On Introspection


Lessons for life from the meeting of Yoga and Aikido

Or - the benefits, and the pitfalls, of spending some time with oneself.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

― Aristotle

Something interesting happened this year - a crossover between the two main disciplines that I teach.  I’ve been practising both Yoga and Aikido for many years.  Training each week, attending seminars and workshops, and these days teaching one or other, or both, most days of the week as well.

But, although I was certainly aware of some superficial benefits in the crossover between the two disciplines, until this year I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about the deeper lessons that I could take from one into the other and vice versa.

 Then, coming together like buses, - as these things so often do - I had a couple of conversations with people asking me to teach Aikido workshops; but with the theme of what understanding we can draw from an individual mind-body practice like yoga.  What can that alternative paradigm of study bring to a martial art that is primarily taught in pairs, with one person taking the role of the attacker and one the defender?

This got me thinking much more analytically about what benefits I have accrued from my mix of practices, and what techniques for learning might be transferable between the disciplines.

 Introspection - The Value of Solo Practice


While there are myriad differences between the arts, for me as I thought about this, I felt that the fundamental difference between the disciplines is that one is by necessity a solo practice, and one is by necessity a partnered practice. 

(For the most part anyway.  I’m aware that occasionally yoga might be done in pairs or groups, and there are certain Aikido exercises, especially with weapons, that can be done solo.  But the essence of each practice is of an individual versus partnered practice.)

 When you train in Aikido, the presence of each separate partner, and their ever-changing nature, provides a continually evolving stimulus.  This is one of the things that makes it so continually interesting, but, conversely it also means that we are always tending to look outwards for solutions.  The challenge in front of us, the problem that we are solving, is a result of our relationship with another person.

In yoga, I’m constantly reminding people that their practice is their own, and nobody else’s. I say repeatedly when I’m teaching yoga classes that yoga is an introspective practice
When we practice yoga we don’t compete or compare ourselves with anything or anyone.  
In my yoga teaching, I’m always asking people to go inwards and examine what is happening in their body, and in the relationship between their body and their mind.  I challenge people to be curious about themselves and their experience in this moment.  I ask people to turn inward to examine what is happening with themselves physically, and even mentally and emotionally. 

By taking our time to study this, we can grow our self-knowledge, and support all aspects of our personal flourishing.

It was this element of introspection, of curiosity about the self, that I fixed upon when thinking of a virtue I could bring from one discipline to the other.

 From the Training Space to the Wider World

I began to work on exercises and practices to explore this theme within the context of a martial art, working with my regular classes and on dedicated seminars.  As I did this, I realised that, as with so many virtues we study within a mind-body practice, they were directly transferable to a wider context.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

― Rumi

To put it simply, my problem to be solved in the dojo was:  How can we cultivate introspection, when someone is attacking you?

Taking that into the wider world:  How can we practice introspection, when our lives are so busy that we don’t have time to stop and think? 

The “simple to say difficult to do“ answer to the question is… to practice.

As with any other skill, self-reflection can be taught, can be studied, can be honed.

When I teach on this in the dojo I take participants through exercises that challenge their introspection, exercises that require them to focus inward even in a moment of conflict. 

We can achieve this precisely because we are in the dojo, we are in a safe space.  In this special environment our “attacker” is really our friend and training partner.  They work with us to provide an appropriate level of challenge. Each exercise can build on the previous experience to explore these ideas from many different directions.

In wider life, if you are the type of person who find yourself whizzing from challenge to challenge, from crisis to crisis, then looking to build introspective practices into your day and your week can have immense value.

Become acquainted with yourself.  Each day find a few moments of calm, of time to yourself.  Take a walk, sit and breathe for a few minutes, settle into a welcoming bath.  Check how you are doing, pay particular attention to what is your body telling you, see what is your mind dwelling on, check-in with how are you feeling emotionally.

Don’t judge what you’re thinking. Instead try to become aware that there is another level of awareness going on below your conscious mind, learn that with a little bit of practice and a little bit of patience you can check in with what is going on there.

In the Aikido practice, the purpose of the introspection exercises is to deepen our understanding of both our physical bodies and our emotional responses when we practice. With this training we can identify blocks in our body and unwanted tendencies.  Perhaps we tend to resort to muscular strength when our partner behaves in a way we don’t expect?  Perhaps we freeze when we feel under pressure?  This practice allows us to investigate that and educate ourselves to remain calm and connected in those circumstances.

In wider life becoming aware of emotional blocks, triggered reactions, unwanted and unnecessary learned behaviour is the first step to eliminating or reducing the effects of these tendencies.  We may come to realise that we developed certain behavioural patterns when we were at school, in an old job, or a previous relationship.  It may be the case that those behaviours were necessary at that time, but that while they remain unexamined, they may be holding us back without us even being aware of them.

 A Warning - Don’t become self-absorbed!


In an earlier blog I wrote of how we have a natural tendency to lean into our strengths and avoid weaknesses, and how in a majority of circumstances it makes sense to seek balance.

That same tendency exists within our negative traits as well. 

I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating so much introspection that it means that you never take any action!  It can be possible, to go too far down the rabbit hole of introspection, to spend so much time navel-gazing, that one loses contact with the world and the people in it.

This is genuinely a potential danger of too much solo practice, if everything we do focuses around our self, then it’s possible that we will start to become selfish.  That’s not what I’m advocating here at all.  All things in balance.

Indeed, there are some people whose tendency it is to spend the whole time looking inwards, overanalysing and over-judging their actions.  This can become a compulsion, and indeed medical issue in conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 

If you are aware of these tendencies in yourselves, please don’t take these words as a suggestion to spend more time ruminating on past events or dwelling on future concerns.  Indeed, if while reading this you’re thinking that obsessive thoughts are beginning to cause negative effects on your life, please seek out medical help.

However, if you do recognise that tendency in yourself, you still might find the type of bodily introspection I focus on when I teach in Aikido and Yoga helpful.  By focusing on what is happening in your body, how it feels to stand grounded on the floor, how your shoulders relate to your head, how you can sense the weight of your fingers, we can try to step past the busy monkey mind and into a deeper level of introspection and understanding.

In Conclusion

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

― Socrates

As with the quote at the beginning of this blog, Aristotle said “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

By taking time, focused time, to connect with our own bodies and our own minds, with our sense of self.  Without withdrawing from the world, without falling into self-criticism and self-judgement.  We can come to understand more deeply who we are, what we want, and what we can offer the world.  More fully, with more depth, and more meaning.

David Ellard1 Comment