Aiki Canine: Balance, Flexibility, and Posture

Scott and Matsuoka 2 bw

I begin a series entitled “Aiki Canine” where I attempt to integrate principles of aikido and dog training. Aikido is a Japanese martial art in which I hold shodan rank (black belt) in two different systems. Mainly, I want to see how aiki concepts mix and match with Kevin Behan’s Natural Dog training and other common models. This is a series I will pick at bit by bit with various ideas.

As a quick and dirty overview, aikido, founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century, is a Budo art (“The way of the warrior”) that entails blending and/or entering on an attackers movement. Unlike “hard” arts like karate, tae kwon do, kick boxing, or mauy tai to name a few, aikido relies on neutralizing an attack through soft/flexible guiding and redirecting movements, usually resulting in a joint lock and/or throw.

Like most disciplines, aikido requires a calm mind. The Japanese have a term we often reference: mushin, or “a mind of no-mind.” We employ this concept as a way to focus attention on the body so that it promotes natural movement. In our dojo we often refer to using “internal strength” as opposed to “external strength.” Internal strength relies on three main principles: balance, flexibility, and posture. These are all but different aspects of the same single process: natural body movement. The unique part of this discussion is that these concepts have been around much long before any dog training model was developed.

I have attempted to separate the three principles as talking points but it is almost impossible because you can’t refer to one without referencing the other two. For instance, in aikido once we have taken our attacker’s balance, they lose their strength and power and we can basically control their body. This is as long as we ourselves have proper balance, flexibility and posture. Shoulders, hips, and head are aligned – not stiff, but aligned. Our stance is tri-angular: open and soft and easy to move. Our knees are bent and flexible and our physical center (located below the navel in the basin of our hip structure) is lowered, allowing us to shift and disappear like the movement of a ghost. This allows our footwork to glide or to flow so smoothly that at a given moment our bodies become weightless (sound familiar NDTers?). True story!

We cannot be rigid in our movements. When posture is incorrect, balance is destroyed. When the posture of the mind (big brain) is incorrect, emotional balance and focus is destroyed. Even an inch off-kilter throws off the natural movement we seek to apply.

At a recent seminar, our guest teacher was speaking to us about these concepts and how with proper posture the “body becomes condensed.” It is like the head, spine and hips, once properly aligned, move together. You get the feeling like head/spine/hips are a stack of rocks piled on top of each other and as long as the integrity of balance/flexibility/posture is maintained, the “rocks” won’t topple over. Energy becomes concentrated so that centrifugal/centripetal forces flow. It was said that in the beginning, practitioners will feel uncomfortable and this is a good thing. One of the students commented that this proper movement actually felt like they were going to fall at one point. And our teacher said this is a “good thing.” My theory on this is that we are so used to having improper balance, flexibility and posture that we have to relearn how to move naturally. The teacher explained how the body already knows what to do – natural movement is automatic. If we allow ourselves to disengage from thinking about movement and focus on the movement WITH the body, we will get it right.

So where does dog training come in to play? I think the problem we have is our dogs are reading us on a level we are not consciously aware of: they are reading our balance, flexibility and posture, both physical and mental. The difference between being rigid and flowing depends on these concepts. Do you have to be a martial artist to apply this? Of course not! But we all can work to improve this. You see, Cesar Milan had it right: you fix your mind, you fix your body and vice versa. I’ve played around with these concepts in working with Bella through NDT. With good physical mechanics on my part, I feel open and “COLLECTED” (cough, cough, hint, hint). My dog responds much differently now but it has taken a lot of work and a lot of patience. You have to get your mind right before you get your body right and this takes discipline practiced. There’s only so many words I can say to describe this but to see it in practice is a whole different aspect. For those of you who have worked with Kevin, you may or may not have realized that he has really good balance, flexibility and posture. I’m not just saying this, I’m only speaking from experience. along with this of course, is experience. There’s always going to be discussion and debate about technique in aikido but it is all for nothing if we don’t rely on our base principles. The same applies to dog training.

So, begin to notice your body more often. Check your posture when you are at work. Bend your knees from time to time to check your balance when you are on a walk. Feel your movement from point A to point B: are you flexible or rigid? Pay attention to your dog’s movement: are you feeling relaxed or tensed up when you enter a training session with your pup? Mindfulness is the key here folks. Pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment and adjust accordingly.

© 2011 – 2014 by Scott Hamilton and ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Cara says:

    Well said, Scott. There are so many parallels between healing arts practices and NDT model. As a yogi, it applies. I’ve also recently been into qi gong. We have so much to learn from these ancient practices and our dogs will surely benefit.

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