6 – Ascetics, self-cultivation, self infliction


This panel will discuss different ways experienced by the martial arts practitioners to explore, transcend and transform themselves. These ways range from the search of harmony with the cosmos, balance of the senses, intuition development through meditative practices, exceeding of pain and overshoot of physical limitations.

  • Discussant: Marceau Chenault (Lyon Est University)



  • Spencer Bennington (University of South Florida) – Embodying the Dao: Tae Kwon Do Pumsae as Moving Meditation


Tae Kwon Do scholarship has focused primarily on the discipline’s mythologized beginnings or technical developments into a combat sport (Moenig 2015). Some recent articles describe connections between Tae Kwon Do and Eastern religious systems (Martinez 2018), but these explorations only scratch the surface by investigating the presence of symbols like the taegeuk in training studios. My presentation takes this research one step further by examining the connections between the eight color-belt pumsae (forms) recognized by the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WT) and Daoist cosmological principles extending from the I-Ching. Furthermore, I analyze these forms within the historical context of their design to suggest that this imbuing of spirituality into martial practice may have functioned more as a way to appeal to Western audiences than any type of genuine attempt to transform Tae Kwon Do into a more reflective, meditative practice. My research interrogates a variety of Tae Kwon Do manuals to understand the methods by which a practitioner embodies these eight principles of palgwe/bagua through pumsae practice and what this means for the larger spiritual cultivation of the martial artist. As Udo Moenig (2015) has already pointed out, this self-cultivation component is not always stressed at every dojang, thus leaving contemporary Tae Kwon Do in a state of fractured identity. With this in mind, I use autoethnographic notes as an observer-participant to better contextualize how the average American practitioner understands or ignores the spiritual component of their practice. My audience will receive a keener understanding of how the palgwe correlate with Tae Kwon Do pumsae, the historical exigency for their design, a contextualized understanding of how spiritual components are (mis)understood by contemporary practitioners, and a theory of what these components could mean for transferable inter/intrapersonal skills development.

Keywords: Tae Kwon Do, Daoism, pumsae practice, embodiment, self-cultivation.

Bio & Contact

Spencer Todd Bennignton is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida studying Rhetoric and Composition. His research focuses primarily on the ways Tae Kwon Do are communicated to audiences inside and outside the discipline for rhetorical effects. He explores these connections as a researcher and as a practitioner both in academic arenas as well as more public facing ones like the web platform he founded in 2019, rhetoricalroundhouse.com.


Video Presentation 

  • Ron Dziwenka (Salisbury University) – Martial Art Spiritual Practice: From Process to Praxis to Intuition


The purposes of this presentation are to elucidate the concept of practice in the context of martial arts/combat sports (MA/CS), and explicate how fundamental aspects of paradigms of practice in martial arts, physical education, bodily awareness, East Asian philosophy and meditation might align with each other. Research on paradigms of practice in these fields holds intuition as a goal of practice, realized through praxis that includes reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. I apply the sudden awakening / gradual cultivation (SA/GC, 頓悟漸修) paradigm of spiritual practice asserted by the 13th century Goryeo Dynasty Korean monk Jinul (知訥; 1158-1210) in order to demonstrate how its key aspects align with those of MA/CS practice. Through real-life examples of aspects of practice, compiled through the qualitative ethnographic research methodology (with an IRB) of interviewing long-time martial art practitioners, I demonstrate that in Jinul’s paradigm as well as those followed by long-time MA/CS practitioners, “right practice” includes rigorous discipline, repetition of (patterns of) ideal forms, focused concentration, and bodily and cognitive awareness, toward what may allow for (the development of) intuition. Some aspects of Jinul’s paradigm shared by MA/CS practitioners are that gradual cultivation (GC) is a key imperative of an approach to practice, continuous refinement of technique involves self-reflection and focused concentration, internalizing or intuiting of technique seems to be correlated with a sense of “right(ful)ness” or clarity that motivates long-time practitioners towards a harmonization or syncretism of aspects of their practice, and the experiencing of a paradigmatic shift occurs at some point during their careers. Based on these findings, I assert that this modified SA/GC paradigm could offer a grand unified theory of the soteriology of MA/CS practice – from process to praxis to intuition.

Key words: right practice; procedural knowledge; propositional knowledge; sudden awakening, gradual cultivation paradigm of spiritual practice; Korean monk Jinul (知訥).

Bio & Contact

Ron Dziwenka holds an MA and PhD in East Asian Studies from University of Arizona (USA) and an MA from Yonsei University (ROK). He has published and presented on martial arts at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Scientific Congress and in the Republic of China, People’s Republic of China, Republic of Korea, Canada, Mexico and the USA. During his 12 years at Yonsei University, he was a contributing member of the World Taekwondo Federation Research Society. He is Senior Advisor in the Center for International Education and an adjunct in the Dept. of History at Salisbury University, USA. He is on the Editorial Board of the International Association of Taekwondo Research, a reviewer for Ido Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology, and an active member of the Society for the Study of Philosophy and the Martial Arts as well as the American Philosophical Association. He is Co-founder and President of International Academic Conference for Taekwondo (iACT).


Video Presentation 

  • Matteo di Placido & Lorenzo Pedrini (University of Milan) – Change Yourself, Change the World: Engaged Spirituality in Boxe Popolare and Odaka Yoga


Contemporary spiritualities undergo dynamics of differentiation and internal articulation.Today’s spiritual life is often described as inherently commodified, reluctant to external forms of authority, and self-centered in nature. It remains controversial whether certain spiritual practices, religious or secular, function as sources of moral, social and political outreach and action. In this contribution, we explore ‘engaged spirituality’(Stanczak, 2006), that is, those spiritual experiences, mainly but not exclusively rooted in religious faith traditions, that aim to societal transformation by transforming the practitioners’ selves. Our analysis focuses on two secular practices: boxe popolare ─ a style of boxing codified by Italian leftist grassroots groups; and Odaka Yoga ─ an innovative postural yoga informed by Bushido (the Samurai Way of Life) and Zen which incorporates martial arts drills. Boxe popolare is chosen on the ground of its overt commitment to political activism and apparent lack of spirituality, while Odaka Yoga for its religious background, introspective emphasis on self-transformation and absence of manifest civic involvement. Framing boxe popolare and Odaka Yoga as ‘reflexive body techniques’ (Crossley, 2005), we provide a comparative ethnographic account. Firstly, through participant observation, we investigate the class pedagogies and their respective engaged hidden curriculum. Secondly, through biographic interviews, we explore practitioners’ narratives of transformations, thus appreciating how pedagogies’ underlying spiritual philosophies are internalized in (self-reflective) body-society projects. In addressing the engaged spirituality debate with a focus on secularized martial arts, we challenge the ‘individualism hypothesis’ arguing that contemporary spirituality constitutes complex and flexible self-cultivation processes whose contents cannot be devoid to others and broad social entities. The nature of these relationships in fact largely depends on specific (martial arts) practices.

Keywords: Boxe popolare; Odaka Yoga; engaged spirituality; engaged hidden curriculum; reflexive body techniques.

Bio & Data

Matteo Di Placido is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Research at the University of Milan – Bicocca. He is currently working on his PhD dissertation, an ethnographic study on the social organization of two modern yoga communities of practice located respectively in Italy and Portugal. He is particularly interested in the teacher-student relationship as the governing principle of modern yoga communities, the dimensions of practices, embodiment, self-transformation and the disciplinary role of modern yoga. Among his previous research interests figure the study of mindfulness, substance consumption and Husserlian phenomenology.

Lorenzo Pedrini, PhD. He works in the Department of Sociology and Social Research, University of Milan – Bicocca. His research interests address the study of politics embedded in sport and physical cultural practices from sociological and historical standpoints. After completing an ethnographic research on boxe popolare ─ a leftist style of boxing in contemporary Italy ─ he is conducting an ethno-sociological inquiry on the formation, evolution and transmission of political subcultures among associations of football fans in Milan.



Video Presentation 

  • Noora J. Ronkainen & Tatiana V. Ryba (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) – Infusing a Martial Artist Identity with Religious Meaning: a Case Study of a Finnish Judoka


There is an increasing interest in human and social sciences of sport on the religious aspect of athletes’ lives and how it is expressed and experienced in sport practices. However, few studies have explored the intersections of religious and martial artist identities to understand how religious beliefs, values, practices and communities are integrated into athletes’ self-narratives. The present study explored longitudinally a Christian adolescent judoka’s developmental journey with a specific focus on how tensions and conflicts between religion and sport were negotiated to develop a coherent self-narrative. The athlete, “Usko” (male, aged 16 at the baseline) participated in five interviews over a four-year period. We analysed his stories using narrative analysis with the focus on both ‘big stories’ (overarching story plots and life themes) and ‘small stories’ (every day, tentative stories told in interaction). Our preliminary analysis showed that for “Usko”, the athletic career was initiated by a religious calling (a vision of her mother), and in his developing ‘big story’ sport was storied as a religious vocation. His story as an athlete was furthermore constructed within a mission narrative, where sport could be a way of sharing his faith and possibly converting others. In his small stories, however, he wrestled with incompatibilities between athletic and religious identities and values (e.g., pride vs humility; athletes as simple-minded and religious people as deep thinkers). While these small inconsistencies could be reconciled to provide a coherent ‘big story’ of the athlete’s life, he fully rejected the Eastern philosophy/spirituality of judo as idolatry and constructed judo as ‘a mere sport’ without built-in spiritual ideas. The findings are relevant for developing a more multidimensional understanding of religious meaning-making in sport and have applied implications for coaches, sport psychologists and others working with athletes.

Keywords: Christianity, athletic identity, spirituality, athletic career, intersectionality

Bio & Contact

Dr Noora Ronkainen is a senior researcher at the department of psychology at the University of Jyväskylä. Her research has focused on meaning and spirituality in sport, athletes’ career development, and existential learning in sport.


Dr Tatiana Ryba is a senior researcher at the department of psychology at the University of Jyväskylä and leads a longitudinal mixed methods study that examines developmental pathways of high school athletes with a specific focus on wellbeing, motivation, identity, and career construction. Her other interests include methodology, culture and transnationalism.


Video Presentation 

  • Eric Caulier (Côte d’Azur University) – Taijiquan: tradition, esotericism and authenticity


A living tradition is a tradition constantly reinvented. In all art in general and in taijiquan in particular, transgression is an essential step to gain mastery. To accompany others on the path to growth is not to deliver ready-made truths but to guide them in the search for their inner truth. Taoism shares with transdisciplinarity the ability to integrate experiences and knowledge from very different backgrounds in a coherent approach. These approaches suit the practitioner-researcher-teacher that I am. I’m following the third way defined by Antoine Faivre (purist, eclectic, humanist). According to the “humanist” way, the traditional spirit is enriched by sciences exploration. Pierre A. Riffard, wondering about the definition of esotericism, wonders if one can study it without practicing it and practice it without studying it. Yves Albert Dauge’s esotericism’s conception – global and operative anthropology anchored in essential by a right perception of the reality structure and its mutations – seems to correspond to taijiquan practitioners approach. In order to circumscribe the esotericism field in a university environment, Antoine Faivre offers six criteria: correspondence, living Nature, imagination and mediation, transmutation experience, concordance, transmission. Can they apply to the traditional art of taijiquan? In my opinion, authentic style practice is not in claiming a label but in practicing by becoming true to yourself. This veracity resulting from a liberation form generates a powerful and radiant energy. This quest for inner truth led me to think outside the box. For more than two decades, I have been revisiting taijiquan in the light of new paradigms: flow experience, tensegrity, learning by body, enaction, deep ecology, …

Key words: taijiquan, tradition, esotericism, authenticity, transdisciplinarity.

Bio & Contact

Eric Caulier is PhD in anthropology (Côte d’Azur University), associate member of LAPCOS. He has studied the five major styles of taijiquan (6th duan) and the different internal arts (graduated from the Beijing Sports University) during his many stays in China in the 1990s. He taught thousands of students and trained many teachers. With the automotive supplier Faurecia, he collaborates in the creation of an innovative approach in ergonomics. In 2015, he created with the MIC (Microsoft Innovation Center) an educational game to learn taijiquan. In 2016, he participated in the founding of CoSoCo, an exploratory research group examining the relationships between consciousness, care and cognition from a transdisciplinary point of view. Eric Caulier is the author of a dozen books: Les sens du mouvement – Une approche transdisciplinaire du taijiquan (Le livre en papier, 2019), Prendre conscience du corps (UPPR, 2016), Comprendre le taijiquan (EME, 2010).


Video Presentation