Las Vegas Seminar Musings: “Tension vs. Relaxation,” by Stanley Pranin

“In each and every case the person had failed to unbalance uke, and was attempting to apply the technique against a partner with a stable structure.”

Back in 2013, I conducted a joint seminar together with Pat Hendricks Sensei in Las Vegas. For me, it was a wonderful experience as I had an opportunity to reconnect with many aikido friends and make a number of new acquaintances with some delightful people. Allow me to make a few observations that I have taken home.

The elusive concept of relaxation

The first has to do with the tension-filled body state of the attendees — most of whom were yudansha and teachers — when executing techniques. This was especially the case for techniques involving hand grabs, that is, katatedori techniques. As I have experienced elsewhere virtually without exception, students will tense their arms at the start of a technique. Even when I explained that that the tension in their body alerts uke to their intent, timing, and direction, it was very difficult for them to grasp this concept and apply it to the technique.

It was not that they were ignoring my instructions to move without tension in their body, but simply that they were unfamiliar with the mental and physical state of “martial relaxation” I was attempting to describe. They could recognize and feel the difference between relaxation and tension, but not reproduce this state in their own body. As a result, one of the areas of research I wish to focus on is how to take this abstract notion of “relaxation” in a martial context and teach students to translate it to their aikido training. My goal is to devise a series of exercises and imagery to enable students to produce this relaxed physical and mental state in movement. The principles involved are quite subtle, and seemingly counterintuitive to how we have trained our bodies to function in daily life.

Getting stuck and what to do about it

During the last few minutes of my final class, I encouraged students to speak up and show examples of problems they were having with specific aikido techniques. We had time for three people to demonstrate in front of the group and indicate where in their movement they were having trouble.

What was interesting to me, yet hardly surprising, was that in each and every case the person had failed to unbalance uke, and was attempting to apply the technique against a partner with a stable structure. Also, they ended up standing in front of uke, well inside his range of vision and within easy reach. This was the “sticking point” where they were prevented from continuing their technique.

Uke still balanced

What I did was suggest that they focus on their first action to be sure they unbalanced uke before attempting to apply a technique. This means getting off the attack line and usually executing an atemi to achieve this result. My impression was that the attendees did not use atemi much in their training. When they did perform atemi strikes to neutralize uke’s attack, their movements tended to be tentative and therefore had little effect on uke who continued to resist. They were “stuck” at this point in their technique.

Forgetting atemi

I believe there is a lot of potential for improving students techniques if we can teach them to incorporate well controlled, vigorous atemi while remaining relaxed. If atemi are effectively delivered, it is possible to completely reverse the encounter with uke to allow nage to gain and retain control over the outcome.

I would like to sincerely thank Pat Hendricks Sensei and all the participants for making the effort to attend the event and bringing an abundance of positive energy that resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable experience.


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  1. Thanks for the summary, it’s always helpful to hear the best seminar bits.

    I must say that I can understand the tension problem. I took a seminar from Pat Hendricks Sensei last summer, and although I have a lot of experience, I’m not the smoothest with the particulars of Iwama style (and it can be particular). Despite her great and patient instruction, I still felt like a stick man at times. So I can relate.

    I really like the “getting stuck and what to do about it” idea. I’ve noticed that as uke I can feel the stuck place, but as a third party observer of a throw I can see step or two before the stuck to where the problem originated. Looking straight to the unbalancing is a great tactic. We’ll use that one tonight in class.

    As to atemi, a good one requires someone to have balance, center, extension and good ma-ai. Not a bad by-product of a punch.

  2. As a former Taekwondoka and a new Aikido pupil, I kind of know what being stuck in yourself and unable to relax means. As mentioned in the article it is easier to mentally release stress and stay calm, but the tricky part is to be able to translate it using your body and your techniques.

    Thank you for the precised advise and the enriching article.

  3. Charles Humphrey says:

    So a group of martial art practitioners gets together and their main problems are that they don’t know how to move in a relaxed manner and don’t know how to hit people. Very interesting indeed.

    • John Safe says:

      Can we assume you also practice?

    • The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. After about 20 years, yes, I’m still learning how to “move in a relaxed manner and how to hit people”. I would wonder about someone in martial arts who already has it all figured out.

  4. Ernest Fausther says:

    This article echoes my own struggles with relaxing when starting a technique especially when my uke is stronger and taller than me. Martial relaxation seems to be only mastered by people who have practiced aikido for many, many years. In our dojo, I have not seen anybody aside from our sensei who has 25 years of practice and no matter how often he reminds us to relax nobody really gets it thoroughly. I can’t wait to hear from Stanley Sensei on this point.

  5. I come from a Tohei lineage school but I have studied some Iwama style in the past. It seems that the Iwama teacher never mentioned dynamic relaxation, they had some of the most tense students and forced techniques I’ve encountered. I think that they view relaxation and anything but static technique to be advanced, whereas my current school teaches the power of relaxation through tricks like unbendable arm on the first day.

  6. Stan,

    As an attendee of your seminar, I found it a great learning experience! The nature of weekend seminars often is that more information is provided than can be digested in a relatively short period of time. This tends to make some of us uptight when trying to implement the techniques being taught. I find that I often leave seminars wondering if I had learned anything at all. It is only afterward, in the relaxed environment of our dojo (in off hours) that I come to appreciate and implement what I have learned!

    We are spending more time on kuzushi, unbalancing our opponent, as we believe this is a critical element of Aikido. We are especially attempting to teach this in our Aikido Juniors’ classes. Again, I think the nature of seminars where we are trying to learn and practice a lot of new stuff tends to make us forget about kuzushi.

    The one thing I learned from your November seminar was the importance of atemi. I went thru your book “Budo, Commentary on the 1938 Training Manual of Morihei Ueshiba” by Morihiro Saito and picked out eight techniques where O’Sensei uses atemi to initiate an attack against uke, and demonstrated them to our class. Many were surprised to see tori (nage) initiate the attack! It was a good learning experience of all!

    Keep up the good work! As some of us said and believe, you are indeed an “Aikido Treasure” !!!

    • Steve,

      Thank you very much for your feedback. I’m so pleased you found things of value in the seminar. I really believe atemi is essential to be able to successfully apply techniques.

  7. Systema, Russian Martial Art, puts a primary emphasis on relaxation and natural movements as part of releasing fear from the body. Slow sparring (so you notice when tension begins), learning to breathe tactically, and (actually) taking punches are also a main part of their training. As Musashi reminds us, techniques do not make the art. Check out the site on Russian Martial Art. The Training Tips section has excellent articles (check the ones on Motor Neurons and Psychological Reaction Time).

    From my understanding, Systema begins with breathing and understanding how to relax, not trusting it will come as one advances in rank.

  8. Another and another evidence that the training methods of Tohei-sensei are really good and valuable. Relaxation is such a lacking aspect of some aikido schools now, that you can have a very high rank and still pay no attention to relaxation. In Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido you can not forget about relaxation even if you want to =)

  9. Pranin Sensei,

    Belated but heartfelt thanks to you and Hendricks Sensei for a great seminar. Your teachings touched on so many things that I’m actively exploring in my practice right now.

    One of them, as a small Aikidoka, is certainly unbalancing my partners. Ninety-nine percent of the people I work with are bigger or taller or both, so I know my technique needs to be correct to be effective, and I cannnot resort to my fall-back of using muscle and power, which is so ironic, considering my size.

    I also find that the tension I carry is a great impediment to good, effective Aikido, and I am bringing awareness to letting it go. For me, anyway, this bracing is a life pattern developed over the years in response to events and as protection. I wonder how many students also carry this tension from their lives onto the mat. I saw the benefit of releasing my shoulders in one of your classes with Tai No Henko and Morote Dori Kokyu Nage. Enormous difference.

    The third thing is martial intent and ferocity! Again, something I am consciously working on so that eventually what I feel on the inside will be mirrored on the outside.

    I thank you for your insights and for sharing your passion for Aikido. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

    • Kara,

      We certainly enjoyed having you present at the seminar. The issues you mention are important ones that I have found present across styles wherever I go. Careful consideration of what the Founder was doing serves as a good example of what we should be aiming for.

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say the strength and size are irrelevant in aikido training, but a small skilled person can execute effective technique by laying the balance-breaking foundation first. Remember when I called the 12-year old boy up to demonstrate on the strong fellow? The technique worked for him despite a huge size/strength discrepancy because he moved off the attack line, and unbalanced his uke before the throw.

      Please let us know of your further thoughts and progress!

  10. Dear Stanley,
    How much I would have enjoyed your seminar!
    On “martial relaxation” (great term that!) my favourite analogy comes from cooking pasta. We are not to relax as an overcooked limp noodle nor are we to be as stiff and brittle as uncooked noodles. Instead we seek to be al dente. Some folks understand.
    As for kuzushi, without it there is no Budo of any sort. Kuzushi must come first. The surprising part is how subtle and tiny a movement will take an attacker’s balance.
    Thank you again for all you do and have done.

  11. dejan djordjević says:

    In my opinion, it is not that easy to relax when being under the stress of a, say, really tough randori. And yet, we are somehow doomed to at least try to do it.

    • I would agree that it’s very difficult. But if you practice a lot you can become accustomed to the faster pace and adrenalin rush. I have seen people who can stay ahead of the whole group of attackers and the attackers end up defending themselves!

  12. “Kachin kochin” are words used in Japanese to express stiffness, clumsiness.

    “Flexibility overcoming stiffness” is the first precept of Jûdô / Jûjutsu training. Flexiblity and stiffness are two sides of the same state of mind that are expressed through our actions.

    Stiffness results from fear. Flexibility results from familiarity.

    In Budo, we learned that the antidote to fear is familiarity. We may know all the theories and therapies. However it’s only through constant exposure to uncomfortable situations that we may learn how to manage fear.

    Some geniuses such as Ueshiba Sensei were maybe capable of learning a technique through kata and apply it immediately into freestyle situations.

    We as ordinary human beings must learn through a progressive pedagogical method such as kata (learning individual techniques one by one), application and repetition with mindfully cooperating partners through yakusoku geiko, then freestyle with mindfully non-cooperating partners through kakari geiko. Frequent change of partners is necessary.

    Most Aikidô students practice a couple of hours a week. We have to take time, practice unconditionally and without expectations. This can be quite a challenge for most of us but there is no shortcut.

    Patrick Augé

  13. I just finished reading “Transparent Power” by Tatsuo Kimura. There is a great deal of talk about tension and relaxation, especially in the shoulders, that seems to be the key to developing aiki – strength inhibiting its development.

    However, when I trained under Kimeda of Yoshinkai Canada, we were told to use strength, and I remember Kisshomaru saying beginners should use strength to develop a solid base for technique.

    It doesn’t seem logical to use strength if the goal is to not use strength, or is the idea that relaxation will naturally replace tension over time?

  14. Dear Sensei,

    It reminds me that my neighbor asked me if I know “Chi” or “ki” and I told him it is over my head. We relax not because we want to relax or we think we know how to do it. We relax since we are confident or nothing matters to us.

    Thanks for posting and have a good weekend.


  15. Atemi makes a big difference. Yet, I admire the ASU people who get very good Kuzushi without using Atemis usually.

    Stan’s point is vital. My colleagues say that beginners need to learn “Kihon” before Kuzushi. I disagree. No technique works unless there is Kuzushi first and we should teach “balance taking” before teaching the “anatomy” of a technique.

    Pierre Ghassibi, md

  16. Dear Stanley Sensei,

    A great starter, observation, and probably chapter on someone’s book.

    My Sensei (Alan Higgs), told me some years ago that the upper body should be completely relaxed and the lower body, the hips and legs should do all the work. “Put maximum effort into the legs”. And as you say, learning takes time. So I am still attempting to practice this and learn this.

    And I had another attempt this weekend at a Kenshukai with colleagues from around Australia who are part of Shodokan Aikido. We were practicing the randori elements of this style. As you know, we use a tanto to create a non-standard situation, or one where we are required to keep distance. Using our legs to get past the tanto and next to toshu is counter-intuitive – why would you move towards someone with a knife (says the body) – and this requires strong legs, and a relaxed upper body. however once teaching/practice is concluded and randori conpetition begins – tension returns and, as others have mentioned, hormones get up and all technique goes to hell. I have a shoulder strain so didn’t participate but could see how even those with years of experience find it impossible to take on new learning – everything reverts to old patterns.

    Without kuzushi where is the aikido. It is all pain techniques or injury techniques where strength rules. Even atemi without kuzushi is without value. Mind you, it is important that uki is trained to be an uki and look after themselves. For instance, if I know my current uki is slow to respond to an atemi attack I will pull my movement, there will be no ‘proper’ response, hence no zukushi. In reality if that was on the street the opponent would have had their head taken off.

    Ukemi training is hard work also. I have never been a fighter. So I had to learn that a fighter does not stay down if they lower their head, they raise their head immediately. A fighter tries to stay front on to their opponent. A fighter maintains eye contact with their opponent. A fighter maintains a safe distance. All these things were new to me. And if I do not act as a fighter half of the aikido techniques do not work because I have no response to take advantage of. Then my opponent will simply punch me in the head – which is lowered. looking away, and at a really handy distance for punching. My Sensei has been a fighter and knows how fighters stay alive.

    So this weekend’s take home fitted your take home from your seminar last year – go figure. Without kuzushi how can there be aikido. And kuzushi is such a short window!

    A lifetime’s work.


    Shodokan Brisbane Dojo
    Brisbane, Australia

  17. I practice Kokikai, which is of Tohei’s lineage, and we have a statement of core principles and among them is “Relax progressively.” Of course this is easier said than done.

  18. Sensei Stan,
    Well put and thoughtfully poignant observations.
    I am currently working on an essay that deals with the failure of techniques due to lack of unbalancing (kuzushi). Perhaps Uke is anticipating at a “reptilian brain” level to nage’s (tori’s) tension. Wonder if there is a direct link between these two? Thanks for getting the word out.

    Gambatte !

    Ernest Harris

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