A command I heard CONSTANTLY when I started Aikido training back in 1993 was one simple word – relax. I would try to do a technique and a senior student would stop me and say – “just relax”. Then I would exhale, try to release the tension in my shoulders and try again. Again I would be stopped and there’s that word again – “relax!”.
I didn’t have a lot of life skills at that time but one thing I thought I knew how to do well was to relax! Why was this so difficult?
Fast forward 17 years later to the present. I rarely tell people to relax. Well, I do but I don’t just use the word by itself. I’ve come to learn that that word “relax” – similar to the word “love” is a word that everyone thinks they understand but usually they don’t. There is so much meaning behind “relaxing” and it takes a long time to learn how to do it - and here’s the key point - in movement.
Koichi Tohei said “The only thing of true value [O-Sensei] taught was how to relax.”
(From Koichi Tohei interview in Aikido Journal)
At first glance this sounds like a put down but upon further reflection, what a powerful ability this is.To teach people how to relax…
So what does relaxing mean? A quick look at the dictionary reveals:
to make less tense, rigid, or firm; make lax: to relax the muscles.
It’s easy to imagine someone sitting on a couch with the back rounded, chin in his chest, eating some junk food. That is one example of being relaxed. But that’s not what we’re trying to develop through Aikido training. It’s easy to relax when everything is well in your world. Can you relax when someone is swinging a wooden sword at your head? How about when someone is trying to throw you? How about when someone is holding you and you want to move? Can you relax while moving?
To me, a more accurate way to describe the feeling of relaxation is using the minimum amount of strength necessary to accomplish a goal. I often hear people say “Aikido doesn’t use strength”. I disagree with this. Of course you use strength. How else can you move your body if you don’t use strength? The point is, you aren’t overdoing it. You’re not putting more muscle into than you need to.
I’ve been thrown by 10th dan Aikido masters and I’ve grappled with black belt Jiu-jitsu world champions. The feeling is THE SAME. They both don’t put any extra effort than what is needed. In Aikido we use a systematic approach to develop this relaxation. Jiu-jitsu does not systematically develop this, however the end result is the same (if you train correctly).
So thinking back on my first years of Aikido, I think it is not helpful to simply say “relax” to a new student. He has to constantly train, learn the movements and then refine his technique. Constantly accomplishing more by applying less strength.