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Battling Depression with Martial Arts

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

It’s an average summer day in Oklahoma City – that is, scorching. It’s past three in the afternoon and the sun still dominates the sky, a stranglehold it will not release for another four hours. The paved trails that loop Lake Hefner shimmer with heat mirages. Once it cools down, joggers and cyclists will be out in droves, but now, the shoreline and park are empty.

Well. Almost empty.

In the trailhead parking lot, a single vehicle is pulled up as close to the shade of a withered pear tree as the spaces allow. It’s a teal-and-white VW van, old but clean. The passenger door is rolled open, revealing a modified interior that looks like it contains both a living room and dojo.

The van has two other distinct features. The first is the logo on the side of a hanging bag in mid-swing, encircled by a shattering chain. Sacklife Official, reads the text, and, Beat Depression. Just in front of the painted bag is the second feature: an actual heavy bag, hanging from a mount system built into the van. Like the image of the bag, this one too is in motion, juddering under an onslaught of rapid blows.

The van, the bag, and the punches raining down on it all belong to Tim Manthey, aka Mr. Sacklife himself. Despite training at a pace that would make a professional fighter proud, Manthey seems immune to the heat. He’s had plenty of time to get used to it: in Death Valley, on the Las Vegas strip, and during the past week at Lake Hefner.

A timer sitting on the pear’s roots chimes, signaling the end of the round and time for a water break. There are plastic cups in the van, as well as a 30-gallon tank of drinking water, fitted where the divider between front and back seats would normally be. It’s another custom addition to the van, one that has made this step of Manthey’s journey possible.

And what a journey it’s been.

For nearly 1,200 days, Manthey has been training on this bag and living on the road, out of this van. Each day from 5 pm (local time – it depends on where he is at the moment) to sundown, he opens his portable training space to the public. The bag, as well as several pairs of spare gloves, shin guards, focus mitts and Thai pads, are loaned out as needed. Anyone who comes by is welcome to train with Manthey for as long as they want, and he adjusts the lesson to the ability level of each participant. Sparring is on the table, but so are meditation and breathing exercises.

The bag and glove that make up Manthey’s logo are well explained – but what about the slogan? What does beating depression have to do with martial arts?

Those within the martial arts industry, from companies like Century Martial Arts to individual school owners, have long touted mental benefits of training in addition to the physical ones. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single martial artist who thinks otherwise.

And yet, for as much as we believe in these benefits, and as many times as we’ve seen and experienced them firsthand, we still view them overall as a fortunate byproduct of training rather than an intentional end result. We all train for different reasons.

For some it’s to improve within a sport. Others find physical milestones to be the biggest motivators. The same standard training program would help each of them, but the athlete would have their needs better served in a program catered specifically towards competitors. With that logic, it should also be possible to train martial arts in a way that amplified the mental health benefits – and that’s what Manthey has done, by merging martial arts with somatic healing.

According to an article published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, somatic healing is “a body-focused therapy… that integrates body awareness into the psychotherapeutic process.” The premise of somatic healing is that, just as how the mind can affect the body, the body can also be used as a tool to affect the mind. It is well understood that mental illnesses can cause physical side effects like head and body aches, fatigue, nausea, and even high blood pressure. Somatic healing seeks to turn that around. If a poor mental state causes a poor physical one, then positive physical changes can be used to improve the mental state.

Manthey didn’t start his own training journey knowing this, however. At the time, he was focused on survival.

“In 2019, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress-induced depression after going through several major losses in my life,” he explains. “I left an extreme religion. I lost contact with the people who raised me. I also lost a nine-year marriage, and was defrauded by a business partner and went through bankruptcy.

“It was a heavy accumulation of multiple events. I was declining mentally, despite therapy and medication, and I knew I needed to do something for myself. And that something was to buy a punching bag and start training.”

Manthey began with solo training, then started attending a local dojo. Not only did his techniques improve, but his mental health did, too – to the extent that, with his doctor’s blessing, he was able to completely stop taking antidepressant medication. But training? No way was he going to quit.

“(Training was a way) for me to release that tension, that stress and anxiety, from my nervous system and channel it in a healthy direction,” he explains.

It was then that Manthey began to dig deep into the research behind somatic therapy. The method had been a lifesaver for him – if not literally, then certainly the quality thereof – and he was eager to share it with as many people as he could reach. Starting a social media channel and establishing an online presence was the first step. You can follow @SackLifeOfficial on Instagram and partake in daily, 10-minute somatic training sessions, no matter where you are (or he is!).

The Instagram page meant people could find their way to Manthey, but if COVID taught us nothing else, it’s that nothing beats in-person training. Staying stationary simply wasn’t an option. And so, the idea for the van was born.

“It’s always been a childhood dream of mine to own a Volkswagen bus and travel the country,” Manthey admits, “but I never thought it would be a reality, or even possible!”

Buying the van was phase one. Next came repair and upgrades, followed by more repairs. Once, Manthey set out, having completed work on the van – only for it to break down after three miles. Another time, after initially setting off with no issue, the van broke down again – this time, in Death Valley. Manthey was stuck there for a week with limited cell service, and little food or water (the tank had not yet been installed).

“(When I was stuck) I continued to train every day,” Manthey says. “One day, as I was training on the side of the road, a truck drove by and saw me. They pulled over to stop and talk. It turned out they were from a company called Hobo Tactical. They brought me food and water, and some funds for me to continue to feed myself.

“More importantly, they introduced me to their social audience and a number of their followers jumped onto my page. One of them was a veteran who was dealing with PTSD. He started participating in the virtual training sessions and went for 100 days in a row. He sent me messages of gratitude of how much it’s helped him – it let me know this is exactly what I need to be doing.”

And clearly, he’s doing it right. In just a short time, Manthey has been able to network with big-name nonprofits like NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Health) and the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).

Of course, life on the road isn’t easy. Besides getting stranded in the hottest place on earth, there have been other close calls. A few drunk men tried to steal his bike – while he was riding it – in Vegas. In Oklahoma, a man invited him into his home – an offer Manthey usually declines unless he’s known the person as a follower for an extended period of time – and became belligerent when he tried to leave, resulting in Manthey breaking his door (“It was an accident,” Manthey clarifies. “He told me it was unlocked. When I pulled, it ripped the deadbolt out.”)

None of this has deterred Manthey. He prefers to focus on the positive: the dozens of the people he’s trained with, in person or through Instagram, who have reached out to share stories of their progress. The new friendships that span states, and the fact that everywhere he goes, there’s a martial arts gym or dojo with an open spot in their parking lot.

“The martial arts community has been the most responsive and the most positive and supportive community that I've found in my travels,” Manthey says. “They all seem to share a growth mindset, which is incredibly important. And they’re super helpful and super responsive. It seems like everybody is interested in learning and growing from each other.”

The dream, Manthey says, is to eventually open several locations of his own, operating on the same SackLife principle of free training for those in need, with qualified somatic therapists as well as martial arts coaches on staff. That will take funding, but as his social media following on Instagram (follow him here) continues to grow, he’s hopeful that he can attract more sponsors. The bus is mobile, after all! In the meantime, though, life on the road continues.

“This is what I need to be doing,” he says. “It’s been rewarding to me in so many ways. No one needs to pay me to do it, and no one can pay me to stop.”

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