I was busy trying to control my legs, which were trembling beneath the weight of my body. “Yeah, okay,” I grunted, feeling the air sputter from my chest. Setting my eyes forward, I made myself inhale slowly and deliberately, praying my legs would hold out until the slow wave of oxygen reached them.
This was Day-Zero at the Kung Fu academy in the Gainesville Dojo: the class that all students take before they begin basic training. “You’re going to hold this for five minutes,” my teacher explained as he showed me the first stance, horse position, which looked like he was straddling a chair, only without the chair. When I had assumed the position, with my legs planted and my back straight, he said, “When the pain comes, focus on breathing deeply and slowly, and use your breath to push through it.” I had barely been there for thirty seconds when the pain began to come, and with it the grim realization that there were five other stances I would have to try to hold before the day was out.
Sifu later explained that the purpose of Day-Zero is not so much to teach the stances, but to introduce new students to the internal, mental dimension of their training. Many martial arts, particularly those from East Asia, incorporate meditation into training to cultivate mental virtue in their students. These techniques they use have recently become a subject of great interest among educational psychologists, who are studying the role they might play in a modern classroom.
There is already a large and growing body of literature on the benefits of meditative techniques. In therapy for depression and trauma, many studies have observed the usefulness of mindfulness training, which helps practitioners become aware of the state of their body and mind through conscious relaxation, breath control, yoga, and Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques. Mindfulness teaches patients to control their mental state and cope more effectively with negative emotions.1
In the martial arts, the benefits of meditative practices can be hard to pin down because practices vary from style to style, and even when the style has a well-established tradition, as with Aikido, which was founded in the 1940s by Moriehei Ueshiba, descriptions of their meditative practices are usually framed by spiritual and philosophical ideals. For example, in Aikido, meditation prepares the mind to react calmly to an attack, allowing a master to easily control and redirect the enemy’s force. It’s not just about throwing an attacker. Meditation is training the mind to bend with assaults, both internal and external, and transform negative energy into neutral or positive energy. Within Ueshiba’s spiritual teachings, there are no external enemies, strictly speaking. The true enemy is always the self, and only through self-mastery can one truly be victorious.2
If this idea sounds familiar, it is because it has been made a cliché by Star Wars, Karate Kid, and thousand other martial arts films. However, as clinical studies have shown, using meditation to teach a form of self-mastery has real, psychological benefits. Educational psychologists expect that training these skills will also benefit healthy children.3
These expectations are hardly unfounded. Studies have shown that the measure of a young child’s capacity for self-regulation, which refers to the ability to control one’s own thoughts, actions, and emotions, have been found to predict preschool reading and math ability, grades in primary school, and later performance on the SATs.4 This may not be as epic as a spiritual struggle against evil, but it does suggest that fostering self-control might be extremely valuable in educational setting, regardless of what one is trying to teach. Indeed, current theory views “executive function”, which encompasses impulse control and the ability to purposefully order one’s thoughts, to be one of the core determinants of general intelligence.4
Do these predictions actually hold up in the classroom? The answer is that conclusive research has not yet been done. However initial results seem promising. In a pilot study published in 2010, 2nd and 3rd graders who received three weekly fifteen-minute classes in meditation and breath control showed improvements in attentiveness and executive control.5 A peer-reviewed study published later that year showed similar findings. Although the meditation classes failed to produce general, across-the-board improvement, it found marked improvement in children who showed interest in practicing outside the classroom.6
In the martial arts, the mental exercises help students manage the physical and psychological stress they will experience both in their training. The Way of Peace, as put by master of Aikido, is a long and arduous struggle, filled with much pain and toil. The mental fortitude developed by meditation training is meant to give the learner the strength to keep walking on this difficult, metaphorical road.2
The fact is that many students are struggling with school. Many schools are failing, and efforts implement ever more rigorous batteries of standardized testing are failing to improve standards. Educators are searching for other approaches. Establishing a place for mindfulness in regular curricula represents an interesting shift in our educational strategy. Rather than drilling students harder and devoting more class time to reviewing reading and arithmetic, advocates of mindfulness want students to develop habits that will help them cope with the challenges associated with learning.
Lauren Resnick, the former president of the American Educational Research Association, describes intelligence as “the sum total of our habits of mind”.5 To view intelligence as simply a set of habits may seem like it downplays intellectual accomplishments, but it is a fantastically useful perspective for educators. Habits of mind can be trained; the martial arts have taken this perspective for thousands of years. If teaching meditation in schools can improve emotional control and executive function, then it could offer educators a simple way to help students become better at learning.
Only further research can tell us how effective mindfulness exercises are in practice and how best to implement them, but the martial arts show us how meditation could be understood, not as a path to spiritual fulfillment, but as an educational tool, and perhaps more importantly, it shows how our educational system might attend to its students’ enrichment and well-being.
- Baer, Ruth. 2003. Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: a conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 10:2 125-143
- Raposa, Michael. 2003. Meditation and the Martial Arts. University of Virginia Press.
- Roeser, Robert, and Zelazo, Philip. 2012 “Contemplative Science, Education and Child Development: Introduction to the Special section”. Child Development Perspectives 6:2, 143-145
- Zelazo, Philip and Lyons, Kristen. (2012) Potential Benefits of Mindfulness training in early childhood: A developmental social cognitive and neuroscience perspective. Child Development Perspectives 6:2 154-160
- Jones, Dan 2011. Mindfulness in Schools. The Psychologist 24:10 736-739 http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm/volumeID_24-editionID_206-ArticleID_1926
- Huppert, Felicia, and Johnson, Daniel. 2010. “A controlled trial of mindfulness training in schools: The importance of practice for an impact on well-being.” Journal of Positive Psychology 5:4, 264-274
- Image credit (Creative Commons): “Ai Ki Do.” Wikimedia Commons.
- Image credit (Creative Commons): “Buddhist child.” Wikimedia Commons.