Can Martial Arts Training Make You More Peaceful?

” There is nothing so gentle as real strength.  The man who is at peace with himself is less likely to war with others.”

Years ago I heard an instructor that I was training under give a sales presentation to a single mother for her son and her to train in martial arts.  My instructor said that martial arts training helps people to become peaceful.  He was about to go into the reasons why, she cut him off and honestly but politely said,  “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make sense.  I have been in anti-war demonstrations, and I just cannot see how learning punching and kicking does this!”

This is a really interesting question.  I can answer it with sound reasoning, but I would like to lead with a story from my own life.

When I first opened my school, a guy walked in one afternoon very confidently.  I assumed he was there to inquire about training, but I could tell he had trained before.  As confident as he was, I assumed he had trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  I asked and he said “Silat.”  He actually wasn’t there to train as a student, he wanted to know if I wanted to learn from him.  He would come to my school and teach me private lessons.

I said yes.  At this point in his life, he was training with an arrogant and aggressive Penchak Silat teacher.  He had some of this arrogance.  Without hesitation he would tell me that all arts that are not weapons based are bull****, and that his training partners and teacher have beaten up a lot of BJJ guys in live fights.  He told me several stories about how hard they train at their school, how effective their art was, and I started to get intimidated.

I would find myself wondering, “What would happen if we fought?”  I began visualizing possible scenarios.  I felt agitated about it.  I always considered myself a peaceful person.  Why was I thinking about a fight with this guy?

Then came the epiphany.  I realized that I felt threatened by this Silat teacher.  Every time I had the thought that maybe he could beat me, it pressed my insecurity button inside.  That made me feel scared and worried.  I questioned myself.  Have I been training the wrong things?  I felt prepared to deal with the average streetfighter, and the average martial artist even, but could this guy handle me easily?

I noticed that the more insecure I felt, the more I wanted to have a match.  By having the fight, I would know for sure what would happen.  Hopefully I would win.  And it would hopefully make the feeling go away.

I never challenged the Silat teacher.  I talked myself through the feelings with several conversations that sounded like this:  “Ryan, you know there are guys out there that can beat you.  And you’re training under him, so it would be expected that a teacher could beat the student.  If we did fight, it could go either way.  We would probably both get hurt, but it doesn’t matter.  I can handle myself against most of the population and I am constantly improving.  I respect him for his abilities either way, and what I have achieved is respectable.  I refuse to live in fear.  I accept the fact that he could beat me and I am ok with it.”

When I finally accepted this and no longer felt agitated and insecure, I remembered back to middle school.  Every so often there would be fights organized after school.  It usually happened in spring.  The strange thing is that most of the fights were boys that had no problem with each other.  And I remembered that I would have the occasional desire to fight.

I started training Kung Fu when I was 13.  One of the biggest reasons I started training was self defense.  I spent the first few years visualizing what would happen if anyone attacked me.  I wondered if I was able to effectively apply what I was learning.  By the time I was green belt, I noticed that I was doing that less.  I found myself not mentally roleplaying self defense situations.  I realized that the more confident I was, the less I worried about what others could do to me.   I didn’t feel threatened, so there was no need to be aggressive.

I am convinced that a lot of violence comes from insecurity.  Bullies do not attack solely out of the desire to control others- it’s from insecurity.  They feel that if they can push around enough people, they can convince themselves and others that they are tough and not vulnerable.  It will quiet that little nagging thought that they are not safe.

I have noticed that the people that have the most conflicts with others have them most violent inner worlds.  I have had students and others that have shared what is going on inside and I am convinced that the condition of your inner life manifests in your outer life, and your outer life is a representation of your inner life.

Many martial arts teachers will say that they can watch someone train and see what their life is like.  I now know this is true!

Over the years I have met a lot of good martial artists.  One thing that I have seen with my favorite ones is that they are so gentle and kind.  Roger Machado is a perfect example.  He is relaxed, happy, considerate, funny, patient… some may not believe that he has the incredible abilities he has.  But if you watch him roll, or are lucky enough to roll with him, you won’t believe it.  This gentle soul will quickly put you in situations where he could pass you out and break your limbs.

Roger doesn’t need to intimidate people.  He doesn’t need to tell others how tough he is and what he can do.  He knows what he can do, and there are no questions.  The general rule that I have learned is that the more people talk about how great they are, the less they can do.  It’s the people that don’t run their mouths that can back up their silence!

I currently have Ajarn Nick Hewitson teaching Muay Thai at my school.  People that meet him say “What a nice guy.”  He doesn’t run his mouth.  He doesn’t need to.  His resume, which includes two World Championship Muay Thai belts, is too long to list here.  He doesn’t need to talk.  He has proven to himself what he is capable of.  There is no need to prove to himself or others what he has already proven to himself.

Not all martial artists that have abilities are humble.  There are some that are like a child with a gun: “I can cause destruction.  This is great!  I can scare others, manipulate, and abuse whoever I want.  This will be fun!”  These people often had a role model that abused their abilities.

There is a crossroads for every martial artist that develops the ability to hurt others: will they use their abilities to control others, or will they  go to the higher level and control themselves?

I have noticed this same pattern with wrestlers.  I have a lot of respect for wrestlers and the martial art of wrestling (yes, I called it a martial art, because to me it is more than a sport).  I have know good wrestlers that are humble, confident and kind.  And I known others that are arrogant.

The bottom line is that the ability to fight is power.  How each student decides to use that power is up to them.

The Shaolin Temple, where many Asian martial arts can trace their roots, had a weeding out process for selecting students.  They may make the students wait outside the Temple each day and rarely let prospects in.  Day after day they would see who would come back and wait at the Temple gate.  If one prospect came back day after day, they knew this student has a strong will and a strong desire to learn.

Once they start letting them into the Temple, they will not let them train.  They may make them do menial labor.  This could go on for a while.   This is a test to see if the prospect is humble.  They are also testing their will and desire.  And they are getting to know them.  The best way to get to know someone is not only to spend time with them, but see them when they are under pressure.  How do they treat others when they are under pressure?

If the prospect passes these tests, they will then be instructed to do some very fundamental martial arts movements.  They may sit in stances for long periods of time.  This training builds physical strength, mental strength, and is still a test.  If they go through the training without complaining, resenting the teacher, questioning the teacher, getting angry, feeling sorry for themselves, or exhibiting any violent tendencies, the teacher then knows that this student is a safe bet.  There is a small chance that this student would abuse their skills.  They also know that this student will very likely stay with the training and be loyal to their teachers and the Temple.

Owning a school these days is quiet different.  If a prospect came to me and said, “I want to train” and I said “Come back tomorrow,” or “clean the dojo windows,”  the dojo would not be around very long!  What we do is to get to know prospects before we accept them.  They figure that when they are doing the introductory lessons, they are evaluating us.  We are actually evaluating them.  I ask people, “Why do you want to train?  One guy told me “I want to hurt people in the cage.”  I told him that he wouldn’t be happy with our school and I don’t want to waste his time.

Some people slip through the cracks, which happened at the Shaolin Temple as well, but the responsible teachers kick out students that abuse their skills.

What about for the average student?  How would the martial arts make you more peaceful?  What follows is a list of the ways that this can happen:

1)  Greater confidence leading to less insecurity, as explained above.

2)  Many students are taught breathing techniques and meditation to learn to control the mind, emotions, and breath.  It is an important skill because if a martial artist gets angry, they could hurt someone and do something that they may later regret.

3)  Great role models.  Hearing stories about past masters, and seeing the living example of a good instructor that lives a life of discipline, humility, and kindness does a lot to push people in the right direction.  Many students aspire to have the ability to be defend themselves but have the self control and compassion to never want to use it to hurt others.  They would rather become even more powerful but seeking true power- the ability to control one’s self.

4)  Great workouts relieve stress, channeling daily frustrations in a positive way.

5)  Many martial arts are taught as a means of self improvement.  To be a martial artist is much different than training a martial art.  One person may say, ” I do Jiu-Jitsu every Tuesday and Thursday night.”  Another will say, “I am a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.  I am a martial artist.”  This means on and off the mat.  The greatest battles are within, and the dojo battles train you for these.

6)  At some point many students ask themselves, “What’s would be the point of fighting someone untrained?”  Students that need to challenge themselves will enter a tournament or cage.  If they do that, then the question becomes “Are their motives violent, or are they cage fighting to test themselves?”  Hurting someone that isn’t at their level is like picking on a child.  There is little challenge and anyone that picks on others who are not trained is a bully and disgrace to their teacher, art, and themselves!  Any student with even basic reasoning skills will reach this conclusion.

7)  Many school have a rule that if you are involved in a fight that you started, you will be kicked out of the school.

It would be ridiculous to say that all martial artists aren’t violent.    But I would say that most of the violent people that train in the arts aren’t artists, they are fighters.

I have heard it said, “To seek safety, one must go to the heart of danger.”  Many people that say that they are not violent have not really analyzed their inner and outer life.  How do they treat others?  How do they treat themselves?  Many people never throw a punch or engage in outwardly violent behavior, but their thoughts, emotions, and relationships are like World War III!

There is a story of a man who was seeking spiritual enlightenment.  He heard of an enlightened master in India, so he went to the master.  He asked the master, “I want spiritual peace, love, and joy.  Can you help me?”

The master said yes.  He said, “Meet me at 6 am tomorrow here.”

The city they were in was Kolkata (Calcutta), which even at 6 am is one of the loudest, dirtiest, busiest places on earth.  The master said, “Here you will find peace.”

The master’s lesson is that you do not find true peace and freedom by going to a peaceful place, such as the mountains.  When you can find peace even in the midst of chaos, you can find it everywhere.

It is the same with fighting and the martial arts.  When you can find the beauty, peace, and stillness, even in the midst of seeming chaos, you have found your true center.  Only that is true balance and poise.


Morihei Usehiba

The founder of Aikido, considered by many to be and one of the greatest martial artists of all time.

7 Responses to “Can Martial Arts Training Make You More Peaceful?”

  1. Lamy Lam says:

    I would say yes. But to be more peaceful, try Yoga. My 2 cent worth.

    Anyway Thanks for the post. 🙂
    Martial Art Training

  2. Roberto Marrero says:

    “[…]your outer life is a representation of your inner life.” This is truly a principle that all the great teachers mention. The more I practice the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and meditate, the more I want to be at peace with everything and everyone.

  3. Mitch Fo says:

    Here’s a reason I think Martial Arts can make you more peaceful: Most who practice BJJ will have to learn to confront and accept losses. We get dominated, we get tapped out. It is not a catastrophe when you lose, or at least it shouldn’t be. It exposes fragile egos, puffed up arrogance, and hiding behind rank and belts. It’s the reality of the mat. Yet, you are not better as a person because you can physically overcome everyone. Never losing will probably inhibit your personal growth. Loss should be a essential teacher. One should learn to gracefully accept losses, and in the process, learn humility, persistence, respect for others, and understand the reality that we are all human beings with flaws and weaknesses. If life hasn’t taught this yet, then hopefully BJJ will…although there seems to be the few who never seem to learn much.

  4. Marcelo Freire says:

    I’m 60 years old, I’m from Rio de Janeiro, a doctor. I was young in the 80’s / 90’s. At this time many jiujitsu practioners were very violent and assaulted people for pleasure. It was a serious problem in Brazil. Violence greatly encouraged by academies, including Gracie.
    I hated anyone who practiced jiu-jitsu, judged them almost bandits.
    I have been reading more about jiu jitsu and I understand that it is not only violence, there are many positive aspects of self esteem, health and discipline. Very different from my point of view.
    I no longer feel angry neither affraid when I see a young man wearing a kimono.
    Keep up the good work.
    Márcio Freire.

  5. Hello Marcelo,

    I’ve heard the same thing from friends of mine from Brazil. I’m glad to hear your feedback and that things are changing. Thank you!

  6. Marcelo Freire says:

    Good Morning,
    Yes Sensei Ryan, nowadays seems that this problem is over Thanks to God.
    Have a nice weekend and thank you very much for taking time to answer me.
    Best regards from Brazil,
    Marcelo Freire

  7. Marcelo Freire says:

    In time, Your text is excelent! Loved to read it.

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