The Yoga of Combat
A parallel exists in yoga as practitioners confront their own emotions. When working through poses, people often stumble upon anger, fears, judgments, and vulnerabilities. This detritus can manifest in different body parts. For example, feelings of grief are often lodged in the chest, while fear and anger reside in the hip area. The spine, the back of the body, can represent returning to the past, making backbends challenging for many. And inversions can bring about a sense of vulnerability. Working through emotions these poses evoke is part of the practice.
Yoga and aikido mesh not only philosophically but in a physical sense as well—both are nonlinear activities. Aikido and yoga practitioners are less likely to suffer from repetitive stress injuries that they may incur from linear sports such as running and bicycling.
The circular, flowing nature of aikido encourages entire body movement. That's not to say that a martial artist isn't in need of what Leonard refers to as the "optimal muscle tone" that yoga offers. "Flexibility is essential as rigidity can cause accidents," he says. For example, the shoulders can suffer a lot of damage when diagonal rolls are performed. This standard aikido move involves gracefully rolling from the right hand, arm, and shoulder across the back to the left buttock and leg. "Done correctly," says Leonard, "it's magical." Performed incorrectly, rolls can injure the shoulder and possibly break the collarbone. In this case, the supple flexibility that yoga cultivates becomes absolutely vital.
High kicks and harsh, staccato movements are the Hollywood version of many martial arts, yet such kicks are considered a waste of energy as they're not an efficient method of thwarting an opponent, according to Leonard. Nonetheless, kicking at a more moderate level is inherent in the martial arts and aikido is no exception. Twisting and exerting power from the lower limbs involves the long muscles of the body—thighs, buttocks, abdomen, and back—which all attach to the pelvic girdle. To develop the flexible hip area and strong lower body essential to an aikidoist, practice hip-opening yoga postures such as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) and all standing poses, which develop leg strength.
The kicking and falling required of an aikidoist can be rough on the knees. Though the tissue surrounding the knees (the meniscus) wears down after repetitive use in any sport, as long as the knee socket is snugly supported by the tendons and continually strengthened, the knees can support the movements of aikido. For knee strengthening and toning, practice Virasana (Hero Pose).
Yoga and aikido share the goal of a tension-free body that uses energy wisely and efficiently. "If one set of muscles is tense, then they're firing and taking energy away from other parts of the body," Leonard says. "In aikido, you must be able to relax every muscle except the one being used. It can be mind-blowing, being very relaxed but able to exert enough to bring someone down to the ground."