Inside the Cork MMA studio where men find Zen

Inside the Cork MMA studio where men find Zen
Graham McCormack, coach (2nd right) with from left, Paul Cronin, Eoin Mulcahy and Alan Busteed at the Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Cork's Zen Men is a unique mindfulness and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) programme, aimed at helping men with their mental health. 

It was founded by Graham McCormack, a former MMA fighter turned mental health advocate from Grange.

The programme is a mixture of two MMA sessions as well as daily mindfulness practice.

The male-only collective is a safe space for men to express what is going on inside their heads, as many have suffered in silence due to society’s expectations and the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Graham is no stranger to mental health difficulties. He first started experiencing issues with his mental health at just seven years old, when he was bullied in school.

Members in meditation during a Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Members in meditation during a Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“Mental health is a large part of my life. It’s a large part of everyone’s life, but it came into my life when I was younger,” he tells The Echo.

“There was a lot of bullying going on that led into my teenage years. I was just not really feeling accepted by others. I was always isolating myself, always pulling back.”

Graham also had issues with drugs and alcohol, which he used as a form of self-medication.

“There were drugs at 11, alcohol at 12. There was a lot going on. It was a combination of many things.”

Graham tried to end his own life multiple times, and also had stays in Cork University Hospital’s psychiatric ward as an inpatient.

He says it was difficult to articulate his feelings.

“There are societal expectations placed on men. There’s a lot of pressure. We are almost afraid to go in, there is fear about what we may do if we go [inside ourselves].

“I am the opposite now, I have done the work on myself, and I don’t care about societal expectations. If I need to cry I will cry. It’s important for me to say this in my talks that I give to schools, especially to young men.”

Graham first came across mindfulness in 2014 when he undertook dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).

“I was diagnosed with an emotionally unstable personality disorder. At that point, I had two suicide attempts. My family had enough, I ended up homeless, I wasn’t allowed to see my daughter temporarily. I had overdosed... I don’t know how many times.

“DBT therapy was very intense but was mindfulness-based at its core.

Graham McCormack, coach at the Zen Men.Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Graham McCormack, coach at the Zen Men.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“The first time my therapist sat down she said ‘we are going to practice mindfulness.’ I thought here we go, what a load of crap. Pure judgment.”

Graham says after about 10 seconds of him closing his eyes and going within, he had to jump out.

“I was afraid of my own thoughts.”

However, Graham persisted with DBT for the year, and mindfulness became a huge part of his life. He began to identify his triggers and was able to examine his urge to self-harm.

“I was able to identify it and that is how I got my power back.”

MMA also helped Graham hugely. He started training in the summer of 2010.

“At that point, I was already after one suicide attempt and one psychiatric ward stay. I remember I was a bit heavy from the medication I was on. I was at a crossroads and knew I needed to do something.”

He joined a gym and got into fitness, and one day wandered into a boxing class.

“I got the crap beat out of me! I had no skills at the time, it wasn’t intentional [on the part of my opponent].

“I was out of my comfort zone but I decided to stick with the martial arts side of it. That was the start of my journey with MMA.”

Graham McCormack, coach (2nd right) with from left, Paul Cronin, Eoin Mulcahy and Alan Busteed at the Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Graham McCormack, coach (2nd right) with from left, Paul Cronin, Eoin Mulcahy and Alan Busteed at the Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Graham was a successful fighter and even fought in the same show as Conor McGregor back in 2010.

Nowadays, Graham is not cleared to fight, but he still trains others and incorporates what he knows into his mental health programme.

“I was able to respect myself and others. There’s a discipline with martial arts. That’s what this is all about.”

He says he has integrated everything that helped him on his mental health journey into Zen Men.

Despite MMA and meditation seeming very unalike, Graham says they are entwined.

“They are not black or white. There’s a lot of mindfulness in martial arts in general, like Tai Chi. You have to be singly focused on one point, either your partner or opponent.

“I don’t see the difference between them. They are gelled together, like yin and yang.”

Graham says Zen Men was created as a non-judgemental space where men can open up to each other.

“What is said on the mat stays on the mat,” says Graham.

“I am standing back like a proud Dad, even though I am not these lads’ Dad obviously,” he says.

“Some of the lads who were so closed off before have just opened up completely.”

The men who partake in Zen Men speak very highly of the programme.

Alan Busteed says he loves it and calls it a “game-changer”.

He has known Graham for years through MMA and came on board with Zen Men to help get it off the ground. He now acts as a mentor to the newer members.

“It’s totally different from anything I have done before. It’s a bunch of men who have problems that they generally wouldn’t talk about, but within a week we were talking about everything. Everyone came out of their shell very quickly.”

Alan says there’s a great bond between the men.

“There’s unity, having that support group that you wouldn’t have before.

“Some of my friends who have done the programme would never have opened up before, they would have said nothing good, bad or indifferent.

“Now they can’t shut up, it’s just people asking each other how their day was.

“A fella might go off on a 20-minute rant and you know he needed it. That is the best thing about it. The fitness part is great but so is the friendship.”

Eoin Mulcahy has similar high praise.

Graham McCormack, coach at the Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Graham McCormack, coach at the Zen Men training session at Warrior Fitness Gym in Carrigtwohill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“I met Graham through Instagram. I had done a mindfulness course because it was something I wanted to get into for my own journey, we all have anxieties in life. I dealt with a bit of bullying in adulthood, just in the last few years.

“I found Zen Men helped me completely through it. You’ve the martial arts side of it and also the mindfulness side of it.

“I would never have done that with a group of lads before. It was nice to be in a group where everyone is open and honest, and I am after making friends for life now.”

Eoin says the mindfulness aspect was difficult to get into at first. “I was very like mindfulness isn’t for me, I’d try it for a few seconds.

“Now that I am into it, I can’t go without it. I do mindfulness every day, before my day starts and in the evenings too.

“It has made a difference. Everything’s a lot slower in my life. It doesn’t have to be as chaotic as I thought it had to be.

“I am making better decisions, I am sleeping better, it’s a massive change.

“There are no egos here. I was shocked the first few nights when everyone was so open, and one night we had a bonfire down on the beach and we all had a chat.”

Eoin says it was nerve-racking to open up to strangers, but when he saw other men doing it, it made it easier for him to speak out.

“I’d recommend the programme to anyone from all walks of life.”

Paul Cronin, another participant, says he also did a year of dialectical behavioural therapy like Graham.

Paul also used to go to all of Graham’s public talks.

“[Graham] messaged me about Zen Men and I said I’d give it a go. It’s very good.

“I had mindfulness in DBT but Graham explains it ten times better and easier, it’s more approachable. I just feel a lot better afterwards and I am able to open up.

“We all get on grand together and if anyone has a problem, they can talk and we will help them deal with it. It’s a real sense of friendship.

“My mental health is better. I haven’t self-harmed in a while. It’s definitely the combination of the two, the fighting and the mindfulness.”

Graham is trying to bring Zen Men into Cork prison and to all boys secondary schools in Cork, as he feels it could help prisoners and young men alike.

Zen Men starts back on March 1, and anyone interested in joining can contact Graham through Facebook, Instagram or via email on grahammackja@hotmail.com.

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