In this post, I will be making a number of statements that may be startling to aikido practitioners. What I am proposing is perhaps, to many, a novel way of viewing aikido.
First of all, let me say that I have more than a passing interest in health.
As a pre-teen I wanted to become a surgeon, and often read books and encyclopaedias about the human body. Later, I studied medical sciences and traditional healthcare, and practised as an ayurvedic consultant and yoga therapist for over a decade. I lectured in a natural health college, and gave talks and workshops on health. I was chairman of the New Zealand Natural Health Council, and board member of Natural Health Practitioners of New Zealand. I did a postgraduate diploma in health science, specialising in MindBody healthcare, at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).
My journey and explorations of health sciences and healthcare, have recently caused me to have new insights about the nature of aikido.
Aikido is known as, and taught as, a form of self defence, and this is how it became very popular and highly-regarded in the 70s, 80s and 90s. However, its focus on self defence has also been its downfall. With the rise of more aggressive, easier-to-learn, and perhaps more pragmatic, forms of self defence based on combat, aikido has become increasingly portrayed as a weak and unrealistic cousin which no longer has a part to play as a martial art.
The problem is, many people are missing the point. Aikido is a subtle art that defies definition, and should be experienced to be understood. My experience and understanding is that aikido promotes health and healing on many levels.
The human body thrives on movement. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining movement throughout life. Movement is a key factor in stalling the relentless entropy of a human being as it ages.
When practising aikido, one is involved in stretches, bends and twists. This is especially so for the person receiving the technique (Uke). Ukemi is a wonderful form of yoga, which is well known for its health benefits.
As a yoga therapist, I have learned that stretches not only keep muscles strong and joints supple, they also activate connective tissue and fascia. We are not entirely sure of the function of the fascia, but it has been thought for thousands of years that they profoundly relate to good health. Flexibility is a medically-recognised marker of health and youth.
The movements also work on the internal organs, allowing them to slide and prevent adhesions. Circulation of lymph is promoted (the lymph system does not have a pump and relies on body movements to circulate fluid), allowing elimination and boosting immunity.
The stretches, bends and twists work like a sponge, squeezing the blood and wastes from the inner organs, then allowing fresh circulation when the stretch is released. So, blood circulation is stimulated in the visceral organs, improving their health and balancing endocrine (hormone) production.
The twists and bends improve posture, and balance the nervous system, allowing parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system activation. They ease tension in the muscles and organs built up by chronic stress. Chronic tension causes postural disorders, restricted circulation, poor elimination and detoxification in the tissues, and ultimately, disease.
The knock-on effect of a more relaxed nervous system is better digestion, better immune system function, better reproductive system balance, and improved repair and growth.
The gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) cardiovascular activity in aikido is great for the heart, without being excessive. The throws and breakfalls work the muscles, increasing strength, especially for the Uke (the thrower—Nage—should be using minimum effort!).
Another little-known effect is, that the unusual body positions the Uke finds themselves in, stimulate the cerebellum, the brain centre of balance. This helps to improve balance and self-confidence in the body.
The cerebellum also governs proprioception—the awareness of where the various body parts are. This helps improve coordination and, again, confident and relaxed body movement. The more relaxed and light the Uke is when "following," the more they benefit from balance and coordination.
The most widely-known purpose of proper breathing is maintenance of the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. By learning to breathe properly during aikido, and during breathing exercises, the practitioner will find their fitness and endurance increase.
Researchers such as Buteyko have found that incorrect breathing can contribute to various diseases, such as asthma and inflammation. By improving breathing, I have known aikido practitioners overcome their asthma, and reduce pain and inflammation.
Deep breathing also stimulates the circulation of lymph, which, as mentioned before, does not have its own pump. So breathing helps eliminate wastes in a number of ways, directly and indirectly.
Natural breathing eliminates anxiety and stress, and promotes mental clarity. Mental clarity results in better choices in diet and lifestyle, further improving health!
Meditation should be, but is often not, a part of aikido practice. Meditation relaxes the mind, which in turn releases stress in the body. Meditation promotes self-awareness, which in turn enables us to make better choices moment-to-moment.
Self-awareness, or mindfulness, not only has been practised for thousands of years, but has also been highly researched in modern universities and hospitals.
“Mindfulness practice has been employed to reduce symptoms of depression, to reduce stress, anxiety, and in the treatment of drug addiction. Programs based on mindfulness models have been adopted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans' centers, and other environments, and mindfulness programs have been applied for additional outcomes such as for healthy aging, weight management, athletic performance, helping children with special needs, and as an intervention during the perinatal period.”Wikipedia
In advanced classes with my principal teacher, sensei Ken Williams, we sometimes studied critical points in the body that, when struck in certain ways, caused instant death, delayed death, temporary paralysis, or other effects.
We also learned that these very points, when gently stimulated, could revive a person or activate healing. The revival methods were called Kappo and the healing methods were called Kiatsu.
Kiatsu (or Kiatsuho) is a simple method of extending Ki into the body using the thumbs or fingertips. Extending Ki into a person is said to activate their normal Ki flow, to "prime their pump."
I have often used Kiatsu informally and in my health practice, with sometimes startling results.
The various aikido holds and locks also act like Kiatsu, stimulating what are perhaps the Ki meridians, just like in acupuncture. For example, I was told that Yonkyo stimulates the lungs, relieving constrictions like asthma.
The word “heal” comes from ancient Saxon and Germanic roots, and means “to make whole.” What does this have to do with aikido? Let me explain...
Everyone has a different experience of aikido. The initial stages are, of course, the conscious learning of the techniques and movements. This is the body learning and integrating until the movements and responses become automatic, without needing much conscious attention.
The “do” part of the word aikido means “way,” a path or journey. Path to what? My understanding of the various “ways” in Japanese culture, such as “ways” of calligraphy (shodo), of archery (kyudo), of pouring tea (chado), are that they are paths to self-perfection.
They are subtle arts of self-development, where certain movements are learned and integrated into the body for many years, then expressed as pure spontaneous mastery. This is expression of mind and body coordination, to produce something ordinary (e.g. tea), yet extraordinary. The extraordinariness is in the experience, an experience of something so perfect, it is awesome. Awe carries a meaning of mystery, a sense of being close to divinity.
Most aikido practitioners have experienced times when everything worked well. The throws were effortless and beautiful, the falls were light and elegant, there was a sense of deep connection with the partner. This is exhilarating. Then, usually, it is lost.
But it can be regained. The practitioner needs to understand what happened and how it came about, and then to repeat it. This is the advanced journey of aikido.
As the aikidoist finally starts to let go of trying, of pushing, pulling, resisting, and fighting, they start having glimpses of a state where things become effortless. Not only that, the need to rely on technique disappears. Aikido becomes a natural flow of energy, a spontaneous creative act which is unique each time.
This, to me, is mastery. It is wholeness. Mind and body (and perhaps spirit) are one. The great split is healed. Perhaps for a moment, and perhaps for successively longer moments. There is a gentle smile on the face. The eyes are filled with love. There is peace. Peace is the ultimate healing.
A man who was dying of cancer, and whom I was gently massaging, turned his eyes to me and said: “I am at peace. I am healed.”
That is why I believe mindbody coordination and aikido are ways to healing and wholeness. And that, I believe, was the intention of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba.