It was 1984 and I was in a class with Shoji Nishio, Sensei when he said, “In Aikido we are training the mind, but the mind is hard to get to so we go through the body.”
This comment always stuck with me and after many years of Aikido I’ve started to appreciate the depth and the practicality of it. We don’t have to get into a discussion regarding the separateness or non-separateness of the mind and body to agree that thoughts and feelings affect the body in many ways. But is the opposite also true? Is it possible that the way we use our body affects our mind as well?
There are now people doing scientific research on this very question. The video below is a talk by Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard. Her field of study is how your body posture and movement influences others and even your own brain.
Her research has found that having people assume certain physical postures in private for just two minutes changes not only how others respond to them later (making them more or less attractive and “hire-able” in job interviews in one study), but also body chemistry. After two minutes of what she called a “high-power pose” compared to a “low-power pose” here’s what she found:
“Here’s what we find on testosterone. From their baseline when they come in, high-power people experience about a 20-percent increase, and low-power people experience about a 10-percent decrease. So again, two minutes, and you get these changes. Here’s what you get on cortisol. High-power people experience about a 25-percent decrease, and the low-power people experience about a 15-percent increase. So two minutes lead to these hormonal changes that configure your brain to basically be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress-reactive, and, you know, feeling sort of shut down. And we’ve all had the feeling, right? So it seems that our non-verbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves, so it’s not just others, but it’s also ourselves. Our bodies change our minds.”
This research makes a very good case for “fake it until you make it.” If you want something to be true, if you want to be happier, smarter or more confident the fastest way to get there is by acting like it’s already true. To learn to ride a bike you have to get on and pretend like you’re riding it before it will actually happen. So why are we often so reluctant to apply this same logic to bigger areas of life like our happiness or our personal relationships?
A common rejoinder to the “fake it” approach is “I’m not going to act in a way I don’t feel. It’s not honest and I’m not a ‘fake’ person.” But this ignores the enormous power we have not just to describe reality, but to create it. The most common use of words and body language is to carry the narrative of the past into the present and future. Needless to say, this is often nonconstructive and sometimes even destructive to the pursuit of health and happiness. People sometimes wonder why their life keeps repeating itself. Often it’s because they are projecting the past into their own future in the form of both verbal and body language. It’s like writing yourself the same life prescription every day.
Nishio Sensei described Aikido itself as a language:
“The Aikido technique we express with our body – that is with the heart of aiki and the principle of the sword – is not to make the opponent surrender but it is to reach a mutual understanding. In other words it is exactly the same purpose as human language. In that sense you can probably say that the practice that takes place in the dojo in Aikido is a hearty conversation.
“Aikido’s technique is in this way different from the techniques of other martial arts. The correct practice method in Aikido and the correct technique, are seen by whether both parts have a mind to seek correctness. Correctness is then measured by mutual search for harmony.
“In conclusion the correct way to practice and learn Aikido is when it becomes possible to talk to people through the language of technique.”
So whatever form our language takes we can use it either to describe the reality we have already perceived, or to create a new and more desirable reality. In this way we are using our language, whether it is our words, our body language or the language of the movements of Aikido, to prescribe the future in a constructive and empowering way. Whether we choose to describe the future or regurgitate the past it’s entirely up to us. To one degree or another all of our expressions are prescriptive.
This approach requires us to take charge of ourselves. A martial artist trains to master their own expression. As an aikidoka you must take the lead in your own life and in your training. A person cannot help lead others in the right way if they can’t be diligent in their own training. You mustn’t be a person who is guided by whims, feelings and circumstances like a child. As one Zen teacher says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” How you show up on the mat is how you show up in life.
Aikido is a life path. Training is not just an activity done for amusement. You don’t just train simply to get more knowledge, skills or techniques for yourself. You train because the value is in the act of training itself.
The dojo is not a gym. Most people who join a health club give up very quickly. This kind of giving up attitude is not the kind of spirit that an aikidoka must have. If we give in to our own lassitude then how can others count on us? We must first develop a strong attitude toward our own training. We mustn’t say, “Oh, life just got in the way.” We must be there to support others in the dojo. Aikido cannot happen alone.
Our interest in Aikido is not limited to self-preservation. Nor do we take action based on our feelings about the aggressor. Instead we take action based on the principles of Aikido and we serve the other person by guiding them away from the error of their ways.
O Sensei said, “Aikido is not for correcting others, but for correcting one’s own mind.” Both O Sensei and Nishio Sensei saw this same truth. Can the body change the mind in the way that O Sensei and Nishio envisioned? Yes, but it takes conscious, purposeful and persistent action.
~Philip Greenwood, Sensei