How Martial Arts and Yoga Challenge Control

Mary Hable




roundhouse kick


Yoga and martial arts share a lot of similarities. They both improve control by training the ability to pause and take conscious action, rather than be driven by automatic reactions. A comparison of the two is helpful to understand what the two practices offer uniquely.



Perhaps the thing I love most about martial arts is that it gives clear answers to the question, “what next?” That question drives the practice in a way that helps me grow toward the goal of having more control in my body, both physiologically and psychologically.


From Reaction to Negotiation

There’s an interesting carryover of the ideas of social anthropologist William Ury, who studies success in verbal negotiation. Both yoga and martial arts can be thought of as negotiations in slightly different forms. Yoga is a negotiation intrapersonally, with only myself and my own body. Martial arts are a negotiation both intra- and interpersonally with another human.


Ury says, “humans are reaction machines.” To overcome that habit, we need to learn to pause; to disconnect the automatic link between emotion and action. That pause, especially in a threatening environment, requires a sense of calm. In turn, feeling calm and able to make conscious choices requires a sense of safety.



safety to calmness to control


The Environment Factor

Yoga trains control by creating a safer internal environment. A focus of yoga is on flexibility; expanding range of motion. The risk of injury increases as a movement comes closer to flexibility end ranges. The body naturally wants to revert to its comfortable range of motion, because that’s where it feels safe. By expanding ranges of motion, yoga expands the internal environment that the body feels safe within. That, consequently, expands the range of movement where the body can feel calm and in control.


While yoga trains control in structured situations, martial arts add an important element: the ability to maintain calm and safety in an uncontrolled situation, being threatened by another human. Negotiation with another human forces confrontation with the variability of other people’s behavior. I can’t control the other person’s behavior, I can only control my own. In the context of martial arts, this can be emotionally frustrating, which tells me it may be an element I’ve been lacking in my practice as a yogi.


Consider the Source of Your Feedback

A key ingredient for deliberate growth is effective feedback. Yoga trains internal control, but as a personal practice, an individual is ultimately the only judge of progress. That’s a risky source of feedback. 


Martial arts provide an environment to test progress interpersonally, with clear indicators of success. If the goal is to find calm, safety, and control, martial arts offer the key challenges and feedback necessary for growth.


Real life is unstructured, which is where martial arts come in:

Train for Uncertainty: It's Guaranteed

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