Hypnosis, Ericksonian Hypnotherapy
and Aikido – Part 3
Note: This is part 3 of 5 of the original article published in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis – Volume 34, November 4, April 1992 by Michael Samko, Ph.D and Rod Windle, Ph.D
Training Exercises for Developing the Centered State
Traditional Japanese psychology holds that the mental and physical center of the body exists at a spot few inches below the navel, an area known as the hara. To create the centered state, one must first focus and maintain awareness within the hara. One’s awareness radiates outward from the hara, enabling oneself to maintain a calm, relaxed presence while simultaneously expanding awareness outward to interact and encounter the world outside. Paradoxically, finding this anchoring point within oneself allows a deep connection to be established with others. An individual in a centered state may report a feeling of connectedness with others while maintaining the integrity of the self through the connection with the hara.
The hara is also the physical center of the body, from which the major muscle groups radiate outward. In Aikido, all movement must originate and flow smoothly from the hara. Being centered in one’s hara is both a mental and physical experience. Breath is considered a major bridge connecting mind and body. Thus, exercises have been developed that include physical exercise, breathing exercises, and visualizations to help guide the practitioner to a centered state.
One major exercise utilized is a breathing technique adapted from Japanese Misogi (lierally, purification) practices. In this breathing, the practitioner sits or stands with spine erect. Beginning with an exhalation through the mouth, he slowly empties his lungs, visualizing the release of all undesirable energy and tension. This release is visualized as flowing from the hara upward along the spine, around the top of the head, and out. At the very end of the exhalation, a slight bend forward at the waist allows the last remaining air to be gently expelled. Straightening again, the practitioner breathes in slowly through the nose. He visualizes Ki (literally, life energy) flowing in with the breath, around the top of the head, down the spine, filling the hara, and spreading to the rest of the body.
Breathing in this manner allows constant mental and physical centering in the hara and helps the Aikido techniques to be executed with the requisite calm and relaxed attitude. This breathing produces relaxation using the principle of reciprocal inhibition. When the breath is slow and even, the body will, after a time, begin to relax. The Misogi breathing serves a dual purpose: it acts as a cue, or anchor, for the centered state, and it also helps the practitioner to relax.
As with hypnosis, relaxation is an important component in being centered. Meeting a physical attack with a relaxed attitude involves a major cognitive restructuring of how a personal ordinarily responds to the stress of danger or aggression. Selye (1976), describing the General Adaptation Syndrome, indicates that when faced with stress, individuals exhibit an alarm reaction: the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medullae. This leads to a heightened startle reflex, rapid breathing and an elevated pulse. In Aikido training, this alarm reaction is depotentiated through keeping attention in the hara, with automatic “relaxation response” developed by breathing, movement, and visualization exercises such as Misogi.
Another aspect of the centered sates involves the Aikidoist’s vision. Aikido utilizes “soft” eyes: perceiving the world without focusing on any one subject intensely, they gently take in all of the surroundings. The Aikidoist is as aware of his peripheral vision as of what is right in front of him. This allows the Aikidoist to observe everything while being preoccupied with nothing and allows him to respond to subtle changes in his visual field of which he might otherwise be unaware.
Time distortion is also a facet of the centered state. During rapid attacks, practitioners have reported that it appeared as if their opponents were moving in slow motion, giving them an abundance of time in which to respond. Conversely, when practitioners lose their centered state and become overwhelmed with their body’s alarm reaction, they report that it is very difficult to respond because the attacks appear to come with such speed, particularly during multiple-man attacks.
The centered state is more than a self-involved and self-oriented state; it also serves as a main means to contact others. This expression of centeredness is known in Japan as “extending ki” and is understood as an outward reaching of one’s life energy to interact with others.
“Sensing the now” is an example of training in extending ki. Students sit at the side of the mat and attempt to maintain a centered state, observing another student who is about to strike. At the moment they sense the intent of the strike (but before any overt physical movement), they call out “now!” Research has demonstrated a gap of about 1/3 second between the thought of an action and the action itself (Hayward, 1984). Thus, exercises such as this may be grounded in more than guesswork. Many subtle, subliminal cues may be contributing, which can be sensed provided that the practitioner is centered. The Japanese would merely say that one has contacted the ki of the other.
One last attribute of the centered state, extending ki, also can refer to a focused and concentrated extension. Used in this way, the arm or other part of the body of an Aikidoist can become rigid and unbendable, as in the phenomenon of arm catalepsy.
To obtain this focus, Aikidoists often practice an exercise called “unbendable arm.” The practitioner relaxes, breathes deeply into the hara, and stands in a balanced manner. He visualizes his arm as though it were a fire hose with ki as the water pouring through it. He discovers that if he remains relaxed and continues his visualization his arm cannot be bent at the elbow. In fact, it feels as of nothing is happening, even when a stronger person is straining to bend it. The Aikidoist can wiggle his fingers, carry on a conversation, or hum a tune. However, if he abandons his visualization and resists, using conscious muscle power, he finds his arm able to be bent easily. In Aikido, the unbendable arm takes on great practical significance. It is used to slip by an attacker, or to protect the head and body while falling. After practice, the arm can become unbendable in any position, functioning much as a well-implanted posthypnotic suggestion.
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