The Mind-Body Connection
How kickboxing can improve mental health
Jabs gym instructor jessica jacobs
"Hook, hook! Uppercut, go!”
In a dark room that is illuminated by black lights, heavy bags thud with one hard punch on each side, followed by a succession of low punches with fists pointed up. Kickboxing is in session at Jabs Gym, and dozens of bodies are synchronized in hit combos, kicks and cardio moves, all to the fast-paced beat of ghettotech and dance-fused hip-hop. They’re here for the physical benefits, of course, but more importantly, the mental benefits that come with steady training.
The hourlong class, which starts off with light cardio — usually jumping jacks, high knees, and “climbing the bag” — increases in intensity, peaking with three nonstop minutes of hitting the bag at your hardest before slowing down with ab exercises, push-ups, and stretching. Other classes like BOYO (boxing and yoga) weave in yoga flow; there’s also a boot camp-style class, which focuses on strength and interval training, among others.
Classes are offered at two locations, one in Detroit’s Eastern Market and the other in Birmingham. Between both, 16 teachers and trainers work with approximately 600 active members.
Kickboxing was the first activity I’d discovered, aside from running, that truly helped me release myself from my anxiety disorder, which has been a constant issue in my life since grade school. The more I trained, the better I could focus, and the more I focused, the less my mind was filled with panic thoughts. Not to say they went away completely, but in the hour I spent turning inner frustration into positive energy — a.k.a. letting it all out on a heavy bag — my mind felt clearer in ways that neither medicine nor therapy alone could achieve.
I started training at Jabs in late 2015, and by 2016, my training had doubled. The instructors, who are just as much motivational coaches, help trainees discover the mind-body connection, which is all about being able to control the physical self via the emotional self (and vice-versa). “Ninety percent of your workout is mental,” says 55-year-old Jabs instructor Christopher Allen, who goes by “Ice.” “Kickboxing helps you pay attention. It helps you understand your capabilities, but also the limitations you’ve placed upon yourself.”
You can do that push-up, he says. “We encounter much tougher things in life than kicking a bag or doing jumping jacks. You have to embrace practicing how to overcome.” Through kickboxing, people learn how to believe in themselves, which can help knock down walls of low self-esteem or negative thinking. By constantly being pushed past perceived mental and physical limitations, “you find out that you possess strength,” Allen continues. “It lets you be a lot of things.”
That feeling can transition into the rest of your life. For 29-year-old instructor Jessica Jacobs, who also teaches preschool, kickboxing was an outlet that helped her get through grief. After losing her mother to cancer, the sport was a way for her to release feelings and emotions that she wasn’t otherwise able to access. “Sometimes you don’t realize your own strength, so when you’re taught how to use it properly, it gives you so much power,” she says. “Knowing how, and knowing you can: that’s strength in itself.”
Like Jacobs, Allen turned to kickboxing to overcome tragedy. Within the span of a few years, he lost his younger brother, mother, and father. “I was on the brink of destruction because I lost my support system,” he recalls. “The gym is what saved me. I would get up every day and I would make sure that, no matter what, I would come to my class.” Allen, who is also a personal trainer, says his class is a place where people help keep one another balanced.
But what happens when you combine kickboxing with group grief therapy? That’s an outlet that Jacobs, along with grief specialist and psychotherapist Judith Burdick, are working on. Burdick, 56, a grief survivor herself, lost her husband of 10 years in a scuba diving accident at a young age. Left alone with two small children, she turned to physical exercise to process her emotional and physical grief.
To help people through depression, PTSD, and other mental illness in a similar manner, a new program called “Kickboxing Through Your Grief, a small group therapy-exercise program, is planned for May, with five sessions to be held on consecutive Saturdays at Jabs Gym in Birmingham. “The energy of grief is really stressful, and the only way to move that is to move,” says Burdick. “Especially when there’s an anger component, there’s nothing more therapeutic than punching or kicking a bag. That’s a healthy way of channeling one’s anger versus acting it out on somebody or something.”
“Boxing to get out those feelings and talking: that’s the goal,” adds Jacobs. Through kickboxing (or any physical exercise, really), endorphins are released and there’s potential of increasing the production of dopamine in one’s brain: that’s a neurotransmitter that helps regulate emotional response. Considering kickboxing’s intensity, dopamine production levels can be even higher.
“If you’re ignoring the body, the mind can only heal so far and vice-versa,” says Burdick. “Depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand, and they also go with grief. Any kind of physical movement will help to process those kinds of experiences.”