Misogi and Aikido

For years I have heard the term misogi used by people who practice aikido and I’ve always wondered what it really meant. I knew it had to do with the Shinto practice of standing under cold waterfalls as a purification ritual. But is that something I have to do to progress as an aikidoist?

In her book, Journey to the Heart of Aikido, Linda Holiday Sensei described preparing for a misogi practice with Anno Sensei. They agreed to douse themselves with 10 buckets of icy water each night for 4 weeks in preparation for the New Year’s purification plunge into the Kumano River. The first night she did the bucket misogi, Holiday Sensei screamed each time the freezing water hit. When she told Anno Sensei about it in the morning he said, “Next time keep your center, don’t lose it!” After that she practiced in silence, thus building her inner strength and focus, so that she was able to walk into the river at the New Year silently and joyfully. This story spoke to me of the joy that can be found in misogi practice. I hadn’t thought of it that way before; it seemed more of a harsh determination to punish the body as much as possible without submitting to weakness.

I now think of misogi as a careful and deliberate way of challenging ourselves so that we can keep our focus on center no matter what is going on around us. So, when I’m climbing a hill and it becomes difficult to continue, I call on my inner strength to continue on in spite of the shortness of breath or pain, with a clear and happy spirit. And when I’m challenged by something that triggers a negative reaction in me, I try to breathe and stay with my best self in my response.

It takes discipline to learn to be quiet and peaceful when there is danger or chaos around us, and misogi is a way of cultivating that serenity. We have so many opportunities to practice!

In aikido class, when sensei tells me to do something and I notice myself wanting to argue or explain, I simply say, “Hai sensei!” and do my best to follow the direction. To the American mind, this may seem like mindless, even dangerous, obedience. But when I do it in the spirit of misogi practice, firmly but lovingly keeping peaceful focus on my practice, I find that something opens up in me that allows me to practice aikido in a deeper way. It brings quiet acceptance. And when I notice myself wanting to complain about how hot it is, or how tired I am, if I instead straighten my body, breathe deep into my hara, and renew my commitment to my practice, I find that new energy springs up to meet my determination. I am capable of so much more than my small mind knows. Misogi allows me to connect with my bigger self; the self that knows that we are all part of one thing, and that our strength comes from something bigger than our small selves. I don’t know what it is that we connect with, but I know it’s real, and that misogi practice allows me to have more of that experience. I hope to remember this more often, in all areas of my life.

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Journey to the Heart of Aikido

Hello! We apologize for the unannounced hiatus of the last two months, and hope you were able to attend Shibata Sensei’s seminar. The Vermont Aikido blog will be resuming regular publications in the coming month, so check back regularly or subscribe to our regular updates! In the meantime, however, we would like to recommend Linda Holiday Sensei’s book “Journey to the Heart of Aikido,” an account of her training and education with Anno Sensei. It is a truly remarkable book and one that will inspire your Aikido practice for a long time after reading. Please find a copy if you can, and check back here for new writing soon!

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Gratitude

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

“Eliminate the desire to throw and replace it with gratitude.”
-Anno Sensei

I recently attended a seminar at Aikido of Santa Cruz taught by Motomichi Anno Sensei. Anno Sensei was a direct student of O-Sensei and has been training for sixty years.

Over the course of the seminar, he repeatedly told us that Aikido was not about throwing your partner, but about expressing gratitude. He asked us to express gratitude as we trained. I did not fully understand what he meant, but endeavored to do what he asked, and trusted that the experience would perhaps provide me with a glimmer.

When Anno Sensei demonstrated practicing with gratitude, I saw an open being, full of love and devoted to harmony, and connected, not just to his uke, but to all of us. I could see in his movement the expression of a loving universe. I realized that this was not just how I wanted to practice, but how I wanted to live.

The first thing I noticed was that when I bowed to a fellow Aikidoka on the mat,  respectfully asking them if they would train with me, I saw my partner as a human being. I noticed their smile, the light in their eyes, their openness, and their beauty. I noticed their intention of good will; I realized that this was someone I wanted to train with, that a connection with them would enrich my life and provide spiritual sustenance. Then began the physical practice, when one of us approached or attacked. The attack was a hand grab, called “katatadori,” moving into a breath throw, or “kokyunage.” I grabbed first, and noticed that my intention did not match up with the word “attack.” Rather than attempt to overcome my partner, I grabbed with the desire to connect with him. I grabbed to show my gratitude that he would practice with me, that he would share his spirit generously and unreservedly in the few moments we had together.

Then it was my turn to throw, to be “nage.” I felt no desire to overcome my partner or even to throw him; only a desire to be open, to help him, and to take care of him as he connected to me with his grab.

There is much that I have to be grateful for, including the privilege and honor of living in this world, among human beings who are striving to be the best they can be in the face of sometimes insurmountable odds. I am grateful to O-Sensei for giving us the Art of Peace, and the tools to create a more harmonious world. I am grateful to Anno Sensei for so generously passing on the teachings of O-Sensei and being a beacon of light for us. I am grateful for my own Sensei, Aaron Ward, for his dedication to our dojo, and for choosing to take personal responsibility for the development of each individual who steps on the mat. Perhaps most of all, I am grateful to the members of my dojo for practicing with such joy and generosity, and for inspiring me to be the best person that I can be, every day. May this gratitude find expression in my practice.