The Mystery of the Moving Center
I believe that as students of Aikido, this magical martial art, we all strive to express power efficiently in our techniques and to safely neutralize that same power within our bodies through the study of ukemi. Though we train sincerely year after year with many fine examples before us, still many of us miss the mark in this regard.
Why is that?
Is the ability to move from one’s center reserved for the chosen few?
Or is it that we’re barking up the wrong tree?
Perhaps we’re not asking the right questions, or, as teachers, we embody this ability, but lack a clear instructional design to transmit it to our students.
My work as a personal trainer and as a Pilates instructor has given me some tools of investigation that have been of great help in my understanding of what it means to move from one’s center. Recognizing the limits of conveying these through the written word, here, nonetheless, follow a few observations.
From a strictly physical perspective, here’s the problem as I see it: in an effort to make our lives more comfortable, we have created for ourselves ergonomic aids, such as the chairs and the flush toilet, that have exacted a profound toll on our ideal spinal alignment. From early childhood, we have encased our feet in shoes, deadening our connection to the earth. We have paved our paths and built stairs between the heights, limiting the mobility of the hip joint and weakening the legs.
It is with such bodies that most of us begin the study of Aikido, an art that presupposes the very physical capacities that we lack. Until we address these shortcomings our quest for holistic, coherent movement will truly be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Let’s address these problems, then, starting with spinal alignment.
The human spine has evolved to an ideal shape that allows for power, shock absorption, and freedom of movement when aligned vertically with the pull of gravity. The spine is not of course, one solid bone, but a series of connected vertebra, like a string of pearls, that relies on appropriate muscular contraction to keep this ideal shape.
When we stand or sit, ideally the pelvis is vertical with a slight concavity in our lower backs. The shoulder blades are drawn down and back, the chin is level, and the crown of the head extends heavenward. Yet such posture is so rare these days that it sticks out like a sore thumb. Our reliance upon the chair can take much of the credit for this.
Whether it be sitting at our desks, caved into our couches, or driving our cars, we give up the job of spinal support so completely to our chairs, that not only have we forgotten what proper alignment feels like, but we find that our core musculature, our natural corset, has gone slack.
This loss of resiliency has had a debilitating impact upon our ability to protect our spine, and injuries to the lower back are now endemic in our society, even among the young.
The second great aid to modern life, the flush toilet, has spared our past few generations the indignity of squatting to relieve ourselves. Life has become seemingly much more sanitary.
Alas, this too, has exacted a toll on our bodies.
Because we no longer squat, we have lost a great deal of strength in our legs, especially in the lower range of motion. We find that the mobility of the hip joint, evolved to rotate freely, is greatly constricted. Our hamstrings have become tight, pulling on the back of the pelvis, thus worsening this chair - influenced tendency towards pelvic misalignment.
As squatting is a foreign and uncomfortable action, we tend to bend from the waist to retrieve objects on the ground. This causes us to over-use the relatively small lumbar extensors and under-use the large muscles meant for the job, the glutes and the quadriceps.
The knees, too, are now rarely stimulated under load through their full range of motion, and they have become weak. Weak, and exceedingly vulnerable to the demands put upon them in the practice of a discipline as vigorous and dynamic as Aikido.
Now, Aikido sprang from a physical culture that did squat and used chairs to a much lesser extent. Japanese Aikido teachers, when transmitting this art to the West, found that they were dealing not only with a different culture from their own, but, kinaesthetically speaking, with a different body. Some have remarked that our western bodies to them seem upside down.
For when a person is incapable of drawing power effectively from the legs and pelvic region, he relies on what’s left: his upper torso, the chest and arms.
Chances are, if you’ve been training in Aikido for any length of time, you’ve been told to relax. Some times this correction is delivered with such vehemence that it inspires anything but relaxation.
I submit that what we need to be is appropriately tense in the right places, at the right times, creating a wave of muscular events that establishes a clean line of force in the body.
By stabilizing and strengthening our core muscles, we will protect our back, define for ourselves, vividly, our physical center, and liberate our upper body to perform its proper role.
By strengthening and mobilizing our legs and hip joints, we will safeguard our knees, and build a physical foundation for the clear expression of whole body power.
This begs the question,” Exactly how?”
I ‘m working on it.
This essay was originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Biran, and as a blog on Aikido Journal in January 2006
Daniel Kempling, 5th dan, shidoin is the Chief instructor of the Pacific Coast Aikikai and Director of the Center for Mindful Movement in Saanichton, B.C. His DVD “Aikido from the Core - Postural Conditioning for the Modern Martial Artist” is now available. Check out http://aikidodojo.com/dvd for a preview.