Vanessa Chakour, former professional boxer, Sacred Warrior founder, environmentalist, and inspirational mentor, talks about Sacred Warrior. Interviewed by one of her students, Steph, the two discuss Sacred Warrior, Martial Arts, meditation, plant medicine, animal activism, and life in NYC.
Steph: You’ve been working on this Sacred Warrior program for a couple years now. What exactly does it mean to be a Sacred Warrior?
Vanessa: To me, a Sacred Warrior is someone who does the internal work necessary to be present in all aspects of life. Being a Warrior requires us to be honest with ourselves, be courageous enough to confront our ‘stuff’ and sit with it. This usually means a lot of unpeeling alongside an awareness of the large amounts of social conditioning we are born into. So sitting with ourselves, though incredibly simple, is also incredibly hard. Doing this develops strength on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. The tools offered in Sacred Warrior: boxing/martial arts, meditation, local plant medicine, and creative expression help to develop ourselves. Boxing helps to cultivate internal strength, release pent up emotions, and find peace within chaos. The local plant medicine component awakens us to the magic and tools for healing that exist right under our feet. Essentially, it’s about revealing whats always been there and learning to work with what we have. Connecting these dots allows us to develop a deeper relationship with ourselves. Once we begin to do that, we can develop a deeper relationship with nature and our living environment. Lastly, it’s about fighting for what we believe in; whether it’s a cause or our personal path. If you imagine it like tiers, we have to work on ourselves first, and then the rest can become more clear, genuine and potent.
Steph: What inspired you on this journey, being a professional female boxer, and incorporating these powerful and instinctual practices? What has brought you here?
Vanessa: I’ve had to heal from a lot… chronic asthma that led to illnesses, and a bad car accident in which I fractured my back and my neck. It’s crazy. When I talked to people who knew me when I was younger, they would be like, “You’re doing what??”
A lot of my healing shifts occured first through changing my belief systems and then trying to break through those obstacles I had created. With asthma for example, it totally held me back. During my youth, I wanted to be an athlete more than anything but I believed I couldn’t be because of my asthma. What starts with wheezing becomes the inability to breathe, and that causes fear that really builds on itself. Of course people want to protect you, so I was excused from a lot of physical activity, which reinforced the belief that I couldn’t do it. At times, I had to be out of school for a month or more. And then a car accident at the age of 15; excruciating, with a long recovery, during which everything started to shift. On some level that close call made me feel I had no time to hold myself back in life. I began to question everything and had no choice but to confront and be with myself, bedridden with a back brace. As I began to rehabilitate after the accident, I began to work with my body and appreciate it in a different way. When I rehabilitated enough to become involved in competitive sports, it shifted my perspective from what I looked like to what I was capable of. Incredibly powerful for me. So, among other things, I’m passionate about helping people connect with their power because I know what it’s like to be disempowered. Ultimately, I came to see these and other challenges I encountered as gifts. They propelled me to seek, to search, to dig deep.
Steph: How has Boxing helped you connect more with your power?
It started while throwing my first punches, revealing the physical power I was capable of generating. Immediately, I was hooked. As I got more serious about the sport, the training intensified and the stakes grew higher. This is where I used my art, writing and meditative practices to move through and let go of the obstacles I encountered in training. Over time, these practices brought more of my whole self to the table, translating into more power and greater sensitivity. I felt that actually healing and simplifying the excessive noise really helped me show up more fully.
Steph: How inspired have you been from the ancient Warriors and Martial Artists?
Vanessa: It makes sense to me that Martial Artists of the past developed these connections with themselves and nature, because as I was studying them, meditating and working on myself, those connections came naturally. A lot of the martial arts are based in conservation and development of energy. So when you’re not wasting energy unnecessarily and you’re living in a sustainable way, it feeds your practice. It all totally makes sense.
I started fighting in 2000 and it was a very young sport for women then. My meditation practice helped me become a better boxer and although those things weren’t taught together for me, it was obvious how well they fit together. Now, for my students, meditation is an integral part of the practice I teach. If your mind’s not present, whether it’s boxing or another martial art, you can get really hurt. Literally and figuratively. Not to mention all the other benefits we only began to touch on. I often refer to the ancient martial arts traditions when describing the approach to training because they were about development of the whole self. The reference helps people make sense of the components in Sacred Warrior.
Steph: You’re doing all these thing: connecting with nature, art, boxing, discovering your power- and you’re doing it in one of the craziest cities in the world. How do you connect in with nature and the environment in this concrete jungle of NYC? What’s your way?
Vanessa: It emerged out of the combination of practices, but really came together as I was studying Herbal Medicine. As I awakened to the fact that the plants growing all around us, that we consider to be weeds are actually powerful health building medicinals, it blew my mind. Learning from and about these plants has helped me to truly feel, not just ‘know,’ that everything around us and underneath us is alive. It helped me feel so much more connected to the city, connected to the earth and to myself in general. I was able to recognize the plants and their personalities, what they are here to offer us, learn their history, and what our ancestors used them for. You start to walk around the city and spot these plants you’ve come to know, that have healed you. Its a total shift in perception. I used to need to escape the city to connect with nature, now I connect with nature everywhere. This ongoing discovery has kept me grounded and present with this work here.
Steph: I’m looking forward to the spring nature walks to learn about the local medicinal plants, as well as the other retreats at the Wolf Conservation Center. Can you tell me more about your passion with the local animals and conservation?
Vanessa: I’ve been a very passionate animal activist since I was young and it’s one thing I’ve grieved throughout my life; the disconnection from the wild and the animals that live here. There is a deep longing for connection to the wild, and sometimes we don’t even know we have it. Everything has a purpose for being here. Wolves and other keystone predators in particular, are vital to our habitat. I offer retreats to bring people into these enviornments so we can connect with the animals, learn about their true nature, role in our ecosystem, and also access more of the primal part of ourselves.
One of my partnerships is with the Wolf Conservation Center. Only an hour away from NYC, The Wolf Conservation Center helps reintroduce critically endangered wolves into the wild. There are generally between 20 and 30 wolves (fluctuates because some are released) that live on the land in enclosures, kept as wild as possible. I hold camping retreats and workshops there throughout the year. One of the things we do when we first gather at the retreat is howl to greet the wolves. Every single time, when they do answer back, it moves everyone to tears.
We connect to nature through sleeping on the land, learning about plant medicines that grow there, we meditate, practice martial arts based movement to connect more with our primal self, and just spend time in the environment. We share delicious local and wild food, learn to forage and have a big bonfire where we share. The groups tend to bond very quickly at the retreats. There is a transformation that happens when we gather in our natural environments. It gives us time to check in with ourselves and much needed space in nature. I feel like there is this longing in us that we can’t place, and that the wild is part of it. I know it is for me.
Steph: So is this about building relationships to ourselves and our environments?
Vanessa: Totally. Underlying all of this for me is relationships. Through boxing, meditation and plant medicine as tools, we can develop a deeper relationship with ourselves. Through learning about a medicinal plant that grows outside our door, spending time in the wild with animals, it develops awareness and builds relationships with nature. These relationships become deep emotional connections that allow us to be more attuned with ourselves and each other. Each piece informs and deepens the other, a true expression of the ways everything is interconnected. I’ve seen incredible shifts happen in people experiencing this process.
Ultimately, the intention is to appreciate the life we have here and not feel we need to run from it. It truly is such a gift; to feel at peace within the world’s chaos. For me, Boxing became a tool to experience this peace, and as I discovered more of myself in the ring, the mediation, plant medicine, and primal energy of animals helped me heal and become more whole and myself. I feel it is so important to provide this work to others.
Steph: That is exactly why I wanted to work with you. I had an inclination that your facilitation and the Sacred Warrior practice could help me grow closer to my true self, and it totally has. Thank you!
Vanessa: So happy to hear that. That’s what it’s all about.