#42: Relax! The Worst Advice in Martial Arts [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #42 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Relax! The Worst Advice in Martial Arts.”

We all hear about the negative effects of stress, but what about the negative effects of relaxation? Is there a dark side to taking it easy?

In this episode, a story about how being chill almost got me killed!

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Relax! The Worst Advice in Martial Arts


[STARTS 1:33]  Let me tell you a story about a time I got beat up. Now, this is not going to be the full story. There’s a prequel to what I’m going to tell you and a sequel, but the point I want to make today is found in the middle, so that’s what you’re going to get.

At this point of the story, I’m sitting in a car with my friend Don. We’re in a parking lot. At night. We suddenly realize that there is a group of dudes outside the car who want to beat us up. Now, I believe there were eight of them, but it’s possible there were only seven. It sure felt like eight, though.

Anyway, half pulled my friend Don out of the passenger seat of the car and the others pulled me out of the driver’s seat. There was some tough talk, shoving, and then punching. There was even some grabbing of my hair so my head could be slammed on the hood of my car.

Well, it didn’t take long before I was on the ground, in a fetal position, getting kicked and stomped. I have a very clear memory of looking over to my friend who was 15 feet away in the exact same position, also getting kicked and stomped. It was a scene, man.

Now, when it was over, my friend Don and I got back in the car, processed what had happened for a couple of minutes, and then drove away. I believe we ended up someplace having coffee and a bagel.

Now, I suppose that part of the story is a little shocking. The beating, I mean, not the bagel. Two nice guys getting pulled out of a car and beaten up. But that’s not the surprising part of the story. No. The surprising part of the story is this… throughout the entire episode, my heart rate never quickened, I never got an adrenaline dump, and not once did I feel scared.

Believe it or not, and you probably don’t, I didn’t raise my voice once. I didn’t even throw a punch.

Now, I know that’s hard to believe, but I promise you it’s true. I can even prove it. Well, sort of. I can prove it because I’m not telling you I wasn’t scared to brag about how tough or cool I was, but how I was an idiot!

I’m telling you this because it was a fault. It was a weakness. A mistake. I don’t want you to make the same mistake. Because you see, there was a reason why I was so calm.

No, I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t high. The truth is I just didn’t care.

I didn’t care about getting punched. I didn’t care about getting kicked and stomped. I didn’t care about fighting back. I didn’t care that my shirt got ripped. What makes this situation even more bizarre is that at this point in my life, I had already been training in the martial arts for three or four years. I could easily have put up a fight and maybe prevented the beating. But I didn’t.

To make it even worse, I can tell you that the bad guys, they weren’t even good fighters! They were completely unorganized. Their punches were sloppy. They had no technique. A lot of their kicks were just glancing blows even though I wasn’t moving. I was a static, easy target. How could you miss me?

All right, all right. So, I know what you’re thinking. The question here is why didn’t I fight back? Why didn’t I care? Well, the answer is simple. Are you ready? I was a philosophy major. Okay, that’s the end of show. Thanks!

[5:00]  No. I was a high-minded idealist who, as a martial artist, had taken an interest in Asian philosophy. I know—that’s so cliché. It’s embarrassing. At that time, I was deep into the Tao Te Ching. That book made a huge impression on me…

I believed in the concept of action without taking action. I found comfort in becoming one with the void. I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that comes with being nothing at all.

At the same time, I was being shaped by classic Zen writings. I practiced detachment. I cut away my thoughts, opinions, and desires. I tried to see things as they truly were without the distortion of my pesky judgment. I worked hard to break down the walls between good and evil, desirable and undesirable, the self and the other.

Ah, yes. I was quite full of it back then. These philosophies were so attractive. They were so elegant. So profound. When I read those books, I swear, I could instantly feel the cells in my body changing. It was like downloading new software into my hard drive. This was wisdom. This was truth. Or so I thought…

You see, there was a problem. A glitch in the software. A bug. Now, to be fair, I’m not sure if this bug is in the philosophy itself or just in my understanding of the philosophy. When I think about it, I sure feel better knowing that scholars, people far deeper into this stuff than I am, still disagree about the meaning of these texts, and they have for hundreds of years, so maybe I’m not alone in being confused.

Relax and be one with the stars!

Photo by Jeremy Thomas

Either way, at the time of my beating, I believed that all was one. That everything was connected. The rocks, the stars, the trees, the good guys, the bad guys… everything is just a swirl of cosmic energy. We are yin and yang at the same time. Division is an illusion.

And as a result of that thinking, I didn’t care so much about combing my hair, or washing my hands all the time, or getting good grades, or keeping good posture. It all just seemed so inconsequential. Who cares?

And boy, I gotta be honest, it was really a relief! I mean, if you want to take away the stress from trying to get straight A’s, or the frustration of trying to add 10 pounds of muscle on your skinny frame, or get rid of the shame that comes from not having a cool car, or the constant embarrassment of not having a date on a Friday night, well, let me tell you—in those situations, connecting to the void, connecting to the cosmic swirl of energy, detaching from the ego, ooh, that is powerful medicine.

Without all that stress, I was left relaxed. Very relaxed. And doesn’t that sound healthy? I mean, stress is a killer, isn’t it? Relaxation is good for you.

No. No. Not at all. That, I believe, turned out to be untrue.

Because when you get pulled out of your car by a bunch of punks who only want to punch and kick you, and you’re so relaxed, so detached, so one with the universe, that you don’t care, that’s not only unhealthy, it’s dangerous. It might even have been deadly.

But I didn’t understand that. Even when I was getting kicked and stomped, I still didn’t know how wrong I was, or how wrong my understanding of the Tao and Zen might have been. Even after the beating, when I was nibbling on a bagel, I wasn’t angry. If anything, I thought it was funny! My brother will tell you that I came home that night and I laughed about the attack. He thought I was crazy. Now, I don’t think I was crazy, but I was absolutely oblivious.

[9:17]  But a turning point came. All of that good cheer wore off the next morning. That’s because when I woke up, I could feel the pain in my body, and that pain broke the spell.

The Tao turned into ow. I could feel the scratches burning in my shoulder. I felt every bruise on my arms and body. My neck was so stiff, I couldn’t get up.

So, I just stayed in bed. I curled up in the exact same position that I had been in the night before in the parking lot. And I meditated. Well, if you want to call it that. It was during this morning meditation that I changed my mind about Zen mind. And once again, I could feel every cell in my body changing as a new, updated version of my philosophical software was being downloaded.

In this version, let’s—I don’t know—call it Ando 3.0, judgment returned. Attachment returned. Ego returned. The self returned.

Now, it’s not that I believe I’m more than anyone else, but thanks to the update, I also believe that I’m not less than anyone else. I committed myself to never again subscribing to any belief system that threatens my safety or my health. I committed myself to valuing my life. To protecting it.

I mean, why should I leave the fate of my life in the hands of someone else? Particularly a group of thugs! Why should I allow someone to slam my head into the hood of a car and maybe cause brain damage? Why would I allow someone to kick me in the spine and cripple me?

And oh, what about Don? He was a good guy. He didn’t deserve to be beaten. Sure, yeah, he’s responsible to protect his own life, but I’m his friend, shouldn’t I be committed to somehow helping him if I can?

That beating turned out to be a major life event for me. As I limped around groaning for the next couple of days, it became clearer and clearer to me that we are NOT all one. We are not just nameless expressions of nothingness. It became very clear that, yeah, there is good in the world… and there is evil. There is right and there is wrong. There are the worthy and the unworthy.

It also became clear to me that relaxation was overrated. That being calm in the face of danger is worthless compared to being prepared to face danger. I want you to listen very carefully, my friend—

Relaxation is not a plan. Relaxation is not a strategy for survival. It’s not a step towards success. Relaxation is a neutral, docile, indifferent state of being.

Which is why telling someone to relax might be the worst advice you can give. No, I take that back. It IS the worst advice you can give somebody.

If you really want to help somebody, don’t give them advice, give them the tools to succeed instead. Peace of mind is for plants, not people. I like that. I’m going to say that again.

Peace of mind is for plants, not people.

Now, you’d think that going through such a dramatic event would have driven this lesson into me so deeply that I’d never be sucked into the cult of relaxation again, but not so. Turns out I’m not that smart. I’ve had to learn and relearn that lesson over and over again, on and off the mats. That’s because the cult of relaxation is everywhere!

No matter where you turn, anytime something goes wrong, the first thing that people will tell you is relax. Take it easy. Hey, don’t get worked up. Calm down. Keep your cool. Whether it’s in a therapeutic setting, at work, at home… everybody everywhere thinks that you can solve all of your problems if you just relax.

Well, not me, baby! I’m not going to tell you to relax. If I have in the past, well, then forgive me. Let’s change that right now. I will never again tell you to relax. I’ll also never tell you to be more confident… believe in yourself… hey, don’t give up. All of that advice is worthless bumper sticker nonsense. It’s a waste of time when someone says it to you and it’s a waste of time when you say it to somebody else. Here’s why—

Being relaxed, being confident, believing in yourself… those are all the byproducts of the actions you have already taken and are currently taking. They’re not switches that you can just turn on and off.

You don’t just choose to be relaxed. You don’t get to choose to be confident. That’s like telling someone to be a millionaire. Oh, what’s that? You’re in debt? Well, be a millionaire.

Be a millionaire? That’s not advice at all. That’s an invitation to get punched in the mouth. Look—there is no shortcut to becoming rich or relaxed. Relaxation is the reward you get for taking action.

[14:45]  Let me give you a recent example of how relaxation failed me. I started taking Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a few years ago and I admit it, I walked in thinking I was a pretty cool cat. I mean, I had already trained for years. I’d already wrestled my martial arts demons of ego and fear and competitiveness. Well, not so much.

It turns out that the demons were just hiding. BJJ shattered my inner-peace. The struggles on the mats were closer, and heavier, and sweatier than I had expected. And as a result, I found myself panicking and thrashing. I couldn’t believe it.

I was tense and holding my breath. I was desperate. I would repeat the same moves over and over again even though they weren’t working. And I knew they weren’t working. Class after class, I would just burn up all my oxygen and collapse. Then I would drive home a quivering, sobbing mess.

And through it all, what do you suppose the most common correction I received was? Do you think anyone ever said, “Hey, use more muscle! Add tension! Use more strength!” No, of course not. You know what they said. They all said they same thing. They said RELAX. They told me to go with the flow.

Like Lao Tzu himself, they told me that the soft and yielding will always defeat the strong and aggressive. Oh, really. Well, we’ve already discussed that idea in Episode 34, The Two Biggest Lies in Martial Arts. In case you missed that one, you can probably tell from the title, that I don’t believe that soft is superior to hard any more than a screwdriver is superior to a hammer.

There is a time to be hard and there’s a time to be soft, end of discussion. Soft is an option, not a religion. And my many losses prove it. Here’s what I mean…

I have gone into practice many times, whether it’s in sparring or rolling, with one simple goal—relax. Just stay relaxed. That’s it. I mean, if you’re telling me that the secret to winning is to stay relaxed, and then all I do is focus on staying relaxed, well, then I should be pretty hard to beat, right?

So, that’s the challenge I would keep giving myself. No matter what happens tonight, or in this round, just relax. Don’t tense up. Stay soft. Go with the flow. Don’t try to win. Don’t worry if anybody’s watching. Just step into the void, detach yourself from doubt, forget about fear. And I did that.

And what do you think happened when I did that? Well, the good news is I have been very successful at keeping my cool. Just like in the parking lot, I can relax in the worst of situations. I can see everything that’s happening, I can feel everything that’s happening, and I make no judgments about what’s happening whatsoever. That’s the good news.

The bad news is I’m getting stabbed, choked, taking hits, and being smothered on the ground. In short, I’m still losing as much as I was when I was tense… I’m just more relaxed now when it happens.

So, based on my many, many losses, here is the conclusion I have come to…

Relaxation is overrated. You can die feeling relaxed just as easily as you can die feeling panicked.

That’s why relaxation should never ever be your goal in training. If you happen to find yourself feeling relaxed, great—welcome it. Relaxation will help you execute your plan, but don’t forget—it is not a plan in and of itself. Instead, you should be focused on what you’re going to do. You should be focused on winning. What tools do you have? What can you do with them? What do you need to do? What’s the next step to change a bad situation into something good?

Let me take a quick step back here. Let me ask you this—why do you want to be relaxed in the first place? What’s so great about being relaxed? Okay. Well, relaxation helps you move better, think better, see more, feel more. It’s really the ideal state for taking action. I don’t doubt that. Tension locks you in place. It inhibits your breathing. It works against you.

But there’s a catch here. To be relaxed, you have to take an action first. That first action, even if it’s just taking a breath, releases the tension that’s holding you back.

So that means if you want to cultivate relaxation, you have to focus on taking action. If you focus on relaxation, you just cultivate more tension.

You tell yourself to relax, but you can’t relax! Then you tense up even worse. Hey, don’t tell me to relax… tell me what to do!

Ideas Lead to Relaxation

Photo by Stef Etow

Okay. Example. Let’s say I’m sparring someone who is coming on strong and hitting hard. If I tense up, if I freeze, well, I have a problem. I’m going to keep getting beat up. If I tell myself to relax and go with the flow, I’m still going to get beat up! I’m just going to be relaxed while I’m taking hits.

But if I focus on a plan, simple plan, maybe I say to myself, fake high, grab his front arm, punch over the top, as soon as I do that, my body releases some tension. It prepares to execute the plan. The concept alone relaxes me.

[20:16]  Now, I would take that same principle and apply to anything in your life that causes you stress or tension. Anything that’s unknown or out of your control.

How do you combat stress? How do you stop worrying about what might happen? Isn’t it by preparing? Isn’t it by gaining information? Isn’t it from putting a plan together?

I see this no different than a fire drill. You may not be able to stop fires, but when you have a plan of how you could survive one, that really lessens the fear that you’re going to die in one.

The same is true if you’re diagnosed with a disease that you’ve never heard of. At first, that’s going to be terrifying. But the more you learn about it, the more your doctor lays out a treatment plan, well, yeah, then the better you’re going to feel about your chances of survival. The information is the power. Taking action is what relaxes you. Back to martial arts…

Do you want to know the secret to relaxation while practicing the martial arts? Here it is—be good at what you do.

Consider this—if I ask you to spar a six-year-old child, a six-year-old child who’s never even taken a karate class before, how does that make you feel right now? Does that idea scare you? Did you just tense up?

Of course not! And why is that? It’s because you know you have the strength, the speed, and the smarts to overcome whatever that kid does. There’s just no way you can be hurt. So, clearly, your feeling of relaxation is directly linked to your skill set, to your experience.

Okay. But now let’s say you’re asleep in your bedroom. BOOM! Someone kicks in your door. You look up. It’s a seven foot dude. He’s 300 pounds. He’s wearing football pads. He’s got a machete in one hand and a knife in the other. Now this maniac screams like a tiger, shakes the windows, and he lunges right at you.

Now how do you feel? A little tense maybe? Heart beating a little faster perhaps? And why is that? Aren’t you the same person who was just kicking the crap out of that six-year-old with a smile on your face? Well, to me, the lesson here is obvious—relaxation depends on your skill level. Your relaxation is tied to your experience. Your preparation. Your knowledge. Here’s the thing…

It’s easier to go with the flow when you know where you’re going.

When you don’t know where you’re going, when you don’t feel in control, well, then you always hear a waterfall coming up straight ahead. You always feel like you’re about to sail over the edge and crash. But if you have a map, if you have a compass, if you have one hand on the rudder, well, then you know you can steer for calm waters and avoid the waterfalls.

Don't relax! Wake up the tiger!

Wake up your tiger!

[23:06]  So, here’s my advice… the next time you freeze up because you feel threatened on the mats or in real life, don’t beat yourself up. It’s natural to freeze up in the face of danger. It’s natural to feel tension. It’s normal for your blood to start pumping and your heart to pound in your ears.

Because it’s normal and natural, that means you can skip the step where you tell yourself to relax. Don’t waste time telling yourself to calm down or stay cool. And if you’re with somebody who’s freaking out, well, don’t waste time telling them not to freak out.

If you want to get back to a relaxed state, then get busy figuring out what actions you need to take to change the situation.

That first act, in almost all cases, the best one you can probably take, maybe just take a breath. That may sound just as worthless as telling yourself to relax—Hey, relax. Take a breath!–but it’s not. Telling someone to take a breath is very different than just saying relax because taking a breath is something you can DO. It’s a step forward.

Think about it–what happens when you take a breath? You begin to relax. You begin to move.

So, the worst advice you can give someone is to say relax. The better advice is to say relax and take a breath. The best advice is to simply say take a breath.

Imagine somebody has you in a headlock and your coach is yelling, “Relax! Relax!” Well, that doesn’t help at all, does it? But if he were to say take a breath… control the hand… drop your chin… turn to the left. Ahh. That’s so much better, isn’t it?

Now, your panicked brain has hope. It has something to focus on. Your state of mind shifts from panic to empowerment.

No, you may not escape the choke every time, but at least you have steps to follow. You’ve got a shot. You’re not going to die frozen, you’re going to die fighting.

[25:05]  I’m telling you, my friend, that’s the key. When you give yourself or others specific steps they can take to change their situation from bad to good, that’s when you can tap into your power. This to me is the whole point of martial arts—figuring out how to move past panic so you can survive. How to fight fear so you can succeed.

The better you get at making plans and moving forward, the more you realize that you are smart enough, you are brave enough, you are tough enough to stand up to any and all threats to your happiness. Win or lose, you can fight.

But that empowerment does not come from staring at candles. It doesn’t come from reading scrolls. It comes from preparation, planning, and practice.

So, whether you’re into martial arts, or yoga, or any self-improvement program, when you hear teachers, and coaches, and gurus telling you to relax, let that go. There’s no point in starting a fight with them. But privately, be smart enough to take “relax” off of your “to-do” list.

Relaxation is not your goal. Your goal is to survive. To win. To succeed. If you want to be relaxed, confident, and happy, don’t try to be relaxed, confident, and happy. Instead…

Breathe. Plan. Learn. Work. Act. Move. Do.

The secret to success, dear friend, is not in the stars, but in ourselves. You have to fight for a happy life.