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From Buddhist Centre to Boxing Ring

Luke Doherty
|
Opinion
|
May 22, 2024

In the first of a series of blogs on the topic of innovation, Luke Doherty writes about the path to his programme BAM! Boxing and Mindfulness, winner of the 2022 Innovations in Mindfulness Awards.

The beginnings of BAM! lie in my time working at the London Buddhist Centre, where I lived in the community and managed Breathing Space, their secular mindfulness project. I had a rich experience stepping out of my ordinary life to live and work in a Buddhist context for about 6 years.  After having completed the ordination retreats, I felt at gut level that I needed to make a change,  yet I felt afraid to explore something new.  

Whilst trying to figure out what to do, one Friday evening, I came across a video by Jules Evans, an academic doing something intriguing - teaching ancient philosophy to the Saracens Premiership Rugby Club to support their team connection. With a background in sports and having played rugby for England in my youth, I found this fascinating, and it sparked the idea of taking mindfulness into the sports world.

On the following Monday morning, Jules Evans, whom I had seen on YouTube the previous week, walked through the main entrance of the Buddhist centre, leaving me taken aback! We immediately connected, and he later provided me with an opportunity to teach mindfulness to the Premiership Rugby world. This marked the start of newfound confidence and to explore something new. So, for me, innovation arose at a gut level and out of a change process.  

Since I listened to my gut, things slowly started making sense. I needed to make mindfulness and meditation more relevant to my life, my past, and to the athlete within me, and this meant departing from the ordination training I had been exploring. The London Buddhist Centre generously gave me one day a week for six months to think about and explore how I could take mindfulness into the sports world. Not only that,  my time at the centre and the teachers I met helped create my foundations in mindfulness and meditation to launch from.

After six months, I decided to leave and fully explore this new venture. I went to the Job Centre and explained the idea of teaching mindfulness for athletes to  Barbora, my Job Centre coach. She immediately believed in what I wanted to do, never asked any questions, and gave me 12 months with my rent being paid to simply give it a go.

Having other people believe in me - like Barbora did - was an important factor in the development of the BAM! programme; nothing innovative would have taken place without that. The first and most fundamental person to express that was Matthew Daniel, the co-founder of BAM!.

Matt had been on an incredible journey; he was finishing a 5-year period in a residential rehabilitation centre and, as part of his recovery, wanted to volunteer for a social cause. Over the next two years, Matt's bedroom at the rehab centre became the engine room for the formation of BAM!, and the social enterprise Mindful Peak Performance. It was a very confusing and inspiring time for us both; I spent two days a week with  Matt developing BAM!, one day a week teaching meditation to the top ruby team in the UK, and was also on the dole, relaying what was unfolding to my job coach.

A consistent theme emerged from working with athletes at this time - they seemed to grasp mindfulness and meditation practices in a more concrete and direct way than other groups I had taught. They weren't tethered to screens for 8 hours a day; they were physically connected to their bodies in a way most people weren't.

“This was one initial inspiration for the creation of BAM! - boxing and mindfulness - an approach that blends the physicality of boxing with the openness and receptivity of meditation.”

Observing how athletes embraced meditation became a 'penny-drop' moment for me, strengthening that gut feeling. I had no idea boxing and mindfulness would end up being deemed as innovative - it simply felt obvious to me and common sense. To the innovator, innovation may seem so natural that they might not recognise the innovation taking place.

The first time we tested BAM! was on an estate in Leyton, East London. I recall sitting in the car with Matt and thinking, "what are we doing? Is this really going to work?". When we reached the venue, we found nobody had turned up. However, there was a group of lads smoking cannabis near the venue, initially quite hostile toward us. We decided to invite them to try the approach. As we meditated together, went through the boxing elements, and meditated again after boxing, a sense of stillness filled the atmosphere. When they opened their eyes, there was a spark, the hostility had faded, and we found ourselves laughing together, as if trust had formed. Innovation necessitates risk, pushing boundaries, and sometimes going it alone to pursue what feels essential.

Even after testing the programme, I still hadn't realised what we were doing was particularly innovative until 5 years later, when we had just won the Innovations in Mindfulness Award. I found myself inside the East London Boxing Academy gym,  near to where we first started, delivering a BAM! session.

“Specks of blood from sparring were visible in the boxing ring; we sat there with a group of young people in meditation.”


It felt right that all this could coexist - the expression of vigorous energy and the diversion of street violence represented by the blood inside the ring, alongside the calm and stillness we cultivated through mindfulness practices. This was innovative, and my gut feeling had transformed into a sense of connection; by following something that felt so uniquely personal to my life, I’d unearthed something collective, a shared experience with groups of young people.

This leads me to my most important reflection: whoever helps you on your innovation journey, be sure to thank them. Innovation is both a personal and collective process, and looking back at the development of BAM! there are so many people to thank.

BAM! continues to grow and to create partnerships, reaching out into disadvantaged communities, including - through Matt’s impetus - those recovering from addiction. This blog is dedicated to Matthew Daniel, a dear friend - BAM! would not exist as an approach without your contributions.

Luke presented at our online community gathering for mindfulness innovators on Thursday 7th December 2023

Luke Doherty

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