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Martial Arts and the Art of Medicine

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, November 14, 2011
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This article appears in the November 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

It may seem incongruous to some that a physician who dedicates his life to healing would also study the bone-breaking kicks and punches of martial arts. Jimmy Ellis, MD, a second-degree black belt in Shotokan karate, sees no inherent conflict. The martial art he practices stresses peaceful conflict resolution and the use of violence only as a last resort. The discipline, focus, and physical conditioning that Ellis, 51, gets from the karate classes he teaches each week at Nicholls State University Karate Club are also tools that help him cope with the stress of medical oncology at Thibodeaux (LA) Regional Medical Center.  

On the physician as karate instructor: A big part of practicing medicine is teaching, helping people adjust their lifestyles and seeking healthier behaviors. Martial arts are geared toward that, taking care of the whole person. A big thing that is discussed in Japanese martial arts is taking care of mind, body, and spirit. You don’t want to just make your muscles stronger; you want to be understanding of the art and you want the spiritual benefits that come from healthy activities.  

On the karate instructor as physician: It helps me deal with very stressful issues of medical oncology like death and dying. Without that, this particular type of medicine could be emotionally very difficult. I am not sure if it’s specifically the martial arts or just physical exercise, but I have always found that very comforting and relaxing.

On martial arts for healthcare professionals: The way healthcare is, we do have a lot of conflict and crisis. There is the never-ending change in public policy. If you are involved in martial arts, it allows you to stay focused on what your job really is, which is taking care of sick people and not worrying about whether there is a public option or solvency for Medicare. We have to care about that, but I have to be focused on the person in front of me who sought me out for care. The ability to stay focused and maintain that discipline is something I get from martial arts.   


This article appears in the November 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.


John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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