Managing stress: what can we learn from martial arts?

I recently attended a Health and Wellbeing Event organised by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and Edinburgh City Council at which I attended two workshops. This article reflects on the first of these workshops and looks at managing stress and increasing presence and confidence while under pressure.

Evelyn Wilkins, Web Content Editor, GTC Scotland

Did anyone ever say to you “you need to be more confident”, but without ever telling you how? I’ve certainly been told this before, but I cannot recall a single person ever describing how I can improve my confidence. The benefit of John Tuite’s approach, John led the workshop “Moving from classroom stress to teacher/lecturer presence”, is that you’re not simply encouraged to “be more confident”, you are shown how.

About the workshop

John began practising Chinese martial arts at the age of 12; he also worked as a teacher for 20 years in London schools. When he first started teaching, John found that some of the feelings he experienced were very similar to those he felt when under pressure on the mat. And some of the things that John had learnt through martial arts about how the body and mind work proved to be useful guidance for stressful situations he encountered as a teacher. Five years ago John began running workshops and courses in leadership development and presence, following an approach that works through the body using martial arts techniques.

John explained that martial arts are about how to handle “incoming” with grace, presence and spaciousness. As a teacher, incoming can be understood as all the stress encountered throughout the day – in the corridor and in the classroom. John suggested that when we are under incoming the body can take over the situation. Therefore, if we tackle stress in a way that ignores our body then we’re ignoring a significant amount of what is going on and is important in a situation.

To illustrate, John cited a well-known “fact”, which I’m sure you’ve heard before:

“In significant communications about 75 to 90 per cent of the meaning is contained not in words but in tone, gesture and breathing – in the body.”

He went on, “this is the area that I’m interested in, as it seems bizarre that we train teachers ignoring that 75 per cent. Most of teacher development is cognitive; meanwhile teachers are placed in some quite stressful situations and their bodies win.”

Understanding how the body works

Another interesting fact that has become clear from neuroscience, a fact that is less well known, is that “our body posture also has a really important impact on our internal climate too – on how we experience ourselves.”

John explained:

“The body has two different muscle groups – extensors and flexors. If I fire my flexors [tighten and contract my body muscles] for two minutes and don’t think any stressful thoughts at all my body will start to download cortisone. Cortisone is a stress hormone and impacts the way my mind works. I will lose my access to creativity, big picture thinking, innovation and empathy. However, if I fire my extensor muscles [open up and loosen my body] for two minutes, and don’t think about anything in particular, a completely different hormone is downloaded. It actually has quite a lot of testosterone, which is a confidence hormone. That alone will impact on how I feel about myself and my sense of confidence.”

During the workshop John led us through a series of exercises to demonstrate the way that our bodies respond to stress. First, he asked for a volunteer and he then acted as the volunteer’s “stressor” by giving her a mild but sustained push on her shoulder. This push represented any stress, or incoming. It was clear that even before John began to push the volunteer’s shoulder she had begun to organise herself around the stressor. This is a natural process that human beings do. We worry about stress before it even hits us. We start to organise our body and we start to contract. The other thing that happens when we’re under stress is that our awareness contracts down to the stressor. We lose the big picture and focus only on the stressor.

A technique for managing stress

John taught us a simple technique that encourages the opening up of the body and the use of the body’s extensor muscles; a process that begins a shift in chemistry that can encourage confidence and increased presence. This is a four-part centring practice:

  1. Stand balanced on your feet with your hands down at your side. As you breathe in think of your inhale as lengthening up your spine. As you exhale imagine it going down your front and softening.
  2. Imagine that you have as much awareness in front of you as you do behind you, and to your left and to your right. Make it equal in size and awareness to the front and back, and above your head and beneath your feet so as to create a bubble of awareness. Then make it a little bigger and give it a texture or a colour.
  3. Relax your jaw and your shoulders, keeping your spine upright.
  4. Finally, get a little more ease in your body.

During the workshop we worked in pairs to “stress” each other, paying attention to what happened in our heads and bodies when we were pushed. Then we practised using the centring process when under stress from our partners. We found that when we focused on following the four steps it distracted us from the feeling of being pushed and it created a difference in how we responded to the stress. We felt stronger but with less effort.

The exercise demonstrated that we don’t have to contract our bodies when faced with stress; we can open up our bodies and respond to stress in a different way. This act in itself will help us to feel more confident and in control.

Find out more

To learn more about John Tuite’s approach to managing stress visit the following websites:

Or read a related article by John:

12 simple things for teachers (or anyone) to do when under pressure in the classroom (or anywhere)