Aikido can help improve our health through martial arts training to develop our mind, body and spirit. Aikido has a holistic approach to life:
Aikido, which means the way to harmony with ki, is a modern synthesis of the ancient and combative martial arts of Kenjutsu (the art of using the sword in combat) and JuJutsu (the art of using an attacker’s force against him). The mother art of Aikido is AikiJutsu, a highly refined but nevertheless still combative from of JuJutsu. The Japanese word “jutsu” means skill or technique used in war and meant for survival in battle. Morihei Ueshiba, a highly spiritualized Kenjutsu and jujutsu master and the founder of Aikido, omitted the “Jutsu” in AikiJutsu and replaced it with “do”. The term “do” means the way and connotes a spiritual path, a way of life. “Do” does not mean a way of violence, destruction or combat. Among other things, it means a way of improving one’s self and one’s quality of life by maintaining one’s good health and vitality.
The practice of Aikido leads to good health because it develops and strengthens Ki (internal energy), which has been known since ancient times to be the source of vitality and health. Ki is not the same as physical strength, which comes from muscular tension. Unlike physical strength, the amount of which dwindles with aging, Ki, if developed and utilized daily, increases with age. Since real Aikido utilizes Ki and not physical strength, it can be practiced not only by young individuals, but by older ones as well-whether they are physically string or not.
Not all kinds of Aikido, however, can lead to good health and vitality. True Aikido must essentially utilize the principles of ki and depend on and develop strong ki in its practitioners. Any kind of Aikido, therefore, which neglects or does not understand the application of ki to its techniques cannot be said to be real Aikido.
What is the nature of ki?
Ki is the life force possessed by all living creatures. It is also the internal or healing energy of the body. On the surface, our bodies appear solid and opaque. But at the most fundamental level, our molecules and atoms are made up of energy. We use parts of this energy, which we take in from the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink, to maintain and repair our bodies, maintain a narrow internal temperature range, secrete digestive juices for the breakdown and absorption of food, replace worn tissue and blood cells, maintain efficient digestion and respiration, and other critical body processes.
To keep all of these processes functioning smoothly, we need to frequently replenish our energy or Ki. Health then is essentially a function of the quality of our Ki. Good health results from strong and vigorous Ki. Ki may be strengthened by proper breathing, exercise and relaxation. These three activities come together and are done in a unique and most effective way through the practice of Aikido.
What is the relationship between correct breathing and health? Why is the former absolutely essential in order to achieve the latter?
To breathe is to live. Breathing is the most essential function of the body. You can survive for sometime without eating, and for a shorter time without drinking. But without breathing, all life will cease within a matter of minutes. Breathing is absolutely essential to the body’s important functions.
We take food into our bodies and metabolize it to create energy for life. We absorb oxygen from the air which is necessary to the process of metabolism. We breathe air into our lungs and from it absorb oxygen into the blood stream which is carried to every part of the body, where the oxygen helps metabolize nutrients for the cells. The by-products of this process include carbon dioxide and various waste products which are carried out again via the bloodstream. Carbon dioxide is then expired from the lungs to complete the cycle of respiration. Correct breathing is breathing in which the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is complete.
Human lung capacity ranges between 3000 to 4000 cubic centimeters of air. The average person, however, only exchanges about 600 to 700 cubic centimeters of air with each breath. This means that ordinarily, we only exchange about 1/3 to 1/6 of our capacity. Consequently, the blood that travels through our arteries only holds a fraction of the oxygen that it can hold. Excess carbon dioxide and unmetabolized wastes tend to accumulate when insufficient oxygen is delivered to many areas of the body. This reduces the body’s immunity by increasing the burden on the life force, and invites all kinds of physical problems. Tense and spasmodic breathing causes your body to experience extreme stops and starts which, over time, depletes your store of Ki. Conversely, when smooth and rhythmic breathing becomes a habit, it generates a feeling of high energy and well-being, promoting deep relaxation, sound sleep and rejuvenation of the entire body.
In Aikido, it is impossible to do the different techniques without relaxed breathing. This is because it is only when you are breathing properly that strong ki, necessary to do the techniques, flows. An Aikido throw which is executed while the breathing is spasmodic and tense will be ineffective and will only make the practitioners body equally tense. The correct practice of Aikido thus practically forces you to breathe correctly by making you eliminate tension from your body when you perform the movements.
One the major reasons behind the 90s fitness boom is the evidence that civilized people are dying of heart and blood vessel disease because of their sedentary ways. It has been proven by many leading medical schools that exercise keeps the arteries open, helps control weight, reduces blood pressure and pulse rates, all of which benefit the heart.
Why then must we exercise our bodies of good health depends not on physical strength, but on Ki?
The answer to this will be clearer if we think of ki as water and the body as the vessel which holds the water. If the vessel is cracked, the water will seep out the moment it is poured in. In the same way, if the body is weak and sick, it cannot effectively receive a fresh supply of Ki. Ki cannot flow inside the body to invigorate it. But if the vessel is whole, the water is contained properly. Similarly, if the body is strong and healthy, it can effectively receive a fresh supply of ki every time and ki can flow freely inside the body and rejuvenate it.
In Aikido, both sides of the body are exercised equally. Movements include standing up, sitting down, stretching the knees and bending the body forward and backward. The whole body is involved. Beginning with soft movements and gradually increasing their speed and intensity in Aikido training will enable you to build flexibility and strength.
At this point, it is important to discuss the relationship between Ki development through relaxation. A person suffering from hypertension and frequent panic attacks is always directed by his doctor to take some time out from his stressful lifestyle and to relax. But what does it mean to truly “relax”? And why is relaxation considered so important in maintaining health?
More and more doctors in the west are now finding out and confirming that deep relaxation contributes to a sense of well-being and high energy because it counters the stresses and tensions of daily life. Stress is not something that comes from the outside. IT is, instead, a condition that you produce internally, which you might not be completely aware of. This stress can be a constant drain on your energy reserves.
The human body is equipped to react to and handle stress. Stress is a normal psychological response in the body to a stimulus called a stressor. A stressor can be real or imaginary and, in either case, causes a physical reaction to occur. Once the body reacts to a stressor, the physical-emotional system automatically seeks rest to restore inner balance and peace. If the external demand remains, or if you continue to trigger the stress response through worry or frustration, your body enters a “resistance” stage. If the body is forced to remain in this stage for an unreasonable length of time, it becomes chronic and its biochemical effects (e.g. narrowing of the arteries causing an increase in blood pressure, raising of the blood sugar level) can erode your energy and well-being.
If the body is not allowed to relax at this point, the stress continues to build, the body soon enters the “exhaustion” stage, the principal effects of which include: chronic elevation of the blood pressure, tearing of the arterial walls, elevation of clotting elements in the blood, increase in stomach acidity, lowered resistance to disease, increase in activity of the whole system. All of these sap your vitality, make you more susceptible to serious illness and accelerate the aging process. To avoid all of these ill effects of stress, it is important that the body learns to relax under pressure and tension.
True relaxation is not difficult to achieve. Most people think, however, that being relaxed means making their bodies go limp and entering a state of physical and mental inactivity. This is not relaxation but dead calmness. Relaxation is a dynamic state, not one of limp placidity. True relaxation is found in the midst, not in the absence, of activity. Aikido students are taught that before they can begin doing Aikido movements, both their bodies and minds must be completely relaxed. The execution of Aikido techniques requires rapid movement. When you are tense, it is very difficult to move rapidly. To be able to d so, your body and mind must be completely relaxed.
Here’s one relaxation method you can try yourself: stand up, let your arms hang at your side and begin shaking your wrists in a rapid up-and-down motion at their natural height, below the belt line. Continue this for a few moments then let your hands quietly come to rest at their natural original position. To relax the whole body, the vibration should be strong enough to cause your heels to rise and fall slightly each time you shake your wrists. As soon as the wrist motion stops, have a partner hold one of your wrists with one hand and try to lift the arm straight up toward your shoulder. You will find that your wrist won’t budge. Nor will the shoulder move, whether the wrist is lifted or pulled straight down. Try doing this frequently, not only when you practice Aikido, but whenever you face stress and tension throughout the day. With practice, you will find that you can remain under pressure, without needing to carry around excess burdens or needless worries.
How is it possible that the practice of Aikido tends to reverse some of the symptoms of aging, such as decrease in body flexibility and susceptibility to disease and illness?
The answer is ki. The more you practice Aikido, the stronger your ki becomes, and consequently, the healthier your body will be. The effects of incorrect breathing, lack of exercise, and inability to handle stress can continue to literally increase the aging process. Age is not a matter of counting years. Age is not determined by numbers but by the quality of your Ki. You can be “young” and healthy at 60 or “old” and weak at 16. Age is nothing more than a state of mind and not of being,
The practice of correct Aikido shatters some cultural stereotypes associated with aging. Older people are supposed to be stiffer and less resilient than younger people. In the case of Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, he became stronger and more flexible as his years in Aikido progressed. In his 80s, he could handle and throw five or six big men attacking simultaneously. Older people are supposed to heal more slowly and less readily. In the case of Koichi Tohei, Ki Society’s founder, the healing energy of his body is as strong now as it was in his younger years. In 1990, he underwent a life-threatening operation wherein artificial disks were inserted in between his vertebral disks, many of which had worn away through the years following a serious accident in the 1950s.
After the operation, he was prohibited from doing Aikido for one whole year. Through ours of daily breathing exercise, the discs became integrated into his bone tissue in less than the time expected and he was allowed to do Aikido just eight months after the operation.
What does it mean to be truly healthy?
It means two things: first, for the mind, it means always cultivating and extending ki, thinking positively in all circumstances. A person with a positive mind naturally improves his own life circumstances and engages good health. We must put aside the notion that it is natural for the body to begin to break down and become weak and sickly in middle age. Rather, these things should be considered a consequence of negative thinking. It is important to remember that the minds leads the body.
To create a strong and healthy body, you must think of the body as being naturally healthy. Second, for the body, it means considering health form a physical standpoint, including correct posture, eating habits, breathing, exercise and relaxation. Therefore health is not a matter of keeping either just the mind or the body healthy. Real health means keeping both the mind and body strong and healthy. This can be achieved through the practice of Aikido.
This is the beauty of Aikido: it doesn’t only protect you from human aggressors which are visible, but from other invisible aggressors which are deadlier: stress, sickness, disease, and aging.