Friday, January 30, 2009

Helpful handful: Relaxation

Photo courtesy of Agelakis
Relaxation is a vital principle in martial arts – almost an end unto itself. This past month we have been doing a special focus at our dojo on the topic of relaxation. Following is a handful of the ideas that came up during the month.
  • Relaxation is remarkably difficult because as we age we become habituated to excess tension and we lose the ability to feel the difference between tension and relaxation. This sensorimotor amnesia can lead to all sorts of somatic health problems and the basic jist of several forms of therapy for these problems is to achieve a 'release' in which the muscle that is perpetuating the feedback loop gives up, relaxes, and breaks the feedback loop of tension-dysfunction-pain-tension. In aikido our basic goal is similar – to release the bind that is occurring between uke and tori, allowing tori to smoothly flow to a positon of safety and uke to smoothly flow to ground.
  • In Tegatana no kata you can use flaccid, relaxed arms and shoulders as a gauge of how well your momentum is under control. As you step and put a foot down, if your shoulders and arms are flaccid then they will swing around at least a little bit. With practice you can minimize this flailing, indicating that you are better able to keep your momentum under control. You will also notice that you can use the momentum of your center to initiate the motion of your arms – almost throwing or whipping your arms into the right configuration simply by walking correctly.
  • In Hanasu no kata we are making a detailed study of that release phenomenon that I mentioned earlier. We are not intent on making uke release us – instead we are trying to release the bind between us (or the bad vibe for lack of a better term). Uke grabs tori somewhere, say, the wrist, and that contact point moves in a curve through space. We are trying to learn to move our feet efficiently so that we can perfectly follow uke's curve with our center. Discontinuities happen when one partner moves faster than the other or one partner moves in a different curve than the other. We have to relax in order to release those discontinuities.
  • Ukemi is a skilled blending of relaxation and controlled tension. If you relax completely and flop into a breakfall you can hurt yourself just as much as if you are stiff as a board when you fall. If you slow your ukemi down in practice then you can learn to feel the cyclic tense-relax-tense-relax-tense-relax nature of ukemi. You want your ukemi to be a natural extension of the release curve I mentioned earlier. Ukemi is the art of uke releasing out of a bind into a roll or fall. Uke begins a curve, tori picks up on it and follows it for a while until there is another bind, at which time uke continues the curve into a safe, stable position on the ground.
  • In judo newaza it takes a while to get used to being crushed. That is, it takes a while to learn how to move to control the other guy's ability to put crushing force onto you. We do this by practicing the ground mobility cycle – shifting from hold to hold while keeping your weight on uke's chest. It doesn't take long for uke to learn to use his arms to control some of tori's position, his feet to reposition hips slightly to reduce crushing pressure – to learn to frame up under tori so that he can relax and breathe and think for a moment.
  • In any type of grappling art – call it judo or aikido or whatever – you generally do better if you move the same speed as the other guy. When you are moving faster or slower you are expending energy trying to change his speed. Bodies have a natural frequency or rhythm to them, and since most bodies are roughly the same size, we tend to all have remarkably similar frequencies. It takes more energy to move faster or slower than your natural frequency or to try to move uke faster or slower than his natural frequency. Not only must you relax to move at uke's natural frequency, but the act of moving in synch with your rhythm and his is very relaxing.
Click here to see my previous articles on relaxation.
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  1. "In any type of grappling art – call it judo or aikido or whatever – you generally do better if you move the same speed as the other guy. When you are moving faster or slower you are expending energy trying to change his speed."

    I definitely agree with that. I can tell a big difference when I'm not moving with my opponent, and instead, against him. Great article.

  2. I think the standing stake exercise is of great value in learning how to relax.


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