January 24, 2024

Heartmind, Technique, Body: applying an integrated martial arts pedagogy to climbing

Strong Mind Team

Photo by Angus Kille.

In this article, we examine several mindset-related concepts taken from the Zen philosophy of Japanese martial arts and consider their application to climbing.

Originally, martial arts such as karate and kyūdō (Japanese archery) were practised as bujustu (‘martial techniques’); however, over time they incorporated Buddhist-influenced pedagogy to become budō (martial ways): paths for self-improvement through training. Karate-dō is ‘the way of the empty hand’ and kyūdō, is the ‘way of the bow’, for example (Chapman, 2005: 23-25).

Below we summarise five philosophical concepts from Japanese budō that describe and encourage an integrated mental and physical approach to physical skill-acquisition and sports training. This approach is captured well in the three-word aphorism:

心 技 体 | Shin Gi Tai | Heartmind, Technique, Body (Schlatt: 1996, 178)

Balanced practice involves learning and refining technique, training the body, as well as developing mental focus and emotional self-regulation. Each of these elements is essential, yet often we may overemphasise training over learning, or physical over mental and emotional preparation.

We introduce each martial art mindset informed by Kris’ study and practice of karate and kyūdō, then offer some useful elaboration on how each concept can be applied in climbing, drawing on Becca’s experience as a climbing coach. This will help you consider how to develop each of the elements of shin gi tai in your climbing.

初心者の心 | Shoshinsha no kokoro | Beginner’s mind

‘Beginner’s mind’ means approaching a situation without the preconceptions that come from prior experience.

Beginners come to training with no (or limited) expectations or preconceived ideas of what they ‘should’ be able to do, they just deal with what confronts them in that session – be that in the karate dōjō, at the climbing wall, or crag.  

It doesn’t mean that it is better to be a novice at what you are doing than an expert; this is not a lesson in ‘forgetting what you’ve learned’. Instead, it’s understanding that even experienced sportspeople can benefit from letting go of their expectations in their training and just perform how they can on the day. Accept also that your ‘best’ varies from day to day, depending on factors such as energy levels, motivation, and injury.  

In everyday life, meditation or in sport, reminding yourself to have shoshinsha no kokoro can help you see situations more clearly with the non-judgmental awareness that lies at the heart of mindfulness.

‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.’ Shunryu Suzuki (cited in Encamp, n.d.)

In my karate experience, the times that I didn’t apply beginner’s mind stick in my mind. I can recall competitions where expectations got in the way of my focus and caused me frustration, especially when I lost. Thoughts like: ‘I should never lose to my brother in a kata (forms) competition’ as a teenager, or during a local kumite (sparring) match in Tokyo, ‘I should win this easily, they’re just a brown belt.’ It’s not only about letting go of expectations as you are doing your sport, but also how you regulate your emotions after training or competition. Beginner’s mind can remind you to accept that mistakes and losses happen: a bad day in the dōjō (training hall) doesn’t make you a bad karateka (karate practitioner). Competitions and grades (shown by belt colour in karate) explicitly invite you to compare yourself to others, but how others perform is not in your control, so loosen your mind’s grip on comparison and the weight of expectation and you might perform with less pressure and more confidence and focus, as well as being able to let go of set-backs more quickly.

In climbing this involves removing your expectations of what you ‘should’ be able to do and which climbs ‘should’ be easy for you. You can easily be derailed by the warm-up climb that you expect to find easy because of its grade and suddenly it turns out to be an undergraded sandbag that knocks your confidence and motivation for the day. Respecting every climb as a learning experience and starting with a sense of curiosity means that you are prepared for difficulties when they arise. Remember that grades are subjective and different climbs feel harder or easier depending on your height, strength, or technical ability. As a beginner you had no concept of grade, you just tried, bringing that back to your sessions can help remind you of the joy of climbing.

Photo by Simon Moore

無心 | Mushin | No-mind

No-mind is a Zen Buddhist concept used in Japanese martial arts such as karate; it’s an abbreviation of ‘mushin no shin’ – the ‘mind of no mind’. While ‘mu’ also means empty, 'mushin' does not mean acting without thinking. Rather it is a sense of mindful automaticity in skilled performance: you are not consciously reflecting on what you need to do, instead, because training has ingrained the techniques into the body, the movement becomes intuitive, ‘second nature’.

Mushin is similar to, yet culturally distinct from, the idea of ‘flow’ used in Western sports. Mushin and ‘flow’ both reflect a state in which intention and action are aligned without the need for conscious reflection. They are similar concepts from different backgrounds.

The ‘no mind’ of mushin is more ‘clear-minded’ than ‘unthinking’ – you are focused, aware, and in the moment. Awareness is the key, as it’s not a sense of mindless activity, but of mind and body working as one: the difference between driving a car on ‘automatic pilot’ versus paying attention to your surroundings while driving down the road. Kyūdō master Hideharu Onuma observes:

‘…mushin is not the elimination of thought, it is the elimination of the remnants of thought: that which remains when thought is divorced from action. In mushin, thought and action occur simultaneously. Nothing comes between the thought and the action, and nothing is left over.’ (1993: 22)  

Francis Sanzaro notes the concept of ‘no-mind’ can seem paradoxical: encouraging us to both empty the mind and let the mind be itself at the same time (2023: 134). This is not a contradiction; it just indicates a focus on experiential awareness over cognitive reflection in performance. Adam Ondra summarises this well:

‘When I am on the wall, it is important not to be present rationally, but rather intuitively… all decisions are made automatically.’ (Adam Ondra, cited in Sanzarro, 2023: 164)

I would highlight that what Ondra describes here is a mindful (i.e. experientially aware), rather than mindless (i.e. unaware) automaticity.

When I think of mushin in my own martial arts experience, I think of the hundreds of repetitions of a kata (form) in karate training that led to focused performances under pressure in competition or grading. All those repetitions refining the technique, the timing, the intensity, and flow of movement, so that when you are on the mat and you’ve announced your kata to the judges or examiners, you have the instantaneous intention to perform, the head turns, and the body executes.  

It’s different with a more open skill like kumite (sparring); trickier, I think, as there are more variables outside your direct control. Your mind can often be busy when you fight: how good is my opponent? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Should I try this or that combination? What technique has the best chance of scoring? I’m getting tired, how much time is left? But, sometimes, the mind calms, you have an awareness of your opponent – their reach, their distance, and patterns of movement. Without conscious reflection, just intention, you create an opening for your opponent to strike – a subtle move, a look, or shift of balance. A punch comes and you don’t think but your hand moves to block, in the same split second you perceive a weakness in your opponent’s defence, your body angle shifts, you counter and kiai (shout). That’s also no-mind. It’s not something esoteric and mystical, it’s trainable.    

In climbing this mindful automaticity comes with experience: movements become intuitive through training and repetition. You don’t have to think about which hand to move in which order. Your body knows how to climb; you make the moves without conscious thought. This can be particularly noticeable when you onsight a climb and the moves feel like they ‘just happen’. If someone asks you after how you did a move, you can’t always tell them.

平常心 | Heijōshin | Ordinary mind

Heijōshin, ‘ordinary mind’ or ‘everyday mind’, combines the Chinese characters for ‘usual’ or ‘ordinary’ with the character for heartmind. An ‘ordinary mind’ isn’t ordinary because it is the state of mind that we usually have: which can often be distracted, unfocused, or out of balance. Rather, the connotation of ‘everyday mind’ is one of self-possession or presence of mind. It is accepting the highs and lows of our lives as though they are ordinary: composure derived from equanimity in facing life’s challenges and successes without getting caught up in expectations about what might happen or judgements about past events.

We often struggle, mentally and emotionally, with being out of balance in life and sport. Things often don’t go how we want or expect. The key is not to continually strive for equilibrium, but to cultivate equanimity – we can have a balanced perspective even as we are continually thrown out of balance by life events beyond our control.

How can you achieve mental composure and physical poise? A Zen approach is to let go of attachments (Boylan, 2015). Deal with things how they are rather than how you think they should be or how you wish them to be. Sanzaro describes this as a process of ‘taking away’ (2023: 12, 135): removing expectations, pressures, not trying too hard, so you can climb in a more balanced state.

Personally, I don’t think this is easy or always achievable, so I would strongly advocate that self-compassion is also fundamental. When you find things hard, be kind to yourself. A bad day at the kyūdōjō (archery range) does not make you a bad archer, much less a bad person:

‘Sometimes we will hit the target but miss the self. At other times we will miss the target and hit the self…’ (Onuma, 1993: 23)

Hold your performance today in perspective and view your progress over the longer term with an ‘ordinary mind’. In climbing, it is helpful to remember that you won’t climb at the same level every time you climb. A bad day at the crag, a bad session at the wall, or a bad competition result don’t make you a bad climber. Your climbing progress will ebb and flow –there will be periods where you climb harder every session and there will be times where you seem to stay at the same grade for ages. An ‘ordinary mind’ accepts both of these phases, knowing that every session you will learn something and improve even if it doesn’t show as an increase in grade.

Photo by Hazel Findlay.

残身 / 残心 | Zanshin | Remaining body / remaining mind

There are two different versions of the concept of ‘zanshin’, depending on which Chinese characters are used to spell the word:

残心 means ‘remaining mind’, while 残身 means ‘remaining body’.

Both concepts are used in kyūdō and are relevant to mindful performance and presence. In the eight stages of shooting (hassetsu) that defines the shooting process in Japanese archery, zanshin is the last stage after the arrow has been released. The shot does not end with the release, rather the archer should retain a focussed body and mind, retaining the physical awareness and mental focus of the moment the arrow is released. The All Nippon Kyudo Federation’s Kyudo Manual notes: ‘Expressed as spirit, it is the remaining spiritual energy, and expressed as form, it is the remaining body action.’ (1992: 73).

Rather than thinking shooting as ‘spiritual’, I prefer to think about it as ‘intentional’ in the phenomenological sense of directed consciousness towards one’s environment (Britannica). Thus, to have ‘remaining mind’ is to retain the focused awareness of your body and surroundings even after you have executed the task. Physically, ‘remaining body’ is the maintenance of physical form at the end of the performance – ‘Even if there has been a brilliant performance, the end of an activity, movement or kata must not become disorderly.’ (Schlatt, 1996: 149).

Zanshin is therefore about carrying through the mental and physical composure to the end of the task and then maintaining this focus for a short while beyond completion. Your physical form and mental state facilitate self-awareness and self-possession allowing you to calm the body, regulate the breath, and deal with your emotions whether that is the satisfaction at hearing the ‘tok’ of the arrow hit the target, or frustration as it thuds into the earth bank. Zanshin instils physical self-awareness and mental equanimity – good skills to have in life as well as sport.

In climbing, you can demonstrate zanshin by retaining your focus after the crux move, or at the end of the route or problem. Losing focus when the harder moves are done can lead to you falling off the ‘easy’ top out. Maintaining your focus after the climb can allow you to appreciate what you have done; it allows you to store successes in your memory to help motivate you when things feel difficult. Climbers can be very quick to focus on the next project or climb, not taking the time to appreciate the moment – where they are, who they are with, what they are doing.

Being aware of how you feel physically and emotionally after a climb can help you pace your session better and optimise your performance. If you finish feeling strong, then the next climb you choose might be more difficult or emotionally draining. After that, you might need to select a lower grade or a less emotionally demanding route. Physical and mental composure is a skill that you can develop over time, but once embedded in your practice it can become second nature and tuned into in times of stress both in climbing and life in general.

Conclusion:  心  | kokoro in climbing

Kokoro (alternative reading ‘shin’, as in ‘mushin’ for example) is an interesting term as it is not easily translated in English – it is sometimes called ‘heartmind’. It combines elements of emotions, thoughts, and intuition (or ‘spirit’) in a way that ‘mind’ alone does not (Livni, 2017). The aim in martial arts is to develop your kokoro in conjunction with training the body and learning good technique – a pedagogy of shin gi tai / heartmind body technique, as mentioned in our introduction above.

We hope that the martial arts mindsets that we have introduced here serve as heuristics to help you consider an integrated approach to your training. Ask yourself: ‘how do I develop heartmind as well as my body and technique in my climbing?’

About the Authors

Dr Kris Chapman is a mindfulness instructor specialising in mindfulness for sport. Kris’ PhD is in the anthropology of martial arts and included training in Japan. His background is in karate and kyūdō, Japanese archery. He has black belts in Shukokai and Shotokan karate, and a first dan in Heki-ryu Insai-ha kyūdō.

See www.mindfulkindfulness.co.uk or contact kris@mindfulkindfulness.co.uk.

Becca Lounds is a climbing coach, outdoor instructor and co-owner of Climb Move Run (Development Coach, RCDI, MLs). She has climbed for over 25 years and has been a full-time coach for 10 years. She has bouldered F7C, sport climbed f8a, and trad climbed E5.

See www.climbmoverun.com or contact her at belaybunny@hotmail.co.uk.

Becca and Kris run courses together on Mindfulness Techniques for Better Climbing Performance.


All Nippon Kyudo Federation (1992) Kyudo Manual Volume 1: principles of shooting (shahō) (revised edition), translated by Liam O’Brien, Tokyo.

Britannica (20 July 1998) Intentionality: philosophy, available online at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/intentionality-philosophy, accessed on 1.11.2023

Boylan, Peter (3.11.2015) States of mind: heijoshin, The Budo Bum blog, available online at: http://budobum.blogspot.com/2015/11/states-of-mind-heijoshin.html, accessed on 22.10.2023

Chapman, Kris (2005) Inside the Dōjō: participation and performance in the Japanese martial arts, PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Encamp, Jess (no date) ‘4 Powerful Mindsets of Traditional Karate’ on www.karatebyjesse.com, available online at: https://www.karatebyjesse.com/zanshin-mushin-shoshin-fudoshin/, accessed on 11.10.2023

Jackson, Susan A. and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1999) Flow in Sports: the keys to optimal experiences and performances, Human Kinetics

Livni, Ephrat (April 6, 2017) ‘This Japanese word connecting mind, body, and spirit is also driving scientific discovery’, available online at: https://qz.com/946438/kokoro-a-japanese-word-connecting-mind-body-and-spirit-is-also-driving-scientific-discovery, accessed on 1.11.2023

Onuma, Hidehary with Dan and Jackie DeProspero 1993) Kyudo: the essence and practice of Japanese archery, Kodansha International

Sanzaro, Francis (2023) The Zen of Climbing, Saraband / Contraband. Two chapters of this book are available on the UK Climbing website: https://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/features/the_zen_of_climbing-15136, accessed 11.10.2023

DISCLAIMER: Strong Mind content may not be appropriate for someone suffering from a mental health disorder. If you are unsure whether you should try some of the techniques or advice referred to on this site or in this text, please consult your doctor or therapist first.

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