Fighting has been a part of our history for probably as long as we’ve had a history. Since we’ve had a written language, we have been documenting contests of men battling one another. Some would say the drive to fight was purely for survival as in the days of the gladiator. I think the majority of us would say however, that for the most part it’s about sport and the drive for competition. If you probe even deeper into this thinking, there is a line of thought that says it is our primitive instinct to dominate over one another. This makes sense when you look back at the Egyptian Pharaohs pushing Moses and his people to flee to the desert with their whips and words. European explorers saw the tribes they encountered as fish in a barrel as they used them to gain the riches they were after. Of course the great American slave trade of our past makes a persuasive push for this argument. Even in modern times with the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship it shows us that this inner urge hasn’t completely died off. I’m even reminded of this need to dominate every time our Chihuahua mounts our Pitt Bull, though this would make a horrible pay-per-view unlike the latest UFC fights.
There’s a specific aspect of this fighting game that I have been thinking about lately and it’s probably not where you thought I was going with that opening. A simple technique relatively unique to fighting for sport, and which takes years to master I might add, is also a common trait among the best of the best. It’s the ability to stay loose and relaxed during the rounds, tensing the muscles only at the moment of impact, which can spell victory or defeat, especially when evenly matched. When the two opponents are dancing around the ring trying to psych each other out, the need to have a relaxed body is key. During every single fight, if it goes on long enough that is, one or both of the two fighters will get ‘gassed’ or run out of steam. This is the point when the opponents appear visibly exhausted. They are breathing heavily, covered in sweat and usually will swing wildly but end up holding each other more often than actually landing any punches. The one who can maintain a relaxed body, or in other words the one not using massive amounts of energy keeping his muscles constricted, is the one who will last through more rounds and most likely come out on top. Some would find it hard to believe that this tension, this keeping the muscles contracted during the fight, would have any significant impact on the outcome. It’s easy to think about how much energy it takes to throw a punch or fling a leg out for a side kick. It’s easy to think about wrestling on the ground taking massive amounts of energy as you squeeze and pull and push and flex your way around the opponent doing the same to you, making every movement that much harder to overcome his added force. Most people forget that when you are standing still you are still burning fuel. When the muscles are tight, we are burning it even faster.
Our muscles are made of fibers laid parallel in pairs and are strung together in thick bundles. One fiber of a pair is attached to a certain part of the bone and its partner fiber is attached to a different spot on a different bone. When you want to flex a muscle, your brain sends out this signal as an electrochemical signal through the nervous system. This starts as an electrical pulse in the brain’s neurons that travel down the nerves throughout your body to those muscle cells and fibers that are targeted. The cells that receive the electrical pulse from the brain are called efferent cells, which are then stimulated by this impulse to start a chemical chain reaction involving calcium and other proteins that slides the two fibers in the pairs along each other and thus contracting the muscle. That took a lot of energy to just think about and write it let alone how much it actually takes to do it. But this is the way muscles work in both extremes. When reaching back and punching towards the face of the guy who stands in your way to the title belt, and when we sit in our office chair tense from the stress surrounding us in our daily lives.
I won’t get into where this energy comes from and what all that entails to regulate and maintain it (that is a whole other article by itself) but I will discuss the tension that is draining away our reserves the longer we let it. This sneaky energy leak plagues each and every one of us. Did you know one of the most common symptoms of chronic stress is fatigue? You can think of fighting in the octagon as just a sped up version of what happens to us during stressful situations. Think about those long hours you spend working late on a project that needs to be done the next day and how you feel afterward. Think about how you feel at the end of a day when your kid has been sick and inconsolable compared to the days when he is a warm, smiling source of sunshine and it makes sense. The stress response constricting your muscles, in waiting for the fight or flight situation that never actually comes in our modern stress inducing scenarios, leaves you feeling utterly exhausted. You don’t want to cook dinner or clean up the kitchen that is badly in need of some dishwashing. You don’t even want to change into some pajamas before bed; all you want to do is pass out. You have a limited amount of energy to do all your bodies many functions; thinking, breathing, moving, kicking ass, taking names. When you run out you need to recharge and when you have been stressed all day and tensed up, this can lead to your gas tank being emptied quicker than those days you spend relaxing carefree poolside on vacation.
I hope this makes sense to you because I am moving on. We now see that whenever our muscles are tense and constricting it takes a ton of energy. When we get stressed our bodies tense up and after hours of this we get exhausted. What happens to us when we get tired? Say it with me now, ‘we…get…irritable’ that’s right guys, good job. When you are tired you just want to be left alone. Your tolerance to handle minor issues is dramatically lowered and you lash out at whoever is in your personal irritability proximity. There are two things we can do to combat this. One is we need to differentiate whether what we are arguing with the person in front of us is because we are holding our ground on what’s right or are we just irritable and tired and have been running on patience fumes for hours. This is part of emotional recognition and awareness. We need to see what the real causes of our emotions are from and whether they are legitimate. Sure it all feels real in the moment but that is what our brains reaction to every chemical it produces feels like. The next is to try and limit our tension. There are lots of ways to do this of course. We can drink relaxing teas that calm us with passionflower and chamomile, which I have been drinking tons of lately. We can exercise to take the edge off and burn off some of that tension. I mean if we are running on the treadmill then we aren’t exactly tensing our shoulders up and giving ourselves headaches are we? No, we are redirecting that energy usage and when we get off that treadmill sweating and breathing hard, we don’t need or have any energy to use unwisely. We can also pay attention to ourselves throughout the day. I notice that on the nights I have trouble falling asleep that I am hunching my shoulders without realizing it. I am keeping my body tight which is using energy and pumping chemicals around my blood stream which is thus keeping me from catching those ‘z’s I need so badly. This is why chamomile tea helps us sleep; it doesn’t make us drowsy like allergy medicine but relaxes our muscles so we can pass off softly into dreamland.
All these things take practice and acute awareness to prevent and improve. When I am arguing with someone I notice that if I turn my attention to my body it is usually incredibly tense. When I consciously relax these tense muscles I start to feel better. It lightens my mood and allows me to think clearly. This can be a way to stay level headed in a heated situation but you have to practice being mindful so that you too can make those good decisions and not just fly off the handles. Most importantly, and to tie it in with this article, by relaxing our muscles as we go through the day we are conserving energy that we can use to do more things and stay a little more tolerant so we don’t take it out on those we care about when we get home. Life is a cage match and when we learn how to conserve our energy, we can easily do what needs to be done to come out victorious.