“Home Training” by Eric J. Webber
Time at the dojo is limited for most people. In general, most working adults have a few days a week at best to commit to their aikido training. A common question that arises when an aikidoka becomes more serious about his or her training is what can be done in order to supplement the training that occurs in the dojo? A simple answer to this question is to perform the basic aikido warm-up exercises at home between classes at the dojo. As well, one can also apply the principles of aikido movement to everyday activities and domestic chores. The following essay will provide some ideas and examples of aikido principles that can be practiced outside of the dojo and ways to approach them in exercises and everyday activities. It is by no means exhaustive with regard to exercises and ideas, and should serve only as a guide to help aikidoka get started on developing their own home practice programs.
The basic exercises that can be practiced outside of class include funakoki (rowing exercise), ikkyo undo, two-direction ikkyo, happo undo (eight direction ikkyo), irimi footwork, and basic tenkan. These are common aikido exercises that can be practiced without a partner, in a fairly confined space, and with no special equipment. Performing these particular exercises repetitiously will enhance footwork and movement, and allow for the aikidoka to be more comfortable with them when applying them to technique on the mat.
Other basic exercises that can be helpful when practiced at home are bowing (both standing and sitting), getting into and out of seiza, and kokyu movement of hands and wrists. In certain Asian cultures it is not uncommon for school-aged children to spend significant time on a daily basis practicing bowing. This helps to focus concentration on body posture, isolation of body parts in movement, and overall presence. As well, rising from seiza and lowering oneself into seiza are important parts of training, and should be performed regularly to practice balance, control, and mindfulness of one’s body and surroundings. These are important parts of one’s practice and should be approached with the same seriousness and focus as martial technique. Kokyu movement practice enhances grace and timing, kinesthetic awareness, and provides a physical application of breath exercises when used for this purpose. To use as a breath exercise, be mindful of hand and wrist movement cycles, timing inhalation and exhalation with these cycles. Typically, inhale on upward and inward movements, exhale on downward and outward movements.
Basic exercises can also be combined with each other, as well as with other martial exercises to develop kata which can be practiced outside of the dojo. Examples include combining various atemi exercises with specific footwork exercises, kokyu hand movements with various footwork exercises, and breathing exercises with footwork exercises (though we should be mindful of our breathing throughout all exercises). During Tenkan, various hand blending movements and subsequent strikes, such as tsuki, shomen, and yokomen can be combined to create a full range of movement in kata form. Kicks can also be practiced in combination with aiki footwork and atemi. For example, after an irimi tenkan movement execute a front snap kick and settle into a good kamae (stance). In all of these exercises, visualization of an imaginary target will be very helpful in focusing one’s mind and becoming more consistent in movement accuracy.
As mentioned above, atemi exercises can be practiced at home. Strikes are an important part of good ukemi. Being able to deliver a good strike will enhance one’s own practice as well as a partner’s practice. A good strike is one that is accurate and that gets its power from the deliverer’s hara rather than from muscle strength. Atemi that can be practiced at home include punches, open hand strikes, elbows, and kicks. Practicing strikes from a basic horse stance, as well as from hamni, will increase one’s comfort and ability in striking. A simple way to practice striking is to hold a folded hand-towel in one’s hand and use it as a pad against which to strike. Holding the padded hand extended on one’s center line, yokomen and shomen strikes can easily be practiced. Pair strikes with various kicks and blending movements for increased complexity. Exercises can also be paired with some basic home equipment or gym apparatus. Strikes such as shomen, yokomen , and tsuki can be practiced in conjunction with resistance training to build power in movement. When engaging in this type of training, it is important that power is generated from one’s center and not muscle strength.
There are a variety of other things can be done to practice aikido outside of the dojo, especially with weapons. Swinging bokken and jo will help enhance aiki movement and coordination of body parts. Simple exercises including shomen, yokomen, and tsuki, along with various defensive postures, are very beneficial. While specific examples are not discussed in great depth here, the reader may be directed to ask his Sensei or Sempai for particular exercises that can be practiced at home.
While all of the aforementioned exercises are very aikido practice-specific, there are other areas in which movement principles can be practiced and applied. In the realm of domestic chores, one can easily practice moving from one’s center (rowing exercise) when doing a variety of things at home. Examples include rowing when vacuuming, scrubbing countertops or showers, and washing windows; being mindful of hanmi and balance when washing dishes, ironing, and cooking; opening the refrigerator using a good “ki grip” and moving the weight of the fridge door with hara rather than arm muscle.
When performing outside chores one can practice using gardening tools in an aikido manner by focusing on one’s center when trimming hedges and bushes, as well as when raking leaves or pushing a lawn mower. A rake makes a wonderful makeshift jo stick, chopping wood makes for excellent suburi practice. Hanmi, proper grip, and succinct and precise movement can all be practiced when manning the grill during the warmer months.
Aikido can also be practiced while driving. One can use ki grip to hold the steering wheel, and should always maintain correct posture. A specific martial technique that can be practiced while driving is ki-ai. One can practice various sounds, breath control and exhalations while driving solo without having to worry about disturbing other people at the dojo, home, or office. It is recommended that this be practiced while moving and not while sitting at stoplights.
One can focus on posture when walking from one place to another, imagining what it would feel like if one was wearing a dogi and hakama. Another good posture exercise is maintaining awareness of body posture baseline, keeping vertical alignment of the head over the shoulders, and the shoulders over the hips. As well, one can maintain hanmi when standing anywhere, and walking with body posture baseline awareness. When lifting anything at home or work, use legs and maintain a good vertical body posture baseline. In all of these exercises, being mindful of one’s hara will enhance the practice. Always moving from one’s center (i.e. any initial movement can be generated first from the center of gravity, with all other body parts moving as a result) will help generate mindfulness and internal power.
Stretching is another very important part of martial arts training. In aikido, it is very important to remain as relaxed and flexible as possible, both for safety and for good technique. Most people get hurt while being inflexible, usually due to not being able to take the appropriate ukemi for the position in which they find themselves. Therefore, it is very beneficial to stretch at home as well as at the dojo on a regular basis, as this will increase physical flexibility. Mental flexibility (hopefully) will come later with increased knowledge and practice. Of particular importance is any muscle or muscle group that is stiff and sore from job-related or domestic activities. While this may include back and neck muscles, particular importance should be placed on the legs and lower back. Hamstring tightness can lead to significant problems in lower back stiffness, resulting in difficult ukemi. Flexibility in the lower extremities will greatly increase one’s ability to take ukemi.
One more area of aikido that can be practiced at home is breathing. Sit in a comfortable position with correct posture (good vertical alignment of head, shoulders, and hips). This can either be in seiza or in a chair that promotes sitting up straight. Begin by pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth and inhaling through the nose. First, fill the bottom of the lungs by pushing the abdomen out during the initial part of the inhalation; then start to relax the abdomen and fill the middle part of the lungs; finally, slightly draw in the abdomen to fill the top of the lungs and hold for several seconds. Exhale by using the abdominal muscles to push the diaphragm, breathing out via the mouth. In this action, press the tongue down in the mouth, drop the jaw slightly, and exhale from the back of the throat. In this cycle, the abdomen should have a slight rolling motion by first extending out, followed by a relaxing, and finally a tightening in at the end. Repeat this cycle for several minutes. It should be noted that this is only one, basic method of breath exercise typically used in Eastern practices (martial arts, yoga, etc.). There are a variety of breath exercises that can be explored and practiced.
As mentioned before, the exercises and applications discussed in this essay are by no means exhaustive. The key for any aikidoka looking to practice outside of the dojo is to find exercises and everyday activities that relate to aikido movement and work on them regularly. Opportunities may be found at work, home, driving, or waiting in line. What follows is a sample program that can be used to help develop one’s own home program.
Sample Home Program
- Stretch major muscle groups for several minutes, particularly the legs and lower back.
- Rowing exercise, 20 reps left and right hanmi.
- Ikkyo exercise, 20 reps left and right hanmi.
- Tenken, 25-50 rotations.
- Horse stance, 50 punches.
- Horse stance, 25 shomenuchi strikes, left and right. Make sure to retract opposite hand into fist for reverse punch form.
- Combine shomenuchi and tsuki exercises above, striking shomen, then reverse punch 20 reps, in both hanmi.
- Repeat above substituting yokomenuchi for shomenuchi.
- From hamni, front snap kick, followed immediately by punch, shomen, or yokomen. Retract foot to ready position, repeat for 20 reps. Perform on both sides.
- Bokken suburi.
- Seiza, bowing practice: 10-20 reps.
- Sitting and standing practice (given appropriate surface): 20 reps.
- Breath exercise, seated or standing.