“The most important part of Aikido,” by Jake McKee

“A command I heard CONSTANTLY when I started Aikido training back in 1993 was one simple word – relax. I would try to do a technique and a senior student would stop me and say – ‘just relax’. Then I would exhale, try to release the tension in my shoulders and try again. Again I would be stopped and there’s that word again – ‘relax!'”

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  1. I completely agree with you Jake. Telling someone to relax on command can often create more tension. Especially when the command is repeated over and over it can be frustrating to the student. Your point about Jiu Jitsu is right on. Even though contolled relaxation is not usually taught as a skill itself in Jiu Jitsu all the best Jiu Jitsu guys I have worked with were extremely relaxed and fluid when they sparred. Aikidoka would benefit from observing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu pratice even if they never take up the art.

  2. As the author points out, there is relaxing and then there is relaxing. The relaxation of some deadly Chinese boxing is much closer to that of the couch potato. Over the years I have come up with some advice on relaxing in Aiki: there are three kinds all related to pasta cooking. First is tension, the dry pasta and that is not relaxed; it is tense. Then there is over-cooked spaghetti, weak and flaccid; that is relaxed but either useless or teacherous. Finally there is Aiki-ralxing, the perfection of pasta cooked al dente. Thus we do not relax so much that we fall down in the manner of a drunk nor stand rigid. Al dente conveys the notion.

  3. Nice article and well explained.
    Almost ten years when I began my Aikido journey that one word used to drive me nuts! RELAX. Such a small thing that meant so much. When my Sensei and sempei used it they would explain how and why it was so important. It was only when other que grades at the time used to say it I wanted to punch them in the head which made me more tense than I would have been had they not said anything! I came from a Karate and Ju-Jitsu background but have calmed down a lot since then!! It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying to relax but what used to set me off was they were no more relaxed than I was. They thought they were ” getting it ”. They had just been to more classes than I had so felt it was their job to tell me to relax which of course sent me the opposite way! It is important who is saying relax and to whom.
    I have come to discover relaxing is the most important thing in Aikido. It’s what makes Aikido so special. As a Nidan I now explain and show beginners how to relax but more importantly why we need to in order that Aikido happens rather than some other thing going on. I don’t keep stopping the technique over and over but try to get them to think as they are moving. Much better than stopping and starting with someone who is new, nervous and put on the spot which increases tension to the point that Valium wouldn’t relax them.
    I’m sure we all know that ukemi from koshi-nage hurts when body is stiff and tense. Have seen many people hit the mat hard including myself in the early stages but once people relax ukemi especially becomes much easier. Not easy to take soft ukemi after being hurt as natural for body to tense up as it is expecting pain. This is when relaxing becomes hard and time and training helps not saying relax over and over.
    Have a long way to go and when I go to my Sensei, who has 50 years of practice and trained under O Sensei in the 60s, I realize what it really means to relax. He is so soft and relaxed that when he throws me it is difficult to rationalize what has just happened. In the beginning I couldn’t figure it out but now I know Aikido happened.
    As for the people I started out with who used to just say relax not knowing what it meant? All gone! I’m sure they are relaxing somewhere else!

  4. …relax, extend, ki… all fairly magical concepts. when the kihon forms become part of your body, it’s easier. thousands of repeats.

  5. @ FR Douglas: Al dente – I love it! Nice analogy.

    @ Mike: Sounds like we’ve had similar experiences.

    @ Charles: But why is it that some guys do thousands of reps and never get rid of their tension? Relaxation in movement isn’t magical. It can be systematically trained and developed. If you don’t focus on it however you run the risk of never ‘getting it’. YMMV!

  6. Nice article and commentary, comments on the journey. To relax when learning a new skill is almost impossible. The mind/body must reduce the complexity of motion somehow, one way is to lock up various body segments so that the new skill can be learnt and then progressively relaxation can come in. Its really hard to tell a beginner to relax and may lead to frustration on their part. One way to help beginners to relax is to give less detailed instruction. Learning and relearning of a skill or focus on detail may lock the body up again. Relaxation comes with time and training and is a nice marker of progression.

  7. How about this working definition:
    alignment of the body structure (bones) so that you do not have to use muscle to hold a position i.e. you are relaxed and can use all your muscle strength focused on a point when needed to carry out an action. Because of the focused action you need less strength overall to do the work and to the casual observer you look “relaxed”.

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