When I had no roof,
I made audacity my roof.
— Samurai Song by Robert Pinsky
Photo credit:  Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

Most judoka I know have one time or another asked themselves: ‘Why didn’t I choose an easier sport?’ This question comes up after a particularly bruising randori (sparring) session or just before a tournament when they have to fight several tough looking opponents.

What makes Judo different from most martial arts is that there is no faking it. Whether training or grading, to progress in judo, you have to fight. The first thing you learn when you begin is ukemi or the falling techniques. Thereafter, you are thrown, quite literally, into the world of tachiwaza (stand-up fighting) and newaza (ground fighting). Every session begins with stretching and uchikomi (a warm up practice of techniques) and then moves into several rounds of newaza and tachiwaza.

These rounds are exhausting and often painful. They are bouts of endurance, skill and speed where you and your opponent will try to immobilize, choke, joint-lock, trip or throw each other without ceding an inch. All techniques are done with full commitment and judokas don’t have the luxury of thinking their Judo is good simply because their waza (techniques) look great. The randori is always the litmus test- if you can’t perform in a randori it is unlikely that you can defend yourself on the street.

The psychology of Judo seeks to address our instinctive responses to fear.  Through randori, it makes us confront our fear repeatedly. Our fear of bodily harm is primal and hard-wired into our DNA. And the fear triggers an automatic flight, freeze or fight response. What Judo teaches is how to override these impulses and respond skilfully with maximum efficiency and minimum effort.

In his best-selling book Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield gives an account of the battle of Thermopylae. The battle involved a small band of Spartans who successfully held off the Persian emperor Xerxes’s immense army- an astonishing feat in military history. The Spartans were a warrior society known for superlative fighting skills. Pressfield writes that among the many disciplines a Spartan learnt was one called phobologia or the science of fear. Phobologia consisted of various exercises that helped relax areas of nexus between the body and the nervous system. These areas were called phobosynkateres- fear accumulators.

Phobologia taught a radically counter-intuitive idea. It believed that since the body is where fear is experienced, it must be dealt with in the body and not the mind. Otherwise, once the body is seized with fear, it results in phobokyklos, or a rapidly accelerating loop of terror- causing flight, freeze or a fight response. For the Spartans, the art of being skilful in combat was to put the body into a state of aphobia or fearlessness and then the mind would follow.

Coming back to Judo, the hardest part is overcoming the instinctive fear of physical harm. And Judo’s greatest lesson is that through randori one learns phobologia and the way to aphobia. Judo’s method is conscious engagement with fear in the body by repeatedly confronting situations that trigger fear. The sensei’s exhortations to relax, move, not to overthink and be aware are all designed to help the student recognize fear and override the flight, freeze or fight impulse.

Off the mat, Judo offers wonderful life lessons. It believes that conflicts are a part of life and they come bearing gifts of profound transformation. It is wrong to wish away conflict in some naïve hope of an anaemic peace. Instead, the power of conflict must be harnessed and directed to result in the positive growth of all parties involved.

Most times what lies at the root of conflict is fear. How we deal with our instinctive responses to fear will determine whether we can transform the conflict into something positive. Even our verbal reactions to conflicts in the workspace or at home usually stem from fear experienced in the body. We then justify our reactions of freeze, flight or fight with reasons like- she said this, he made me do that, if only this didn’t happen etc. Underneath all the justifications lies the truth that the moment fear takes over the body, we go into autopilot. We react in ways that aren’t mindful and either makes us aggressors or victims. Conflict transformation therefore doesn’t lie in an intellectual understanding of it, but rather by developing ways of teaching the body to overcome fear.

Judo does this by creating a safe space where the judoka ritually triggers fear in the body and befriends it. The dojo is turned into a sacred place where conflict is honoured as a teacher and it’s hidden blessings welcomed. Of course not everyone who wants to overcome fear has to become a judoka. But Judo’s lessons of a psychosomatic approach to fear and conflict can be adapted to suit off the mat situations. Judo teaches that the way to engage with fear, which is at the root of conflict, is to repeatedly trigger it in a safe space using the stimuli one is most afraid of. Thereon, the body is trained to relax and override its impulse to freeze, flight or fight. Once the body is relaxed it creates the spaciousness needed to respond skilfully to the situation and positively transform it.

Judo has much to offer psychologists, trauma counsellors and practitioners of conflict resolution. As Dienekes, the Spartan warrior says in the Gates of Fire- the opposite of fear is not courage but love. And by working through the body, rather than only the mind, Judo offers ways to overcome fear and paves the way to greater understanding and love.