25 March 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (2)

Typically in Shintaido we avoid explicit instruction concerning breathing and we say we breathe "naturally," but this is deceptively simple. It doesn't necessarily mean to just abandon being attentive to your breathing. However, there are other possibilities besides consciously controlling the breathing, which involve listening to the body taking priority over controlling it. If the body has it's own wisdom, then the communication between the body and the conscious mind (or will) is a two-way street. Signals go in both directions, and rather than trying to control our bodies to do certain movements (or to breathe in certain way), we might try to tune our bodies so that— like tuning an antenna— we can become more receptive to the rhythms of the universe that are naturally mirrored in each of our bodies.

The concept that fundamental natural processes are mirrored both in the larger universe (Japanese dai shizen 大自然, lit. "great nature" or Mother Nature) and within ourselves has a long tradition in Japanese and Chinese philosophy, especially Taoism and Neo-Confucianism. (Neo-Confucianism 理學 was a philosophical system in China that developed from the 9th to 13th centuries C.E. and synthesized Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist thought).

From the scientific point of view, breathing is generally regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), meaning that it carries on without conscious control (for example when sleeping or thinking about something else). However, unlike most other autonomic functions like heartbeat, digestion or dilation of the pupils, breathing can be consciously controlled quite easily (within limits) by anyone. So it lies in some ways on the cusp of conscious and autonomic functions.

This suggests that when we deliberately control the breathing using specific techniques (as in many types of Qigong and yoga), we are actually working with the the brain and the relationship between different parts of the nervous system. These kinds of techniques may be effective, but probably should not be approached lightly. Traditionally they pre-supposed complete dedication to an entire system of training, and were also considered potentially dangerous even for initiates. Generally this kind of control of breathing is not much practiced in Shintaido, which is intended to be safe and accessible to everyone.

However (as hinted at in Part 1), this doesn't mean that Shintaido entirely lacks a specific approach to breathing. Does Shintaido include some kind of "tuning" methods (as referred to above) that also concern breathing? A little bit of deeper investigation into the basic techniques of Shintaido that are taught to every beginner reveals many hidden treasures... stay tuned.

15 March 2009

Why we jump

Shintaido includes many jumping, hopping and walking movements with the center of gravity lowered (shin shin kaihatsu taiso 身心開発体操, literally "heart-mind and body opening exercises"). These exercises are a significant part of most Shintaido practices and are unique to Shintaido— no other martial art or movement discipline that I know of included such unusual ways of moving forward through space. But the precises purpose of these exercises remains a bit mysterious and might benefit from deeper analysis.

The phrase "moving forward through space" may be the key, since moving or jumping forward is typically emphasized more than, say, jumping as high as possible. Many of these movements call attention to the act of moving forward. In this age of mechanized transportation, we sometimes take the simple act of moving through space for granted— just step on the escalator, push the elevator button for the floor you want, or get in the car turn the ignition and put the pedal to the metal. We may forget the degree direct personal effort that was required to move from one place to another in past times.

On a more basic level, most people simply see what they want or where they want to go, and reach for it or walk to it. But even for people without a disability or injury, it wasn't always so easy. Imagine the infant we all once were, moving towards something intentionally for the first time, every resource it has engaged in the incredible struggle to move itself forward.

The infant represents our past, our earlier self, for whom moving forward through space was a challenging step along the path of engaging with the world. In some ways, the jumping exercises in Shintaido return us to that struggle. But we can look back further to the evolutionary past to consider the meaning of "going forward."

In the 1950s, the American neuroscientist Paul MacLean proposed the concept of the triune brain. While his ideas are no longer considered scientifically valid (see this article in Scientific American), his concept of a "reptilian brain"— an evolutionarily older structure that persists within our modern human brains and controls the most basic instincts and urges such as sex, hunger and aggression— may still carry some metaphorical or psychic meaning.

Reptililan brain or no, we do carry the history of evolution written in our DNA and in the structure of our bodies, but applying the word "aggression" to those primitive drives may be somewhat misleading. We usually think aggression has something to do with anger or hostility, but it's difficult to imagine that fish or reptiles take things personally, feel insulted and angry, and then behave aggressively. In fact, the Latin root of the word aggressive, which we can also see in words like egress or progress, is gradi: to step, to walk. So in this sense, aggression is something quite neutral: simply going forward.

Going forward is one of the most basic expressions of life. Of course, one may believe that everything in the universe is "alive" in some philosophical sense. But from the practical point of view, it doesn't seem that a rock feels hungry, and then takes action to fulfill its needs. A lion, on the other hand— or for that matter, even a bacterium— actively moves towards sources of food. In this sense, even bacteria behave "intentionally". They don't just sit there passively, letting the chaos of the environment take over. They make efforts to stay alive, going forward to seek what they need from their worlds. They embody a self-organizing principle, which is about as close as we have come to defining "life."

Symbolically, consciously moving forward through space suggests progress, stepping forward into a new world, leaving our old selves behind. Because they are a never-ending challenge, the jumping movements of Shintaido can re-introduce even the most athletic among us to the struggle to move forward, and by this they let us feel our connection with the primal foundations of all life. Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; bacteria wiggle, salmon swim upstream, and here and there on the surface of the earth in practice halls or on green fields, people dressed in white hop and jump.

09 March 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (1)

Occasionally students ask how they should breathe when doing a certain Shintaido movement or technique. Of course, breathing is very important, and many martial arts, Qigong (氣功), yoga etc. have quite sophisticated and developed breathing methods.

Generally in Shintaido we don't use many methods of consciously controlling the breathing (with the exception of just a few breathing exercises (kokyu-ho 呼吸法). The two most common elements of Shintaido practice that influence the breathing are using the voice, and the many movements using the center of the body, especially the jumping exercises (shin-shin kaihatsu taiso 心身開発体操) . These movements can have profound effects on your way breathing. The key is to practice these movements vigorously enough and often enough that the effects work their way into your body, and then they can re-shape your movements patterns and cause your breathing to spontaneously re-adjust itself.