How Aikido Influenced my Bodywork

By: Greg Lewis, MMASI Practitioner

Bodywork can be described as a path for self-discovery, for clients as well as therapists. We can easily be distracted with technical details such as, anatomy, pathologies, as well the most appropriate modalities and home care techniques. I think it is equally important to learn about the body in a somatic way through personal experience. Any form of athletics can help teach us about how we move. I feel very blessed to have discovered Aikido several years ago as a means of learning more about breath, elasticity, and movement.


In Aikido there is the concept of taking up slack, usually in an opponent’s arm, which is a necessary step in order to take someone off balance for throw or hold. As bodyworkers, we often take up slack to check for an end-range, but there is much more to be learned than just how far a joint can travel in one particular direction. Grappling martial arts place a similar attention to listening to someone’s body as bodywork does.


If we take up the slack in someone’s arm as we try to extend it overhead, you can feel when and where the tightness begins as you begin the passive movement. What is the reason your client is unable to lift their arm up overhead? It could be a mechanical problem in the shoulder joint, or it could be certain muscles such as the lats, pectorals, or serratus muscles. Slowing down a range of motion can allow us to perceive where we need to work. In the situation I just described with a client who is having difficulty extending their arm upward I’ve read texts where the lats are listed as the culprit and to start there. A good general statement, but it can lead to unnecessary work.


I recently had a client with rounded shoulders and difficulty raising his arms upward. Upon checking for slack in an attentive way while paying attention to when his arm began to drift anteriorly, the pattern became clear. While his lats were reasonably malleable, his upper pecs, specifically just below the clavicle, is where I should be spending my time.


It’s said that it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important. For years, I ignored taking clients through a slow, passive range of motion as an assessment tool, favoring postural assessment and checking in with the client. Doing some work while checking the quality of movement of a part of the body can let us know what muscles need to be worked and how much time they need. For example, in the situation I described above, after the pecs are released does the client have the ability to raise their arms effectively or do, we need to move subscapularis, serratus anterior, or even the QL?


We have all learned of range of motion assessment in the past, but I know I did myself a disservice by glossing over it and favoring what I believed to be more technical knowledge. In retrospect, it was an ego-driven desire to be smart and knowledgeable when stopping to listen to how a client’s body responds to movement is often all that is needed.

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