Apart from perhaps some hard-style karate-ka, the importance of relaxation is pretty much unanimously accepted. Relaxation leads to improved speed, power, agility, flexibility and many other elements crucial to martial arts. Relaxation is pivotal to the judo maxim of 精力善用 (seiryokuzenyo), maximum efficiency. Our endurance is significantly improved when we relax. Relaxation helps protect us from injury. Yet despite all these great reasons to relax, why do we see so many black-belts move like rusty robots?
I believe that many martial artists believe that they are relaxing, when actually they are employing a great deal of unnecessary muscular strength. Ever since I was a boy, my instructors told me to relax. I thought I was relaxing, but in actuality all I was doing was not tensing my muscles. Perhaps other martial artists are making the same mistake?
Let us imagine a tension scale of zero to 10. Zero would leave us slumped on the floor like a pile of jelly unable to move. 10 is as stiff as a corpse, unable to move. Where would you place yourself on this scale when training? I would wage a bet that you would have more tension in your body than you do while reading this blog right now. Clearly we cannot fight at zero or 10, we need to find a happy medium. Where is that line? Let us assume that the average person walks around at five. I believe the best amount of tension is somewhere below five. I will explain why soon.
The graph below is not accurate, it is purely a tool aid visualisation my point.
0 ideal now training 10
Whilst I was often chastised for not relaxing, no-one explained that just not using tension is not enough. It was only at Hakkoryu Jujutsu So-Honbu (world headquarters) that I learned about actively relaxing (脱力–datsuryoku), rather than just not using strength. There is a difference. I was taught to straighten my posture, focus my tension in my lower stomach (tanden or hara), drop my shoulders, loosen my elbows and use the weight of my limbs or body, rather than the muscles in them. Try lifting someone someone at the 10 side of the tension scale. Easy, right? Now try lifting someone of the same bodyweight when they are relaxed to the point of zero. They feel about twice as heavy!
Many jujutsu techniques rely upon using the weight of your limbs. You cannot do this while tense. Forcing techniques will cause the shoulders to raise, lighten your stance, break your balance and change the angle of the technique. Tension in the elbows connects the movement of your arms to your body. This means that every time your arms are pushed, pulled or you throw a punch or technique with your arms, your balance/posture is affected. This creates a weakness which can be exploited by an opponent.
Throwing a punch with tension in the arms not only affects your balance, but the punch itself is affected. Imagine driving a car with the handbrake on. Tension in the opposing muscles in the arms will replicate this inefficiency. Maximum speed and power cannot be achieved in this state.
I remember reading about research that stated that the biggest difference between good athletes, and elite athletes (in any sport) was the speed at which they returned to a state of relaxation after employing their muscles. This conclusion, alone, is sufficient to convince me of the benefits of relaxation.
I often advocate students to defend like a wet blanket, attack like a wet tea-towel. Both require relaxation. Let me explain in a little more detail. Attacking like a tea towel is relatively simple. Relax and whip your techniques out explosively, pushing from the ground to initiate power and letting your weapon hand or foot deliver that power quickly and safely. You can practice this alone and with a variety of equipment, such as speed balls, punching bags, makiwara etc. You will feel the speed, power and snap of the flexible punches and kicks. With a little experience, you will gain confidence to attack in a relaxed manner.
Defending is a little more difficult. On the mental and physical side, people have a tendency to tighten up when faced with a threat. Keeping calm in the face of danger is much more difficult. Breathing exercises, visualisation training, full contact sparring and regular training will help, but there are no guarantees until you experience a threat for real. We cannot be certain how we will mentally or physically react, but we can develop the technical tools to defend efficiently.
Technically, we want to aim to slow the opponent down. We want our opponents to feel like they are stuck in quicksand, with every movement sapping their own energy. A faster or more powerful opponent’s advantage can be mitigated, making them feel like they are fighting underwater, if you use the wet blanket approach. This method requires the defender to be close to their attacker.
Example 1 – Striking:
Koryu Uchinadi tegumi drills are great to practice this concept. As an opponent strikes with a straight punch, parry with the `mirror hand`. (The mirror hand is your left hand if your opponent is punching with the right.) Rather than bash the punch aside, let the weight of your hand sit on the incoming punch. Next come underneath with the right hand to complete the soto-uke blocking motion. Let the weight of your arm rest upon the outside of upper arm (close to the elbow) of the attacking arm. Your arm should stick to the attackers punching arm, allowing you to feel any change in his balance. You have virtually nullified the ability to attack with either arm. Your weight resting on the attacker will make it very difficult for him to lift either leg without shifting his balance. You have minimised his attacking options, and have numerous counter opportunities.
Example 2 – Grappling:
It is possible to hang on an opponent from the bottom position, but the top position is a more obvious example. The sprawl is a prime example of using the wet blanket principle against a grappling attacker. Throw your legs back and drop the entirety of your weight on the attackers back. The more relaxed you are, the heavier you will feel, slowing the attacker down. If you sprawl with tension in your back, you may be pushed back onto your feet. Top position on the ground may not technically be considered a defensive position, but the wet blanket approach is essential in this arena as well.
So there you have it: less injuries, more speed, power, efficiency, flexibility and endurance and you can easily gain an advantage over a physically superior opponent. So, start now. RELAX and take your martial arts to the next level!!