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'Moving meditation': Tokyo gym owner helping clients kick their lives into gear

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

Meditation may be one way to care for your mental health, but for those who would rather find their own version of peace and serenity through punches and kicks, a Tokyo gym owner might have the answer.

Former world champion kickboxer Akeomi Nitta says that, just as the body needs stimulation to prevent physical decline, the brain needs stimulation to prevent cognitive decline and martial arts training is an opportunity to achieve both at once.

“Kickboxing is a full-body workout that engages every muscle group in your body. Of course, the physical benefits are thrilling, but the mental rewards you reap are even greater,” says Nitta, head trainer and owner of a bustling chain of kickboxing gyms.

“You can wake yourself up with an adrenaline-pumping kickboxing class or release your stress at the end of the day in a controlled and safe environment. Kickboxing is a practical tool for a balanced mind and body. It’s a form of moving meditation,” he says.

Troubled teens, top executives and runway fashion models are among those fighting with a purpose at BungelingBay, a boutique kickboxing studio in Tokyo’s hip Ebisu neighborhood.

Within its walls, beginners, top amateurs and competitive kickboxers cultivate self-discipline, perhaps the single most important attribute needed to achieve personal excellence.

BungelingBay was founded in 2003 by Nitta, who has two world championships and three national championships to his name.

The professional kickboxer-turned-entrepreneur now runs five gyms in Japan and has established himself as a businessman who punches above his weight.

Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez have turned to kickboxing to stay in shape and the martial art has become the go-to workout for many famous faces in Japan as even older men and petite women look to take a swing.

Despite all the punching, kicking, ducking and weaving, kickboxing is not all about physicality. It targets the mind and spirit as much as it does the body, making it a well-rounded fitness regime for the average working professional.

Martial arts have also been used as an alternative or complementary therapy that can help people of all ages and all walks of life sort through physical, mental, spiritual and emotional issues.

Dr. Hisayoshi Hirose, who has been incorporating kickboxing training into counseling and psychotherapy for 19 years at his Shinjuku OP Hirose Clinic, says the therapeutic potential of kickboxing is incomparable to that of any other sport.

“I’ve always believed in exercise therapy and encouraged patients to participate in physical activity, but the outcomes were influenced by individual differences. But when I tried kickboxing I was very hopeful it could be a game-changer,” Hirose said.

“The results have been eye-opening. It has far more advantages over prescribed medicine and traditional treatments.”

Through one-on-one drills, the doctor looks for a pattern of footwork movement as the patient kicks. The data is used to support a diagnosis. At times a sparring session can even reveal that a patient is situationally depressed, rather than clinically depressed.

Hirose treats 25 to 30 patients a day using this unique type of therapy, and he says it has proven effective for those suffering from depression, developmental disorders, anxiety disorder and alcoholism, among other psychological conditions.

Nitta credits kickboxing with turning people’s lives around. He has witnessed members of biker gangs, adults with depression, targets of bullying and directionless youth take up the sport and make serious adjustments in their lives that have delivered better mental health.

When he isn’t getting ready to rumble, the 46-year-old Nitta is described by friends as someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Since he exited the ring at 35, Nitta has increasingly shown his softer side: He’s a father of two boys and a devoted rabbit owner.

“I hate violence. I’m a happy ending kind of guy. I’ll never go for murder mysteries or crime novels when choosing a book. I don’t want to feed the bad wolf in my head. I’m not a fan of social media, either. It harms your mental health,” he says.

Building his physique and fighting prowess was a way for Nitta to hide an inferiority complex. That’s why he signed up for his first martial arts class at a local gym when he was 17. He tried his hand at taekwondo and karate before he discovered kickboxing.

“I started martial arts because I wanted to do something about the feelings of self-loathing and shame. I kept comparing myself to others and always ended up selling myself short. I thought that maybe if I got bigger and stronger, it would improve my confidence,” he said.

“It changed my life in more ways than one. I couldn’t make eye contact with others or talk to women before. Martial arts taught me many valuable life lessons.”

The lessons lasted long after Nitta hung up his gloves.

In 2003 he convinced investors to back his startup gym business in the suburbs of Tokyo while he was still fighting professionally. Five years later, just before he retired, he took out a ¥20 million loan to open his own gym in Ebisu.

It took a few years to build up a client base, but all his hard work eventually translated into profit.

Today, his three gyms in Ebisu have 600 members and Nitta has 60 employees altogether.

“Martial arts aren’t just for tough, macho guys. Kids, students, housewives, office workers, athletes, TV stars, politicians and CEOs all come to our gyms. The youngest is probably 3 years old, and the oldest is in his 70s.”

GQ Japan editor-in-chief Masafumi Suzuki, 70, is a loyal kickboxing devotee who has been a member of a Nitta gym for about 15 years.

Suzuki, who calls his Saturday workouts a “lifestyle habit,” says kickboxing has helped him enhance his reflexes and improve hand-eye coordination, and most importantly, keeps him “anchored.”

Other recognizable names on the long list of famous customers are fashion influencers Rola, Shiho and Kelly, and actors Hideaki Ito and Katsunori Takahashi.

A 45-minute personal training session costs ¥4,400 for women and ¥6,600 for men, in addition to a monthly membership fee of ¥11,000 for adults. Women now make up 60 percent of BungelingBay’s clients.

Nitta has been providing firms like Google with corporate classes and has helped brides-to-be get in tip-top shape for their big day.

“To me, success isn’t measured by the number of gyms I own or employees I have. It’s also not about how many hours you put into your workout plan. If you find your routine boring, draining or tedious, it’s probably not for you,” Nitta says.

“I want to create a space where people can find the program that brings them a level of enjoyment while meeting their fitness goals. Working out shouldn’t be something you’re supposed to do. With work, with sports, Japanese people have a tendency to push themselves too hard and burn out. Overdoing anything is bad.”

Nitta has few body parts that haven’t gone under the knife. Bumps and breaks are part of a pro fighter’s life, and during his career he believed taking it to the limit, and painfully beyond, was a requirement.

But today, you won’t see Nitta doing much more than stretching and weight training. If wisdom comes with age, he is clear on one thing: It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

“I only do what I want when I want. I don’t have a fixed schedule and I drink every night. Now that I’m no longer an athlete, I know how easy it is to get a beer belly and how hard it is to lose that excess fat. Now I can relate to my clients,” he says, chuckling.

And it’s not hard to understand why clients keep coming back to him.

He is a good listener — one of the most valuable skills in any therapeutic relationship — but he says he does not have a doctor-patient type of bond with his clients.

“When I talk to my clients during training sessions, regardless of how the conversation starts, oftentimes we end up talking about life. The deep connection isn’t forced, it just happens.”

Nitta is always available for those who seek his training, whether it be in the privacy of their own homes, at the gym, at a park, or just about anywhere they choose.

He works flexible hours and he is always on the move. He has responded to a client’s request to train at 3 a.m., traveled with a musician on tour, and leaves slots open for actors dropping in for a workout between film shoots.

“These people have big fat job titles, but if you talk to them you’ll understand that they’re human, like everyone else, and they’re all struggling in their own way. At the gym all you’ve got on are your sweaty workout clothes and boxing gloves,” he says.

“You see that we’re all part of the same flawed human species. Whatever your gender, whatever your nationality, kickboxing is inclusive. The gym is a perfect place to find and awaken the champion within.”

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