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We must A.C.E it

The A.C.E principle for martial arts-based mental well-being interventions

Martial arts uniquely integrate physical activity and mind-body practices and may offer a framework to improve both physical and mental well-being. However, it is critical to recognize the fundamental elements of these methodologies and tune these according to the needs of the intervention in question. As a part of a model for martial arts as a well-being intervention, the A.C.E principle explains three core aspects that need to be considered.

A.C.E stands for Affect, Cognition, and Expression. These elements are organized in a bottom-up approach:

Affect – the term itself relates to the basic experience of feelings and emotions, including their level of pleasantness and arousal. It was used by Silvan Tomkins in the 60s’ within the Affect Theory to refer to the “hard-wired, preprogrammed, biological element of emotion that exists in each of us”. The affect theory proposes that our behavior is predominantly driven by feelings and emotions, and is focused on hedonic mechanisms of maximizing pleasurable moments while minimizing negative ones. While this theory is used in different domains for explaining human behaviors, in the context of martial arts it reflects the mindful experience of our present being. Not without a reason, in the opening scene of the movie “Enter the Dragon”, Bruce Lee asks his student to kick him, and when the student fails to properly do that, Lee responds by saying “What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content. Try again”. When the student kicked again, but now with more aggression, Lee responded “I said "emotional content". Not anger! Now try again... with me”.

The first step in practicing martial arts is to be mindful of your body sensations and the emotions and feelings you experience. We do not dismiss what we perceive as negative ones, or hang on to positive ones, but rather focus on experiencing these states. Some of the important points that his experience teaches us are:

-       Our physiological and mental states are dynamic. You may feel great now, but it will pass away. But so are negative emotions.

-       Our experience is subjective. The same stimuli may evoke different responses for different individuals, and even for the same individual at different times. We only have our interpretations of reality, and not reality itself.

-       Being engaged with your experience is the key to well-being. Whether positive or negative, being tuned to our state should promote acceptance and compassion, which are fundamental to our well-being. You cannot control your experience of sadness or happiness, but you can make peace with their transient nature.

Cognition - includes remembering, reasoning, judging, imagining, problem-solving, and other forms of mental awareness. In the context of martial arts-based therapeutic intervention, this would be defining the purpose of the specific elements of the intervention. According to the desired outcomes, any well-being intervention includes specific components that address the needs of the participants. These needs may be cognitive, emotional, social, or other, and the specific components may include complex motor learning, emotional regulation exercises, pairs/group drills, and more. Within a therapeutic context, it is important that participants have an overview of the trajectory they will follow, as it will improve adherence rates and willingness to cooperate with the intervention facilitator. From the facilitator’s perspective, a thorough familiarity with various martial arts methodologies is essential, as it will enable a dynamic and adaptive course of intervention.

Expression – self-expression is the act of engaging in activities that reflect personal thoughts, emotions, and aspirations. It is closely related to creativity and imagination, as it encapsulates the essence of the concept of self, translated into action. With many ways to express ourselves, including all forms of art, martial arts stand out as a unique approach. The combination of affect and cognition in a physical manner that allows both introspection and social interaction cannot be found in any other form of self-expression. In practice, this is the technique itself. For the same reason I cannot cross the same river twice, I can throw my punch a million times, and while each time it will be different, it will always be the everchanging me. In therapeutic settings, we would want to encourage each participant to find themselves in every technique they do. Once you are tuned to your own state, and understand the purpose of the exercise, mimicking others is useless. Although we exist in a web of paths, we walk the path alone. Making it yours will shape how comfortable the walk will be.

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