A friend asked me to write about budo as a stressor vs budo as stress relief, and how this interacts with the concept of "If your practice is comfortable you are not growing as a budoka"
At the most basic level, budo works as a stress reliever in the same way that any physical activity does. The activity burns off excess cortisol and adrenaline. What makes budo different is that budo training is, as you suggest above, also a type of stressor. Competent budo training takes the student (and we’re all students of budo, no matter how long we’ve been studying) out to a place where there is physical and mental stress as a regular part of training.
The practice of martial techniques is pointless if the mind is not developed to be able to handle the stress of conflict. Therefore, competent budo training prepares the body by practicing techniques and strategies, and prepares the mind by placing gradually increasing pressure on the student’s psyche while teaching techniques for managing and mitigating that stress. Having someone trying to hit you with a big stick is stressful even in a training situation. To be effective, budo practice must train students for the stress that being in actual conflict will elicit.
Budo practice doesn’t start students out with full speed and force attacks. It starts them out with an attack that is within their capacity to evade and counter. The attacks are real though, in the sense that when I attack one of my students, she knows that my weapon will shortly occupy the precise space that her head is occupying now. The attack is not as fast or as powerful as I could make it. It is as fast and as powerful as it needs to be to require the student’s best action. The goal is not to hurt or injure the student. The goal is to train the student to deal with the possibility of harm and handle it calmly. As the student masters various parts of the training, the speed and power of the attack must be increased to maintain the challenge for the student and to ensure that the student continues to grow. What had been stressful as a beginning student will cease to be stressful to a more advanced one.
In other words, the student will have learned to handle a certain kind and degree of stress. The budo teacher’s job is to increase the stress and at the same time teach the student techniques for dealing with that stress. I find that good breathing technique is the most fundamental of stress management tools. Early on, students will begin to take quick, shallow breaths that don’t sustain them. That shallow breathing, in turn, will increase their stress level. The experienced student of budo has learned to breathe efficiently, from her diaphragm, in a steady, measured manner. Good breathing technique helps the student to remain calm and in control, even as the speed, force and intent of her partner’s attack increases.
The senior student remains calm even under attacks that would overwhelm a beginning student. The repeated experience of gradually intensifying attacks combined with learning to master one’s breathing and reactions through the exercises of a particular budo system increases the level of stress the student can successfully manage. It is not that having someone attack them is no longer stressful, but that they have been trained to raise their stress reaction levels. An attack by a senior teacher that would have been overwhelmingly stressful before, one that would make a student start hyperventilating while waiting for the attacker to approach, becomes something they await with calm, measured breathing and a quiet, mirror-like mind.
As budo practice continues, the student finds that she can summon this calm breathing and peaceful mind not just in the dojo, but anywhere she feels stress or conflict. Eventually the student reaches a level where even when her teacher presents a new situation that she is unfamiliar with, her body and mind remain calm and peaceful. She then becomes confident that she can handle whatever is coming.
This is one aspect of budo training that makes senior exponents appear to be super-human to beginners and non-practitioners. They are in command of themselves, controlled and calm, even when under intense stress. The more effectively a student internalizes the lessons about breathing and mental calmness, the more the lessons will show up outside the dojo.
Being able to remain calm and and unstressed is useful in all sorts of places and situations that don’t involve people trying to hit you with big sticks, tossing you across the room or choking you into submission. It’s surprising how useful this skill is in business settings where negotiations are going on and people are trying to ratchet up the pressure. There are all sorts of adversaries who don’t attack with big sticks, but do attack in other ways, with verbal attacks, implied threats and physical intimidation by imposing on personal space. These can all bring out stress responses.
Budo training can be applied in all of them. Just remembering to breathe calmly when the person across the room starts raising their voice gives the budo student an advantage. Being able to maintain her calm, steady breathing helps to keep a peaceful, undisturbed mind, which does a good job of making many pressure tactics seem almost silly. People who like to intimidate others by their close physical presence are often unnerved themselves when their targets remain calm and confident while their personal space is violated. People who like to yell and pound the table during negotiations tend to grow quiet and uncomfortable when their outbursts are met with calm disregard. It’s like the physical attacker who expects you to stand there and get hit. The student can rewrite the script for the interaction simply by remaining calm when under attack. It doesn’t matter what form the attack takes. With her calm breathing and clear mind, she gets to choose her actions rather than being pushed into the reaction her adversary is looking for.
Budo training works both sides of the stress equation. The physical and mental intensity of good budo practice provides vigorous exercise that relieves accumulated tension. Over time, the lessons learned from the vigorous practice lowers the pressure you feel overall because the training works to raise the bar as to what is stressful, and to help maintain mental stability and calm even when things get hot.