FROM EDITION 8 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – SUMMER 2022
Kaizen is the Japanese word for constant, continuous improvement. It means 'good change', since “kai” means change and “zen” means good. It does not describe huge change, instead, it is one of constant improvement. We optimise what is already good. This change is thoughtful, not obsessive. It is insightful, not forced. We do not work harder in order to stay ahead. The discipline involves a mindful, steady improvement. This has been my approach.
The evolution has felt natural, revealing one peak of study right after the next.
A balanced harmony exists in the training method. We practice techniques, repetition after repetition until they are performed correctly, repeatedly, with little conscious thought. We become precise in form, maintaining exceptional exterior shape manifesting in posture and stance. We study static, then we study flow, raising speed, becoming smooth and fluid, upright and relaxed. At this point unnecessary tension has long been abandoned, we have the flexibility to adapt to uke. Our somatic sensibilities are fully engaged, and the outer physical core has the correct shape consistently to deliver good, strong, external power.
External physical correctness can look strong and even beautiful, but things may seem to remain at a certain level. If we seek incremental progress and desire to constantly improve, the next step is to decide where to go in our study. For me, the natural progression was to go towards the 'interior'.
Aikido – Internal or External?
Aikido appears to be a mix of both external and internal. We learn techniques, initially focusing exteriorly to obtain shape and form. With improvement, we coordinate the body to move as one unit. Throughout, we practice vague concepts like Ki extension, expansion, kokyu, and connection until they become familiar. We apply this 'unseen' to ourselves.
We extend this into our aiki weapons, where we eventually 'feel' a deeper understanding. Then we move it into our uke since they naturally exist as an extension of ourselves. We understand our goal is to establish unification, 'oneness' in all things, and as advanced practitioners, this is what we strive to do.
The correct external body structure naturally informs the interior, so it is no surprise to notice that some of us are already moving 'from the interior'.
Some might be exploring the dynamic body, focusing on centre and on breath. We may be feeling more rooted as we anchor and compress into the ground. We can observe how the deep diaphragmatic breath allows the lower torso to feel 'heavier'. And we might take note of how the integrated body or opening/closing up of the joints can actually affect our technique.
The activity of 'intentional compression', 'breath activation', and 'integration/separation' all occur internally. As a roadmap to study, I use my anatomy/physiology history and linear thinking obtained from a science background; 10+ years of yoga which imparted remarkable discovery in the use of interior space; and my ongoing tai chi lessons, which has immersed me into the Yin/Yang language/experience and the aspects of softness/roundness. My decades in Aikido have also fostered an intense desire for conceptual clarity. It has nurtured a strong, intuitive, and discerning body. Progressing into the 'interior' has only enhanced my desire to remain constant in learning and discovery.
Lastly, the other 'main' incentive has always been how to continually uncover ways to grow and expand my own 152.4 cm frame. It seems logical that the correct exterior expansion/extension/alignment exists interiorly as well. Yoga and dabbling in Qigong offered glimpses, while tai chi has only intensified this paradigm shift.
Biotensegrity is a recent reframing of internal body structure. It offers a unique system describing 'connected strength' that helps make movement efficient and powerful.
The interior body as surrounded by a three-dimensional network of structural support: the myofascial Network/System/Web. This model facilitates movement and stability. This continuous structural system exists from head to toe. It connects every part of the body to every other part through the fascia and connective tissue network.
The old body description was that it existed as a compressed stacked structure – like stacked bricks. In biotensegrity, 'stacked bones' are actually not stacked at all. Instead, bones are suspended by the fascia/connective tissue web in a vertical floating form. It is the pull of the tensile muscles, tendons, and ligaments, all interconnected by internal fascial structures, that bear tension. This network is elastic and adjustable. It has 'stretchy', 'springlike', and 'coiling' properties with energy storage capacity. Bones act like structurally rigid triangular elements that distribute stress or force (like a 'truss') throughout the curved body. This allows for the ability to withstand heavy loads. This system is very complex, I have described it very simply here. We can image biotensegrity in regard to our own Aiki technique:
With our solid, relaxed, correct exterior structure we move to harmonize and blend. We elastically absorb and cushion an incoming force. The muscles, along with the fascia/connective tissue, distribute the load. This 'locked' elasticity has sensitivity and strength. We spirally blend in a continuous stream of connected power. We are not rigid and linear; we are soft and circular.
In biotensegrity, the body is not separated, so instead of using contractive energy of separated muscles, we use the entire body to absorb. We absorb continuously within this spacious network. Expansive potential allows the network to stretch and lengthen within the confines of basic stance and since the whole body is interconnected, when one-part moves, all parts move. So, the aiki concept of moving the entire body as one coordinated whole may actually contain keen perception and inherent wisdom.
Visualise this concept. See how allowed expansion within affects efficiency. Elasticity allows us to coil, extend, or expand within the confines of our efficient basic structure. Study how this concept can incrementally refine our practice.
Most Aikidoists know the story by Henry Kono Sensei:
“...he was very relaxed and happy so I thought it might be the right moment to try my luck with a question. I asked him, “O'Sensei, how come we are not doing what you are doing?” He just smiled and replied, “I understand yin yang and you do not”.” (Source: http://www.guillaumeerard.com)
The yin/yang concept helps us understand some 'mystical' interior references, such as: 'draw energy up from the ground', 'extend your head to the heavens', 'feel the split energy', 'go forward while drawing back'. Initially confusing, we can slowly come to an incremental experientially felt understanding.
Henry Kono Sensei described yin yang in aikido as the balance we strive for between ourselves and our uke. Though this is true, I will only describe this concept within the self. It is optimal to know our own individual body first - before extending it toward others.
Yang action often takes priority in our techniques. Yang incorporates those visually distracting arm and body movements that employ 'action'. These movements take our attention so that when we practice, these are the motions physically emphasized. It is, however, equally important to identify Yin. Even during vigorous movement, Yin exists as a quiet still point that can serve as a reference. In relation to our centre, we can identify the Yin and Yang in our body during any given technique.
First identify the obvious Yang movement. Then notice the parts of the body that remain still. Yin is often the still part directly opposite the Yang. For example, if the right arm and hand is throwing, the yin is the back left foot. Once we know the Yang of a movement and have identified the Yin, give the Yin an opposite polarity. Feel the energetic split and solidified moment. The Yang goes forward while the Yin moves in the opposite direction.
These active energies exist in states of compression and expansion. They equilibrate, hold, constrain, and reinforce each other. The crucial Yin anchors movement and prevents an overextension, it stabilizes, grounds, and roots while the projection (Yang) moves up, out, and forward.
Study the Yin/Yang within the self, find the dimension within weapons, and search for it within the singularity of you and your uke. Henry Kono Sensei shared wisdom here, research it, and then know it as a generality behind a myriad of complexity. Practice experientially, not just cognitively. Make it part of that incremental study that allows us to continually improve.
The Breath as a Conduit for Yin/Yang, Drawing Energy Up, and Integration
The breath bridges subtle energies. It internally unites the body to the mind and gives movement substance. Cultivate the breath, to cultivate the mind by stilling it in the present moment. Pair the breath with whole body expression, develop focused concentration, coordination, and technical skill.
We can incorporate breath in the Yin/Yang concept. We inhale (Yin) to absorb or blend with a force. A pause/stillness occurs just before we transition into redirection. It is here that we chamber and store the breath as Yin transmutes into Yang. As the centre moves, we employ a measured exhale (Yang) to project and throw. The energetic flow of the body is affected as the Kiai, emanating from the centre, amplifies and powerfully unites the whole-body unit.
'Kokyu Rokyu', translates generally as 'Abdominal Breath Power'. It is the feeling/force originating in the Hara and flowing throughout the body. In Yoga, we were encouraged to breathe with the entire body while we held poses. We imagined breathing energy from every limb. In Aikido, we express Kokyu in our sword hands. I relate the same expression into the foot. We can Kokyu the foot with the breath to draw energy up from the ground. This path can be described and imaged with a deep nostril inhale:
Press the (back) heel into the ground. Compress the heel to feel the sensation of a 'kokyu-ing' action. Imagine the energy spiralling around the heel, pinkie toe, and the big toe. It revolves around, lifting the arch of the foot, traveling up the inseam and into the centre. The centre will then redirect it as an expression in the hands/arms, through the weapons, etc.
Newton's Third Law in physics states: “For every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction”. As the compressing foot sends energy down, opposite reaction will send energy up. This scientific explanation helps the more linear thinker rectify this particular Yin/Yang action.
The 'path' described stems from elements combined, and related from Yoga, Tai chi, Aikido, and physics.
Lastly, integration and alignment of the body both externally and internally combined with the breath adds mass and efficiency. This will intensify transmitted power. Since the breath relaxes blood vessels, nerves, muscle and sinew, more freedom of movement occurs.
Try this simple exercise:
Deeply exhale, as we...
lower the shoulders, drop the elbows, close the ribs.
drop the tailbone (align the arch in the back – connecting upper to lower torso). Bend and 'release' the knees.
sink the weight into the heels, imagine 'rooting'.
This exercise changes integration. The exhale naturally sinks the body, the lower torso feels heavier, weight on the underside.
This structure grounds, increases mass which increases force (affecting physics related variables in F=M x A). It creates a stabilised structure with 'tension increasing' potential, promoting a 'relaxed' efficiency.
There are dimensions in this integration – as we learned in Tai chi, but we can 'feel' this with intentional imagery. Through practice and familiarity these relations with the breath become more accessible. As a conduit that draws forth subtle energy, the breath secures. It transmits, transmutes, and transcends. This is likely only the very tip of the iceberg. Incremental understanding allows us to eventually come to a larger, more coalesced perception.
We maintain our humility with Aristotle's age-old adage, “the more we know, the more we do not know”.
Biotensegrity, the Yin/Yang concept, and Breathwork are elements that allow access to understanding 'the interior'. The exterior maintains an integrity that informs, while the interior reveals a potential to secure. I have presented here a distillation of my own personal experiences. The 'journey' continues as we intentionally refine our aptitude for efficiency in our aiki technique. Enhanced self- awareness is beneficial to help increase control and amplify power.
Practice and perseverance are keys to refined improvement. All principles, linked exteriorly and interiorly, show how important gradual improvement starts with fundamentals. Fundamentals form the heart to skill and power. We study basics (the 'exterior' journey) to then go deeper (the 'interior' journey). We travel from the concrete, physical biomechanics to the implied, intuitive, and relational. We move linearly to the creative, from the defined to the more obscured.
Poetically, we might relate this progression from “the Manifest” to “the Hidden”. While the journey beyond involves “the Divine”. “To truly implement the Art of Peace, you must be able to sport freely in the Manifest, the Hidden, and the Divine realm.” (From “The Art of Peace”, translated by John Stevens, p. 87). When we go into the 'Beyond' (transcend), we relate our physicality toward an allegory that can profoundly affect our spiritual realization. In essence, we embody principles to personally cultivate, transcend, and master the self.
So, maintain “Kaizen” and continue the Study. Work incrementally. Improve daily. Refine.