If there was ever an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms and an often over used word, it is ‘Relax!” Its use has morphed into a parody of sorts when heard in class for the umpteenth time. It is also undeniably true. If you watch good martial art, good boxing or dance, good sport, good acting, the theatrical kind that is, you will see that the best performance comes from those who are relaxed under enormous pressure. It is no easy thing to achieve and is quite possibly the hardest thing for most people in their Aikido training and in life itself. To relax is not a matter of dropping everything, it is more a case of finding it in what we do. In our training and in our lives.
Living carries a lot of tension with it, circumstances and environment contribute to this plus our own nature. Tension in individuals can be described as internal forces within each of us trying to “express” itself, trying to come out in some way, hopefully constructively, while encountering societal pressure in the form of social conformity or “rules” of behaviour. In training we also have some element of fear to contend with. Fear of what one might ask? Sometimes we are not sure of a move, the other person maybe intimidating and powerful, maybe you sense danger or the possibility of injury. Sometimes just not knowing, the unknown or the subconscious mind. For some it can be as simple as looking foolish and inept. Needless to say these serve to create tension and in turn hesitation in our actions. Some stiffen, others get aggressive, some hold back or withdraw, taking a defensive or guarded attitude. More so the ability to move and act “freely” and according to what’s needed becomes more difficult. Obviously these are undesirable outcomes.
Weapons training tends to amplify and expose what needs to be worked on. Holding that bokken or jo and faced with a partner or opponent highlights this. A bokken can be a dangerous weapon and yet we get told to ‘Relax!’ as this heavy piece of wood rapidly moves through the air and aimed at a target. This usually being your head, wrists or ribs. It is so common to see people stiffen or hesitate unable to respond. When there is little to no time to think the body reveals a more authentic condition where there is no pretence, no “acting” it out. Our minds can tighten unable at times to deal with what’s in front of us as fear and tension can make us short sighted or blind. This is why kata are practiced large and precise and alive while keeping it open to possibilities. It is ultimately correct conditioning which allows us to overcome these limitations.
So we need to work through this while retaining form, structure and control. To overcome that rigidity or hesitation means addressing what is limiting us. For example, there is a point of contact in weapons exercises where the impact of the weapon, let’s say bokken to bokken, is close to the hand of the opponent. The objective being to eliminate the hand and the opponents weapon simultaneously as you strike them down. What we call Kiri Otoshi. It is difficult to relax at this point as it doesn’t feel possible. You feel vulnerable instead and there is no shield to protect you. The beauty of Aikido, however, is that we have ukemi, which gives us a way to deal with this. The uke gets to “feel” the counter attack through their grip and ideally through their body. This allows the body to “receive” and move with the trajectory of the other persons weapon. There is of course a risk of getting hit. Though that risk is a part of it the more full your attack is and the more full the counter attack, the risk is minimised by taking good ukemi. Where you are most in danger is where you are also safest in this situation.
If we bring some of that energy into our body work, person to person, it helps to bring our Aikido to life. It improves the timing of our movements and the overall sharpness. As the training is practiced around 3 factors. Form, function and power. Quite often we train without a clear idea of what we are doing but once we get a little clearer and understand the function of a technique, we then know when to apply that power. It is also when we are relaxing into it.