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Mental Health, A Call to Action

By Annika Kahn 

I have been stalling on getting this piece out as I originally was going to reflect on Martial Arts- the year of 2022 in Winter Warrior Land.

But then this happened. And I would not be a martial artist if I did not speak the truth about what is occurring around us.

Footnote: I began my martial arts practice when I was 10 years old. I grew up in a very loving but chaotic family home, coupled with the 70s in San Francisco and my parents finding themselves and, sometimes, forgetting they had kids. Martial arts were the structured discipline I needed that helped me ground to a coherent field of practice when home life was topsy turvy.

My martial arts teacher yelled at me when I was 10 for kicking a girl in the head during practice. I remember feeling shame and embarrassment: wasn’t I supposed to do this? So I quit. I recall the training being mean and brutal and, albeit a structure, unsuitable for an already confused 10-year-old.

A decade and a half later, after several near-death experiences, I was guided to find the kindest and most loving martial arts instructor I have met, Master Sung Jin Su. During these years of intense training and practice, I processed much of the stored-up fear and trauma from early childhood. The physical exercise was demanding. But the spiritual and emotional healing allowed through the practice of Martial Arts changed my life forever. I had to work through deep self-hatred and shame and all those emotions we all experience at some point. It was my teacher’s kindness, love, and patience that not only allowed me to become a 4-time world grand champion but a loving mom, good friend, and worker amongst workers, to feel I belonged and that I had developed an extended family.

Had I not had this experience, I am not confident I would be writing this today.

So, when I heard about our beloved Eric The Trainer’s passing, I felt my nervous system give out: how could it be that someone who was so loving and kind and appeared so light and happy took their own life? It was incomprehensible to me, and I imagine to many, many thousands of others who loved and knew Eric.

Then, in the same period, beloved Stephen tWitch Boss did the same thing. I did not know tWitch nor was I close to Eric, but I felt connected to both of these giant-hearted men: tWitche’s aliveness and giving, positive energy, his dance athleticism, his adoring work with Ellen Degeneres, his fantastic family and Eric, his martial athleticism, his community, his giving, his family, his aliveness, all of which I witnessed at the Martial Arts Super Show in 2019.

High-functioning Depression. I do not fully understand this concept, and I am still learning and processing all this entails. Still, I can relate to this in my own life when I feel that something is internally off, and I pretend to be ok. Barbara Brennan’s work refers to masking one’s true core with a pattern or personality trait that we may have developed at a very young age to cope with stress. And we know that “being human” means suffering. The Buddha teaches us this. Jesus teaches us this. Many great mentors teach us that suffering is a part of life. But when suffering is so internal that we mask it from those closest to us and even to ourselves, then we are dealing with an entirely new level of what it means to suffer.

It’s like knowing that there are fish in the ocean, cognitively, but then putting on deep sea gear and seeing the actual world that makes up 75% of our planet: there is no comparison to knowing vs. really seeing what is underneath the surface.

I cannot ever claim to be close to understanding the deep pain Eric-the-trainer and Stephen tWitch Boss must have been experiencing to take their own lives. But what I can say from my own experience with deep emotional and mental pain is that martial arts, the practice, the community, and the teacher, saved my life.

The practice forces us to be in the flow of life, to deal with the deep internal demons, and to allow lodged cellular traumas to work themselves out. It is impossible to be a martial artist and not release deep suffering into a safe and caring community, thus allowing for profound emotional, spiritual, and physical healing.

A call to action:

Pay attention. Practice. Get to Nature. Practice. Ask. Practice. Talk about it. Practice. Go deeper. Practice. Look under the surface. Practice. Feel others in your life. Practice. Love yourself. Practice.

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