RELAX

A spider met a centipede while hurrying down the street,
”How do you move at such a speed, with all so many feet?”
”I do not have to contemplate to keep them all in line,
But if I start to concentrate they’re tangled all the time!
— Katherine Craster
Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

Have you ever tried hard to relax? The very idea of relaxation seems antithetical to effort. I used to believe that relaxation, like love, fun and laughter has to be spontaneous and any conscious effort makes it contrived and therefore fake…. until this happened.

I view myself as an easy-going person and generally cool under pressure. But of late, I’ve had occasion to doubt myself. In nearly every training session at the Judo dojo I frequented, I was told to relax. And this was usually in the middle of intense sparring or when practicing techniques with a partner. Just when I thought I was getting a handle on things and I would hear a voice from the corner of the dojo yell: ‘RELAX!!’ Which of course had the opposite effect.

The founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano used to say that the cornerstone of judo is seiryoku zen'yō (maximum efficiency, minimum effort). He would illustrate this with the concept of jū yoku gō o seisu (suppleness overcomes stiffness). Good Judo according to Kano is about balance, speed and technique rather than brute strength. The hallmark of a great judoka was his or her ability to use the laws of Nature or physics, to one’s advantage.

This is a lot harder than it sounds, because paradoxically it takes hundreds of hours of training and unlearning for the body to behave naturally. A keen sense of balance, leverage and timing is what enables a judoka to take advantage of the opponent’s strength and embody the principle of ‘maximum efficiency, minimum effort.’ But at the heart of this is the principle of ‘suppleness overcomes stiffness’ that in a nutshell means ‘RELAX.’

Relaxation in Judo is the ‘springy bamboo’ variety rather than the ‘lie on the hammock and nap’ variety. In fact relaxing in judo is so important that it is the one thing that will prevent the body from breaking down. Judo is after all a high impact sport, and stiffness and overt use of strength leads to exhaustion and all kinds of debilitating injuries in the long run. I constantly witnessed judokas well into their sixties and seventies throwing strapping youth effortlessly, without breaking a sweat. The young bucks on the other hand would gasp for air and collapse from muscular exhaustion.

In my own case, it took me months of training to notice the slight tensing of my shoulders every time I performed a technique. Even when I managed to throw my opponent, the sensei would say that the technique was effective, but it was still poor Judo. He would add that I was only able to throw my opponent because of my strength and if he were stronger and heavier my technique wouldn’t work.

This insight didn’t stop me from tensing up. Even while my mind understood what it meant to relax, my body seemed programmed to tense up. It took several more months for my body to slowly begin overriding its bracing instinct. I still remember the day it began to happen. One of evening after a particularly humiliating performance where a fifteen-year-old had wiped the tatami mat with me, one of the senior teachers called me aside. He looked at me earnestly and said: ‘You must trust your Judo.’

The penny finally dropped when I heard this piece of advise. It reminded me of what the great Judo technician Kyuzo Mifune used to say: ‘the aim of judo is to demonstrate the living laws of motion.’ I didn’t go on to win an Olympic gold after this. I am still a middling judoka who occasionally tenses up. But I relax more than I tense up. I figured that I needed to get out of my own way. To truly ‘relax’ in Judo speak, is to not only get the technique right, but to override the impulse to use force and trust that the laws of Nature will do the rest.

There is a lesson here for life. To truly relax is to do what is necessary and let things work out the way they should. Judo in its essence, shorn of all the competition and medals, isn’t about winning or losing but displaying beauty as a form of truth. The old Judo masters constantly speak of ‘beautiful Judo’ and disdain the ‘winning at all costs’ approach. For these teachers, Judo is a method to transform the judoka’s life into a work of art. As the Zen saying goes: ‘pay great attention to the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.’ And I would add: ‘don’t forget to RELAX.’