“Aikido and the Taming of the Reptilian Brain” by Stanley Pranin


“Our reptilian brains kick in triggering the use of force,
and mucking up our techniques in the process!”

There is something that has long mystified me about practitioners of aikido. It is a phenomenon that I have witnessed across all styles of the art. Few aikidoka transcend this fundament limitation. What am I talking about? The default use of physical strength when applying a technique.

During my career in aikido, I can’t count the number of times I have heard an instructor admonish students to “relax” when executing techniques. Most students translate this as “use less power.” So they don’t use as much strength in their quixotic effort to make a technique work. Occasionally, a student will really try to relax by totally draining out the power from his body. This results in a “limp” state which, of course, does nothing to improve the student’s ability to succeed in the execution of a technique.

What’s going on here? As a layman, I have a simple theory about this. It has to do with the “flight or fight” instinct that we all are born with. Some would regard this adrenalin-charged state as a manifestation of our ancient reptilian brains. Scientists tell us that we share this anatomical structure and its functions with our more primitive ancestors. It is a type of instinctual behavior encoded in our DNA that seems impossible to overcome.

So how does this play out on the aikido mat? Let’s say you are grabbed by a strong person. It doesn’t matter whether you are practicing a basic or ki no nagare technique. Your attempt to move your partner meets with physical resistence. What do you do? Almost everyone will try to muscle their way through the technique. They may be successful depending on their technical level, degree of strength, and the amount of cooperation of one’s uke. This notwithstanding, their use of physical force is obvious to both parties.

Usually what happens is that the two training partners arrive at some unspoken agreement to only resist up to a certain point, and then let nage finish the technique. It is a sort of a quid pro quo pact that is common almost everywhere aikido is practiced. However, this produces a major problem for practitioners.

Because of these silent “gentlemen’s agreements”, aikidoka never acquire the ability to successfully execute a technique without using at least some degree of physical strength. Their progress is severely limited due to this impediment. Do we really have only two choices: the use of some degree of physical force, or adopting a rag doll-like state which accomplishes nothing in a physical sense?

I think there is a third physical state that is achievable. I haven’t come up with a good name to describe it yet, but let’s call it an “energetic relaxation,” for want of a better term. It is a mental/physical attitude where the body is unified energetically and capable of exerting tremendous power whose source is virtually undetectable.

This elusive state of relaxation to which I refer harnesses energy from the attack, and adds to it the considerable energy of nage’s unified structure to produce powerful, yet controllable results. This is perhaps a verbose way of describing the awase or blend of aikido. The awase cannot be maintained if physical force is introduced during the technique. A break of the energy bond between the two partners occurs.

I have been working on developing this type of energetic relaxing or unified body now for the last few years in my personal training with good results. Here and there, I have seen others working on similar approaches, but they are few and far between. Wherever I go to observe, train or teach, I find the same thing. The style does not seem to matter. Our reptilian brains kick in triggering the use of force, and mucking up our techniques in the process! Only our tacit agreement to allow our partners to complete a technique enables us to train in an outwardly amicable setting.

Have you ever experienced what I’m talking about? How do we transcend the awakening of this primitive part of our nature when executing a technique? Do you agree that there exists another physical/mental state that perhaps the Founder and a few other masters have discovered that allows them to operate on a different level? Could this be the elusive goal that we spend a lifetime striving to reach through our training? What say you?


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  1. Tony Fontaine says:

    In the Ki Society (which I am not part of) they teach relaxing against a strong attack rather than returning with strength. I find this concept difficult to understand, but it encourages flexibility to prevail over a rigid strong attack. That being said, I find the best way is to “go around” the line of attack. For example, from a strong wrist grip, revolve around attacking arm rather than trying to push back. This redirects the force and unbalances the attacker. To acknowledge the Ki Society approach again, this works best if relaxed and flexible, rather than using strength and being rigid. As to reptilian brain, a strong grip does not allow flight or fight (using strength). The brain needs to be trained in another course of action.

  2. David Buhner says:

    I am only a shodan with 12 years of training in Iwama style, but “relax” was the most common word I heard in my dojo for the first 7 years, if not more, of my training. I had no idea of what was meant. The practical aspect was easily demonstrated during this time by the yudansha, as they were readily able to stop my techniques and the application of “strength” never provided a solution. They were also easily able to demonstrate how they could perform the techniques, no matter what I did, in a manner where no tension in their body was visible or sensible, by becoming “softer” rather than “stronger”. Knowing what wouldn’t work (“stength”) did not, unfortunately, help me understand what would work, and no one was able to provide, in words, a description of what was going on that did the trick, either. Happily, what couldn’t be cognitively understood could be physically perceived, eventually, through sufficient time on the mat, dimly at first but better over the years, though the refinement of this ability remains a lifetime job for me. As a physician with some knowledge of the neuromuscular system I have my own notions of what is happening, but am afraid I am no better able to put it into words that will mean something to the majority of people than anyone else. I am of the opinion that the discovery and experience of other aikido concepts (such as, among others, the “center” and “moving from the center” and “mindfulness”), are essential to achieving an ability to reach this state of “tensionless” movement. Given the additional difficulty of conveying these other highly abstract concepts to students, and the even greater difficulties of first perceiving them and then ingraining them into one’s mind and body, I am never surprised that the cultivation of this skill is extremely hard for the majority of people and remains a great stumbling block for many.

    Pedagogically, I was made to understand that beginning students had as much (generally more; I know I did for years) as they could handle just learning the visible body movements, and that blocking their techniques when they relied upon strength served no useful purpose. I believe O’Sensei even inveighed against it. Thus, uke’s job in my dojo was to go to the mat in such as manner as was both safe for uke and encouraged nage to move his/her body in the desired manner, helping to teach the beginner the visible movements of a technique. When the basic body movements began to become ingrained then it became possible to attempt to introduce the student to the invisible-to-the-eye aspects of aikido, when blocking techniques, assuming this was combined with an illustration of the solution, could serve a useful purpose.

  3. Wow Stan! You bit off a big one here! Shall I start from the mystic perspective? “This is like Tao. Tao dwells in low places..” .http://taotechingdaily.com/8-like-water/ Or shall I get down to practical strategy? “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” Douglas MacArthur http://militaryhistorypodcast.blogspot.com/2007/08/macarthur-american-caesar-2.html It being 2014 the centenary of WWI it’s worth mentioning that the final-final was a corps strength Allied offensive in the Balkans which the Germans and Austrians just didn’t have the resources to counter.

    So much for far flung abstraction. Musashi said that if you know strategy at the personal level you know it at the scale of armies and campaigns. Let’s see if it works the other way around.

    We all know where we’re strong. We always tend to work toward our strengths in physical things. We all walk pretty much the same way because that’s how our bodies are built. Similarly, if we need arm strength we generally work in alignment with the front of the body. The more the task is offset from a perpendicular alignment from the hips and shoulders, the less power is available. Pushing and pulling are exceptions, of course which work best in parallel with the hip/shoulder structure. Think tug of war or, to an extent, pushing a car. Few people give any consideration to where they aren’t balanced and strong. Why should they? In fact, it is natural to defend against being put into a position where you have less or no strength. We’ve all met rigid ukes as well as rigid nages.

    What’s interesting, subtle and difficult to teach is that there are paths of weakness which lead away from postures of strength. The closer to those paths you can work, the less effort it takes. I could imagine doing a 3D presentation of the overlapping strengths of the body. Done right, the interface between the strengths of different muscle groups will portray those paths. Logically if the muscle groups are separate, shaped and attached differently, the zones in which their power can be exerted would project accordingly. Computer graphics are amazing these days. Put it in motion. I can see this as being a graduate level project in either physiology or art.

    Would you prefer I go back to mysticism? OK. If you can take advantage of engaging even a little of your strength with a lot of uke’s weakness, the sensation and results are going to be so unfamiliar that you might attribute them to something supernatural.

    Or, if you can do it consistently call it an aikido demonstration. Sorry. No degree in this course, though you might get a dan certificate.

  4. Nice article. This form of using strength is found in other styles too but only in the west. I feel as that is what we learn from an early age. All western arts rely on speed and strength. Just look at the Olympics. Yes you must have a lot of skill of course but in nearly all sports it is the one who is fastest and strongest or best endurance that wins. However in the Japanese martial arts it is always the one with best timing, feeling and technique that will win. A question to you is how is it in Japanese dojos? Do they resort to strength too? I have practiced Bujinkan Budo Taijustu and there we talk about also never using strength against strength. That as you say will only lead to the strongest or fastest winning. What is needed is a shift in thinking. From my studies I believe that you must have strength, O sensei was famously strong, but you can only apply your strength when uke is weak. Be it along a line in their structure that is weak or they are in a position that they are weak. I have taken up aikido the last year and read your site avidly and what I see again and again is that and this is true in the bujinkan too that those who are truly great in the respective arts make their ukes fly and when asked all the ukes can say is I felt nothing and I had no power to resist.
    Finding that ability in every technique is what I strive for and what drives me to train every day to refine my technique and skill.

    Thank you for your articles and tenacity in search for truths.


  5. Sensei, I believe it is a realty that another physical/metal state exists. The fact that it is seldom achieved is telling. You have documented the intensity and multilevel training methods of O’Sensei. Is it safe to say the few who have achieved his status pursued similar training methods? What fuels the desire to devote one’s life to such training? Is it living in an environment where survival is a moment to moment reality?

    I haven’ trained in many dojo but have participated in several seminars and for whatever reason realistic attacks are often lacking and realistic meaningful attacks are necessary to develop real skills.

    On the other hand, there always seemed to be a few aikidoka at each training session I attended who appeared willing to “sacrifice their bodies” apparently realizing it takes commitment, effort and pain to develop real skills.

    How many of us who train regularly truly “strive” towards developing real skills? How many instructors seek to create an environment where such skills can be developed?

    Thanks for keeping this topic in front of us.


  6. Finally a hint that Osensei was a shape-shifting Reptilian! That would explain a lot.

    Seriously, though, Stan’s “energetic relaxation” sounds to me pretty similar to Tohei’s “Ki” theories.

    In my limited experience with Tohei he appeared to have power aplenty, without resorting to physical force, and I find it hard to fault his theoretical explanations, reluctant as I am at my level of understanding to declare them ultimate truths.

    He may have oversimplified the subject in order to get it across to the masses and this, coupled with personality and political-sectarian factors, may have resulted in putting many people off “Ki Aikido”, and creating strident “Ki-Deniers” and surprisingly fierce “Anti-Ki” movements.

    But even Tohei himself insisted that the ideas and feelings he was promulgating had to be practised intensely and not simply understood intellectually.

    How many people are willing to do this?

    If they did so they might discover the mysterious power that enabled Osensei to baffle most of his, mere human, followers.

  7. Tony Fontaine says:

    On the flip side, the “relax” directive is used when the attacker (uke) is being pinned or thrown at the end of a technique. Beginners often tense up as a method of self-preservation against a pin or a throw. However, this is counterproductive and only creates more pain when resistance is futile. The basic instinct is to counteract the action to prevent pain. This shows a lack of confidence in oneself or trust of their training partner. Both need to be addressed to improve ability to relax.

  8. Another great topic of discussion Stan. I have a number of thoughts on the subject, but probably more useful to share would be one of my street failures – which are always my best teachers:

    I am on the streets of East New York Brooklyn, the homicide capitols of NYC. I spot Darrel S., an enforcer for a local drug gang who has a parole violation warrant. We pull him over to make the arrest. I get one cuff on him then all hell breaks loose. Darrell is going berzerk fighting me and my partner with everything he has got – his freedom is on the line. He is so hyped up he feels nothing – Wrist locks, nothing. Pressure points, nothing. Elbows, nothing. My police radio up side his head – no can do, since half the neighborhood is watching. Even my partner ” Big Ray,” a lumber Jack from up North cannot handle Darrel. After 2-3 minutes of this I am losing steam fast, a very scary moment.

    Out of sheer exhaustion – I just stop fighting and search for something else. i hear that annoying refrain Tohei used to repeat like a broken record in Tokyo “relax completely.” I give up the fight and just drop to my knees. I am amazed that everything connected to me – Darrell – and big Ray struggling with Darrell – all comes crashing down like a ton a bricks with me. I guess Darrell got stunned a bit by the fall because when he hit the ground I was able to get the damn second cuff on him. Thank you, Mr. Tohei !

  9. Oliver Hartner says:


    I’ve been studying Aikido for only 3 years (NOT NEARLY LONG ENOUGH)!! I’m studying Seidokan and occasionally Aikikai (our Sensei was trained in both styles and hosts 3 seminars per year with Aikikai dojos, which is great to get both perspectives on the art and application of the principles). That being said, I have noticed that Seidokan places a little more emphasis on Ki (probably because it’s an off-shoot of Ki Society) than Aikikai, and so it seems tougher in Seidokan to muscle my way through a technique. BUT, more often than not, Aikido of any style will not work if you can’t control the lizard brain!

  10. What a fascinating & multi-layered topic.

    Early in my study of Aikido it seems I was so focused on understanding the basic concepts and movements, I was incapable of giving attention to relaxing. As I recall I just wanted to perform something close to the technique while hoping I might cause Uke to fall to the mat without Uke’s help.

    As I’ve begun to internalize techniques, I find the speed of the attack determines whether I am able to remain relaxed and achieve correct technique. Attack too fast and the Reptilian seems to take over, relaxation goes out the window, and I’m left hoping for a positive outcome while muscling through the technique.

    In rare moments of near total relaxation, it seems I forget to think about what I’m doing and techniques feel other worldly! How are we to achieve this state as a matter of course?

    Perhaps Tohei Sensei’s insistence that “intense practice is required” is the key?

    It seems the principle challenge is the number of things the mind must process while performing a new technique. Therefore, we must intensely practice to ingrain within muscle memory the multiple concepts necessary to achieve “energetic relaxation.”

    After all, the mind is capable of holding only one thought at a time. Must we know techniques like we know our own name to achieve “energetic relaxation?”

    I only hope to achieve “energetic relaxation” in regular practice.

    Thank you for causing me to think about relaxation from a different perspective.

  11. wes robinson says:

    Excellent article and responses. This small strength/big power concept is what everyone must really be aiming towards, at least once we are old enough to appreciate wisdom more than force. I’d call it ‘relaxed dynamics’. The need to learn form happily until confident with it is vital. Finding physical and mental freedom that comes from being sure of your shape and confident in your body is a precursor to higher, anti-instinct ‘combat’. We can’t recreate moments of danger and risk in a dojo, but we can challenge ourselves inwardly to recognise strife and forcefulness.. Perhaps this is where the founder was trying to point us all, in the end.

  12. Thank you for this great study. For me, a small woman (5 feet) with
    little strength, bigger, stronger ukes are commonplace. Strength has never worked for me
    as ridiculous as it sounds I have tried. It is a physiological reflex that just occurs
    no matter who we are. Something we all try to unlearn. What has helped is to use my body as a unit,
    loosen and lower all upper muscles (with breath) and have the lower half of my body
    completely active, energized and moving grounded. The upper half emits integrity and form but
    not rigid, as you say “energized relaxation”. Along with this form precise body alignment and body
    placement (Tai Sabaki) has given me the greatest success. When I feel resistance I know my
    body placement is wrong and probably I have not taken my uke’s balance. Once in the right place the body relaxes because it has no feeling of resistance to physiologically respond to. Nothing is there.

    I believe, generally, men have a harder time with relaxing because using strength can work and
    the feedback of success this way is reinforced often. For smaller, weaker students the desire to
    Resort to strength has been extinguished for quite some time. Just my perspective.

  13. What about a relaxed mind in an unhesitating, strong willed body?
    In other words : how to educate ourselves to overcome our reptilian cortex?

  14. Ivã Munhoz says:

    I am a practitioner of the Shin Shin toitsu aikido, better known as “ki-aikido”. What made Tohei somehow different from others was his previous studies of what is sometimes called Japanese yoga (the original name is shin shin toitsu do, thus the name of this aikido style. The Shin Shin toitsu do is based in a form of yoga and it was developed by Nakamura Tempu, who went to India in search for a treatment for his illnesses. There are plenty of books in English talking about this matter, some of them written by Tohei sensei himself, directly in English, authorized by the very O – sensei in an attempt to spread the aikido knowledge to the western world.

    I have more details about this topic if you folks would like to know more. Also, look for videos of Kashiwaya-sensei, 8th Dan of ki-aikido, currently living in Seattle, on YouTube.

  15. My humble contribution. During my aikido training, I recall some techniques in which the analogy of rope was used. In some of my other physical training pursuits, I train with a heavy 15 metre rope using a series of exercises. It occurred to me, that the methods used to train with the rope require the very thing we are talking about in aikido; to relax and use your hips and core, which is deceptive as it looks as though your arms are raising to send a great big wave of energy down the rope, but the power begins at the hips. The type of energy you can generate is not a rigid exertion of strength but a smoothly generated power through the coordination of your whole body. No magic required.

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