Martial arts require practicing new ways of moving, thinking, and interacting with others. Aikido relies on several key principles that take time and exploration to understand. The more deeply I explore the art, the more a bottomless well of vocabulary roils beneath, enough to drown in if I take it all on at once.
When I first started aikido someone suggested choosing one of the four key principles and practicing it for a month or two until I had some feel for it. Then move to the next principle. I’ve followed that advice, so in any class I am working on what sensei is teaching and trying to apply an internal principle as well.
Recently I have been practicing what it means to “Relax Completely.”
Art by Nate B. Copyrighted 2017.
When uke grabs, can I relax my wrist, then elbow, then shoulder, then stand with my spine relaxed and straight? Can I do all of that before contact?
What has really transformed daily life is what happens from the one-point down. Are my hips and pelvic muscles relaxed? Can I settle my weight down into the floor without tensing my hips, without twisting my knees out of alignment with my feet?
I noticed a lot of internal tension in my hips and legs. I started focusing on that in practice, cooking in the kitchen, standing to stretch. It started to make it easier to stand up straight.
I’ve always enjoyed running but for the past few years have been hindered by old injuries. I decided to start up again and run only as long as I could keep my lower body relaxed. If my posture started to cave in or my stride hobbled in any way, I would stop. If my old injuries flared up–as they have so many times–I would stop and preserve my joints.
In three months, my old complaints haven’t acted up, I’ve had no injuries, and I’m running twice as far as I ever have and slowly adding to the distance. And it doesn’t hurt. Sure, it takes a lot of effort and sometimes my cardio rises to high and I have to slow down. Sure, sometimes I bite off a bigger climb than my legs can handle and I have to dial it back. But I can tell the difference now between discomfort from asking my body to push and the pain of demanding too much.
Applying aikido principles creates a feedback loop. When I put my focus on listening to the cues from my body (Are you relaxed? Feeling good? Want to keep going?) I find running to be much more joyful. Instead of demanding from my body (Three miles at this pace, I don’t care if you’re sore. I’m Mind and you’ll do what I say, Body!), I relax and listen. I haven’t been injured because the goal is not to achieve, but to participate.
Now on the mat, I work to let go of achievement. I try to listen and participate.