Relax

A number of years ago, at the end of a seminar taught by Aikido Kokikai founder Sensei Shuji Marauyama, I went up to Sensei to thank him. He had these words for me: "Oh, Jim. Everything's perfect. Just more relaxed!"

At first, I was pleased that he had such positive words for me. But as I thought about his comments, it seemed that what he was really saying was that everything needed a lot more work. In fact, he had pinpointed what was wrong with all of my Aikido, and it was exactly the thing that I had no idea how to fix: I was too stiff.

Years later, I can confidently announce, "I'm still too stiff." But happily, I've made significant progress in becoming more relaxed.

Now relaxation sounds like a good idea to pretty much everyone. We don't feel good when we're stressed out. We know that being an uptight Type A personality can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

So how do you relax? Well, you can just let all your muscles go limp, and lie like a jellyfish on the floor. But how do you apply a feeling like that to daily life? You can't. So on the surface, it seems as though you can't be relaxed and do stuff, too. You need muscles to make the body move, to make things happen. So maybe relaxation is just something we do in our off hours, right?

Thankfully, that's not the case. Because with correct relaxation, our bodies and minds actually become more powerful. And right now, I'll prove it to you. Or rather, I'll let you prove it to yourself.

Grab a friend and have him stand in front of you sideways, so that his left shoulder is toward you. Have him spread his feet about 3 feet apart. Now have him bend his left knee and lean toward you. Basically, we're trying to set him up so that if you push on his left arm, he will feel very stable.

Now, put both of your hands on his left upper arm, tense up the muscles in your arms, and push hard. Your friend should do his best to stay put. Does he move? Does it seem easy to push him? How hard are you working to achieve your results?

Now, try again. Only this time, touch his left arm gently with your left hand. Move in close, and softly place your right hand on his lower back. Look forward (not at your friend), continue to hold gently, and simply walk. Feel as though he has no more weight than a little child.

So, how'd you do the second time? (If you didn't actually do it, stop reading and try it! Pull someone in off the street if you have to.) The lesson is, while relaxation sounds better in theory, it actually works better, too. (One time I asked Maruyama Sensei how he could be so relaxed, expecting him to tell me that it takes years and years of practice, or great concentration, or something like that. He simply said, "It's the only way I can throw." He literally meant that without being relaxed, he would find it impossible to throw big strong people.)

So how are you going to get to be more relaxed? That's a very hard question. Even when I look back at my own progress, it's difficult to say how it happened. I can't trace it to any particular realization. Relaxation always seemed to be much harder to understand than one-point, positive mind, and correct posture.

But that, to me, is perhaps the key. When you keep one-point, or think positive, or have correct posture, things are just easier. You naturally act with greater relaxation. If you have correct posture while you're shooting baskets, it requires less effort. If you concentrate your mind on one-point while you're running, you won't work as hard and you'll last longer. If you believe you can lift a weight twelve times instead of your regular ten, you will be likely to succeed and it won't seem as hard.

In each of these cases, you will be learning about relaxation by working on one of the other three principles of Aikido Kokikai. (So there, I've managed to tell you how to relax without telling you anything about relaxation!) But it is one of the fascinating aspects of ki training that when you have correctly caught one of the ki principles, you have the other four, as well. If you are keeping one-point, you are more relaxed, too. If your posture is correct, you can't help but feel more positive.

But now, how about some specifics on how you can develop a greater feeling of relaxation, and apply it to your daily life? Here's a little list.

  • One of the all time best ki exercises for understanding relaxation is also one of the simplest. It's called Tekubi Furi Undo. You simply stand with your feet side by side, about shoulder width apart, weight primarily on the balls of your feet. Then, shake your hands quickly, so that the motion causes your heels to bounce slightly up and down. Then stop shaking, and just stand there enjoying the feeling for a moment. This is true relaxation! (Feels good, doesn't it?) Do this a few times a day, then carry that slightly different, more relaxed feeling with you for a while.
  • Try practicing Aikido. Learning how to neutralize another person's attack with Aikido is incredibly instructive in helping you find the correct relaxed feeling.That's because Aikido actually rewards you when you are more relaxed, and "punishes" you when you're not. (When you're relaxed, technique works better. When you're tense, throwing someone bigger than you may be next to impossible.) This delivers the logical proof your brain needs to believe relaxed is better. And it helps your body to become acquainted with how correct relaxation feels. Practice by practice, this feeling grows. Eventually, it permeates your whole life.
  • Tension in your hands creeps into the rest of your body. So when you hold a pen, or a mouse, or a baseball bat, do it gently, with the minimum effort necessary. Think of how you would hold a young child's arm when near a busy street. You would not want her to be able to suddenly yank her arm from your grasp. But you would not want to grip so tightly that it might hurt her - you'd hold with a gentle but secure grip. This is how you should hold everything.
  • Practice Ki Exercises. Make them a regular part of your day. They feel good. And they have a wonderfully insidious way of helping you to become more relaxed.
  • One of the interesting facts about relaxation is that it is progressive. You can become more and more relaxed from now until the end of your life. Not everything provides such an opportunity for progress. If you wanted to develop more power in your body by lifting weights, you would eventually reach a point where you could make your muscles no larger. But if you strive to find greater power by developing your ability to relax, there is no limit to the progress you can make.
  • As long as we're on the subject of lifting weights, let's talk about that for a moment. Here's an activity that seems to require the exact opposite of relaxation - you need to tense up your muscles. So how do you apply relaxation here? First, hold the bar gently, with a soft yet secure grip. If you plan on doing 10-12 repetitions, start out by lifting the weight with the absolute minimum muscle possible. Keep this feeling with each repetition - only using the amount of muscle you need to raised the weight. Don't expend any unnecessary energy. As you reach the end of your set, you will feel like you have to give it everything. Fine - that is still the minimum muscle you need to raise the weight. If you work out in this manner, you will exercise the muscle more thoroughly. You will probably also find that you are able to do more repetitions.
  • Try to be just a little more relaxed each day, not completely relaxed right now. If you try for too much too soon, you find it hard to maintain your feeling of one- point and positive mind, and your posture will become incorrect. Enjoy the feeling of gradually becoming more relaxed. As Maruyama Sensei once told me, "Progress is happiness."
  • Test your feeling of relaxation. Stand and tense up your body. Have a friend test you by placing her hand just below your collar bone and pushing gently toward your spine. Then shake your hands, relax your body, and have her test you again.
  • Play sports that provide immediate feedback on relaxation. Now, your performance in all sports will improve if you are more relaxed. But some sports just provide more obvious reinforcement for relaxation. If you put all your muscle into smashing a serve in tennis, and then you compare it to a more relaxed swing, how can you tell which is better? You won't know which serve travelled faster. You may even think the first serve is better because you "put more into it". If you had a radar gun to measure the speed of each serve, perhaps then you could see the benefits of relaxation. Shooting baskets, on the other hand, provides clear and immediate feedback on the effect of being relaxed: If you relax more, then more of your shots go in. (Try it. It's really a facinating experiment.) Archery is the same way: Relaxation is rewarded with arrows that hit closer to your target.
  • Learn about Kokyu Dosa in the Cool Ki Tricks section. Try pushing a friend over with muscle, then try again with a soft, relaxed feeling. Practice Kokyu Dosa frequently with a like-minded friend. It's a fascinating and fun exercise.
  • Sit in Seiza, close your eyes, and quietly "look" for parts of your body that hold excess tension. Relax them, then continue your search.
  • Experiment with using tension and relaxation in everyday activities: walking, opening doors, writing, picking up your child. The act of using excess muscle to do something can often show the way toward doing that activity with greater relaxation.
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