Naturally Classical Meets Aikido
by Jenny Rolfe
Life changed quite simply one day as I was riding my Spanish stallion Delfin. Within a moment of listening and inspiration, my thoughts were transformed about how I perceived the horse, and his amazing capacity for communication. This path for me began as Delfin responded to a breath. This led me to search for a deeper understanding of how breath-heart-energy can become a powerful connection between horses and riders.
My learning curve has been inspired by my love of horses which has led me to delve further into the martial arts, yoga and Tai Chi. All encompass the significance of controlled breath energy which leads to deeper empowerment, balance and harmony in body, mind and spirit. This is the place where horse and rider can truly connect on every level.
I have spent some time exploring the scientific evidence from Heartmath, an organization based in California, which carries out groundbreaking scientific research into the power of heart-breath-energy. This evidence explains why our coherent heart rate will give security to calm a horse and how chaos in our heart rate will create a mirror for his fear and flight response. Our heart rate responds to our emotions so if we create awareness of our feelings and heart rate we can maintain a more coherent state.
WHERE THE MIND GOES THE CHI WILL FOLLOW
Within Eastern culture, controlled energy is known as ‘Chi’ energy which can be used as a vehicle for healing and also within the martial arts. In China there is an old saying ‘Where the mind goes, the ‘chi’ will follow’. This energy can have a huge impact on our relationships and often when we feel ‘on the same wavelength’ with another, it is created by a connection of ‘chi’. Chi energy can be used to enhance healing normally through a state of meditation, which allows healing energy to flow through the hands and fingers. It is good to remember these possibilities as we caress the neck of the horse to help him to calm and release tension. If we are capable of healing and giving out therapeutic energy, the horse will immediately receive this and it can become part of our day to day relationship with him. This type of energy awareness will help to build a very deep bond of security and connection.
One of my students has studied over years and is now an Aikido black belt instructor. We have been looking at the many parallels between the art of developing Ki energy through Aikido and my own path of both study and teaching.
So let us take a look at some of the similar concepts:
Aikido was founded by Morihei Ueshiba who was a student of various martial arts. His philosophy was to create not simply a fighting art but a way of purification and bringing together of mind body and spirit in accordance with the principles of nature and the universe. This resulted in a place of ‘energy in harmony’ and is this not the goal of the rider to combine with the horse at a place where energy and harmony can meet?
The student of Aikido may take a whole lifetime to feel and understand these principles and as with Classical horsemanship every day is a further step of discovery.
One basic principle within Aikido is to try and maintain a straight and central line within the body. We so often feel in discord losing the strength of our strong centre as soon as we move. Straightness and balance for the rider are so influential for the horse, who will be carrying either a stable, balanced weight or an unbalanced, un-centred rider.
When we begin to understand personal alignment and the development of a strong centre, we can add the power of breath awareness to enhance balance, self carriage and stability for a rider.
There are many basic techniques in Aikido which sound familiar to the rider such as, the stability of the body, changing the balance and leading the energy. This study has much to do with body awareness, discipline and exploration of technique. The challenge for the student, as with riding, is to create this feeling of stability and balance, yet control tension which would otherwise create restriction in movement.
Both Aikido and riding require fluidity and control and the essence of this art is created with steady rhythmic breathing to sustain the power and energy flow.
As the student progresses, the focus on technique can diminish as a greater and deeper power takes over. The mind of the student can focus on feel and empathy. If the technical dimension becomes the major focus, the student will be unable to dig deeper. Yet, with much practice and patience the art form can be created. It is similar to an artist who prefers to create a picture of inspiration rather than a product of say painting by numbers.
Within Aikido practice the student will begin the grasp the principles and the body will move in accordance with the principles. For the rider, this is a similar practice. For instance, the rider may feel balanced when the horse suddenly decides to take a pull on the reins, moving away from balance and taking the energy forward. If the rider has grasped the principles, she will move according to the principles and take a deeper inward breath to regain balance. This is the way to create harmony, balance and stability for horse and rider.
The art of Aikido encourages the student to view the other person with an open heart and no ego. This entails finding some empathy with their situation, the power they use, their balance emotions. This will not be found by eye contact only or through the intellectual mind but rather through an awareness from the heart.
AWARENESS FROM THE HEART
This awareness from the heart, is well described and documented by Heartmath as breath-heart-energy. I demonstrate and teach this connection from the heart, with my Iberian stallions.
The lessons of Aikido will help the rider, to empathize with the horse, observing the energy and emotions they are using. Is the energy borne of fear and flight or joie de vivre and pride? Is the true nature of the horse revealed within his movement?
We can create energy which originates from the breath exhaling from our lungs. Add to this the power gained by contracting the stomach muscles to push the breath out. At the same time the breath has rippled down through the spine of the rider creating a pelvic release. This energy when felt by the horse, is a connection creating energy and impulsion. This natural release of energy from the rider creates a desire to move forward from the horse.
Professional athletes in many sports already co-ordinate their breathing with their movement without thinking about it. Of course, they will only really think about it if they become professional, and by that time, they will have gained the wisdom and power of this focus on breath connection. In Aikido, breathing techniques are taught from the beginning to enable the student to become more sensitive to deeper slower breathing.
In martial arts the moment of inhalation is considered to be inherently weak and an opening for attack. The exhalation is the time for energy and release of inner power. Interestingly weight lifters never stop focusing on their breathing as with this concentration comes more co-ordination of power.
The rider is certainly looking to gain more co-ordination and fluidity of movement. I see the power of focus on the breath as a place to become more subtle rather than a place of physical strength.
When athletes are running, they will focus on a system of breathing to assist both the distance and the speed.For instance after running on the flat the athlete may run up a hill and change down a gear. The stride may shorten and the breath rhythm will alter to assist the change in gear and effort.
In Aikido it is important to breathe in rhythm for instance for slow exercises the breath is slow. For a faster movement the breath will be faster and then a controlled deeper rhythm of breathing will help the student to calm down and relax again.
The influence and breathing of the rider will be mirrored by the horse. Heart rate will influence breathing so when we control our emotions and keep calm with coherent breathing we can begin to gain the trust of the horse as a worthy herd leader.
Breath control within riding or Aikido is not about false breathing but rather gaining more awareness of breath-energy-flow in a natural way to enhance our co-ordination. This will increase not only power but balance and self control and help us become more subtle riders.
I teach riders a sequence of exercises from ‘Top to Toe’ about posture, core breathing, self carriage and balance plus a deeper awareness of where tension may be held.
When we sit on the back of a horse we are sitting on his nervous system. He will feel every nuance of our movement and change in balance. We will not need to use our legs strongly against the rib cage of the horse, but tune into his energy through control of our core, seat and breathing.
Aikido demands concentration of power directed towards a specific point. For instance when power is directed towards the big toe, fixed to the floor, you gain power through your hips. This initial connection ignites the power which will accelerate the spring action of the knee.
The ideal within Aikido is to use a small amount of power for maximum effect. This is true for the rider as if we try to match ourselves with the power and strength of the horse, we have no chance as we are so much weaker and smaller. With this in mind it would seem a good idea for the rider to use a small amount of energy and power to gain a maximum response from the horse. The power of breath-energy gives just that place for connection.
Within riding we learn how one tense joint may affect the whole of the body. For instance excess tension in a lowered overstretched ankle will create tension through the whole leg of the rider. If the wrist of the rider is tight then the flow of energy down the arm becomes restricted. This in turn will inhibit natural posture creating tightness in the shoulders and the upper torso. It is easy when we strive too hard for perfection to become more focused with the ideals in our mind. This makes it hard to maintain physical co-ordination and spiritual serenity.
HARMONIZE YOUR KI.
‘Ki is the mastery of balance which can be felt when all components of posture, energy, breathing and timing come together.
‘Ki’ is the matter of the whole universe and what controls it. When we harmonize with the universe we naturally become in perfect balance whether in the practise of aikido or riding.
With dedication, the student of Aikido can learn to see, feel, experience and read energy, as equally the student of riding can find a similar feeling of empathy with the horse. Our connection with the horse will become like a wave of energy. We can influence the way the horse breathes which has a huge impact on his freedom of movement and co-ordination. If you are riding a tense horse, try relaxing with a deep sigh and keep focused on steady deeper rhythmic breathing. The horse will soon become your mirror.
Take a walk by the sea and watch the waves. Some build up slowly with greater volume and strength, unleashing great power. Another wave may be lighter, only drawing up and releasing a more steady flow of water and energy.
Our breathing can be similar and in a natural way can influence more greatly our connection and communication with the horse. This will result in movement which can flow like a river. We do not want to create a dam of resistance, where energy cannot flow. It only takes one joint to be clenched, for example a hand and wrist and the effect will ripple throughout the body.
PHILOSOPHY FOR LIVING
The philosophy within Aikido is to yield to the spirit of the other student and in this way you grasp his spirit. It is not about winning or losing, it is not a contest. The purpose of Aikido is to realize harmony, through rooting the principles of technique deep within.
Much of this philosophy applies to our life. When we take an aggressive stance, the other person is forced to defend themselves whether against physical or verbal attack.
Remember that when we attack or become aggressive we are not in a state of heart coherence so our heart-breath-energy is transformed- from coherence to chaos. Just as this change in energy is felt by all animals we know people feel it too! Have you ever walked into a room where two people are having an angry exchange? Tension is literally in the air!
My understanding of horsemanship is to understand the spirit of the horse and through discipline and awareness, root the principles of technique deep within, with no thought of conflict.
When we can harmonize our ‘Ki’ we can harmonize with the universe which means we will feel in balance on every level.
The desire to just ‘be’ in the moment of heart-breath-energy awareness creates a harmonious path for both the Aikido student and Classical rider - both pursuing a personal journey – a way of realizing truth from the heart, personal balance and harmony with the universe.