Learning To Relax


Those who are stiff and rigid are the disciples of death. Those who are soft and yielding are the disciples of life

  • Lao Tzu

Several months ago we were working on a series of defenses against a lunge punch attack. In this series, the defender enters the attack to the outside and deflects the incoming punch with the forward hand. In one iteration, the defender then extends the inside arm across the attacker's chest and presses on the attacker's lower back with the forward hand while pivoting to the outside on the back foot. When applied correctly, the attacker falls backwards to the mat, protecting themselves against injury with a break-fall and backwards roll. At a certain point, Sensei took the role of defender and had us each attack in order to demonstrate correct technique. After my attack, he quietly commented, 'So resistant'. I chose to hear Sensei's comment as a scathing attack on my aikido technique and I felt devastated.

The experience gave me cause to consider, once again, how I ever became so resistant. When I look back, a couple of markers stand out. My work environments have always been intensely competitive. Quite a few years ago, my boss decided it would be a good exercise for us all to undergo personality testing. I was diagnosed as having a strong drive for self-actualization offset by oppositional tendencies. At the time (and to this day) I thought, 'Of course I am oppositional. Just look at who I have to work with and for.' Fast forward another fifteen years or so and I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. My family doctor observed that I had developed a hyper-vigilant personality. I was constantly scanning my environment for threats. I could not relax. Worse than that, I didn't even realize how tense I was.

These diagnoses were signs that something was wrong with the way I was interacting with my world. While understanding why or how I became this way may be interesting speculation on my part, this thinking doesn't really change anything. As Sensei often says, 'Never mind what you think!' What if I could just let go of who I have become, abandon my false personality, my 'dis-ease' and live, if only for a brief time, in the present moment? This is the gift of aikido. This is the commitment I need to make to myself, each and every time I step onto the mats, clear my mind of the day's concerns in the opening meditation and bow into class.

While virtually all martial arts recognize that the ability to relax under pressure will improve effectiveness, Jiseikan Aikido is relatively unique in the insistence it places on this requirement. This, I think, reflects both the influence of the Chinese internal martial styles on Jiseikan, as well as the underlying strategy of aikido. Aikido's strategy is to yield to the incoming attack and to use the momentum of the attack to defeat the attacker. It is a defensive strategy as opposed to the offensive strength against strength strategies of martial arts such as Western boxing or Japanese karate. One strategy is not necessarily superior to the other. Aikido studies both attack and defense and Jiseikan is a composite art which includes aikido, judo and karate in its influences. The choice of optimal strategy will depend to some extent both on the individual and the context. Note, I did say 'choice'. If I only know how to oppose, and not to yield, my choice of strategy will be limited.

A defensive style must be assertive if the attacker is to be controlled. Attack and defense are complementary, not mutually exclusive. A Jisiekan class is a continuous, reciprocal process of learning how to relax when feeling under pressure. As the attacker, being relaxed enables me to control my attack so that it is an honest attack, but also one that does not harm my partner. As a relaxed defender, I am able to intercept the attack with the sensitivity, timing and adaptability required to get out of the way of the attack and respond with a controlled technique that avoids injury. Roles have now reversed. The attacker is now a defender who requires the sensitivity and timing required to tap out before injury in the case of a joint lock or roll and breakfall in the event of a throw. I must be right there in the present moment. This requirement is at the heart of aikido's therapeutic function.

So just how do I learn to relax and be right HERE, NOW? That's the hard part which brings me back to my story. Sensei's observation regarding my resistant nature did make me stop and consider what had happened. Reflecting on the experience, I became aware that I had in fact braced myself for Sensei's defense. Although it was very subtle and almost unconscious, I realized that it was as if a wave of tension swept over my body as I prepared myself to meet Sensei's impact. There is much to be gained from this insight.

The first step in learning to relax is the awareness that I am not relaxed. As I noted earlier, when I started at the Jiseikan my awareness of just how tense I had become was limited. But gradually, as the training progressed, thanks in part to Sensei's constant reminders to 'RELAX!', but also as a result of the interaction with my partners, I became more aware of my tendency to resist. To some extent this tendency to meet force with force seems to be a natural, instinctual response. Sensei once said to me that the training is all about replacing an instinctual way of responding with a new more effective set of reflexive responses.

Awareness implies not only a relaxed body, but also a relaxed mind. When we learn a new technique it helps to think my way through it step by step. We often enumerate the steps, moving in a robotic fashion. In this way of functioning, the mind rules the body. Once the muscle memory is established, it's time need to shed the rigid control and let the process flow. At this point, mind and body function in harmony with little conscious interference. I think, this is what is meant by Mushin and why Sensei sometimes says to me, with a little frustration, 'Stop thinking! Just do it!'

There is one more important lesson to learn about relaxing that I think is clearly demonstrated in my story. The lesson is to not take myself too seriously. My immediate reaction to Sensei's 'So resistant' comment revealed a defensive, resistant mental attitude. What I perceived as criticism rather than correction was actually valuable feedback, an observation that could give me insight into how I was responding to an anticipated counter attack. To make matters worse, the correction was exaggerated in my mind, inflated out of all proportion and made to be much more significant than it actually was intended to be. The corollary of beating myself up in this fashion would be to puff myself up with pride as a consequence of a few reassuring words of approval. All of this over-reaction is a result of taking myself way too seriously. This attitude does not contribute to learning the art. Relaxing help me to stay focused in the present moment. The lesson is to accept the correction with gratitude, acknowledge it, absorb it and move on.

Changing my personality structure, the way I interact with my world, is not an overnight process. There are no quick fixes or magic pills. Some lessons must be learned and re-learned. After ten years of training it is still very much a work in progress that requires persistence, patience and a good measure of light-heartedness.