067) What Do You Mean When You Say “Relax” : March 2010

If a person has been studying Aikido for any length of time, it is likely that this person has heard the phrase “just relax…”    The answer seems so simple, yet remains so elusive.  Discovering the meaning of this phrase is a process of becoming increasingly aware of and in control of one’s own body.  This burgeoning awareness leads to subtle, yet substantial improvements in ones’ ability to execute techniques.

The natural starting point is focusing on  how we stand.  We typically stand with our back arched back, which allows us to walk in a manner in which our balance point shifts forward and back, while we bob up and down.  We need to resetting our proprioceptive sense that corresponds to an erect posture.  I typically begin this process by physically altering the person’s posture so that they are actually standing erect.  People’s initial proprioceptive feedback is that they are leaning forward.  They feel as though they are off-balance and are easily unbalanced by a slight push.  I ask the person to stand so that they feel as though they as standing straight (shisen tai position).  I then push gently on their chests and backs so that they can observe and experience how easily they are unbalanced from that position.  I then correct their posture and do the push tests again.  They find that they can easily “absorb” the force without being unbalanced.  I ask the student to stand in this position for awhile and focus in on what parts of the body are relaxed and what parts are tense.  The student is to focus on any changes in being tense or relaxed.  This process of learning to remain in good posture will help a student develop a more accurate understanding of how to move relaxed.  Now we have to learn to move with good posture in a relaxed, efficient and effective manner.

Students are permitted to stop moving and/or executing a technique if they feel off balance, exerting excessive force, stuck,….. in order to gain some awareness as to the nature of their movements.  I will frequently fix students’ postures, release tensions in their bodies and help their bodies complete techniques so that they can see and feel the power that emerges when techniques are done without unnecessary tensions.  They will experience the difference between executing a technique with internal power (internal energy- aka Ki) as opposed to external, muscle tension.  When a student is told to relax, he/she frequently released both muscle tension and Ki.  The student needs to experience that relaxing means releasing the unnecessary muscle tension so the Ki can flow stronger.  This is not an easy process to learn.  This learning process is at the proverbial heart of why an art like Aikido can take a long time to become genuinely effective.

Patience is more than a virtue in learning the power of relaxation in Aikido.  If you are impatient, you are mentally and physically tense.  That simply impedes upon the learning process.  Learning how to practice in a serious, relaxed and joyous manner makes Aikido such a transformational experience.  The simple proof of this is to force yourself to smile when you are upset and become aware of how maintaining the smile will change your experience.

The next time you are asked to relax, realize that it is not an end-point, but the beginning of deeper learning!

Marc Abrams Sensei

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