Martial arts… as stress-relieving? You might consider this completely ridiculous, and you wouldn’t be the only one. In fact, several papers have pointed out that martial arts may cause increased levels of aggressiveness and antisocial behavior among its participants. However, other studies characterize the former ones as being misconceptions. For example, a recent study comparing practitioners of taekwondo to hockey players and a non-sport group found that verbal aggression and hostility was significantly lower in the taekwondo group. The general consensus has been that practicing martial arts improves one’s mental health.
Bearing that in mind, I chose to try out Krav Maga, a form of self-defense developed for the Israeli Defence Forces that focuses on handling real-world situations. Krav Maga incorporates a variety of techniques from several martial arts disciplines, including aikido, judo, boxing and wrestling. I figured that this would be the best discipline to try as I’d get to experience a little bit of everything.
Our instructor was a middle-aged, no-nonsense woman, and after a brief warm-up, she quickly put us in pairs for our first practice sequence. One partner held a mat and the other one performed a punch-kick sequence. I was excited for this — until I threw my first punch and felt a shockwave up my arm (at this point, I should add that I have zero pain tolerance and can shed tears over something as silly as a stubbed toe). I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was ready to throw in the towel at that point. All that stopped me was my friend, who knew all too well what I was contemplating, and immediately called over the instructor before I chickened out.
The instructor examined my hand for a moment and then told me these wise words: “You’re fine. It will hurt in the beginning — it’s supposed to — but I promise you that by the end of the class, if you keep practicing, you won’t feel it anymore.” I started punching again, half-expecting it to hurt just as much the second time — and it did. Only this time, I was prepared for the pain, so it wasn’t actually as bad. Over time (and with the instructor’s guidance), I learned how to adapt — to move my wrist in such a way that I didn’t end up sending shockwaves up my arm every time I punched. I felt strong, and I felt proud of myself for getting through the first punch.
The second part of the class covered skills and techniques we would use in the real world. The point of Krav Maga, as the instructor told us, is to recognize the body’s weaknesses, such as the eyes, nose, and groin and target those weaknesses in one’s opponent. This way, one could transform a disadvantageous situation into an advantageous one. “Krav Maga,” our instructor said, “isn’t about charging into danger blindly. If you can avoid a confrontation, then you should avoid it. What we prepare you for is how to make the best of a situation if you are ever attacked.” After a few sequences, I began to appreciate how incredibly capable our bodies are, and how to best utilize my body against an attacker. For example, when attacked from behind, I had to learn to resist my urge to turn around and go in for a punch. Instead, I learned to stay facing forward and swivel my ankle around simultaneously tripping up my attacker and gaining the high ground. This technique is so simple — yet I would never have thought to use them before Krav Maga.
We have heard the adage before: “in training your body, you train your mind.” As one Krav Maga association puts it, Krav Maga helps to improve our intention, meditation and positivity. Through just one lesson, I saw how this was the case, and also how Krav Maga parallels my experiences as a medical school student. The shock of beginning medical school was like my first punch: it was brutal, but as medical students, we learn that we can’t give up after the first one — we have to think positively.
It’s not easy to be positive when you have so many things to do in what seems like so few hours of the day. What’s worked for me is recognizing my weaknesses: time management has always been my nemesis. Even thinking about making a schedule induces some sort of panicky feeling inside me that compels me to curl up in the covers and watch more Netflix. However, I’ve learned to recognize that being efficient with my time is hard for me, just like I learned how to recognize the weak points of the human body in Krav Maga. This is important because once we know where we are weak, we can learn how to improve. Our school has a study skills advisor, who helped me plan out an ambitious yet completely achievable daily schedule. I’ve found that being overly specific (such as scheduling in times to do laundry, go to Whole Foods, etc.) helps me more than being overly vague.
Also, in Krav Maga, one has to make adaptations in order to defeat your attacker, like I learned in the first part of the class. I’m small-built and embarrassingly inflexible — yet by the end of the class, I had learned how to outmaneuver someone potentially twice my height and weight. Through my life experiences, I have learned that nobody is perfect… but what matters is being able to adapt to minimize our weaknesses and emphasize our strengths. I’ve been learning to do this as a medical student through the help of my peers and advisors. Although my weakness of procrastination will probably always haunt me, I’ve learned to be more efficient with my time. I’m nowhere near where I would like to be, but I feel that I have become far better at managing my time than a year ago.
Overall, I would highly recommend trying martial arts, just once. Even if your medical school isn’t close to a Krav Maga studio, try some other form of martial arts! Boxing is a very popular one at my medical school. Other forms include jiu-jitsu, capoeira, aikido, judo, taekwondo and wrestling. In addition to helping hone one’s mind, it’s an excellent form of exercise, guaranteed to make you break a sweat. Classes can be slightly pricey (upwards of 25 dollars at some studios), but often times, you are allowed a free trial session or may be able to receive a student discount. Take advantage of that!
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.