Why relaxation is one of the most important principles in aikido, for power with less effort, for stability and balance, for faster response, and for health.
One of the key principles emphasised by my aikido teacher, sensei Ken Williams, was relaxation. We did many exercises standing with relaxation, sitting with relaxation, moving with relaxation, throwing with relaxation.
Surprisingly, the more I engage with aikido forums, the more I find what appear to be misunderstandings about the role of relaxation. So, it appears that not all aikido schools address relaxation as a principle of aikido. This, I feel, is unfortunate.
Is tension strength?
The first premise is that tension actually creates weakness. A person who is tense only has as much strength as their muscles can provide. Moreover, tension causes insensitivity, awkward movement, and instability.
A tense practitioner will find it hard to be sensitive to the attacker’s intention, and will react slowly. This is dangerous in a “real” situation, and can mean the difference between moving out of the way, or being struck.
Movement with tension is clumsy. This is most obvious in a person who is attacking (the uke). They do not follow smoothly and often fall heavily.
Tension in the body creates instability, the inability to adjust to changes in body position. A person who is tense is often easier to move and throw than a relaxed person, yet the practitioner (nage) must be careful that the attacker (uke) doesn’t get hurt because of that instability.
A strong person can practise aikido with strength, but at some point will meet someone who is stronger. The thing is, people vary in strength, and the beauty of aikido is you don’t have to be physically strong to practise, and to defend yourself effectively.
Habitual tension is not a healthy state, and can lead to ailments like high blood pressure and heart problems. Relaxation has been called an elixir, because it promotes the body’s natural healing and growth processes. So why would we want to practise aikido with tension?
Isn’t relaxation floppy and weak?
Floppy relaxation, the kind some people practise when they come home from work and collapse on the couch with a beer, is not the relaxation we are looking for. My teacher called this “dead relaxation,” and used to say, “you’ll have a lot of time to practise that when you are dead.”
Many people believe that floppy relaxation is restful and stress-reducing, but it is not so. Because there is not much energy flow involved, people can still feel tired after a long period of flopping out.
And yes, it is weak.
Live relaxation for power
On the other hand, when you experience relaxation along with a feeling of expansiveness, you tap into a power that is unbelievable when you discover it.
Try this. Sometimes you find a new jam jar cover that is difficult to twist open, no matter how “hard” you try (ie using tension). Relax, visualise the cover twisting easily, and try again. Almost invariably, you can open it with relaxation!
The process of visualisation is called “extending Ki.” To learn to extend ki, you practise visualising energy flowing out of your body. You can visualise light, a strong stream of water, anything. Whether or not you believe in the existence of the energy called ki, you can extend ki by visualising it. After a while, you can naturally extend ki by feeling expansive and full. Your posture is good and your spine is nicely stretched. You feel energised and alert. You feel relaxed.
Live relaxation is the natural state of animals and young children. That is why they are incredibly strong for their size, and they can bounce around without too much harm.
What happens in live relaxation?
We are not entirely sure, but I believe it has something to do with the newly rediscovered web of tissue that connects every part of the body seamlessly - the fascia. The fascia has been found to be extremely strong - stronger than steel by weight.
I call the fascia “newly rediscovered” because, when they started dissecting cadavers in the middle ages, they discarded the connective tissue (fascia) so they could get to the “interesting” bits; the muscles, bones, nerves etc. It is only in the last few decades that scientists have begun paying attention to fascia and exploring its properties.
Webs are very strong and the fascia is a web. The strength comes not only from the inherent material strength (spider’s silk is also stronger than steel) but also from the structure it forms. These structural principles have been used to build towers and bridges.
The thing is this - it is not a rigid strength, but a flexible one. Thus, it allows the body to be flexible and relaxed while performing great feats. Scientists have calculated that if hummingbirds just use their muscles to fly, they would spontaneously combust from the heat generated. It leads me to think that if their fascia coordinate the muscles to fly, they produce power with far less heat output.
Martial arts practitioners through the ages must have discovered that movement with relaxation engaged the fascia, creating more power with less effort. Thus, my teacher’s teacher, Kenshiro Abbe, was a small man, but beat the world’s most famous judo champion (who in turn had beaten the founder of Brazilian JiuJitsu, but that’s another story). My teacher, sensei Williams, demonstrated how he could do a judo throw on someone much bigger, holding him with his thumbs and forefingers.
Sensei Williams’s aikido was beautiful, graceful - and awesomely powerful. He once threw his strapping assistant of ten years just three times, after which the assistant couldn’t get up.
Live relaxation is not floppy. There is still muscle tone and a certain stiffness and “structure” that doesn’t collapse. That is why an aikido attacker (uke) is most safe when practising live relaxation - their body is like a Swiss ball which maintains its round shape.
Unbendable arm is aikido’s famous “parlour trick.” But live relaxation involves the whole body, which can be unbendable, and can effortlessly stay straight even spanning two chairs while being sat on. Even children can easily do this “trick”!
Movement with relaxation involves the whole body, because it involves the fascia. Thus you have more resources working in unison. Being relaxed, proprioception and balance are optimal, even when upside down and rolling. Aikido throws become almost effortless and paradoxically more powerful.
The true test of whether an aikido practitioner is using live relaxation is randori - multiple people attacking continuously. A practitioner who is tense will start panicking and will end up exhausted. A relaxed practitioner will not rush, yet be able to handle the attackers, and at the end of the randori, will be ready for more.
This brings me to response time. The nervous system is very slow. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calculated that our fastest reflex reactions could not possibly occur via the nervous system. What we are finding is that the fascia is a communication channel that is almost instantaneous, and I believe this has deep implications for aikido.
When we are relaxed, with a feeling of expansiveness which envelops the potential attacker, we can sense their intended attack even before they physically move. Observe the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, in the old videos. He responds before the attacker moves! He himself said he pre-sensed the attacker’s intention, and had ample time to respond. I believe this aspect of relaxation has saved me several times, especially while driving. I still cannot explain how I got out of some dangerous situations, only that I did it instantly, with calmness.
Seeing me before him, The enemy attacks, But by that time I am already standing Safely behind him.
How to practise live relaxation?
While live relaxation is a natural state, we have become used to acting with tension, perhaps because culturally we have been taught that tension is strength. Thus, in sensei Ken Williams’s aikido classes, there was a lot of unlearning to do. Sometimes, on multi-day seminars, it was only on the third day that we could feel really relaxed.
That is why attending aikido classes that promote relaxation is really useful. You get to practise relaxation in different postures and activities, and can be tested to ensure you are getting it right.
If you are already practising aikido, try to relax more when in readiness for the attack. Extend your feeling towards the attacker, the uke - think of enveloping the uke. Feel the attack coming and move with the feeling rather than with the physical movement. See if you can lead the feeling of the attack rather than trying to physically move the uke. Relax into the movement, move with the whole body - not just the arms. One day you will throw your attacker with no effort, yet with a sense of directed, focused power. Cherish that feeling and keep working on it!
The true lesson of relaxation
Aikido is useless if it does not have any application in daily life. Practising aikido with relaxation will enable us to realise that we can face conflict and challenges most effectively by relaxing and allowing our natural power and resources to manifest.
The more you consciously apply relaxation in your aikido practice, the more you find the stresses of the day dissolve, and the harmonious movement you experience with your aikido partners will leave you with a sense of satisfaction and calmness.
Being able to live with more relaxation opens up our world. It helps us deal with others as well as with ourselves, with more clarity and wisdom. This may be the sense of peace that the founder of aikido was talking about. Personal peace in turn spreads and becomes peace in society.
Relaxation is a practice you can pursue in every moment of your aikido class, and by extension, in your life's daily activities.
I try to. For me, relaxation in aikido practice is a lifelong journey, letting go of life’s built-up tensions, letting go of ego, letting go of trying to do something to someone. I am only just beginning!
Relaxation is truly an elixir of life. Let us spread the true method of relaxation which enables us to meet each day with a spirit like that of a mild spring breeze.