Friday, October 10, 2014

Strength of the In-Breath

"Which is stronger: breathing in or breathing out?"

Most of us don't think much about our breathing, but if you do, you may realize that most of us naturally exhale (breathe out) when we do something requiring physical effort. Just try lifting one end of a heavy couch: we naturally breathe out as we lift. And try again while you're breathing in: not so easy!

So, it's not surprising that in fitness training, in yoga, in martial arts, the emphasis is usually on the exhalation for any movement that requires physical effort. As for the inhalation: in most martial arts, the opponent's inhalation is considered to be a weak point - something you can seek out and exploit.

In the practice of Kokikai Aikido, too, I've always thought of the in-breath as a weak point. Sensei has said that we shouldn't make our breathing obvious, lest our opponents use it against us.

The Strength of the In-Breath

But inhalation can be strong as well. Consider the idea of yin and yang. The yin force is often described as dark, negative, contracting and passivity (among other things), and yang ras the opposite: light, warmth, expansion, activity. But as the yin/yang symbol makes clear, neither is static, or even, technically, separate. Each contains the seed of the other.

Breathing is, of course, a perfect example of this dynamic between yin and yang. The more we exhale, the closer we are to the need to inhale. The more we inhale, the more we have the potential to exhale. The breath is always flowing, so that often the transition between inhalation and exhalation is imperceptible.

Recently I have seen Sensei teach several techniques in which he referenced the way the inhalation represents a gathering of power. Anyone who has practiced aikido can imagine the moment just before uke (attacker) is thrown: often nage (defender)'s arm is drawn back, or up, his or her chest is open and shoulders are wide — this represents nage's peak of power, just before uke's "dénouement," and yet, it's also at this point where nage would naturally be at the peak of an in-breath. So is the in-breath strong? Or weak?

Kokikai Aikido is based on natural movement, and there is nothing more natural than breathing. Breathing out constantly, without ever breathing in, would be unnatural indeed! So when we think of inhalation in aikido, we don't need to think of it as less powerful. Instead we can think of it as the time when we gather our potential power, or maybe as expanding internally. Rather than thinking of "inhale" as weak, and "exhale" as strong, we just coordinate our natural movements with the breath, while maintaining positive mind and the rest of the four basic principles.

Coda: It often happens that I'm introduced to a concept in aikido, and shortly afterward, i hear someone apply a similar idea in music. Recently in a violin workshop, we practiced coordinating our bowing with breathing - inhale=up bow, exhale=down bow. One is not better than the other; the importance is in coordinating natural movements with the breath.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Strength Training for Kokikai Aikido

After taking her first classes with Rutgers Kokikai Aikido Club, a student asked, "Do you do conditioning exercises, like pushups, leg lifts or squats?" She seemed surprised when I said, "No," since strength and aerobic conditioning exercises are part of the warmup drills for most martial arts.

Here's why we don't spend time on "conditioning" and "muscle building" exercises in Kokikai Aikido classes:

  • Kokikai Aikido training is highly-specialized. Black belt instructors have typically trained for a minimum of seven years to gain the level of experience needed to teach. If they have advanced black belt degrees (which many do), they may have been training for 10, 15, even 35 years! (In contrast, you can get a certificate as a fitness trainer in a few days or weeks.) We try to make best use the limited time in class, teaching things that require this expertise. 
  • The "strength" that we develop from practicing Kokikai Aikido is not based on the use of muscle. It comes from developing mind/body coordination, through practicing correctly, for example, by using the four basic principles.
  • At the beginning of every class we actually practice strength training exercises. They are called ki development exercises! They help make us stronger by helping us make mind/body coordination a habit, until it becomes second nature.
Kokikai Aikido - strength does not come from muscle power
So, if you want to be strong so that you can play the role of the intimidating attacker in aikido, by all means, go to the gym! If you want to be able to take ukemi (falls) in aikido, over and over without getting winded, practice building up your aerobic capacity by running, biking, rowing or Zumba! 

If you want to learn to be even stronger, even faster, whether you're tall or short, male or female, skinny (like me) or brawny, come to class and don't get hung up on whether you have big muscles.