by Catherine Honora Kineavy
any of us have seen pictures of yogis whose bodies are twisted like pretzels. We think, "I could never do that," or we think, "why would I ever want to do that?" On the other hand, we have seen groups of individuals gathered together in parks, moving slowly in unison practicing the ancient martial art of tai chi; we think we would love to do that, but how would we ever learn the steps? We watch Steven Segal in his movies practicing the ancient art of aikido, and try to understand how a seemingly aggressive martial art would be engaged in by a peaceful warrior. Although these three practices may seem unrelated, they do, in fact, have a common thread: creating harmony or health.
Each of these three disciplines evoke inner balance which leads to balance outside the self. In essence, by practicing any one of these ancient techniques we can become more centered or grounded, allowing our bodies to relax, releasing stress, and opening the body up to profound healing. Through deep breathing techniques, concentrated movements and intention, these practices have the capacity to increase flexibility and strength, alleviating illnesses. If done regularly, they allow the body to confront and deal with everyday stresses from a different perspective. The flexibility and strength does not pertain to the physical body only, but also refers to emotional flexibility and strength. In other words, individuals become open or more knowledgeable of themselves in their bodies, and it is through this self awareness that new perceptions about daily challenges are created.
Unlike Western exercises primarily based on competition, these practices are not competitive and are highly personal. The overriding philosophy of all these ancient arts is to get in touch with your own mind, body and spirit, being mindful always of the subtle shifts that occur during stretches, movements and holding of positions. The control of one's breath is essential to journey deeper into your body. Often times in our culture we forget to breathe, yet it is our breath that actually oxygenates our blood, giving us life.
Through yoga, we learn how to control our breath. This allows us to heal in many ways; proper breathing improves circulation and diminishes tensions. Coupled with correctly-aligned postures, breathing prompts our lymphatic system to release toxins and correct glandular imbalances, thereby preventing disease and promoting health. The postures, called "asanas," actually relax the body by improving circulation while toning and conditioning the muscles.
Aside from the physical benefits, yoga is a path towards spiritual enlightenment. This enlightenment is reached through the practice of detachment from reality in an effort to attain complete self knowledge. "Samadhi" is the ultimate goal. Samadhi means super-conscious state of being. There are many yoga paths towards this enlightened state incorporating different yoga forms including hatha, iyengar, and astanga. Yet the ultimate end result is improved health and spiritual being.
Tai Chi is sometimes referred to as China's yoga, although it is in many ways extremely dissimilar, since it is a form of self-defense where one yields to oncoming forces with the intention of cultivating internal energy or "chi." It too focuses on breathing coupled with body alignment as a means to grounding or centering oneself.
Tai Chi has an underlying philosophy that life is precious. If practiced on a regular basis, Tai Chi creates physical balance within one's life by building endurance and perseverance. Like yoga, it quiets the body, allowing emotions to come up and be released emotions that have been hidden deep within the cells of the body. Through this internal calming, one is able to resist outside stresses. The strength comes from inner rather than external power.
Aikido is another martial art wherein one moves with the attacker's energy, using the attacker's energy against him or her. One walks into the circle of the attacker, thereby mitigating the attacker's power. Aikido's underlying philosophy is the preservation of life and creation of harmony. Its practice is embedded in the unification of mind, body and spirit of self and the larger world. However, it forces practitioners to face death and walk through the fear of death in order to create a more purposeful life. Creating a more purposeful life is done by cultivating "ki," the underlying life force within us.
Aikido assists in relaxing the body through the quieting of the mind. The discipline in the training enables practitioners to become centered and grounded, thereby becoming balanced and able to combat daily stresses. Like tai chi, an inner calmness develops through the practice of awareness of one's body. Its benefits include strengthening the immune system, stimulating the organs through breathing exercises and increasing one's physical and mental flexibility. By continually confronting the emotion of fear of the attacker, one is able to release fear and embrace a more compassionate loving thought system, that we all know has numerous effects on the body's chemistry.
Yoga, tai chi, and aikido are ways of life for many people. They are exercises with many positive benefits, the most basic being a sense of groundedness. Often in this hectic, fast-paced world we get "thrown off balance," which usually leads to physical conditions of fatigue, anxiety, depression and tension. While the age-old cures of good nutrition and proper exercise contribute to our healing, yoga, tai chi and aikido actually cultivate a deep inner strength which will enable us to be more centered so we will not get "thrown off balance."
Personally, I have noticed that since I have started practicing yoga that I don't get nearly as crazed as I once did when I would attempt to juggle many deadlines with work, school and life in general. I find myself being more aware of my breath, and when I feel the tension mounting through the pressures of my daily work I unconsciously start to breathe more deeply. Often, I get up and stretch. My own yoga teacher adjusts my poses to the point where I begin to breathe deeper because I experience hesitation and fear. But ultimately, I am amazed at how much my body opens through deep breathing. I've realized that I limit myself; my body can go further than I think. The point is that a new awareness about myself has surfaced. As I take that into my daily life, I am more willing to go to the limits from a position of inner strength. The fear is getting easier to walk through and body awareness is a powerful tool in healing not to mention the physiological benefits already mentioned.
Although I do not practice Tai Chi or Aikido, some of my massage instructors do. Their peacefulness always intrigues me. I interviewed them for this article, asking them about their own experiences with tai chi and aikido and they all indicated that these practices have become part of their daily activities. They have integrated the spiritual philosophies into their way of life. They seem to be fully into their bodies while at the same time being able to detach from the mundane happenings in life. Their strength of character spills through in their daily interactions, and I always feel a peacefulness while being in their presence.
It is this particular point I want to drive home to anyone reading this article: we can all achieve health through cultivating our inner strength; we can all become peaceful warriors ready to combat any of the stresses, disappointments and worries that filter into our lives daily. One of the most important lessons I have learned through practicing yoga and learning about tai chi and aikido is that we must detach ourselves from worldly matters on our journey inward not necessarily from material goods, but detach ourselves from outcomes and expectations. It is by tapping into your inner strength that you can reach divinity or perfection of self. Yoga, tai chi and aikido, as well as other martial arts, can assist you on your road to health, harmony and balance. I invite you to take a class and experience the healing for yourself.
Catherine Honora Kineavy, M.A., is a historian, macrobiotic vegetarian, free-lance writer/editor, shiatsu masseuse and has just started her own company to educate and spread the word about healing ourselves and the environment. Catherine can be reached at (619) 557-4491