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Vol 40 No 3, Fall 2018

Interview with Sensei Jamie Leno Zimron

Sensei Jamie Leno Zimron

Photo courtesy of Igor Farberov

By Christina Thompson
PAWMA Newsletter Editor-in-Chief

Sensei Jamie Leno Zimron was honored this year with PAWMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She taught the closing class at Camp in August 2018, Becoming a Shift-Master, to explore martial arts as stress-mastery training. Sensei graciously agreed to allow me to interview her for the newsletter.

CT: Thank you for joining us for Camp, and for sharing your insights around stress and self-management during the closing session. I enjoyed the class and had so many rich discussions with classmates after. It seems like the teachings you have to offer are from a very deep, generous and hopeful place. Could you talk about why you chose to share this topic with us?

JZ: First of all, I’m so glad you enjoyed and got benefit from the class. I am always looking for ways to enhance our training, as well as to bring what we do to the outer world and all the people who may never step into a martial arts school.

Stress affects us in so many ways, and it has became clear to me that what we work with in the dojo is exactly that! We are eliciting the classic F-F-F stress reactions - Freeze / Fight / Flight. Every time we punch, kick, strike, grapple, pull out sticks and swords and take each other down what we are doing is putting ourselves in situations of scary pressure and stress reactivity. I think it is so important for us to engage in our martial arts practice conscious that we are:

  1. putting ourselves under stress
  2. studying our own habitual reactions  
  3. learning to respond differently, with more clarity, choice and power.

This awareness ought to inform our teaching and training, and can give us vital information and tools to share with others.

You’ll remember I started the class asking people to attack each other with a strike or punch, and then act out each of the main three stress responses. I do this exercise with non-martial arts groups, but it was so fun to watch the women at PAWMA because they know how to attack, and they just jumped in and went through these responses in such full and vigorous ways!

My intention was to help everyone see that F-F-F is what is going on inside us while we’re training. That stress responses are activated and affecting our emotions, thought process, physical movements, and basic abilities to be present, to learn, and to take effective action.

We aren’t only trying to master martial techniques, or pass a belt test, or win a sparring match. We are in actuality dealing with how do we function, and how can we perform well and succeed, given that we are under the influence of stress biochemistry and stress neurophysiology. What I mean is that F-F-F floods our bodies and brains with the stress hormone cortisol along with a whole lot of adrenaline. Stress also changes our neural function. We immediately leave the prefrontal cortex / higher reasoning part of our brain, and drop down to our limbic lizard brain so we can act quickly.

What we enjoy about all that is getting extra energy, motivation, alertness, decisiveness. We get supercharged, and feel like we have super-power! We can meet deadlines, handle emergencies, excel in competitions and performances, and get things done. This is what is called "good stress," and it’s great when we’re in situations that require that kind of energy, alertness, and quick powerful action.

What is "bad" about stress is that our systems aren't meant to be constantly flooded with adrenaline (otherwise known as speed) and our brain function isn't where it ought to be. I’ve come to see that just like a DUI, we are literally operating under the influence of the speed drug and lizard brain. Rational thinking and decision-making falter. Emotional intelligence is lost to what’s called "amygdala hijack," and fatigue and disease tend to set in. We’re definitely not in what I call the Optimal Operating State when our hands are sweaty and shaky, our hearts are beating too fast, we can scarcely breathe or think straight, and we’re carried away by fear or anger or whatever emotion overtakes us.

Our bodies and minds are designed to generally be in a state of balance, get extra arousal as needed, and then return to equilibrium. What we do in the dojo is deliberately face scary dangerous attacks, in order to develop the capacity to be centered and grounded so that we can remain in enough clarity and balance to take effective action and even save our life. We learn to belly-breathe, calm our systems, balance left-right brain function, and build lower-upper body connection and power. We train to harness the energies of stress so we can be in command of our faculties of thinking, feeling and moving. In a very real sense, gaining this kind of profound self-control and energy mastery is the path to black belt!

So to your question: I really wanted the women of PAWMA to understand and appreciate their training in this bright light. To see that beneath and within the techniques they are studying, they are practicing how to master stress. To watch their usual responses, and then take charge of calming the "bad stress" biochemicals, restoring better brain activity, and releasing more positive neurotransmitters like dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin into their systems.

CT: What do you want people to walk away, to remember?

JZ: That when they are training they are working with the stress responses that we all experience every day in our lives. They are learning how to shift to respond better, on the basis of actually altering their biochemistry and neurology. One of the things we did during the class was repeat aloud, with conviction from our belly-centers: “Stress is a response. And I can respond differently!”

Within karate or aikido techniques, we are practicing to embody the fundamental skills of centering, grounding aligning, breathing, integrating, focusing. These are simple yet very profound ways to move out of adrenaline, cortisol and limbic brain, bring ourselves back from the brink, and share these experiences and practices from the martial arts with others. Stress is universal and ever-present, so everyone can use this kind of information and training. We all have the capability and just need to know the skills for becoming a "Stress Shift-Master."

Trust me, F-F-F comes up all the time in our daily lives! Just driving … Or twice last month, it happened to me at baggage claim! On my way to a golf tournament, my golf clubs weren't there. And then on my way to speak to CEOs, ironically about how to Stress Less & Prosper More, the bag with my clothes and presentation materials didn’t make it. That second time I marched into the Southwest baggage office, all righteous and upset, and angrily demanded “Where are my things?” I was so stress reactive, and turned very fast into a very unpleasant person. I had to catch myself and say inside, “Ok, gotta stop this. This is not good for my blood pressure. It’s not okay communication, and is not good for the baggage person. She’s just doing her job, this isn’t her fault, and she’s trying to help me. Being nasty isn’t going to help her get my bag to me any more quickly.” I very literally had to stop myself and calm down. I had to see and hear myself, stop the stress-out, breathe and get centered, so that I could act decently and handle the situation reasonably.

CT: The key piece I found was to pause and come from a place of absolute confidence that you can handle this conversation, this altercation, this situation and then work on changing the interaction with the other person. Was that what you intended or was I misinterpreting?

JZ: Yes! The stress train starts running, and you need to know how to interrupt that train and stop being that unpleasant stressed-out person. It starts with awareness. When I do corporate trainings I ask leaders: “How do you look, sound and feel when you’re in your negative stress?” Answers are usually things like: I’m short, curt, impatient, bossy, critical, nervous, tired, achy, grouchy, I frown, withdraw, attack, eat junk food, drink, can't sleep, don't work out …

The following question is: “How does your stress affect the environment at work, at home, and in your body?” It's clear that "they know": your spouse, kids, friends, co-workers can tell. Others see and feel and are affected by our stress. It's both contagious and infectious. While our positive stress can motivate and inspire, our negative stress can really be destructive. We’re in what I call Stress Mess, and we make a lot of messes from there.

So for starters, you need to identify your stressing self, then realize you need to shift, and then know to where. A calm clear Zone, a more Optimal Operating State. The next question is: How do you shift out of Stress Mess and into the Centered Master Zone? This leads to the final step: Do it! Take action and Shift!

Drawing on all my years in aikido, sports, somatic psychology and body-mind fitness, I've synthesized this 7-step Stress Less Self-Mastery Technology to help people move from bad stress into positive flow:

  1. Center Yourself
  2. Get Grounded = drop into your legs and base
  3. Breath & Relax
  4. Unify & Align
  5. Blend = non resistance / accept, harmonize, move with
  6. Let Go
  7. Flow

As martial artists, I knew PAWMA women could quickly get it and use it!  

CT: What was your favorite part of the training?

JZ: It was fun to see all the energy that kind-of exploded! And to do demos with women and teachers from  different styles. Like when Sifu Sonya and Sifu Kate came up. I could feel the stress response in myself. There I was in front of the whole camp, I’m high level and the sensei, they’re high level, we do different arts, and I could feel my heart beating and my mind a bit worried.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge these thoughts and impulses: Uh-oh, I’m nervous and afraid / I’m getting combative / Let me out of here. Freeze-Fight-Flight responses come up instantly and constantly in training. During the class I could feel myself right away experiencing the very things I was talking and trying to teach about!

It was a challenge to not just get nervous or react, and instead go to the deeper underlying practice of centering and stressing less. I knew my job was to embody what I was saying. We're always performing and getting a job done, and my task while teaching was to feel the extra stress energy, not let it derail me, and demonstrate channeling it so as to handle the situation well (masterfully!) and do what I was there to do.

I’m used to taking charge with CEOs who are impressed by martial arts and who aren’t so frisky - so this was a fun challenge and really great to do at Camp with the PAWMA women!

CT: Who is your favorite group to present this information too?

JZ: Good question. I absolutely loved presenting to PAWMA, and would love to do more!

I enjoy every group I work with. For example, golfers. They are just nut cases with how totally stressed out they get over the golf ball. What do golfers do? They try to kill the ball, and then beat themselves up. They get all tense and tight and freak out with almost every shot. So I incorporate Stress Less ideas and aikido practices into KiAi Golf training. Golfers don't usually learn these types of things, so they don’t know how to handle what’s really affecting their swings and scores.

The workplace is anywhere from mildly to super stressful. I appreciate every opportunity to bring this training to business groups, leaders and staff, and really enjoy working with them. The vast majority of people are so stressed by work and finances. In Japan there’s even a term, karoshi, that means "death by overwork." Sometimes I feel like a guerilla worker, trying to infiltrate a whole new peaceful ethic and win-win ways of working into the hotbeds of corporate competition and profiteering.

In the peacemaking realm: More and more I am coming to see that to manage conflict, it's really essential to address and handle stress. There is a very close relationship between stress reactivity and conflict escalation. People in conflict have experienced horrible harm, abuse, loss, being uprooted, killings, and so many unimaginably stressful things. Also the "isms." Billions of people across the globe are in constant stress from racism, classism, homophobia, and every form of discrimination, scarcity, and violence.

To deal with conflict, it really helps if we can first manage our stressed state and shift into finding the Optimal Operating Zone. Otherwise conflicts just flare right up and people are quickly raising their voices, arguing and fighting. They're not thinking clearly, emotions race out of control, and things get difficult and even physically combative. Conflict and damage escalate. So I’m really interested now in beginning any conflict resolution or dialogue process with first, let’s get our stress under control. Let's breathe, center, ground, calm, unify and align ourselves. From that place we can start to think clearly, see ‘the other’ with a degree of clarity and empathy, find some blend and flow, and begin to relate constructively. We just can’t do any of that in stress reactivity. I’m seeing stress as both a cause and effect of conflict, and Stress Less practices as underlying conflict resolution. It’s ground zero for healing trauma, restoring and building better relationships, and establishing peace.

CT: If you could present this to anyone, or any group, who would you want to present this to?

JZ: We haven't talked yet about families and kids! When our kids are acting out, we often put them in time-out, or on-restriction. The idea of "stopping the madness" through time-outs or taking a break is great, and is something we can all use. It’s important to teach our kids, by learning ourselves, how to make these breaks truly restorative and not just sitting impatiently in a corner, or playing on our phones or having a drink. The simple acts of centering and breathing can calm and shift neurophysiology in a matter of moments or minutes.

This is what I mean by becoming a Shift-Master. You want to stop, use the easy-to-do body-mind Stress Less technology, and get to where you can quickly move into a space of calm clear equilibrium. We’re not talking about becoming too accepting or mellow, or saying that we can’t be assertive and forceful. We’re encouraging ourselves to have our wits about us so that we can use our energy constructively, more powerfully, and with conscious control and choice.  

In conflict resolution and leadership sessions, I teach that “True power is peaceful, and peace is truly powerful!” On the golf course I watch happily as the ball flies farther, more consistently and on-target, when I’m centered and relaxed instead of tightly stressing and forcing my swing and game. With my KiAi Golf students, it’s always so fun and amazing to see this Aiki Way work. Their swings and scores finally start improving, and they’re thrilled to be prospering more by learning the skills to stress less!

CT: Clearly you are in a unique position to develop these techniques, with your golf and your aikido training. Was there a spark or a moment that really crystallized this for you?

JZ: About 20 years ago I went to the dark side of stress, and it was like being in hell. I had been going so long, so strong, 25/8 learning and doing everything possible, nonstop trying to change the world. I got to a point where I was beyond exhausted and burned out. I had terrible migraines and was anxious, injured, hardly able to sleep or even function.

I made it to San Diego for a time-out healing sabbatical, and promptly got even worse trying so hard to get better. Very thankfully I met a naturopathic doctor, who said my adrenals had actually collapsed. So there I was, such a high achieving person, yet totally out of action and on the sidelines of life. As I tell business leaders, I was in the doctor’s office instead of the office, and the way back seemed nearly impossible.

Our adrenals can heal, but very slowly, like a tendon or a ligament. It took me several years to get genuinely healthy and strong again. Painfully I discovered firsthand just how destructive stress can be, and the elements needed to recover. I also realized that my very health and life depended on learning to regulate myself and stay in a less-stressed state, no matter what. I couldn’t afford to ever go down like that again, and truly wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

I began to perceive what we do in the dojo in new ways, and to carry the message of how absolutely critical it is to keep ourselves on the upside of stress. Being cavalier about bad stress can be dangerous and cannot be an option. It’s not hard to see that most people are in serious need of heightened awareness and more tools to manage their energy properly. In short, there’s a big need for stress education, and the skills to shift and stress less!

Then one day in a meditation, it came through my mind that I needed to “get this information out, about stress and peaceful power solutions, to people of power and influence.” Quite incredibly, an opportunity appeared to become a speaker for executive leaders and groups. But I needed a program. That’s when I started developing Stress Less / Prosper More: Effortless Power for Unprecedented Success, and adapting ideas and exercises from Aikido and mind-body psychology for everyone to use. These teachings naturally flowed into the peace-making work I had begun doing in the Middle East and other conflict zones, with people caught in circumstances of intense ongoing stress and often suffering with PTSD.

So it’s been quite a journey. I’m deeply honored and grateful to receive PAWMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and greatly appreciated the opportunity to share this work in the closing class. I wanted to offer something unusual yet that would be relevant and meaningful for every woman martial artist there, no matter what style she practices.

As one of my mentors says, life and leadership are about becoming “a non-anxious presence in an anxious environment.” That’s what seems to be at the core of our training, and what we get to practice every day in our dojos!

Thank you so very much.

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