Looking at specific areas within the solo practice of Aikido which help to develop the Powerhouse (Legs and Core).
The culture of Japan has a long tradition of physical practices to develop the health, strength and stability of the Centre (Hara or Tanden in Japanese and Dantian in Chinese). Throughout this article when the Centre is referred to it always implies its wider context within Japanese culture which I will discuss in greater depth in another article).
Although in the practice of Aikido, there are specific exercises which focus on developing this Centre in many ways the practice of Aikido generally will produce or should produce with correct teaching and practice a healthy, strong and stable Centre.
In physical terms, the Centre encompasses the area from the bottom of the ribs to the pubic bone and is supported externally by the muscles both deep and shallow at the front and back.
Internally the energy within this centre is produced primarily by the Small Intestine.
The Centre is also through the deep connection of the Psoas muscle intimately connected to the spine and legs thus the importance of their development.
Power is transmitted from the ground up by being….
Rooted in the feet, Grounded in the legs, Stable at the centre (Spine vertical, Pelvis Horizontal) with Balanced Coordination in the arms and hands.
All the above have to have two important qualities in balance which may seem on the surface to oppose each other but in reality, they are complementary.
The Two Qualities are Stability and Mobility.
The feet have to be able to root but also be mobile( heavy yet light).
The legs need to be grounded but mobile (heavy yet nimble).
The Spine needs to maintain the opposing forces of dropping down through the Sacrum and rising up through the Crown.
The Centre in skeletal terms being intimately connected to the Pelvis and the Spine must maintain the balance between vertical and horizontal spin in terms of the effectiveness of the centrifugal and centripetal force.
The Arms and Hands also need qualities of stability and mobility to develop the sense of balanced force in the movement.
Balance in both Body and Mind
Balance in both Body and Mind is intimately connected to the interaction of two complementary forces expressed through the elements of Fire and Water.
Within the Martial Arts community and beyond practices have been developed both energetically and physically to enable manipulation and ultimate control of these primal elements which is particularly important within a Martial context.
One of the primary qualities of the Fire element is of heat and rising which in physical and energetic terms means that through heightened emotional responses we become tense and rigid particularly in the upper chest and back and in response the heart and breathing rate is increased (Fight - Flight), and due to this tension we become light and lose our root, ground and balance.
Within a Martial context, this is not the appropriate response to a perceived threat and therefore martial artists have developed practices to inhibit and overcome this type of reaction.
One of these practices is developed through inhibiting and controlling the emotions and thus the Fire element rising as mentioned above and concentrating on the qualities of the Water element.
One of the primary qualities of the Water element is cold (Cooling off) and sinking which in physical terms means through inhibiting and controlling our emotions we can release tension in the upper back and chest which calms the heart and relaxes the diaphragm reducing the heart and breathing rate which ultimately calms the mind. This sinking settles and balances energy primarily at the centre but also roots and grounds structure through the legs and feet.
The balancing of the elements of Fire and Water and the effects on mind and body specifically in relation to the practice of Martial Arts is a whole subject in itself so will be discussed in more detail in a future article.
The starting point for developing our Centre and root starts with Mokuso.
Mokuso meditation begins with a stable sitting position with the pelvis balanced horizontally and the spine vertically with a soft dropped chest and energised raised back. Arms relaxed and diaphragm released to encourage lower abdominal breathing to allow the full release of physical and emotional tension but with a mind which is fully present open and alert.
This lowering of the centre of gravity in sitting called Seiza is then developed further during a special movement in Aikido called Shikko where we move from the kneeling Seiza position to sitting on the toes to a position called Kisa and from there we move around on mats on the toes and knees with the power generated from our centre (pelvis and hips). This style of walking also develops strength and flexibility in the toes, feet, hips and knees.
The lowering of the centre of gravity in combination with the development of strong and flexible legs directed by a balanced centre (Vertical spine and Horizontal pelvis) signals the formation of a stable and mobile root.
That stable root developed in Shikko is then challenged further through partner techniques called Suwari Waza. Within these techniques, the ability to maintain balance in our Centre (Vertical Spine and Horizontal Pelvis) from an outside force is further challenged and developed.
The legs and Centre are then further developed when we move from Seiza to Kiza and then to the Half-Kneeling position from where we are in a good starting position to practice another key element of Aikido called Ukemi - A Japanese term which means to receive. In this case to receive the ground through learning how to roll and perform safe and effective break falls to avoid injury when thrown.
The way one moves into and out of Ukemi from the ground to standing and back again of which is repeated many times within an Aikido practice session develops strong legs and core and a flexible and resilient spine.
The ability to use the legs and core as the primary source of power as opposed to overuse of the arms when moving from standing to the floor and back again should continually remind the Aikidoka, particularly in the performance of techniques that this is where the main source of power lies.
The importance of maintaining strong legs and core is also essential as we age too as this is our primary power source in everyday activities.
In Aikido we have a variety of Unsoku (Foot-Leg movements), and Tai-Sabaki (Body turning movements), all of which follow the core principle of the energy being absorbed and propelled from the ground up.
Taking our roots in the feet we can generate power in the legs which is then directed via the hips (Centre - with vertical spine and horizontal pelvis) and propelled through the spine and transmitted through via the arms and hands.
We also have Specific exercises to help build a connection from legs through hips and arms to include for example:
- Funekogi-Undo (Boat rowing exercise),
- Ushiro Tekubi-Tori-Undo (A deeper version of the previous exercise),
- Ikkyo Undo (similar movement Shiho Giri),
- and Zengo Undo (similar movement Happo Giri),
- Tenkan and Irimi Undo.
We only have three primary strikes in Aikido to include (Shomen Uchi, Yokumen Uchi and Tsuki).
With the individual practice of these strikes it's even more important to keep the principle in mind that the power, momentum and direction for these strikes are generated from the ground up through the feet, legs, hips and spine and only then expressed through the arms and hands.
The ability to maintain our structural integrity as listed above is further challenged through a variety of specific partner exercises called in Japanese (Sotai-Dosa).
- Katate Dori Tenkan Ho,
- Morote Dori Kokyu Ho,
- Shiho-Giri Tenkan Ho,
- Hai-Shin Undo,
- and Suwari-Waza Kokyu-Ho.
Two other exercises include Hiriki-No Yosei (Irimi and Tenkan).
All these exercises above are also used to begin the development of Kokyu-Ryoku (Breath power).
The exercises from Mokuso mentioned at the beginning of this article through to Shikko, Ukemi, Tai Sabaki and Sotai Dosa exercises are excellent for developing Strong and mobile legs, a stable and vital centre, a flexible and resilient spine through to balanced and coordinated arms and hands.
From the preparatory exercises listed throughout this article, we will have developed a strong foundation built from the ground up from where we can begin practising the wide range of Aikido techniques observing correct principles in body and mind which enables us to disturb our partners Kuzushi (balance) while maintaining and sustaining our structural integrity.
The above article has looked at the importance of the legs and core and the variety of Aikido individual and partner exercises used for their development.
The next articles will cover
- Understanding the potential threat the legs pose within a Martial context and the subtle use of our legs in creating an effective Kuzushi during Aikido techniques with a partner.
- Understanding the importance and use of the Legs and Core within Aikido Weapons Training.