there is a stronger tendency to fall asleep. So leave your eyes half-opened, settling your gaze at a point a few feet in front on you.
- Regulate your breathing and remind yourself that you will be quiet during the duration of your meditation. Breathe only through your nose.
- Count your breaths. This can be done on each inhalation, exhalation or a complete inhale/exhale cycle. Count from 1 up to 10 and repeat cycle.
- Focus on your breathing, keeping your awareness on the tip of your nose.
- At first, your breathing may be rapid and shallow. As you relax and settle into a meditative state, your breathing slows down and deepens.
- Whenever your attention drifts away, gently direct it back to your breathing and focal point. The keyword is “gently”.
- And that’s it.
Your mind WILL wander. A lot. Do not despair or feel frustrated as this is the state of our minds. Gradually, as you practise, you will observe more clarity and distracting thoughts will occur less frequently. As you become more comfortable with your sitting, you may slowly increase the duration of your meditation. A daily 30- to 45-minute practice can do wonders but take care to not ramp up too quickly. As with all training, moderation is key.
Meditation can be performed alone or in a group. While meditation itself is a solitary act, there are benefits of group meditation. Just as how your Muay Thai gym mates can motivate you to train regularly, a meditation group can have the same effect. It doesn’t need to be a daily participation and you should continue to practise alone for most days. Meditation can be challenging, especially for beginners. So the power of a community can reinforce the desire to practice and provide valuable support to newcomers.
In most cities, there are many non-secular and some secular organizations that conduct group meditation practice on a regular basis. You can look up the internet for meditation meetups in your area.
Remember this: Meditation is not a sport. You are not competing against anyone, not even yourself. There is no record to break, no standard to achieve, no examinations, nothing. You don’t have to boast about it, blog about it, or instagram yourself meditating in a picturesque and tranquil location *roll eyes*. All is required is that you be there and do it on a daily basis. Or twice daily, if you can. The only objective is to practise diligently.
Your mind is the most powerful weapon. When you dedicate a little extra effort to mental training regularly, the benefits will extend beyond just your performance at Muay Thai, and into other aspects of your life.