Gina de la Chesnaye, a fourth year yoga student sat down with Sifu and trainer, Steve Ventura, to talk about yoga and martial arts – where they converge, diverge and can benefit each other. Steve has trained six World Kickboxing Champions, was himself a three time State Full Contact Champion and a former National Full Contact Champion. He is a master in Lama Kung Fu and a devout Buddhist.
G: Tell me your yoga story…
S: Right now, if I can get to a Hatha Class, I’ll take Hatha. If a Vinyasa class is open then I’ll do Vinyasa. I can’t do Bikram because I don’t like the heat. Hatha is great because of the base and Vinyasa for the movement. Qi Gong ties into Vinyasa. Gom Gong Lihn Gong, or Diamond Physical Practice, is a series of 36 postures. It’s a lot like yoga except it’s more martial.
G: When did you start doing yoga?
S: Well, I’ve always known about yoga but wasn’t fully familiar with the asanas until maybe 10 or 15 years ago. But after having done some yoga I realized that everything we did from the beginning of martial arts had yoga. For us, yoga was less about strength and mental conditioning then about flexibility . . . so we could move better. My first instructor taught Hatha yoga as well as martial arts and had all the students warm up with down dogs, up dogs – basic sun salutations. This was in 1978, I was 11 and we were practicing in Queens. Now that I’m older – I turned 42 recently, flexibility is much more of an issue. The body ages, connective tissue tightens and it takes longer to recover from exercise. The spine loses synovial fluid and bones begin to harden.
G: And are you suffering from any physical ailments now that you’re older?
S: Thankfully, no. But I do get stiff especially because I lift weights and run. Any exercise that is sagittal, meaning along a front and back plane like running, needs the other, like yoga and kickboxing, which are both multi-planar exercises. Pigeon pose helps a lot after a run. And ankle to knee.
G: I’ve noticed that kickboxing makes my yoga practice harder.
S: That’s because you’re adding muscle. Anytime you add muscle you need to counteract it with lengthening poses – more yoga. But, some yogis need to add muscle to support their joints against hyper extending. They can take their practice too far and hurt themselves.
G: In yoga, tapas is the fire and discipline of the practice. It reminds me very much of martial arts and what is required to not just train but train well.
S: Yes. I see that. Most people who do martial arts have a strong drive and discipline. Yoga and meditation require that as well. Those that don’t follow it drop off. Those that stay tend to be healthier individuals. They have a life long practice. What’s happening now is that more yoga instructors and martial arts teachers are more involved in the minutiae of the movement – especially now with such a strong emphasis on the core. They are educated more in the physiology and anatomy of the body which can help people train better but inevitably it comes down to drive. To what can make them whole. When I was coming up we were just told to do it over and over until we got it right. Having a properly trained instructor can make a big difference with that. A Guru or Sifu can lead you to attain the right practice.
G: There are a lot of changes going on now with state licensing for yoga instructors. How do martial artists become certified or licensed?
S: Well, as you know, any time people begin to make money the government gets involved… For martial arts there is still no state licensing. The primary problem is that as with yoga there are so many styles and variables that you couldn’t possibly have everybody represent one idea. For martial arts each style has it’s own belt ranking and then to become an instructor you typically have to submit a video of yourself to an umbrella organization like the North American Chinese Martial Arts Federation which looks at your video and decides if you are qualified to be an instructor. In a “house” format, or school, there is the Si-hing, or senior student, followed by the Lo-Si, teacher, and the Sifu, who is responsible for the curriculum of the school and how the Lo-Si teaches and then finally, the Si-Gung, who is the master teacher and responsible for all that the Sifus teach. What’s interesting is that outside of this format we can refer to an older person as a “Sifu”. They don’t have to be your Sifu (teacher) but they are an elder and so exact a measure of respect.
G: I think most people can see the immediate differences between martial arts and yoga. What do you think are the similarities?
S: In Chinese Martial Arts the practice of Qi-Gong takes on two manifestations: One is meditative, Noi Gong —the exercises necessary to maintain meditation. The second is Heih Gong—a hard physical practice to gather, harness, and deliver Qi or Prana through ritual practices. I believe the similarities are found in the beginning and advanced phases. In the beginning phase, the student develops and concentrates on form and internalizes the movement through practice. In the advanced phase, both martial arts and yoga practitioners need strength, suppleness, tranquility and vigor in order for the practice to be genuine whatever the motivation. Whether its self -protection or health and enlightenment.
G: What exactly to you mean by “genuine”?
S: Well, a beginner can have a “genuine” practice as long as the motivation is based on what we call Jing Jong meaning that a clear and pure essence is found. Basically, the practice is done the way it’s meant to be done. Both martial arts and yoga internalize aspects of the “whole,” what is outside the self, what is more than the self. This is done by controlling the body and mind. It can be found in other sports, obviously, but yoga and martial arts both utilize the mind though a physical practice that then releases the mind towards a greater sense of the whole.
G: One of the things I noticed when I came to yoga was the ease with which I was able to practice Pranayama – it was very familiar to me. I think this came from learning how to breathe when hitting the bag or sparring. Even holding pads for someone requires breath control.
S: How to control energy, Prana, is one of the first things martial artists learn. Do they practice it as pranayama? No, but they learn how to exhale in parts and elongate the breath through 5 or 6 techniques. We teach people, in a hard internal practice, like kickboxing, to emit sound and do reverse diaphragmatic breathing. Which is basically to hold the breath, push it down and then expel it forcefully through a set of movements like jab, side kick, cross, hook. You expel power through the breath and movement. Obviously for someone who does yoga this would be a no-brainer.
G: Yes, but I have to say that I learned how to do that by being hit - using that power to then explode outward with a combination. The energy return is vastly different. It is forward rather than being cycled inward.
S: That’s what makes it martial.
G: What do you think about the perception that martial artists are violent? That they in fact practice the opposite of Ahimsa?
S: It depends on the person’s motivation. We talk about the Eight Fold Path – Right Effort, Right Livelihood, etc. There are people that practice martial arts who simply want to fight and there are other people who have a life practice, which requires change. Sometimes we have to be violent to protect our own. Sometimes we have to learn to be relaxed and learn how to control the situation without violence. People can be one-sided though. I’ve seen people get up and leave a yoga class because there was too much meditation. They can’t accept all the aspects of yoga. It makes them uncomfortable. In martial arts, there are people that don’t want to learn the traditional forms, something like Lion Dance or Qi Gong. We try to get people to understand that all things fit in—even the parts that aren’t your strength. You can practice everything from martial arts to ballet, boxing to break dancing and become more rounded by incorporating elements of meditation.
G. How do you think martial arts can benefit a yoga practitioner and how can yoga help a martial artist?
S: The biggest problem is getting martial artists to do yoga and yoga people to do martial arts. Sometimes it’s a personality difference, yoga people find it inherently difficult to do martial arts because they abhor violence and think, “This is practicing violence…” But even the Buddha says you can’t turn away from something until you recognize its true essence. Chögyam Trungpa taught that – if you want to be able to turn away from something you first have to live it, experience the form of it and then you can turn away from it and have true strength. We teach martial artists how to become strong and defend themselves and then choose when to use that strength and try never to use it because once you know how to hurt someone you know how violent and dangerous the world can be. You can have more empathy and show more equanimity towards people once you know what violence is, have embraced it and then let it go. Most of the martial artists I know are very calm people. They let that part of their instinct out so it’s not hiding and festering. Some people who practice yoga don’t acknowledge that part of themselves. It’s hard to get people to really find and utilize the yin and the yang in themselves.
G: Do you have particular poses that you think would be best for martial artists to practice?
S: Actually, I think the best thing they can do is show up to a yoga class and put themselves in the trust of a good yoga instructor. For a lot of martial artists, Vinyasa yoga may be a good choice. Ashtanga is great. Hatha is good so they can learn the basic postures and then anything that incorporates meditation. Martial artists tend to have so many ideas and so much energy that they need to learn how to harness that and most people may not go to a meditation center but they will go to a yoga class. The next step after a yoga class is a meditation center or place of dharmic practice. The ultimate goal is to do martial arts, practice yoga and have that meditative or spiritual side and then you’re a complete person. have that meditative or spiritual side and then you’re a complete person.