Aikido is a deep and complex art. While some techniques can be learned quickly, the art takes decades to master. With our ability to grow within our art over a lifetime, how can we best prepare our bodies to ensure high-performing movement capacity over the long term? One strategy is to employ a practice like yoga to build and preserve mobility, joint strength, and stability.
During a QA session with Ikazuchi Dojo’s team of instructors, Stan Pranin Sensei shares some of his thinking on the subject. As founder of Aikido Journal and an aikido practitioner with over 50 years experience, he brings a unique perspective to the topic.
Anne: Pranin Sensei, you mentioned that you use yoga as a way to maintain your body condition and improve your movement capability. When were you first introduced to it?
Stan: I was introduced to yoga at about 17 or 18, but I didn’t continue at that time. But what I did do is to take elements of yoga and make them part of my aikido and personal warm-ups. I was always doing some stretching, yoga type stuff throughout my Aikido career. But I started going regularly to classes about five years ago. I don’t go to structured classes at the moment, but I do a lot more on my own now.
Anne:: What changes have you noticed over the past five years when you’ve added a consistent layer of yoga practice into your training?
Stan: I’m able to control my back pain, I have complete control over it now. When I was young I tended to have rounded shoulders. I’ve been working on a computer since about 1979. I work long hours, so we’re talking 10 or 12 hours a day, usually seven days a week. I’m in a chair all the time!
Josh: Like most people.
Stan: Yes. In Japan I had back incidents, and a couple of cases where I couldn’t walk for days. I was crawling, and using a jo as a walking stick in my 40s! I thought, “Well, now it’s all downhill. My wife at the time was telling me “You can’t do those exercises anymore, you’ll hurt yourself.” Then I found that when I stretched, and did more than usual, it started to improve. But I just thought I’d slow down the decline as long as possible, so that maybe I could continue to do Aikido at a reasonable level for a while. I just drank the Kool-Aid! I mean I accepted the popular wisdom that I would grow old like everybody around me. Everybody grows old.
Then, in the last few years, I noticed that my peers in Aikido started disappearing, or getting injured, or dying. I can show you a picture, there’s about 25 of us, from 1965. Most of the people are dead; a few are alive. None of them practice anymore. I’m the only one. I was 20 at the time. But it gets lonely. So here I am. I’ve got a whole lot of work to do if I want to get all of my research material out there. I have to be healthy, or I won’t accomplish my mission. I have all these documents collected. I don’t want to fail to finish the job. I don’t want to leave that way.
So I started yoga. I didn’t want the pain, so I just said, “Okay, I’m going to start practicing yoga consistently. I started getting better and better, and stronger and stronger, and the pain decreased. But most importantly I learned the tools to allow me to adjust my condition at will. By doing certain exercises when I have pain, I get better and better. In a couple of days I’m fine and pain free. But if I don’t do them, the pain starts to return.
That’s where I’m at now. I don’t always do a really thorough job. But if I do my 25 minute routine by myself on the mat I’m in good shape, no pain. I can even do high falls. I don’t often, but I can…
You can also take a look at Suganuma Sensei. He’s now 74 years old and has amazing movements. He practices yoga and also really uses his aikido warm-ups to focus on cultivating range of motion. View Suganama Sensei’s warm-up here.
Josh: I had the opportunity to throw you a little bit over the course of the weekend. When you fall, it’s like you could be 30 years old. Really supple, and very responsive. It’s amazing that you’re 70 and you still have that kind of body conditioning.
I think for those who want to do Aikido long term, this kind of approach is critically important. Because if you get to the point where you’ve been doing Aikido for over 50 years, and are able to accrue five decades of knowledge and insights, it would be a shame to not have a body that can execute the movements.
Stan: Exactly! It’s like going into a prison. I mean, what do I do if I can’t move?
Josh: Right. I think in the martial arts, as one continues to build their competency and domain expertise decade after decade, you don’t want to get to the point where you can continue to make these insights, connections, and innovations, but can’t actually bring them to life because your body can’t function well enough to do so.
Stan: Another thing to consider is this. Some people remain pretty sharp when they’re old, even if their body is not in good condition. But there are a lot more who also start to lose their mental capacity. If you want an extra 10 or 20 years, and you want to be able to pass along knowledge; take care of yourself. If you entrust your health to a doctor who spends seven minutes with you, and answers every problem with a pill, you’ve got a problem. You’ve got to take ownership of your own health.
If you’re not using raw physical power when you’re doing Aikido, you can practice a lot more and it’s really enjoyable. The funny part is it’s also far more powerful! At 70, I know it’s counterintuitive, but I often find myself really needing to throttle back sometimes.
Now I’m focused quite a bit on yoga and also on nutrition. My diet was pretty good before, but it has been super tight in the last few years. I know I can make it tighter. I just want to see what’s possible. I don’t want to just be teaching. I want to take falls. I never want to give up Aikido.
The following video was recorded during a Q&A session with Ikazuchi Dojo students in March, 2016. This video, as well other interview segments from the event as are available on Ikazuchi Dojo Online.
Ikazuchi Dojo offers yoga classes with a focus on improving mobility, increasing functional strength, and enhancing balance in the areas most relevant to aikido practitioners.