Skip to main content

Shihan Mitsugi Saotome and the Healing Breath

In 2013, I was visiting with Saotome Sensei at his Aiki Ranch in Sarasota over lunch. We took our conversation into a stroll through the acres of beautifully landscaped property surrounding the Aiki Shrine and the home he shares with Patty Saotome Sensei.  As we walked, he pointed out how his “garden” has changed since they bought the undeveloped property, the different varieties of plants they were cultivating, which plants and environments attracted which animals, and which were his favorite spots.  “We have nine varieties of bamboo!”

Eventually, the conversation turned toward some philosophical and training questions that I was struggling with, and he provided some answers that were surprising and profound, particularly as they showed how Sensei linked the applied philosophies and principles of Aikido to all aspects of life.

I asked, “Sensei, you often use me, Don (Ellingsworth, my peer and co-founder of my Dojo), and Rick (Rick Hotton, an internationally-known Shotokan Karate teacher and student of Saotome Sensei) as your ukes (attackers).  It’s clear that during instruction, you prefer really strong, clear, martial attacks from your students.”

He nodded “yes,” with a bit of an “of course” expression on his face.

I continued, “Sensei, what is going on inside you when you are being attacked?  Does your spirit, heart rate or breathing change at all at the moment of powerful attack?”

To respond, he gestured around the serene slice of nature that was his home: “Like walking through my beautiful garden – my breathing not change, my heartbeat not change.”

We continued walking for a few moments while I digested this.  I could understand that a Shihan – an archetype instructor and Aikido genius like himself could maintain this sense of meditative serenity while being attacked by large and fierce opponents; however, I had felt it was part of my study to learn to attack my teachers more fiercely and martially each time I stood before them, and that this ran in opposition to internal training.

I then asked, “Sensei, what about your attackers then?  When they are attacking to destroy you, what should their spirit, their heart rate, their breathing be like?”

He again responded, “like walking through garden – breathing not change, heartbeat not change!”  Smiling, he continued “of course, young people have high spirits, great energy, exuberance, of course it’s natural that their spirit and heart change when they attack and train.  But later, as we follow Aikido, we must learn not to get excited by the conflict.

When attacked, your breathing should not change – as if you are walking alone through a beautiful garden.

Guy, you already very powerful.  Most Aikidoka already powerful enough, but still try to be more and more powerful.  But muscle power stops ki (energy), stops perception.” Sensei very carefully articulates this word, “per-cep-tion!”  “You imagine doctor crushing your wrist and listening your pulse?” While saying this, Sensei had picked up a branch, and mimes clenching it in a death grip, his facial and neck muscles straining.  “Ridiculous!”

“This is paradox, intensity while calm,” he said.  “But it is important paradox at the heart of our training.  Our desire, our want, our fear and struggle, this stops our breath, it stops our ki, it stops our perceptions. When we attack, we go outside ourself with our want to change others.  When we defend against an attack which might hurt us, we go outside ourself with our want to change others.  But you can’t change enemy!  Enemy never obey you!”

 Sensei went on to explain that one must look inside and become aware of one’s physiological reactions to stimuli of all types – good and bad – and learn to recognize when things draw us away from our centers. Alternatively, we must find our gardens – the environments and memories that help us be connected to our surroundings and cultivate a sense of connection with the universe.  “I am part of this garden.  Guy, right now you are part of this garden. There are countless things happening in this garden right now, insects, squirrels, birds, that do not care about our talk.  This garden is very beautiful, it is my treasure.  I am a rich man.  I let that feeling guide how I respond to my uke.  Appreciation.” Sensei articulated “app-rec-i-a-tion” like he did “perception”, making it clear he wasn’t talking about “finding one’s happy place” so much as learning to cultivate a constant internal mindfulness, appreciation, and connection that is not disrupted by an attacker’s actions or one’s response.

Sensei explained “when you can train with this feeling and calmness of breathing – kokyu – you will have begun to study the healing breath.  You will be able to perceive where others’ energy is stopped, where they are weak, where their health is failing.  It is not magic.  Physics!  Awareness!  When you can perceive better, you can find compassion, you can discover your freedom.

This is the true center of Aikido training, that cannot be taught by words or listening, only by gathering proper kokyu under hard conflict.”

When you have begun to be mindful of your breathing while under attack, you will have begun to cultivate the perception necessary for healing yourself and others.

In his writings, Saotome Sensei translates “Aikido” as the “way of harmony and the unification with the forces of nature and the universe.”  Scholars of the art certainly have observed that this is far from the most typical translation, but after having this conversation with Sensei I think it illuminates that he views “harmony and unification with the universe” not as an abstract philosophy or ideal to be reached through our actions, but should be the actual process by which we understand ourselves, practice our art, and cultivate our ability to help others.  That we should learn to recognize when we feel calm and connected, and let the memory of that harmony guide our reactions and actions in all things.

I have found that this can be a very concrete and experiential concept, which can be explored “on the mat.”  Students can be encouraged to spend time at the beginning of training breathing and meditating, and learning to feel their pulses and explore expansive, relaxed breathing.  Then, it is possible to introduce training of familiar techniques, slowly, that allow nage (the one who executes the technique) to focus not on how the technique is performed or what happens to uke, but instead focus the entire time on maintaining uninterrupted breathing and posture.  I find it’s also important as teacher to monitor all the students and help them realize when they have lost focus (in Zen meditation temples, this is the responsibility of an assistant with a bamboo switch!)  However, it can be rewarding and surprising for students to discover how maintaining a strong mental center can transform an attack into an effortless technique!  As a teacher, I am additionally gratified that this exercise also lets me study how well I have cultivated the ability to perceive interruptions in others’ breathing and harmony.  Perhaps if I train hard enough, I can become a true healer.

But first, I’m going to focus on my breathing.