The Art of Discipline

Yoga, Karate and Tai Chi – are acts of practicing discipline

One of the keys to success in any internal art is the development of discipline. I first realized this as I started my practice of karate. Up to that point in my life I lacked the resolve necessary to continue a daily practice. I clearly remember getting up one morning to practice my punches in front of a mirror. This evolved into a daily practice of basic techniques. Without realizing it, I had started on the road to not only physical discipline but the development of strength of mind, the latter being much more important than the former.

Our lives are based on our perception of our reality. This perception is based on how our mind sees the world. For me, the world was my enemy. I functioned within a small group of friends who also viewed life as I did, and my ego dominated my actions. For me, primary importance in daily living was the need to portray myself as strong and fearless, keeping my enemies at bay. This point is well illustrated in the following incident which took place in my teens. I belonged to a loosely knit gang. During school one day I was told of an incident which had occurred earlier in the week, resulting in a meeting of two gangs, which if not resolved was going to develop into a gang war. Well, on one hand I was elated. A fight was a chance to get recognition, feed my ego, be a big man. The only problem was that I was scared to death of being involved in a gang fight. Although I had a big ego, I was only 5 foot 6 inches tall, weighing 125 pounds and had only two to three fights at that time.

The day of the fight I developed a plan consisting of putting on layers of clothing. I put on two pairs of pants, two undershirts, two sweaters, my largest jacket and a hat (luckily it was autumn). I arrived at the fight a little late and stood in the back of our gang. I noticed several of the older gang members glancing at me during the gang leaders’ conversation. Amazingly, the leaders settled their differences without fighting. Immediately, I left the site and went home.

It was at school the next day that one of my friends told me that the other gang members were worried about the “big guy in the back” and I was the reason for settling their argument amicably. So, now I was little man in a big man’s clothing, and it would take a good twenty-five years until I started to shed the image of myself that my mind had developed. Little did I realize when I started to discipline my karate practice in my late twenties that my whole psyche was going to change.

During my yoga classes at the present time, I devote one of my lectures to developing discipline in daily life. We use the physical body as a vehicle to strengthen the mind. I ask students to pick physical discipline and do that discipline for one hundred days. If one day is missed, he or she must start again. The discipline should be done at approximately the same time and in the same place every day. The discipline should be physically challenging but doable. The completion of this hundred-day discipline is really the beginning of a process in which our mind starts to develop tenaciousness, that ability to stick to a task, overcoming all obstacles to completion. Of course, during the one hundred days all sorts of mental and physical barriers spring up challenging the strength of mind of the practitioner. Yet, the body must be brought back to the same place and time each and every day. I encourage each student to put up a calendar marking each practice day, and not to think of the upcoming practice. Just do it, day by day, not concerned with the one hundred days gone, but concerned only with that day’s practice.

The practice I did myself was to sit with my thighs parallel to the floor and back against the wall. I begin holding this position for thirty seconds on day one and increase the time to eight to ten minutes by the hundredth day. Keeping hands on thighs, try to relax the upper body. Breathe deep, long breaths throughout the practice. After completing this one hundred day practice the student starts to notice slight changes in approaching daily tasks. The ability to perform in daily life slowly starts to change. Without realizing it, life gets a little easier. The ability to forge ahead is strengthened and obstacles get smaller. Problems are solved, without unnecessary worry and new opportunities present themselves. Of course this is only the beginning of the training and development of the mind, however, it gives us a firm case from which to experience the challenges of life.

Life is hard for everyone, and no matter how good, handsome or beautiful a person appears on the outside, everyone has a set of mountains to climb on the inside. Everyone has fears, insecurities and inferiorities to conquer before they consider facing the world they live in. I first realized this when I was a member of a group therapy situation. I always felt that I was unique in my problems and that others had it easier. Little by little the realization occurred to me that everyone has their problems and what you see is what you get is not necessarily true. One woman who was totally beautiful on the outside viewed herself as ugly inside. I would have never imagined this to be the case.

In my yoga classes I use the phrase “calmness and serenity in uncomfortable positions.” First we put the body in an uncomfortable physical position, then we try to maintain a calmness of mind through the ability to control the breath. We do this over and over again, moving from one uncomfortable position to the next, synchronizing the breath with the movement. We challenge the body while strengthening and stilling the mind.

Yoga is in itself an act of practicing discipline. Yoga is not for everyone but the cultivating of some form of disciple and training should be taught early in life to everyone. I started out on my path with karate. Back in 1961 when I started my training, there were not many karate schools around. The best school in my estimation was located in a black neighborhood and I was the only white student. My instructor was a strict disciplinarian. Classes were long and hard and the possibility of physical injury was always present. My challenge, and as I now realize, my discipline was to actually show up at class three times a week.

As each class day approached, I felt scared stiff. I would eat dinner at home and drive over to the school. Before getting there I was so nervous that I would pull over and throw up my dinner. I was a mess before class started and totally relieved when it ended. Each class presented a challenge to me. Somehow I faced the challenge. This was the first time in my life when I had put myself in a situation and had to face the consequences in each class.

After a year I changed schools, looking for a different style of karate. My new instructor, an ex-marine, had learned karate in Japan. We trained with countless blocks, punches, and kicks. After approximately two years of practice and wearing a green belt, my ego had soared. I carried in my wallet a card identifying myself as a martial artist, another boast to my ego.

At this time my instructor arranged a tournament with a school in New Jersey. We drove there on a Sunday, and I was the first up to fight. I faced one of two brothers. I was scared stiff. I don’t know how but my fear propelled my body off the floor and I dislocated my opponent’s shoulder. Pandemonium broke out, and his brother was brought in to face me. As we squared off he put a front punch into my chest driving me back. Coming in to finish me off I slipped a front kick into his abdomen. He went down and the match was over. The rest of the day was a blur to me. My ego soared, and I was invincible. Or was I?

During the next weeks it gradually dawned on me that I had gotten lucky. My school hailed me as a hero, however inside I felt pangs of remorse. I had hurt two people, and my techniques had not been controlled. My fear had overcome me. Slowly I started to realize that the art of karate was not about winning sparring matches. It dawned on me that only by day-to-day discipline in my techniques could I hope to delve into the true meaning of karate.

After that incident I changed my way of training. As karate is a defensive art, I trained in not giving way to an attacker’s blows. I would stand my ground while under attack, controlling the urge to retreat and counter attacking with a controlled punch or kick which was stopped one inch from my opponent. I only practiced basic techniques day after day, week after week, year after year.

It was only then, after maybe ten years of practice and teaching that I realized and experienced the true meaning of karate. A deep respect for my opponents gradually dawned upon me. My character started to change, my ego diminished, and a sense of peace started to manifest in me. My relationships started to change. I listened to myself. Only after years of relentless training discipline had I started out on the road to discovering my true nature. This road was to be long; however I was now on it.