Amy Winters (g) from Krav Maga ATX (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Ten years ago, I turned my back on the life of a coward and lazy to learn how to fight. That I started my education with the Krav Maga self-defense system seemed both arbitrary and written in the stars. I happened to have a friend who I learned was an instructor at a Krav gym in South Austin just as I was considering enrolling in a martial arts class, but it didn’t. Surely it was no coincidence that the martial art that created itself so available to me was developed by an Eastern European Jew to fend off Nazi thugs in the 1930s. My feelings of ambivalence towards combat were inextricably linked to the fact that I was a Jew brought up with the knowledge of the near extinction of his people by forces of incomprehensible cruelty and my lingering and blood-borne fear of those forces, and were fueled by the battle between my (long-standing) concern that violent responses to this cruelty would mean my people were no better than the monsters deployed against them and my everlasting fantasies of crushing these monsters to death with my hands, no matter what. meaning.
The neurological paradox at the heart of the fight remains the same: putting yourself under stress relieves stress.
Whatever the reasons for my fascination, Krav Maga and fighting quickly became addictions. But while my other addictions weathered the COVID-19 storm without issue, the only one that actually meant anything to me was largely shelved. Fighting demands the kind of physical intimacy that only fighters and lovers experience, and often with strangers whose history you don’t know and whose assurances you have no good habits to trust. social distancing. Which makes wrestling the worst possible pastime in a pandemic.
But it is also the best. Because the benefits of fighting go beyond romantic illusions about fixing historical disasters – they are remedies for the anxiety caused by them. Hit a bag enough times – hit another person, or better yet, get hit by them, even once – and the stress of the world subsides, giving way to more urgent anxieties that only arise when you provide an outlet for your aggression and put your body at risk.
Last year, one of my first fight partners, Amy Winters, opened her own gym with friends in a warehouse in South Austin, and since the Krav Maga ATX came out of lockdown there is months ago, Winters saw the stress-relieving power of combat magically work on his pandemic-weary students. This exercise increases the production of endorphins in the brain is well known to scientists, and hitting bags has been shown to reduce muscle tension that can build up when you are stressed. But the added emotional benefits of fighting another person and looking at ancient terrors are more mysterious. Just the idea that you can calm down by being more aggressive seems counter-intuitive, even paradoxical.
“I know it’s weird to hear, but fighting is meditative,” Winters says. “When you fight, you can’t worry about anything else. You can’t think of plagues and social unrest. You have to be careful or you get punched in the face. It’s a very active form. mindfulness. “
All fighting styles offer this active mindfulness, but unlike boxing or Brazilian jiujitsu, Krav Maga was created with the stress of the world in mind. Many of the exercises found in the classroom are designed to simulate what students might go through in a street fight and accustom them to the flood of adrenaline and cortisol that overwhelms the brain and freezes the body in life or death situations. .
“In ‘stress exercises’ we turn off the lights and the music and try to create the chaotic feeling of a confrontation on the street,” says Winters. “You may need to retreat from under a group of people or try to escape as they try to hit you, kick you or suffocate you.” Or, these days instructors will simply turn a blind eye to students and wait for an attack from a single, dedicated quarantine partner. Such is the exercise of stress in the age of the plague.
But regardless of the concessions to be made to COVID-19, the neurological paradox at the heart of the fight remains the same: putting yourself under stress relieves stress. That’s why Krav Maga ATX and other combat gyms in Austin think they need to be open now: Without the liberation of combat, the anxiety of our evil age would be too much to bear.
Seeking to alleviate his grief, 19th-century romantic poet Lord Byron – a notorious aficionado of all physical distractions, including boxing – got into a fight on the morning of his mother’s funeral.
A first lesson in combat can be a strange and exhausting experience, both physically and emotionally. Winters says the best way to overcome any initial awkwardness or fear is to pay close attention to the new movements you introduce into your body, just as you would with a more peaceful practice like yoga. “Watch your hand hit the pad and notice how you feel,” she said. “If you are physically or psychologically overwhelmed or just embarrassed because you feel stupid compared to other students, find the joy that comes from hitting something really hard.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 2, 2020 with the title: Fight stress