On our path and in our lives, as teachers and long term practitioners of Aikido, we face the ever present question, “how do we care for ourselves while we train?”. One of the main flawed assumptions of traditional training in Aikido seems to be that after many years of training, a person should expect to suffer from a number of physical problematic issues. It is common for long term practitioners to have to undergo surgery for knee injuries, to suffer from overuse injuries in the shoulder, neck. Hip replacements for teachers are not uncommon and almost everyone has had various wrist and ankle injuries during their training. Why? This topic is based on a question of how we have learned to train and the misunderstanding behind this approach to our physical practice (and in fact the subject for a further blog).
But today I want to approach the question of how to care for the body as we walk the Aikido path. There are numerous teachers (including myself during a period of time) who think that teaching Aikido is enough to keep in shape. That somehow just by demonstrating techniques and exercises we are caring for ourselves and staying fit in the process. I believe that most of you realize that this is a false idea and generally leads to the condition of the unhealthy looking sensei syndrome who cannot take ukemi anymore, look as if they could lose a few kilos and perhaps need to get into a gym. This Aikido sensei that does not embody the freedom, vitality and health that Aikido seems to promise. Or we have the ever injured sensei who is constantly trying to cover up the injuries that have made them almost crippled off the mat, and somehow go beyond the injuries while teaching being able to suppress the pain or weakness for a couple of hours of Aikido magic, only to hobble off the mat after class needing to schedule the body work session so they can sleep that night. This Aikido teacher embodies the priniciples while teaching but does not live the principles during the day and is constantly negotiating the limits their body with the power that flows through it. They are a paradox, someone who can move like water but lives in a constant state of pain when they are not training.
The final syndrome is the great thinking sensei, who lives in the concepts and metaphors of the art, can mimic the metaphors and demonstrate the concepts but is not physically accessing the vital energy of the art in a dynamic way. They tend to the long discussions concerning the art and physically are not awake to the aliveness of the art. The body here may be without injury but it is without the magic as well.
So how do we train in such a way that we access the magic of the art, in an alive way, and embody the principles throughout our lives both on and off the mat, in such a way that the Art of Aikido keeps us healthy? For myself this answer lies in how to we train? And how do we care for ourselves when we are not training? This blog is focused on the second question, how do we care for ourselves?
Now I do not want to give you different recipes for herbal drinks that reduce inflammation (turmeric milk) or promote different body work approaches that promote healing (trager, rolfing), or suggest alternative physical practices that can supplement our Aikido (yoga, tai chi, chi gung)…but rather I want to speak about how we can approach self care so that we follow through with it.
So much of our lives we use fear and ambition as motivators for change or development. Wanting our lives to improve in certain ways we often try to get ourselves to do extra training or activities of self care, through imagining our rewards (a six pack abdomen), or fearing the possibilities (a belly reflecting our love of beer…)
This approach of wanting the imagined positive results or fearing the imagined negative consequences has a limited impact. We cannot support a life sustaining practice for the totality of our life with ambition or fear. I have never seen it done in any fashion that is truly functional and coherent. So I am not recommending using fear, ambition, guilt or any other kind of motivation in this way as the basic support for self care.
So what does that leave us? Of course the fear or ambition may still exist as we try a different approach, but now I am suggesting that we move from another inspiration as a way to care for ourselves. And that inspiration is joy, curiosity, discovery and evolution. But first it is joy. Over the last five years I have been asking this question in a way that has changed my life. Before, I was only working out during the classes that I taught, (besides the occasional private workout), but for the last five years I have been working out an extra 6-9 hours a week on a regular basis. That has included yoga, weight training, energy work, and general mind/heart/body exploration. The one element that has sustained this committed effort for these last five years is joy. Basically doing the exercises in a way that they are en-joy able.
Before this shift, if I attempted to design a work out, I would try to create a set of exercises and follow through with the schedule of a certain number of repetitions and cycles. Feeling
good about myself if I completed the plan. But it did not make the process enjoyable. In fact I expected the work out to be unenjoyable and thought that was its nature. “Working out does not feel good”, was my assumption. Feeling good came after the work out. No pain, no gain was the underlying motto. And in a certain way I approached my Aikido in this fashion as well.
I don’t remember when a new perspective hit me but I do remember how it happened. I was doing push ups and I asked myself, “how would I do this in a way that I could enjoy it?”. I felt into the movement, appreciating all of the nuances of the flow and my body started to realign with the exercise and I felt that another intelligence was being utilized. I was flowing through the movement rather than pushing through it. And it was enjoyable but also more challenging to do. I could not do as many repetitions as I had done in the past, (I was doing 80 to 100 push ups at the beginning of my work out exploration, and later as I started to enjoy the push ups, I do 20-30, but I do them more fully, all the way up to all the way down where my nose touches the floor). But now I enjoyed the movement and appreciated the experience itself. It was not a means to an end, but the goal itself. Moving the body is enjoyable, exerting effort feels good, exploring limits is a wonder, and evolving pays off in the experience itself. The mind is engaged, the heart is with the exercise and the body is in the flow. The joy is in being able to do the movement, the exploration, and the results are immediate and self evident. Life is vibrant, and the exercises allow us to resonate with that vibrancy of life.
But how to do it? For myself, it is easy. I don’t push. I allow. How many push ups today? No requirements, just do 5 and enjoy and see. Wow 5 felt great, lets do 5 more! And by the time it is over I have done 30 full deep consciously appreciated push ups. And I feel I have engaged my whole system and everything has been working.
Allowing for freedom in the work out is also important, just giving a chance for the system to feel into itself. To give space for the body to move spontaneously free from the dictates of past knowing and to explore without needing to know. Alternating between exercises that are in my repertoire of experience, (headstand, push ups, wheel pose, pranayama, etc..) with open ended flow states that lead into new movement, stretches, energy reorganization processes, etc… The “work out” leaves me feeling the best I ever felt and realigned with my path. I feel congruent with the principles of the practice of Aikido. I am not a victim to the physical state any longer. This has made a huge difference in my life. And the question of self care is ever open as it is an exploration that will evolve as this system continues to change.
So whatever the situation, as teachers, I enthusiastically encourage you all to start a process of self care, and that when you do, you start it with joy. Enjoy being alive, enjoy the movement, enjoy the effort, enjoy the new territory, enjoy the discovery and enjoy the evolution…