Meditation, Martial Arts and Medicine

The 60s counterculture embraced many aspects of eastern culture. The exotic postures and movements of eastern martial arts and yoga captivated the imaginations of many young men and women. Schools proliferated in virtually every western country. While the styles of martial arts varied greatly from the hard-hitting, punching and kicking of Karate and Tai-Kwon Do to the seemingly gentler movements of Tai Chi, Baguazhang, and Aikido, they all had a common bond – the emphasis on attaining a quiet mind through meditative practice. In yoga, practitioners claimed control over autonomic functions of the body including heart rate, breathing and metabolism. Those who practiced various eastern arts touted health, longevity, inner peace and greatly enhanced physical powers as benefits. In all of these arts, meditative techniques played a fundamental role in helping achieve their benefits.

In the world of medicine, these claims were met with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm that helped drive scientific research in new directions. By the 1970’s, enough evidence had accumulated supporting the usefulness of meditative practice that relaxation training had become incorporated into medical and psychological therapies. Experiments had shown that people could indeed be trained to control such things as heart rate and muscle tension, giving birth to biofeedback as a form of treatment.

Taoist and Buddhist practices often involve mental imagery to enhance health and physical performance (as in martial arts training).  In the 1980’s mental imaging techniques were being used to treat anxiety disorders among other things and to improve performance in professional athletes. The efficacy of sitting quietly with a relaxed body and focused mind was being validated by research-based evidence. We now know, thanks to well-designed studies, that the use of imaging techniques can significantly increase physical strength.

As more and more doctors took an interest in meditation, it became evident that the practice could be presented without any of the cultural or spiritual beliefs usually associated with meditation. Buddhist forms of meditation in particular were amenable to medical /psychological applications likely because Buddhism has a strong psychological orientation. Among Buddhism’s mental practices is training to be mindful. This is the seemingly simple act of being aware of what is actually happening in the mind from moment to moment.

In 1990, a psychologist and long time meditator, Jon Kabat-Zinn, published “Full Catastrophe Living”. The book described the stress management program he had established at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in the previous decade. Meditation, in the manner of Taoist and Buddhist practice was the foundation of the program. He coined the term ‘mindfulness meditation’ to describe what his patients were taught to do, the word mindfulness recalling Buddha’s exhortations to his followers to pay attention and be aware.

One of Dr. Kabat-Zin’s most important accomplishments was to spread the idea that meditation practice did not have to be linked to a set of spiritual beliefs or a religion. He emphasized the act of meditation itself as a method for reducing stress. Mindfulness meditation is now taught throughout the western world by doctors, psychologists and other health care professionals trained in his approach. Meditative practices have become an integral part of western culture and western medicine.

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