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Yoga for Athletes

The Yoga of Combat

Yoga and aikido share the goal of a tension-free body that uses energy wisely and efficiently.

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In sixth-century China, because Zen Buddhist monks who meditated for long hours were developing spiritually but weakening physically, Prince Bodhidharma introduced monks at the Shaolin Temple to what later became known as kung fu—a martial art based on Indian yoga. The monks were not only priests but warriors too, and practiced this first martial art on a daily basis.

In the seventeenth century, Okinawa (an island between China and Japan) was captured by the Japanese, who took away the islanders’ weapons. To defend themselves, the Okinawans turned to the martial arts of China. As the century progressed, the martial arts slowly transformed from a means of combat to a spiritual path. Both yoga and martial arts are modes of self-healing that aim to dissolve stress and increase awareness. Both practices strive to awaken energy, or chi, within the body. Like yogis, martial arts practitioners learn how not to think, how to go beyond thinking to samadhi, a state of meditative union with the Absolute. Aikido, one of the newer forms of martial arts, embodies principles remarkably similar to the yoga tenets of moving from the body’s center, relaxing under pressure, and extending chi.

The Zen-like principles of aikido de-emphasize the power of the intellect, instill intuitive action, and help individuals overcome the effects of evaluating, judging, analyzing, thinking—overriding conditions of our society. Yoga too encourages surrender, letting the mind go, and being in the present, and downplays striving and pushing.

“Competition is an integral part of life in our culture, starting from birth,” says George Leonard, who holds a fifth-degree black belt in aikido, co-owns an aikido studio in Mill Valley, California, and is author of several books including The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei (Dutton, 1999). But progress in aikido comes with patient and diligent training. He tells his students “to stay with the process, enjoy this level, do not strive; keep practicing and don’t try to get anywhere.”

Yoga Mat as Dojo

A dojo—the Japanese word for a place of enlightenment—is a temple of sorts, and the place where martial artists practice. In the dojo, you make contact with your fears, reactions, and habits. This arena of confined conflict, with an opponent or partner engaging you, helps you to understand yourself more fully. Though in yoga the process is more individual, your yoga mat can be a dojo. Poses can take you deep inside yourself, challenging you to loosen the grip of indiscriminate emotions such as anger or fear.

The ultimate aim of aikido is to free the individual from anger and illusion, fear and anxiety. This is done by constantly having to become nonaggressive, according to Leonard. Aikido moves protect both the attacked, and if possible, the attacker. An aikidoist usually chooses not to harm an attacker even though the opportunity to harm is present. “Each time you’re forced to be nonaggressive, you’re brought nose to nose with your internal aggression,” Leonard says. “This isn’t done by denial but by integrating the emotion, understanding it, and transforming it into something else which, ultimately, is love.”

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.”

In the best of yoga, the same thing happens, adds Leonard. “Out of relaxation comes power.”

Baron Baptiste is a yoga teacher and athletic trainer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known for his work with the Philadelphia Eagles and as the host of ESPN’s “Cyberfit.” Kathleen Finn Mendola is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.