A couple of weeks ago, I attended a very special event called Beyond Limits: Power of the Mind / Power of the Body, organised by the Advaya Initiative – a London-based environmental wellbeing organisation and platform for change – see below for more info.
But in fact, I stayed for the whole day. All the sessions were amazing, but one of them in particular seemed especially relevant to martial arts practice – and was every bit as captivating as the Capoeira session.
It was a talk by four-times freediving world record holder and, Kundalini yoga teacher Sara Campbell, called From Fear to Freedom – Freediving as a Spiritual Path and Practice.
Sara’s talk was mesmerising from start to finish, and I couldn’t help mentally replacing the word freediving with Karate a lot of the time. Here are some of the most exciting points from Sara’s talk, as they relate to martial arts training . . .
1. Trust the teacher within you
As a Kundalini teacher and practitioner, Sara loves the mantra: Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo, which means: I bow to the creative wisdom of the universe, and the divine teacher within me. (Guru Dev is the guru within our hearts).
This is an interesting idea for martial arts practitioners. We’re very used to bowing to our teacher, and also to the teachers who have gone before him or her.
The idea of bowing to a teacher within your own heart though, is something quite different, and perhaps seems arrogant or egotistical – even somehow sacrilegious.
But after all, O Sensei (the founder of Aikido) said: All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside you. So it’s definitely worth contemplating the idea of honouring that potential teacher inside ourselves, in addition to our external teachers.
2. Trust the wisdom of your body
– Everything you’ll ever need to know is within you; the secrets of the universe are imprinted on the cells of your body. But you haven’t learned how to read the wisdom of the body
– People are afraid of what’s inside and that’s the only place they’re ever gonna find what they need.
– Everything you need to know is within you. Listen. Feel. Trust the body’s wisdom
Sara explained that freedivers trust, tap into and develop a physical reflex called the Mammalian Dive Reflex.
This is triggered automatically when our face is suddenly submerged in cold water, and causes lifesaving physical changes to help us survive. The heart and metabolism slow right down, and blood flow is reduced to the limbs, to protect the brain and heart. Blood plasma and water also pass through to the chest cavity, to protect the lungs and other organs from the increase in pressure.
And this is what makes the seemingly miraculous feats of freedivers possible.
Sara also talked about ther past, when she disregarded the messages and the wisdom of her own body, by ignoring her severe stomach illness, and her general unhappiness at being trapped in an unrewarding job. It was only when she started to tune in and really listen to her body and intuition, that her life took a turn for the better – and she discovered freediving . . .
3. Mental focus is more important than technique
My sensei says: Spirit (ki) before technique (waza).
On the surface, this statement is about fighting spirit being the most important thing in a martial art.
For Sensei, I believe it also has a second, deeper meaning about connecting with your opponent “through the air” before any physical contact takes place.
And Sara give a third spin on this idea of ki before waza – although she doesn’t use these terms, as she comes from the Kundalini Yoga tradition and is more at home talking about prana than ki.
In Warrior Mind, Dick Morgan writes:
Mental Ki is mental focus. Ki has little power if it is not focused, like a storm without an eye. But, when Ki is directed toward a goal by the mind, marvellous dynamic results.
And this exactly reflects Sara’s approach. Kundalini yoga incorporates breath-control techniques; and that’s the main focus of her freediving training. She’s well-known for doing very little direct physical dive training. A Telegraph interview quotes her as saying
Nothing! […] No breath-hold, no lactic acid tolerance, no CO2 tolerance, no strength, no technique. The most I do is walk the dogs in the mountains.
Because right from the start, Sara realised that honing her mental focus was actually the key.
I could just somehow do it. Not because I’m special in any way – I’m short, with no special lung capacity! But – I have Kundalini yoga. People kept noticing my mental focus. To me it was normal but others didn’t have that access. The other divers kept trying to improve their technique – but it’s about so much more than that.
This “less is more” approach may sound counter to the discipline of a martial art. But I imagine Sara is training as much or more than most of us anyway – it’s just that she’s focusing on her mental control far more than on her dive technique.
And she’s clearly doing something that works anyway, as this video shows – she played it to us and teasingly invited us to hold our breath for four minutes, as we watched her do the same AND dive to 104m – which obviously none of us could even come close to doing!
Again, this has interesting implications for martial artists. Perhaps there is a message here about not overtraining our bodies to exhaustion; but sometimes taking a step back and focusing on training the mental side too . . .
4. We are already connected to the source of universal oneness and energy
We all know of the aspiration to experience connection to the oneness; which can feel very esoteric and inaccessible. But Sara explained that we’re already there:
In our daily lives, we often operate from a place of disconnect – we believe we’re not part of the oneness / creation. We place a lot of importance on how “smart” we are – we believe intellect makes us strong as human beings.
But – intellect is just one aspect of who we are – and not the key one.
Planet Earth is all about natural rhythms – day and night; the four seasons; mating, hibernation, sleep. Every living creature is plugged into that wisdom. They’re not stuck in their heads or ego. But we as human beings have the unique blessing and curse of the intellect.
We often think we’re not connected to this wisdom of the universe – but we are! You’re listening to me talk right now, via your nervous system. Your stomach is busy digesting your lunch while you listen. None of this is your intellect. You are plugged in.
Your body is the vehicle for your soul to touch, taste, smell, feel and have amazing experiences. The reason we know our truth in any given moment is because we feel it in our body. We’re given the body so that we can know our truth . . .
5. Connect with and surrender to your innate survival instincts
I acknowledge it [the mammalian dive reflex] and trust it, as a God-given part of me. There’s a residual memory – how to survive in water. Ultimately, the spirit wants to be here – so the survival instincts kick in.
So when we practise freediving as a spiritual path, we bring body, mind and spirit together, in tune with our natural instinct.
When I dive, magic occurs. It’s a process of complete surrender. To reconnect to the universe.
There are definite implications for martial artists here.
Just as divers explore and work with their dive reflex, we can explore and work with our fear and survival instincts. Indeed, Sara warns against the modern tendency to ignore our intuition, or think it’s worthless because it doesn’t come through our intellect.
In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker explains that in modern society, we’ve learned to suppress our intuition in potentially threatening situations. He gives the example of a woman waiting for an elevator and feeling unusually scared of the man inside – but not wanting to be rude or “silly”, she gets into the elevator anyway.
Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of?
Martial arts training can put us back in touch with this lost instinct, as well as our aggression and ability to fight when needed. Melissa Soalt’s work to awaken this instinct in women for self-defence is fascinating:
Real personal safety calls for nothing less than the re-awakening of instincts that allow for early recognition of danger, the skills and strategies to diffuse and escape violence, and the ability to mobilize deep-seated primal powers to fight off attack.
On the flip side, our primeval “fight or flight” response is often said to be outmoded in today’s world, where we more often face “threats” such as a challenging workplace situation, than a real physical attack. The physiological response to a 21st-century first world threat can be counterproductive and even damaging to our bodies.
In the martial arts we often speak in terms of bringing our fight or flight response under control. The idea is that we learn to manage this response far more effectively – to enter into a state of mindfulness under pressure, instead of “fight-or-flight” – although this is by no means a guaranteed outcome.
But opposed to this idea of bringing it under control, Sara’s idea of just naturally dropping into and surrendering to our natural instincts is a different perspective – far more feminine, and very intriguing to reflect on . . .
6. It’s not about conquering the ocean
I’ve learned as much through failing as I have through succeeding.
This is a familiar idea for martial artists. It’s about reaching and exploring your limitations – about discovering what you can do, and who you are.
Sara explains that the ocean (like our body) is a teacher. It’s our friend – there to connect with, not to fight against.
I’m 70% water anyway, and I seek to become like the water – a sense of oneness. I enter the ocean to seek an experience of merging. There are some very important lessons when we get into the ocean and hold our breath.
This is similar to the way Aikidoka often speak:
In order to harmonize with the laws of nature […] We must always keep the attitude of becoming one with every situation. This is an attitude of respect for all things at all times. Regardless of the situation, friend or foe, one must always be ready to harmonize.
Sara also advises us to get out into Nature, as often as you can. She says: We’re all part of Creation. Trust Nature, trust your body – learn to hear their wisdom. Again, this mirrors my own sensei’s wise words: Karate is the study of Nature.
7. It’s not about the external tokens of achievement
In these wonderful words from Sara below (taken from some of her teaching materials for freedivers), I’ve replaced “freediving” with “Karate”:
I understand that you want to improve your
diving [KARATE]. Please remember that improvement in your diving [KARATE] cannot and should not be measured by the numbers [BELTS / TROPHIES / HOW HIGH YOU CAN KICK].
Look for the changes in your experience first and foremost, just as you do when you meditate. Look for the deeper relaxation, the ease that comes from letting go of being goal-oriented, and entering a place of trust and surrender.
Look for the fun, the bliss, the joy and the connections with others. Look to see how your meditation and your
freediving [KARATE] relax and expand your mind – opening up a world of possibilities to you beyond a few extra metres, or seconds.
freediving [KARATE] and your meditation practice are both an expression of who you are. Let the best version of yourself unfold. It is already in there, just waiting for you to let go of your fear, and expand it into who you have always been inside.
This advice may sound ironic coming from someone who’s pursued world records as intently as Sara has. But it isn’t really. It’s more of a sense that because Sara has gone so deeply into the art of pursuing “numbers”, she has moved through it and out the other side – and realised the ultimate limitations of this mindset.
As a freediving teacher, Sara explains:
It’s not about the numbers. If someone understands a fundamental truth about themselves at 10m, I feel I’ve achieved something profound with them.
Sometimes the learning we seek can appear in unexpected places. I never expected to be so profoundly affected by Sara’s talk, but am very moved and inspired to have been there and heard her speak.
It made me reflect that perhaps we unconsciously fall into certain received idioms, and ways of looking at things, within the martial arts community. So it’s refreshing to discover alternative ways of looking at the same topics, from the perspective of a completely different art . . .
Sara Campbell is a British freediver. She is the former world record holder in free immersion (FIM) (diving to a depth of 81m), constant weight (CWT) (96m) and constant without fins (56m). She is the “freediving face” of The Underwater Channel.
Sara is the founder of Discover Your Depths, a training programme and philosophy which uses yoga, meditation and freediving to help people achieve personal transformation in all areas of their lives.
I discovered yoga and meditation over ten years ago during a time where my health was failing me due to stress at work and feeling constantly overwhelmed. Little did I know that the tools I learned for stress management, relaxation, clearing my mind and focusing my awareness on positive things, would just a few years later help me to become the deepest woman in the world, diving to over 90 metres on just one breath of air.
I use nature as my classroom – the depths of the ocean, or the silence of the desert. I welcome all my students to join me for walks and dinners in the mountains as well as physical challenge in the yoga studio and breath holding in the sea. Discover Your Depths is about learning that you are capable of so much more than what you’re doing now, or what you believe you can ever achieve.
The Advaya Initiative is a London-based environmental wellbeing organisation and self-styled platform for change, co-founded by environmental activist sisters and yogis Ruby and Christabel Reed. They write:
We create dynamic, multi-faceted events and materials designed to expand horizons and inspire one another to lead more sustainable, ethical and environmentally aware lifestyles. By fuelling a space for action, discussion and creativity, we aim to provide momentum for positive developments in all areas of our lives.
Our activities are grounded in the belief that the health of the individual and that of the planet are two sides of the same coin. Our events therefore promote internal and external practices, and incorporate ways we can better our own lives, communities and natural environments through talks, yoga holistic practices, food, music and collective action.
Together, we are taking action against ecological degradation by expanding knowledge, awareness, empowerment and community. Climate change is an opportunity to overcome divides through unity, compassion and cooperation to bring about a more globally considerate society.
Their next event is: WILD: Connect Your Heart. ReWild Your Soul on the evening of Thursday 6 April in London