The Spring-Loaded Shoulders of Anxiety

Learning how to relax more effectively using martial arts principles

I was in my brand new Jiu Jitsu gi (uniform) for the first time. I was 39 years old, needing something but not really sure what that ‘something’ was. I had all kinds of insecurity, but I couldn’t admit it. And all this tension built up in my shoulders and neck.

When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see any signs of tension. I saw a swimmer’s tapered physique. I swam a lot. That look made sense to me: a tapered wedge. Which is what I looked like in my first Jiu Jitsu class in 1990. At least that’s what I thought.

My first sensei saw something different.

“Drop those shoulders,” he’d say repeatedly to me and other students.

I had to push them down. Because if I didn’t force them down they’d immediately wind back up. I was spring loaded. Had been for years.

And a week of Jiu Jitsu didn’t instantly ‘cure’ me. It took quite a few years of training, mostly because I had a really hard time acknowledging that I had a problem. Or any problems, for that matter.

Jiu Jitsu ultimately taught me how to let go of my problems, not in a way that ignored them or created an air of ambivalence, but rather in a way that allowed me to be in a relaxed state even in the face of problems.

Over a lot of years of training, I subsequently learned that if we don’t think we have a problem then our problems co-exist indefinitely. That’s easy to intellectualize — far simpler than actualizing it. Especially for a low self esteem, high ego guy like me. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t some kind of annoying egotist with his jaw jutted forward and a cocky swagger. My dysfunctions were a bit more hidden. Hidden enough that once I started admitting my problems, the answers came really slow.

Eventually I turned to a different Jiu Jitsu teacher. And this is how the study of universal principles, such as The Principles of Ki, became a life saver for me. My new sensei relentlessly advocated the need for including the study of universal principles in the Jiu Jitsu curriculum — from the start.

“Why wait to reveal principles when someone is a third degree black belt?” he stated to his own instructor. “People need this now. They need it from the moment they become a white belt. It shouldn’t be reserved for advanced students. All of us, even beginners, need universal principles in our life.”

His own curriculum incorporated principles, from the day he founded his own school. Some he developed himself, and some he borrowed from other arts and teachings — as was the case of The Principles of Ki.


The excerpts below are from Koichi Tohei (Aikido sensei, and founder of The Ki Society).What Tohei refers to as “Relaxed Strength” (see below) is what Jiu Jitsu calls supple — it’s a state between hard and soft, between rigid and flacid. Here, Tohei gives us a how-to crash course in achieving a better state of relaxation.

1. Each part of your body settles in its most natural position.
2. You relax positively, without collapsing or losing power.
3. Your sense of presence makes you look bigger than you actually are.
4. You are strong enough to be relaxed.
5. Therefore you have an attitude of non-dissension.

There are three basic states of the physical body; what we will call the “noodle” state, tense strength (tension), and relaxed strength (Relax Completely). The first is a state of nothingness, a noodle that falls limply. Tense strength is seemingly all-powerful but as Ki tests reveal, is ultimately weak. Relaxed strength is a state in which a person cannot be disturbed by the chaos that sometimes surrounds us.

We all know that tension can accumulate in our back, neck, head, feet, etc. But, we don’t always know how to properly get rid of the tension or how to prevent it from accumulating in our body. Stress causes tension and we need to know how to relax in stressful situations. One quick and effective method to deal with stress is to stand with good posture and shake your wrists rapidly for one to five minutes. This exercise will allow your body to literally shake off the tension in your muscles. The proper way to shake your wrists is to begin by letting your hands fall to your side naturally and then begin to shake your wrists in an up and down, palms up motion. After one minute or so slow down by 1/2 until the wrists come quietly to rest by your side. If you want to relax your whole body, then shake your wrists vigorously so that your heels come up off the floor every time you shake. This helps you settle each part of your body in its most natural position.

Many people assume that true relaxation is a weak or limp state, but this is far from the truth. If we try to get rid of stress by more exercise, more stimulation or massage we are only dealing with the symptoms. Relaxation must be practiced so that we can become a more mature person who can be relaxed under pressure.

When Tohei Sensei walks into a room everyone turns and looks. He is so large, so composed, so relaxed. Tohei Sensei is 5' 2". Most people, when they are around larger people feel small and become tense. When you know how to relax completely your posture is correct and your presence is much larger.

This can be Ki tested by having your partner grab your wrist very tightly. If you try to move your arm by muscle tension it is very difficult. But, if you move in a relaxed way by thinking that you are just going to scratch your head, you move easily, hence strong enough to be relaxed. It is commonly believed that an aggressive behavior is stronger than a relaxed behavior. But, while one may receive a temporary advantage by being aggressive, in the end, the strength through relaxation behavior will win out.

When you are completely relaxed you naturally have an attitude of non-confrontation. Also, while you are relaxed completely and you have this non-fighting mind, you are open, aware and flexible enough to respond appropriately to any challenge.



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Mark Walter

Construction worker and philosopher: “When I forget my ways, I am in The Way”