Martial Arts and Recovery: Wellness Happens in Stages

I’ve been on the path to recovery for over 20 years—23, to be exact. My first step on the path was related to my alcohol use. Though I didn’t see myself as an alcoholic—I didn’t regularly drink to excess, I didn’t ever have blackouts, and my drinking never got me in trouble with the law or led me to wake up in strange places with no idea what had happened or how I got there. Nevertheless, a close friend convinced me to go to an AA meeting one evening, and it changed my point of view. I learned an old program saying: “It’s not how much you use, it’s how you use it.” I realized this applied to me, so I quit drinking. At that time, my practice of yoga helped me deal with many of the issues that I’d been masking with my alcohol use. However, I didn’t completely refrain from the use of all substances. I let one of my other vices hang around—marijuana—because I didn’t think it was so bad. Three years later, I was sitting in a meeting and realized that I needed to take the next step: I needed to let go of the weed.

Martial Arts and Recovery

My primary rationalization for continuing to use marijuana was that I needed it to sleep. Despite my practice of yoga, my evenings found me with just too much energy, and too much on my mind. About three months before I decided to take that next step and quit smoking, I’d discovered Chinese martial arts. I studied a style called hung gar—a form of kung fu also known as “tiger/crane” style. I quite enjoyed it. It was much more active than yoga, and I loved the movement—the kicking, the punching, the conditioning exercises, and the traditional, family structure of the school. I’d been attending two or three early morning classes per week, but was lucky in that I had just progressed past the beginning level of the art, and was invited to attend the intermediate/advance evening classes. I was also lucky in that my work schedule—I was a schoolteacher—left my evenings free. I fell into a rhythm: I’d work, come home to relax and have a snack, then head to my evening class.

Meditation in Motion

I completely threw myself into the study of hung gar. It’s an intense, challenging art to practice: low, difficult stances, painstaking attention to basic exercises, and endless repetition of both short sequences of movements and longer, three- to four-minute sequences of movements called “forms.” I needed it, though. Whereas my practice of yoga had helped me deal with my addiction-related issues up to a certain point, I found that my nature—very male, and quite aggressive at times—demanded more. I’m not aggressive in a bad way, but in the way that many men and boys are: I loved competition, I loved the thrill of being “in the mix” and competing with the other guys in the school. I found that while practicing kung fu, I was able to lose myself in the art. I’d dive into each drill, exercise, or form with abandon, giving myself to it completely. I was in the moment, and one evening I realized, after class, that I hadn’t had an anxious or negative thought in almost three hours: I’d been completely, 100% in the moment. I was calm, relaxed and at peace. I understood that in my own way, and on my own terms, I’d discovered the perfect meditation—a practice that allowed me to be fully present, and not ruminate over the past, fret about the future or worry about anything at all. I was completely immersed in the here and now; and afterward, I felt refreshed, refocused, ready to eat and, most of all, free of stress and ready to sleep.

Kung Fu, Mindfulness, and Recovery

I practiced hung gar/tiger crane kung fu diligently for over 10 years. I learned forms, became an assistant teacher in my school, and got to use swords, spears and various other fun, traditional weapons. I loved it, and the school was my safe haven, my solace, my community and my happy place. I’d go in with the various stresses of my life—work, relationships, recovery—starting to weigh me down, and emerge revitalized, centered, and virtually stress-free. During my years of practice, I also picked up a practice of Tai Chi, which is actually a form of kung fu. Over time, I learned to focus my energy and calm my mind and spirit with the slow, gentle, circular movements of Tai Chi—which is good, because though it is possible to practice hung gar until a very old age, it begins to wear on the joints after a while. Kicking, jumping, spinning, and rolling, they’re for the young guys. Tai Chi, on the other hand, is the essence of mindfulness: to practice well, you need to slow down, center your breath, soothe your mind, calm your thoughts and focus your attention fully on the moment. Nowadays, rather than jumping around three hours a night, waving swords and spears or kicking focus pads, you can find me out in my yard early in the morning practicing my Tai Chi. It brings me peace and tranquility and puts me in the perfect frame of mind to focus on the most important part of my life: my path to recovery.

By Angus Whyte

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