The most important part of Aikido

August 3rd, 2010 by twistingwrists Categories: Words 3 Responses

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.

  1. Mark Grogan says:

    Thank you thank you thank you! I could have sworn I wrote those first few paragraphs!
    My Shihan eventually nicknamed me “The Bull” as I was so forward and rigid – (ex karateka learning Aikido) I could have sworn I was relaxed… any more and I would have fallen asleep…
    though apparently 6 years later they have noticed an improvement and I am much better than I used to be. Personally I still feel I have a long way to go – one day I shall be like water – right before arthritis or rigor mortis sets in – but until then I shall persevere.

  2. Very clear and simple explanation, thank you.

    Stiffness is a by-product of fear.

    Familiarization is the anti-dote to fear.

    The ability to move smoothly results from a combination of technical repetition and sparring with sincere partners. By being exposed to stress one can learn how to deal with it. There is no short cut!

    In my personal experience, so-called hard stylists are more relaxed at the advanced level than so-called soft stylists who have little or no experience of dealing with sincere attacks and freak out whenever attacked.

    The problem with hard stylists is that few ever go beyond the beginner’s level and stay stiff for ever.

    However there is no perfect answer. Every one has to find his own path.

    Patrick Augé

  3. nga pham says:

    Dear Mr. Grogan,

    I don’t agree with you that karate is rigid. I am a seventh dan in Isshinryu karate and one time my instructor told people that my karate looks like Aikido. At that time I did not practice Aikido. The karate became rigid and mechanical when it came to U.S.A and Europe since by narure Americans and Europeans are big so they tend to use the strength and forgot that martial arts are all about efficiency. You can not be effcient when you are rigid or mechanical. I am practicing Aikido now since my daughter needs partner and my Aikido instructor told me that techniques I executed are unothodox but are beautiful to watch.

    Have a good evening.

    Regards,
    Nga