If you ask anyone what the most popular fitness activities are in America today, hatha yoga and the martial arts will probably rank high on the list. Rather than adversarial pursuits, these two mainstream ideologies have much in common. According to recent studies, both disciplines engage roughly 20 million practitioners in the United States and the evidence suggests that the trends are growing. From small towns to large cities, yoga studios and martial arts schools are familiar fixtures on both street corners and strip malls. Doctors recommend yoga for stress relief and workplaces offer classes to their employees while the study of martial arts is seen as a way to learn self-defense and boost confidence for both children and adults.
How did these two ancient yet complimentary disciplines with roots in Asian culture become mainstream physical and spiritual enrichment activities in modern American life? Not surprisingly, if you study the historic progress of both disciplines, you will find that they had their beginnings largely at the same time, and their paths of development are intertwined. The third son of a Brahman Indian king, Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma is credited with initiating a program of exercises and drills that he taught to the shaolin monks. These techniques were imparted with the hope of strengthening the monks’ ability to concentrate during meditation while preserving the spiritual harmony required in monastic life. Considered the Father of yoga, another mystical figure, Sri Patanjali Maharishi, is believed to be the author of the famous treatise, The Yoga Sutras, which remain one of the most influential spiritual writings in yogic practice today.
Consisting of 195 aphorisms or sayings, the work lays out a clear and practical path to gaining spiritual insight and self-realization. Through the subsequent years and up until the 20th century both philosophies became strong cultural components in their lands of origin but only marginally penetrated the western way of life. Then, during the middle of the last century, interest in yogic philosophy and martial arts found its way into the American psyche mainly through popular culture. The current outlook that yoga and martial arts study has become a “way of life” for so many Americans is a testament to the popularity and accessibility of these two ancient disciplines.
Even though both traditions have evolved from similar roots, they are vastly different in their applications. The fast paced and forceful movements of a martial artist are in stark contrast to the strong but deliberate yogic postures called asanas. Even so, certain parallels become apparent. The atmosphere in both a yoga and martial arts class is one of reverence and decorum with practicioners bowing to each other to show mutual respect. The beginning of both classes might consist of seated meditation and breath-work exercises. A yoga class will then progress to various yogic positions led by an instructor and a martial arts class will move through basic motions and vigorous defensive skills.
For many practicioners, what may have started out as a desire to improve physical fitness and “get in shape” is augmented and even supplanted by a desire to develop a deeper connection to the inner self and a thirst for a more esoteric study. The yoga student and the martial artist begin to realize that they are on a “path” and the practice is a vehicle for their own transformation. How does this happen? Again we can look at what is at the core of both yoga and the martial arts and see very strong likenesses. Both disciplines adhere to a code of moral conduct. In martial arts study it is called, The Five Tenets. They are Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and Indomitable Spirit. These words are recited at the end of each class and reinforced through mutual respect and sublimation of the ego. Yoga education also ascribes to an Eight Limbed Path which is a series of steps that acta guideline on how to live a purposeful and meaningful life. As the student trains more deeply, she becomes more self-observant and begins to practice detachment which helps to slow the never ending cycle of action, reaction and judgment. It is becoming common for martial arts academies to offer yoga instruction in addition to their training classes because of the balance that is gained from their complimentary qualities.
Here in the west, far from their birthplaces, the ideologies of hatha yoga and the martial arts may also be undergoing a transformation. As anyone who has delved deeply into either or both disciplines will tell you, change is the constant force that is at the root of both practices. And it is here in America, where innovation and reinvention are the norm that many believe lies the future of these two extraordinary paths.