Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning

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Breathing

 

Just do it.  Nike

 

Everyone breathes. Athletes of any sport co-ordinate their breathing with their movement without thinking about it. Of course, they will only really think about it if they become professional, and by that time, they will have gotten it right. In Aikido, we are forced to learn breathing from the beginning before even knowing the forms. No wonder it appears so mysterious.

 

(a) Exercises

Exercises prepare the body for training in two ways. First, the body is warmed up by gentle then harder exercise and stretching. During this time it is important to mobilise the major muscle groups and to stretch in all directions. There is no need for excessive strength conditioning in an aiki warm up, indeed, it would have the effect of killing your aiki, not nourishing it. Second, during the various exercises it is important to breathe in rhythm. If one moves fast one should breathe fast, if one move's slow, breathe slow. This is natural. When sitting at the beginning of class one should become aware of one's slow breathing. If it is not slow, one should make it so, taking deliberate, slow breaths to slow down the heartbeat. When sitting after vigorous practice one's breathing rate will be rapid but one should maintain control of it. Breathing too fast should be considered lack of conscious control, but consciously breathing too slowly at this time might cause one to feel faint. Instead, one should concentrate on breathing deeply, and the air should enter as though filling a large jug - from the bottom. This will allow one to calm down both physically and mentally. Constant conscious attention to breathing during warm-up exercises and stretching routines will help one to establish an unconscious link between breathing and movement that will eventually carry over into one's techniques, and into everyday life.

 

(b) Kokyu-ho

Kokyu-ho translates as ‘breathing exercise.’ Basically, the kokyu-ho movements are designed to help co-ordinate aiki movement with breathing. The emphasis here is on the co-ordination of movement with breathing, not on the technique or throw. This is simply because once one has as the objective a technique, everything else is often forgotten. By having no technique, one can concentrate on the essential task at hand - co-ordination. What is often forgotten is that uke is also learning how to co-ordinate their own breathing with their own movement at the same time. One golden rule is for neither tori nor uke to excessively strain or hold their breath. To develop kokyu it is necessary to practice against ever-stronger grips; one needs to build a strong base for the flowing techniques that come later. Kokyu-ho exercises are ideal for gaining insight into understanding aiki.

 

(c) Kokyu-nage

Kokyu-nage translates as ‘breath throw.’ As an extension of kokyu-ho, kokyu-nage results in a throw. Although it can sometimes seem complicated, the throw is usually not much more than a simple step and push. Obviously, keeping it simple aids the learning process. Here, what one is learning is to co-ordinate one’s body movement with the breath while throwing down, or projecting away. As in kokyu-ho, at no point should tori or uke excessively strain or hold their breath – both should breathe out during the movement. In fact, on hitting the ground gently, uke’s breath is gentle, if hitting hard, the breath naturally exhales more sharply, but without strain or restriction. Kokyu-ho and kokyu-nage collectively attempt to develop a feeling of solid aiki and bridge the gap between basic and advanced technique, thereby producing good Aikido. With kokyu-nage one's body becomes accustomed to the larger movements and principles; with less technical detail one can learn more efficiently. One important point to note here is that kokyu-nage is not a technique. If kokyu-nage is just regarded as another technique on a grading syllabus then its essence can not be ascertained or acquired. Accordingly, it is wise not to name the various kokyu-nage's that exist lest they become rigid techniques. Another important point is that more allowance for variation in kokyu-nage should be tolerated, allowing tori the freedom to experiment to figure it out. It goes without saying that kokyu-nage techniques are useful in learning how to deal with powerful grips in such a way that one can move or throw uke efficiently. In fact, as one's skill at kokyu-nage develops, one begins to merge with uke’s movement and aiki can develop. Eventually, tori will learn to become more in tune with uke and the skills acquired, a certain aiki feeling, will transfer over into the standard techniques and set the student off along a new voyage of discovery.

 

(d) Kiai

Kiai, which means literally translates as 'energy in harmony', but more realistically as 'focused energy' refers to the shout that is sometimes emitted during the execution of a technique. Some schools do it every technique, some only when using weapons, others never do it. As is usual, the middle-way provides the best route. Of course, the kiai originates from the breath exhaling from the lungs but one can add to this a measure of power by contracting the stomach muscles to help push the breath out. The result is that it feels as though the sound actually emanates from the pit of the stomach. Accordingly, the sound is deep and powerful. But be careful, a common mistake is simply to growl or scowl loudly from the throat.

Schools of Aikido generally use the Ei sound to kiai. Other sounds commonly heard are Ai, Ka, To, Suh, Sa, Hai, Ho, etc. Some schools even credit certain sounds with purpose. For example, one might be defensive and another defensive. However, as there is no apparent uniformity of such common usage between schools it is difficult to establish whether such can be based on true nature. Other schools have their secret methods, some chant. If you train often and hard you will learn to breathe in much the same way as any sportsman does.

For tori, depending upon the school, the kiai is emitted at the beginning or the end of the technique and signifies a counter strike, the break of a joint, or the kill. For uke, the kiai is either emitted at the beginning when attacking, or less commonly, as an aid to the break-fall at the end, as when 'hitting' the ground in a more 'positive' manner. One problem with the kiai is that it demands one hundred percent of one's energy in the moment, and if one's technique is ineffective, it will be wasted energy, leaving one vulnerable to counter attack. Also, when performing kiai, one is in essence training to maim or kill, and if one does not maim or kill then one is not performing the technique correctly in that moment. Accordingly, some people prefer not to kiai in ordinary aiki training, instead using it only in more solitary training or weapons' practice. Finally, I believe the kiai can also be silent, instead, it being a strongly focused breath, the shorter the sharper. A common example of this is the sharp outward breath made during a hard break-fall to protect one's body, especially if tori falls on top of uke as often happens in Judo.

 

(e) Meditation

Many people in martial arts can be seen sat in meditation but understanding the 'how' of it is not so easy. In Japanese, meditation is mokuso, which literally translates as ‘silent thought.’ The dojo is often likened to the temple where one goes to escape the trivialities of ordinary life. So, in the dojo we sit quietly to forget, actively seeking that which we can only passively attain, the ever-elusive satori (enlightenment).

We leave our outside world behind us when we enter the dojo. By forgetting, we empty our minds for a new experience. In the temple that new experience is 'sitting' and tuning oneself to nature. In this busy world people are often frustrated when they have nothing to do. Others are frustrated when they have too much to do. For the monk, meditation is the solution. In the dojo, there is more. Sitting at rest is concentrated relaxation, the gathering of energy. One does not just sit and relax, rather, one fills one's body with aiki of the unbendable arm nature. Also, both tori and uke must strive to maintain their aiki meditative state while in motion – this leads to the idea of Aikido as ‘Moving Zen.’ After practice, one's rate of breathing may be increased. At this time one sits and concentrates on maintaining control of the breath. Of course, it follows that if you can maintain control of the breath while practising Aikido, one will rarely be out of breath, nor need to consciously control it either during, or after, practice. If one is out of breath after vigorous practice then sitting quietly allows further insight into meditation. As your chest spontaneously moves up and down in the body's quest for oxygen one takes conscious control. The emphasis here is - learn to take control. Later, when sitting quietly at the beginning of the class you will also learn to take control, even though you are not tired. So, in martial arts there is a before, during, and after aspect to breathing.

Some teachers incorporate breathing deeply and slowly with meditation; some include quiet music or other rhythm. The usual emphasis is on the deeper and the slower. This is good practice but one thing to be aware of, or beware of, is that one's teacher's rhythm is not one's own. While it is polite discipline to follow the teacher's rhythm, ultimately, one must find and follow one's own rhythm. Also to keep in mind is that the purpose of meditative breathing is to improve one’s martial ability. Dream-like deep mediation is more akin to escapist monks sitting on comfy cushions.

 (f) Reverse Breathing

    Sometimes, the keen Aikidoka might decide to supplement their training with yoga, as once did I. The yoga teacher complimented me on my breathing and asked if I had done yoga before. Of course, I had not, but I mentioned Aikido. The reply I got puzzled me. The teacher said that yoga breathing was different to martial arts breathing, which then beckoned the question as to what it was I had learned in Aikido - yoga breathing - and why. I guess I soon forgot about it - until I met a teacher of Gojuryu Karate, who just in passing, mentioned reverse breathing. He showed me, and it seemed odd, so I forgot about it, again, perhaps thinking it to be a quirk of Karate. And then some years later I met another Gojuryu practitioner who again mentioned it. Now I was curious because I could clearly see that this fellow had incredible power and yet somehow seemed soft. So, I started to experiment and found it to be quite interesting. Basically, you contract your abdomen muscles to breathe in, and relax somewhat and push the diaphragm down to breathe out. Strange at first, it becomes addictive, but years of doing the opposite certainly made it a challenging change. It was hard to make the switch in my Aikido so I went to a gym, pushed a few weights, and practiced it there. And then I watched other people in the gym, and I have to say, some were doing it when lifting the heavier weights. The benefits, as I see it, are that when breathing in you are not weak but instead feel very strong. And when breathing out, you remain firm, yet flexible with it. It certainly seems to me that reverse breathing is good for martial arts and so I shall continue to practice it.

(g) Breathing Rhythm

Students often ask whether they should breathe in or out at a particular time. In martial arts the moment of inhalation is considered as being inherently weak, an opening for attack. Therefore, the only answer can be to breathe in quickly, out slowly. But this still does not satisfy the curious mind. It is best to breathe out when doing the work. If tired, getting up off the floor can be considered work, so breathe out as you get up, but inhale before uke attacks. If not tired, one can inhale while rising, hold the breath slightly, not straining at all, and then exhale as uke attacks and perform the technique. Uke should also exhale both when attacking, and continue to breathe as tori performs the technique. The reason for not straining the breath, for keeping the trachea open, is so that if caught unawares, one is more relaxed. And with no real weight to deal with in Aikido there is less need to strain. For example, the heavier the weight, as in weight lifting, the more the breath will strain, but this is a natural strain that develops power - weight lifters never stop breathing. It is through breathing that they get a more total co-ordination of power.

There is a natural rhythm to breathing in many sports and that rhythm is always related to movement. A swimmer's head turns out of the water and takes a breath on a predetermined number of strokes according to speed and fitness. Likewise, a runner breathes a predetermined number of breaths according to the number of steps taken. For example, a 2-2 breathing system means one breathes in for two steps and out for two steps. Of course it follows that there is a 2-1 system, a 3-3 system, a 2-3 system, a 3-2 system, etc. If you tire, you slow and switch from say a 2-2 system to a 3-3 one. When sprinting to the finish line, use a 2-1 system. For running, stride length is also important. It might seem obvious but if after running along a flat road one suddenly runs up a hill, one automatically 'changes down a gear' and shortens one's stride while maintaining frequency. We like to keep the rhythm. So, when cutting with the sword in Aikido one could make one, two, three, or four steps per cut depending upon how fast one moves, and it follows that breathing could be one breath out per cut, or perhaps, one breath out per two cuts. Few will teach this so it remains for discerning students to figure out variations for themselves.

 

 

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