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.