“How a martial artist develops the mind, body, and spirit,” by James Neiman

“With all the skills they may have to protect themselves, it is ironic that some people are inflicting more damage to themselves than anyone else could possibly ever do to them.”

The subject of how a martial artist develops the mind, body, and spirit has received attention for thousands of years, and the promise of achievement in those areas is often a significant factor in the decisions of millions of people who pursue martial arts. How one maintains the body for success in martial arts is a subject deserving of serious attention, especially in these times.

At this point, we have access to incredible amounts of great information, miraculous athletic technology, and outstanding food sources such as never seen before in mankind’s history. This means that it is easier than ever to develop and maintain an ideal physique and health, at any age.

We also have access to some of the most dangerous “foods” and other substances ever invented, and are surrounded by technology and creature comforts that make it possible for people to become complacent in how they treat their bodies. A tragically high number of people can and do destroy their own bodies, in very short order, at every age.

So how are we to approach the subject of physical health with martial arts students? They need compelling reasons to overcome the momentum of their lives and make serious and permanent changes for the better. This is no easy task. I know many people involved in martial arts, some of them with high ranks, who still have not made such changes. With all the skills they may have to protect themselves, it is ironic that some people are inflicting more damage to themselves than anyone else could possibly ever do to them.

I believe the first two reasons to offer students are practicality and enjoyment. Proper nutrition, cardiovascular strength, muscular strength, and flexibility are tools that enable students to take advantage of and enjoy the process of learning. I often find that flexibility is one of the first roadblocks students can run into. For example, being able to execute a hip throw (koshinage in Aikido), or a roundhouse kick in TaeKwonDo, requires flexilibity around the hips and good core strength, to name just a very small part of the entire kinetic chain involved in those techniques. Some practice sessions are very dynamic, with lots of throws and quite a bit of mat being covered between practice partners, and the students may have to go several minutes at a time falling, getting up, throwing, etc. while maintaining a focus on precision and technical improvement. The student should be able to enjoy the class without getting so worn out they become discouraged; rather, it would be great if the student felt exhilarated by all the motion and had fun breaking a sweat. In many cases, I issue repeated reminders to students to maintain their stance (hanmi) – they lack the strength and/or endurance just to maintain posture. Most students want to enjoy their training, and when they aren’t overcome by physical barriers, they find that training truly is FUN.

Beyond having the minimum physical ability to train, another great reason to offer to students to go above and beyond their current physical limits is this: when the body is truly free to train, one can feed the mind and spirit. On the other hand, such development is really hard to achieve if a student is perpetually exhausted, hurting, and discouraged. Now we are moving into the humanity of the person involved, and this can be very fulfilling. Beyond having fun, which is important, mental, psychological, and spiritual development are hallmarks of students who may discover that they have the longevity to pursue serious goals in martial arts.

With students fully engaged in the development of healthy bodies, minds, and spirits, the ultimate motivation emerges: the long term commitment made possible by this process frees the martial artist that resides within every student.

As teachers, we have a sacred responsibility to respond to the desire and hope within our students of reaching for perfection in mind, body, and spirit. Our students trust us to lead them in this direction. We must set a good example: otherwise who would ever listen to us? For my own part, I do everything I can to live as a professional athlete, and try to set an example for my students, even with my 47-year-old body that has injuries accrued over the years. This is something they get to see when we travel together to seminars. Is Sensei eating double bacon cheeseburgers and staying up till 2 AM drinking, or ordering salads with no dressing and going to bed early to be ready to train the next day? Conversations can be productive too, when the opening exists in the student’s mind and heart. My hope is that they will be inspired to follow or exceed my example.

James Neiman
4th Dan Aikikai
Shugyo Aikido Dojo website
Shugyo Aikido Dojo in the World Aikido School Directory


  1. Thank you for your interesting post James. The last phrase reminds me of our trip to the neighbouring island of Tenerife, we were at least 15 persons. We filled the small hotel in the mountains. In the big dinner with the Sensei who was giving the seminar, Frank Noel Shihan, on Saturday our group had a very good time, eating and drinking a lot. We were very noisy and Frank Noel Sensei had also a good time just watching us. The organizer wanted to take him to his hotel several times, but he wanted to stay. He didn’t want to miss any of our jokes. Finally, we got up to leave and on the door our Sensei asked Frank Noel Sensei if he could lend him pajamas for a pajama party.

    Of course, on Sunday morning, our group was the first on the tatami as expected, and Frank Noel Sensei always was looking to see if we were training well.

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