April 7, 2020

Aikido self-practice when you're in isolation

by Gerald Lopez
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Self-practice, or solo practice, is common among martial artists in the East. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, always did his own practice, as did many of his major students including Koichi Tohei. In fact, in many arts, ways and "do" (as in aikido), personal practice is considered essential if you are to go deeper into your understanding.

In this time of enforced self-isolation (here in New Zealand, the government explained it as "staying in your bubble"), there is a lot you can do to maintain your health, flexibility, stamina, and even skills. Not only that, the practice you adopt now will stand you in good stead, and may continue to be a valuable personal practice when you resume group sessions.

Here are some activities, which together form a holistic self-development programme.

Stretching

Most aikido dojos practise some form of stretching at the beginning and/or end of class. Keep practising these!

These stretches are often the same or similar to yoga poses, so if you can't remember your dojo routines, you would do well to do a yoga routine, which should include:

  • Moving the joints: ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists, neck.
  • Stretching the spine in all directions: forward, back, sideways, and twisting.
  • Hip openers: the hips often tighten up with excessive sitting and inactivity.
  • Balancing poses: these are good to stimulate the parts of the brain which govern balance and body awareness.
  • Strengthening poses: including standing poses, and weight-bearing poses on the arms.
  • Cardiovascular poses: the Sun Salutation (called Surya Namaskara in Sanskrit) is a great series for building circulation and stamina. Do 3-10 rounds on both sides.

You can find yoga routines on YouTube, or you can download a yoga session, including Sun Salutation, that I recorded in 2001 when I was a yoga instructor.

Easy Yoga Session files

These were recorded by me for a CD in 2001. You can download the sound files and print out the PDF document to refer to when practising the routine. It is best to listen to them in sequence until you are familiar with the routine. 45MB Zip file download.

Ki Development Exercises

Also called Aiki Taiso, these were designed by Koichi Tohei as a way of practising movement with relaxation and extending Ki. Try and imagine the direction of ki while practising these exercises. In the following video, I demonstrate my regular routine; where I do a couple of repetitions, you can do 4-5 repetitions on each side:

And here is Koichi Tohei doing aiki taiso, maybe 50 years ago!

Weapons practice

If you have a bokken (wooden sword) and/or jo (wooden staff), you can practise any katas (series) your have learned. You can start with sword cuts, relaxing as much as you can and allowing the bokken to drop by itself. The end of the cut should be completely steady. Check for relaxation at all times.

Moving or cutting with tension or force is to be avoided.

Different schools have different katas, and you can pick them up on YouTube. Try and make your movements fluid and flexible.

Breathing

breathing-maruyama

Breathing is a critical part of martial arts and aikido - and in fact of life - but so many people are ignorant of even their own breathing habits. By practising your breathing you will find your aikido becomes more powerful and you will have more stamina.

I once asked my teacher, sensei Ken Williams, "what is the best way to build up energy?" He said, "do vigorous practice, then do Ki Breathing." My yoga teacher gave me similar advice.

Correct breathing improves immunity from infections like CoVid-19, by opening up the stagnant parts of the lungs, and stimulating your lymph system which clears out toxins. According to researchers like Buteyko, coordinated breathing also improves the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the blood, reducing inflammation.

Ki breathing means imagining drawing ki in from the end of the universe, holding it in the One Point in the abdomen, then sending it back out to the end of the universe. It is generally better to inhale through the nose, and you can exhale through the mouth making an unvoiced "haaa" sound.

Start with a very comfortable length of inhale, hold, and exhale; then lengthen the breath as your lungs relax. It is very important not to stress the lungs.

Breathe out so that your breath travels infinitely to the ends of the universe; breathe in so that your breath reaches your One Point and continues infinitely there.

At night when all is quiet and calm, do this alone, and you will feel that you are the universe and that the universe is you.

Koichi Tohei, Ki Sayings, 1981

Meditation

Many people are feeling anxious at the moment, because they may have lost their work and income, because of the stress of isolation, and maybe because of fear of the disease, or fear for their loved ones.

Both breathing and meditation are very helpful in recovering a sense of confidence and calm. After all, hasn't all the aikido practice been for this - digging deeply into and connecting with our warrior spirit?

While I don't believe meditation is any longer in the syllabus in many aikido schools after the death of the founder, it definitely was in Koichi Tohei's Ki Society. This was because he was convinced that meditation had helped him cure his childhood emphysema, and he had been a student of Nakamura Tempu who himself had cured his own tuberculosis after studying yoga in India.

A simple meditation is to sit quietly and comfortably, close your eyes, and imagine your personal space expanding to fill the room and beyond, then contracting and shrinking down to your One Point in the lower abdomen. Repeat the expansion and contraction several times, then finish at the One Point and keep your focus there.

Personal practice

You will find that, with daily practice of the exercises, the breathing and the meditation, you will find a zone of calmness, and a sense of accepting what the situation and what life brings, without resisting or worrying.

Experiencing the silence of isolation and solo practice will bring you an inner awareness that is the heart of martial arts and aikido.

Throughout the history of martial arts, and the esoteric practices such as yoga, daily personal practice (called Sadhana in yoga) was considered the most important activity you could do. It is through having a habit of personal practice, combined with group training and with the experience of the challenges of life, that deep understanding develops, that is, understanding of your self.

This is an ideal time for this.

Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.

Morihei Ueshiba

Please feel free to ask for explanation or clarification in the comments section below. I will try to put some videos together if there is demand for it.

Best wishes for staying healthy, and for the health of your loved ones and your community.

Author: Gerald Lopez


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