Aikido Practices for Writing

Aikido is the Japanese martial art of peaceful reconciliation, an art I have studied for over forty years and written about extensively in my book Aikido Off the Mat: One woman’s journey using Aikido principles to stay sane in body, mind, and spirit. Here are several basic principles of Aikido that directly translate into writing skills. I hope you find them as useful as I do:

  1. Grounding is about establishing a root-like connection to earth and to the primal force of gravity, a force we often take for granted and ignore at our peril. Practice sending a grounding cord down to the center of the earth as a way to stabilize yourself. Think of the root as extending from the bottoms of your feet, or through the bottom of your pelvic floor. The more grounded we are, the more stable, unperturbed, calm, present. When applying the principle of grounding to writing, our writing demonstrates stability, practicality, sound logic, coherent organization and a clear roadmap, and a strong connection to humanity’s core values.
  2. Centering. In Aikido and most martial arts, center is the foundation principle. Unlike Western culture which favors upper-body strength, Aikido favors the physical center of the body, a point lying within the pelvic bowl between the navel and the lower back. Moving from center unifies body, mind, and spirit so that our actions are more relaxed, energized, efficient and integrated. It’s not about force or upper-body strength. In the same way, centered writing helps us let go of forcing our writing—adding superfluous and/or overwrought details, descriptions, and words—because doing so is the writer’s equivalent of too much upper-body effort. Centered writing helps us simplify and clarify our thinking so we can connect with what we need to write about and who we want to communicate with.
  3. Extension. Once we have grounded and connected to our powerful and dynamic centers, we learn to extend that power in any direction we choose. Extended power based on an effortless energetic connection to center is much stronger than muscular power based on effort and resistance. For example, even a child who sends extended power through her arm can make that arm unbendable not because her arm is rigid using muscular strength, but because it is flexible and responsive using energetic strength. When the principle of extension is applied to writing, rather than exerting force by gripping your pencil or tapping the keyboard, extend your energy through your fingertips and onto the page. Extend your heart and mind to your audience to help them understand what you’re saying. Extend your creative and passionate voice into the world, thus helping to shape it as you write.
  4. Blending. Aikido teaches us to pivot close to the attacker, turning to see the world from his point of view as a way to make a connection and defuse the attack. Whether they know it or not, writers employ the blend all the time. When writing a narrative, we let go of ourselves to step into our characters and see the world from their point of view. When writing a Rogerian argument, we blend with our opponents in order to find common ground and a mutually agreeable solution. No matter what we write, we practice empathy for our audiences across time, culture, and distance as we attempt to reveal our truth.
  5. Entering (irimi). Entering into the heart of the attack is like a really close blend that slips in and to the side an attacker. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, entering into an attack puts us into a position where we’re better able to redirect the attack by leading the attacker and affecting his balance. When we apply the principle of entering to writing, we will be better equipped to get to the point. We will recognize when we’re skirting an issue, beating around the bush, hemming and hawing, not saying what we mean, or allowing ourselves to be hamstrung by our fear. Entering into the heart of any problem might even help us disempower procrastination, confusion, or the dreaded writer’s block. Entering is all about the courage to recognize and go towards the truth.
  6. 360-degree awareness. Aikido practice expands our awareness of our environment. We become more tuned to body language, mixed messages, intuitive information, group dynamics and other subtle energy patterns. This 360-degree awareness increases our body wisdom and has a profound effect on our ability to be present and to know what’s going on all around us. We become less identified with our smaller identities as we connect to something larger and wiser. Not only will this principle help you reduce stress and energize your writing, it will give you greater insight into mood and atmosphere as well as complexity, context, background, irony, nuance, fully-dimensional characters, universal themes, and layers of meaning that are so integral to good writing.
  7. Mind/Body/Spirit Connection: Aikido works on several levels at once. For example, blending with an attack has a physical component, a mental component, and a spiritual component. A physically correct blend without the corresponding attitude or feeling won’t work near as well as a blend that incorporates all three levels. I think there’s a parallel with writing. Good writing engages the mind, the body, and the spirit, both in the act of writing and later, in the act of reading our work aloud.
  8. Breathing: Aikido and most body-centered practices increase our awareness of the importance of breath to movement, health, and life. Become aware of how often you hold your breath, or breathe shallowly. Breathe as you write, and breath will come into your writing.
  9. Alignment. Aikido works best when we’re lined up to our movement physically, mentally, and in spirit. In the same way, a writer needs to line up to the act of writing. Attend to whatever helps you make that alignment. For example, many writers, including William Blake and Henry David Thoreau, are said to have used walking as a way to find ideas to write about. Try writing with your feet flat on the floor, your back long and your head floating on top of your spine, as opposed to writing slumped over and straining your neck. Write while sitting on a physio ball so you literally keep your body moving as it makes minute adjustments in your balance. Eliminate distractions and resist the seduction of multi-tasking. Line up to your writing mentally and emotionally as well so you don’t undercut your effort or spring an energetic leak.
  10. Keeping your back. Most beginning Aikido students are oriented towards the front of their bodies. That’s no surprise given that Western culture values forward movement (put your best foot forward!) over backward (don’t get backed into a corner!). But keeping your back is important to staying balanced and powerful, and not just in Aikido. Think of what’s backing you up. Think of the friends and family who watch your back. Think of your mentors and teachers who are supporting you. Think of the long lineage of writers, including incarcerated writers, of which you are now a part. All their experience and wisdom are at your back. Lean into it. Let it support you. Try writing not from the front of your mind/body/spirit, but from the back of it.
  11. Feel your feet on the ground. This sounds obvious, but many beginning Aikido students have to look at their feet to tell where they are. Just as our culture values forward over backward, it also values up (climb the corporate ladder) over down (what a downer!). Imagine your feet as an extra pair of hands, just as sensitive and agile. Feeling your feet on the ground will help you be more balanced, less top heavy, more connected to the ground, harder to push over. It will make your writing sturdier as well. If your writing has no “feet,” it might be top heavy, wobbly, imbalanced, choppy, stumbling along. The more you can find your feet as a writer, the more your work will be able to stand on its own, or take off in a long, relaxed stride.
  12. Owning the mat. When I trained for my first black belt, I had to learn how to defend myself against several attackers at once. When the teacher called my name, I’d rise up from kneeling and step out into the center of the mat. But if I didn’t “own the mat,” he’d send me back to the starting position. I learned that I couldn’t walk out to the center of the mat if my eyes were on the ground, shaking off my nervousness or still thinking about what I had to do. I had to be ready the moment I stood up—dropped into my center, lined up to my work, keeping my back, feeling my feet. I had to walk onto the mat with my energy extended to all four edges of it, including everybody on it. That mat had to belong to ME. In fact, the whole dojo had to belong to me. Next time you read your work aloud in front of an audience, center yourself, extend your energy into all four corners of the room, and own the mat.
  13. Not knowing. Once a beginning Aikido student has learned the basic principles and techniques, they are ready to practice the art of Aikido. But this involves letting go and entering into the state of not knowing. A well-executed Aikido technique feels less like a self-generated event with your name stamped on it, and more like a mysterious surrender into an omnipresent intelligence infinitely more wise, intuitive, and powerful than anyone of us could ever be on our own. Similarly, a writer who has learned the basic rules and techniques might be challenged to let go of what they think they know, tap into the free-running river of thoughts and images, and surrender to the larger, more universal wisdom of the subconscious editor. While competitive and ego-driven Westerners may be confused and frightened by the prospect of not knowing, Eastern body-based practices such as Aikido embrace it as “beginner’s mind,” a fertile state of mind that is humble, open, and fluid with limitless possibilities.
  14. Effort and doing nothing. Americans have inherited a deep confusion about effort. Effort, after all, earned us “A’s” whereas doing nothing earned us “F’s.” Yet many Eastern philosophies and body-based practices are based on relaxation and doing nothing. When the Olympic runner Flo-Jo wanted to run faster, she said she relaxed more. When I get stuck in an Aikido technique, instead of forcing it by making an even bigger effort, I relax. My brain and my body unlock and reestablish a connection with my center. In that instant, I can feel where my partner’s balance is and how to unseat it effortlessly. More choices become available. Similarly, when we get stuck in writing, imagine the possibilities that could open up if we remembered to relax and trust the process.
  15. Circle, square and triangle. The basic shapes of circle, square, and triangle comprise most Aikido techniques. We can see circle in the willingness to blend and redirect, the square in a strong and stable foundation, and the triangle in a clear extension. These shapes comprise the natural world as well—the circular flow of water or wind, the enduring weight and mass of a mountain, the triangular insistence of a growing sprout pushing through the earth. We can see all three shapes in personalities as well. Someone comfortable with the circle might be easy-going, willing to shift, accommodate, and go with the flow. Someone comfortable with the square might be stable, reliable, grounded, down-to-earth, content with just “being.” Someone comfortable with the triangle might be dynamic, a mover and shaker always ready for action and “doing.” However, the three shapes have their downsides as well: consider the downward spiral of someone stuck in a depressing whirlpool, or the craziness of someone stuck in the upward chaotic spin of a tornado; someone stuck in a rigid  and secure square might be able sit for hours doing nothing, but they risk becoming lifeless, imprisoned by their own fortress; someone stuck in a triangle might be able to bulldoze their way through anything, but fails to understand why no one wants to be around them. Similarly, the upsides and downsides of the three basic shapes can be seen in the writer’s world as well. When the circle is working well, we find a natural flow to the writing that carries us and the reader along; when the circle is a problem, we can’t seem to get anywhere with our writing or we fail to make a point. When the square is working well, our writing is sturdily and logically structured, a foundation on which to build; when the square is a problem, our writing might be rigid, stuck in familiar territory, afraid to leap or take a risk. When the triangle is working well, our points come across clearly, passionately, effectively; when the triangle is a problem, we might come across as strident, heavy-handed, unforgiving. It is my observation that as martial artists, people, and writers, we all favor one shape over the other two. For example, my default shape is a triangle, which makes me energetic and active, but sometimes I have a hard time relaxing  into the circle or trusting that doing nothing (the square) is a great option too. In regard to these three basic shapes, I think there are two goals to pursue: the first is to become fluent in all three shapes so that you have all available tools to deal with what life throws at you. The second is to increase your self-awareness so you can catch yourself when you slide into the downside of a shape, and bring yourself back to center.


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