In a moment before a ride, competitors feel blood pulsing through every inch of their bodies. The tiny hairs on the arms stand up, and breathing slows. Time slows. The mind is laser focused on one thing, the task at hand.
Other thoughts or distractions don’t exist.
Athletes remember that feeling and think about their last competition. That’s the state of being present, and it’s something former bullfighter Craig Walker has experienced in his life. A series of events nudged him in the direction of seeking alternatives to shoulder surgery started him on this path.
“I was seeing sports medicine about five years ago regarding a shoulder injury that I had never really taken care of,” Walker said. “I was busy and wasn’t able to see him as much as I would have liked. He suggested that it was a 50/50 chance that we could rehab it or it needed surgery.
“The surgery comment just got me searching for other ways to heal. It took me down a path that has completely changed my life, a whole different way of living and looking at life, a whole different perspective.”
Like most professional cowboys, Walker began his career as a youth. He grew up riding sheep and steers, bulls and broncs. He eventually started fighting bulls in amateur circuits, then transitioned to the professional level for more than seven years.
“I really enjoyed that chapter of my life,” he said.
The transition to life after bullfighting came through a variety of means. He began with Reiki, a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It was just the first step in his quest for alternative and supplemental supports to feel better.
He began by being a client experiencing success, then learned how to practice it on himself, eventually completing the training level to be able to teach other practitioners. He then gained training in Access Bars and Chi Gong, which is known as mindful movement.
“Chi Gong is one of the four pillars of ancient Chinese medicine, which has been around for thousands of years. It is similar to yoga, in a way, and is the foundation for Tai Chi,” said Walker, who is studying reconnective healing. “Within all of this came meditation and natural ways to heal your body.
“Every day I continue to learn more, including more about myself. As I did these things, I have mitigated the issue with my shoulder exponentially as I realized that it wasn’t just physical damage to my shoulder. There was more to healing it than that including the emotions and past things. Everybody has a story.”
The science is starting to catch up.
“It really is physics that backs up much of the energy work that is being done,” he said. “We have known that visualization prepares us for sports, but it isn’t taught how it can actually help in other areas of life, such as family, finances, etc. It’s not about saying no to surgery, doctors or pain killers; it’s about being open to it all. If you need surgery, perhaps it can help to speed up your recovery.”
Walker looks back at his bullfighting career and how things could have been if he had his newfound understanding several years ago.
“I believe that information comes to us when we are ready for it,” Walker said. “If I had had this knowledge back then, I would have been better all the way around – a better athlete, a more grounded person. I could have taken that knowledge and put it into my bullfighting. Who knows where it could have gone from there.
“I do know that I would have sustained less injuries for less amount of time and that I would have experienced a lot more joy out of it than I did. I am also aware that I have been doing all of this work on learning to become present, and ‘being in the zone’ was the exact state that I was in when I was in the arena.”
Virtually every athlete has talked about being in the zone.
“You can’t hear anything else; you are so present that it is all right there,” Walker said. “When they are on, they are on. I’ve learned now that’s presence and what it feels like. Because it is such a dangerous sport and your life essentially is on the line, for you to do it at that level you have to be present … that is what drew me to that sort of sport.
“Now through meditation and some inner work, I am able to cultivate a state of presence. Maybe not in 100 percent of my life, but it really feels a lot similar to when I was fighting bulls. In sports, they call it visualization, but it essentially is the same techniques that I am talking about. We’ve rode that bull a thousand times before we nodded our head. We got that guy out of that hang up 400 times in our head before we actually step foot in the arena. When it comes time to do it, we don’t have to think; it’s just automatic. I lost touch with that, and it really was a big part of my life.”
“There are only two days in the whole year that nothing can happen. That’s yesterday and tomorrow. So be in today. Be present.”
Like many other professional athletes, the transition is often found to be challenging.
“As I lost touch with bullfighting, my life kind of meandered, and I struggled personally after I quit rodeoing,” Walker said. “When I started finding mindfulness, I thought: ‘Wow, this is stuff that I already knew, but I was just utilizing it one certain way. Why can’t I use these techniques in my life to manifest the outcomes that I want?’
“If it’s family, money, happiness, a new job a promotion, it’s whatever the outcome is that is for you. Maybe you’re just stuck in a spot in your life where you feel like you are in a slump, and we all get there, or you are just spinning your wheels. These are the times to use the visualization and meditation techniques into play. There is no option to be anywhere but in the arena. I had read the books that some of my buddies had suggested, which were helpful, but it wasn’t until I really started to study these things that I realized that was when I had felt most present.”
In an article on the American Psychological Association website, mindfulness is defined as “A moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.”
Research identifies benefits to mindfulness practice include improved relationship satisfaction, stress reduction, improved focus, less emotional reactivity, improved self-insight and well-being, a decrease in effort required to complete tasks, and more, including immune system benefits.
“You already have the power to create the outcomes you want inside the rodeo arena,” Walker said. “You visualize and use mental techniques that you learn about. It doesn’t end there. Those techniques hold the same power, it is just where you put the energy towards. You can apply those to any aspect of your life. Don’t forget that and fall down in that trap of becoming powerless.”
“After I quit rodeoing, I lost a big part of me, and then I found a bigger part. Whether you are in the arena, out of the arena, 40 years retired or just starting your career, I think it can make a huge difference. For me when I quite rodeoing, I went through a few years of struggle: Did I quit too early; did I make the right decisions; could I have done more?”
Over the course of discovery and growth, Walker realized the power of transferring the focus and visualization that is used in the arena to other areas of life.
“Athletes have a bit of a leg up because they have experienced that present moment feeling during competition,” he said. “If we focused that much on visualizing joy and success, there are no limits on the possibilities that could occur in other areas of life.”
He also suggested rodeo athletes could benefit from yoga or Chi Gong.
“If someone would have introduced me to yoga or Chi Gong back then,” he said, “it would have done 100 times more than what going for a run would have done.”
He is in the process of setting up a practice through individual and group work offered at various settings, including Didsbury Massage and Wellness.
“It is funny how when you change your inner world, your outer world changes, and people notice,” Walker said. “Teaching people how to harness their own inner energy so that they can remain physically stronger, mentally stronger, emotionally able to process and release emotions to have the presence to enjoy life, whether you call it mindfulness or presence.”
Walker is a Reiki master level practitioner, is certified in Level 1 medical Chi Gong, is a Certified Level 1 practitioner for Access Bars and recently received certification in reconnective healing.
“I have incorporated information from all of these into my work with other people and am just starting to put my name out there a little bit more,” Walker said. “It has been a few years’ journey, and, honestly, I had no intention to help others when I started. I am really open to however this work unfolds. I have had a lot of interest and inquiries and am in the infancy stage of brining this to other people as it has just started to organically grow. Come fall I have more regular things planned.”
Walker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cowboys, cowgirls or family members who have lived with mental health issues and care to share their stories in the spirit of reducing stigma or have a topic that might need covered, contact Amy Monea at email@example.com.