The Healing Power of Aikido
"Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow."
Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, The Art of Peace (page 13)
O-Sensei often said that he intended Aikido to be for everyone, and that anybody could train in some fashion. As someone who has struggled with physical disabilities for over a dozen years and who has continued to train in Aikido, I am proof of his statement. Indeed, training in Aikido has been a great form of healing for me.
Of course this is not a new revelation. Countless Aikidoka had proven it before I ever stepped on a mat. O-Sensei himself offered an example in his later years. Numerous student accounts and old films show O-Sensei in his 70s and 80s moving with difficulty until he arrived on the mat, at which point his movement became fluid and elegant, seemingly unaffected by age.
"The physical techniques we practice have a lethal aspect, but focus instead on their healing properties."
O-Sensei, The Secret Teachings of Aikido (page 22)
Over the years, I have joined numerous other Aikidoka who have stepped onto the mat with their own injuries, Aikido-related or not. My injuries have not been the result of training in Aikido. In the mid-1990’s, after almost 5 years training in Aikido, I started to develop repetitive stress injuries from typing at work. Those injuries persisted and worsened for almost 2 years, eventually impacting my hands, arms, shoulders, and neck. With time, my injuries began to heal, but permanently left my upper extremities somewhat weakened. At the same time I developed problems in my lower back, although eventually this problem subsided as well. Despite some flare-ups with my neck, hands, and back over the years, my problems have generally abated.
"Aikido is without limits. I am now 76 years old but I continue to train. Our dojo is all of heaven and earth. The way of practice has no borders, has no end. Training is a lifelong practice. It is unlimited. Trust in Aikido. Dwell in Aikido.*"
O-Sensei, The Secret Teachings of Aikido (page 129)
Those of us who commit to training in Aikido must, at some point, deal with our desire to keep learning Aikido at odds with our aging bodies. Adapting to our physical limitations, no matter what their origins, is a necessity for a lifelong practice. Yet when an injury keeps me from stepping on to the mat to train, how can I progress? If O-Sensei meant Aikido for anyone who trains with sincerity, how do we adapt our practice to continue despite adversity and injury?
In Aikido we frequently find solutions in unusual places. We look inside an attack to find an open, vulnerable space where the movement is easy to turn around. If it is a struggle, then we have missed the spot. So the answer is easy. Finding it is tough. Finding it is the journey.
When I first started Aikido, I was looking for regular exercise and self defense. On the blue mats taped together in a dojo that existed for 2 hours a week, there was an eager teacher, a friendly group of fellow students, and a convenient answer to my search. I also found my Sensei, Penny Sablove Sensei, who would soon become my great friend.
I may have had some vague expectations about what Aikido was, and what the Aiki path had in store for me, but I soon noticed some unexpected results. I quickly saw that an hour rolling around the mat was the perfect antidote for feeling cranky and tired after a long day at work. I felt rejuvenated after class, and the day’s troubles melted away. I might not have called Aikido a healing process at the time, but I did begin to see that the physical and mental benefits had already extended beyond my expectations.
"Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training in the Art of Peace."
O-Sensei, The Art of Peace (page 86)
For years, because of my repetitive stress injuries, I have needed to concisely explain Aikido to doctors and a variety of other medical personnel. When asked about physical activities or exercise, Aikido was the answer that did not fit neatly in the box on the medical form. As soon as the phrase "martial art" was out of my mouth, the doctor would say "You have to stop that immediately. That is probably where you are getting injured." Arguing with the doctor that Aikido was helping me, not hurting me, was futile. Trying to explain the intricacies of ki, center, grounding, and extension only resulted in blank stares.
Over the years I tried to figure out how to succinctly explain what we do on the mat. None of my attempts seemed to push past stereotypes of martial arts as violent and inherently dangerous. Finally I discovered an effective response: "Aikido is a martial art often compared to Tai Chi, a soft art."
Now, probably with a mental image of elderly people moving gracefully in a park, the doctor would say, "Well, I guess it is ok then," and proceed to the next question on the form. On the rare occasion that they asked for further clarification, I would explain that Aikido is similar to Tai Chi in some ways, but much more active and aerobic.
It was a good thing, too, that I discovered how to succinctly explain Aikido. Keiko was the only time I was pain-free. Whether a function of my distracted mind, the benefits of physical exercise, or a combination of both factors, for an hour and half on the mat, several times a week, I felt a welcome respite from the shooting pain and disabling fatigue in my hands, arms, shoulders, and neck.
"Instructors can impart only a fraction of the teaching. It is through your own devoted practice that the mysteries of the Art of Peace are brought to life."
O-Sensei, The Art of Peace (page 58)
About 5 years ago, my lower back problems worsened. The pain was debilitating, and was severely interfering with my life, including, of course, Aikido. Still I was able to train, and move fairly effectively on the mat. Once again, Aikido was providing me with vital exercise. I usually felt better after a vigorous class, respecting my physical limits, of course. Occasionally I would misjudge what I could do, or become less mindful, and suffer the consequences. But overwhelmingly, Aikido was a source of healing.
When pain does prevent me from training regularly, the solution is to value my time on the mat as much as possible, and learn to train off the mat all the time. Being off the mat does not offer opportunities to learn like being in the dojo does. Instead training must be gleaned, searched for, and savored.
Whether working in a stressful office, struggling to squeeze onto a crowded train, or encountering a hostile social situation, opportunities to train off the mat do present themselves constantly. The key is to recognize them as prospective gifts and to become mindful that I am training. When an opportunity arises, I try to focus on my center and my breathing, and translate the many lessons learned on the mat into that setting. How do I resolve hostility or conflict, when the solution does not involve throwing someone across the room?
Of course, no single answer applies to every situation, but it is surprising how often a sincere smile, or the simple mental act of placing myself in the other’s shoes, is effective. An open heart is a powerful tool for peace. But other struggles remain difficult for me. Sincerity and openness can be arduous when my body is in pain. So how can I find peace with the universe, when sometimes it feels like I am at war with my own body?
"Study the teachings of the pine tree, the bamboo, and the plum blossom. The pine is evergreen, firmly rooted, and venerable. The bamboo is strong, resilient, unbreakable. The plum blossom is hearty, fragrant, and elegant."
O-Sensei, The Art of Peace (page 31)
Besides Aikido, I also enjoy gardening. However, when my injuries are bothering me, the physical demands of working in the yard present a challenge. Last year as fall approached, back pain was interfering with the simple tasks of weeding or picking up fallen leaves. So the contradiction presented itself: how could I have trouble bending over to pull a weed in the morning, and then later that same day, throw an attacker twice my size with ease? I saw an opportunity to try and take Aikido off the mat once again. What does Aikido gardening look like?
It started with simple lessons from the mat: warm up, move fluidly, listen to my body, and remember that many small steps will also bring me to my destination. Simple, mindful stretches before gardening provided some relief. Then, rather than bending over or crouching to pick a weed, I tried to move in fluidly and grab a weed. A quick tug allowed me to move away smoothly with a weed in hand. When a weed was rooted deeply, I did my best to listen to my body, respect my limitations, and determine the best way to handle it with minimal stress to my back. Rather than clearing an entire area of weeds, which could require me to crouch or bend for an extended period, I tackled each area bit by bit, as my back allowed. Aikido offers solutions in unexpected ways, if I search for them.
"There are no contests in the Art of Peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing. Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within."
O-Sensei, The Art of Peace (page 94)
Again in the past year, some of my injuries have flared up. The renewed problems have severely limited my ability to take ukemi, and also restricted my time on the mat.
When I am in pain, Aikido teaches me. I try not to fight it, but to relax with it instead. I breathe as fully as I can. When I am relaxed and breathing, I can feel that I am connected to my body. I maintain a positive attitude, and remember to be grateful for what I do have.
"Never become stagnant. Train your body, forge your spirit, and swallow the world in one gulp! Stand boldly, with confidence, wherever you find yourself. Make use of all your innate power and you can accomplish anything."
O-Sensei, The Secret Teachings of Aikido (page 78)
As I find myself preparing for my sandan demonstration with this lengthy history of physical difficulties, I remain constantly astonished by O-Sensei’s creation, how it allows me to continue to train and explore and grow, when my injuries preclude me from so many other physical activities. Aikido does not care about my limitations. Aikido is more powerful than that. Even with disabilities, Aikido helps me feel powerful, agile, and fit. That is a profound statement for a person like me who is physically disabled.
Last year, a new acupuncturist treating my back problems told me that my posture was tilted forward a little, and he demonstrated for me. I immediately recognized it as the same posture Penny Sensei has been showing me to correct in class. Instantly the lesson was clear, repeated from independent sources, as if I needed the verification. Once again, Aikido is contributing to my healing.
Heart of San Francisco Aikido
San Francisco, California
14 December 2008
- Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, The Art of Peace, translated and edited by John Stevens, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, 2005.
- Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, The Secret Teachings of Aikido, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2007.