The Iaido Journal  May 2005
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Aikido and Pilates Part 1

copyright © 2005 Janet Rosen, all rights reserved

Do aikido and Pilates complement each other? A middle-aged budobabe with a chronic knee injury reports from two months into a Pilates rehab program.


My journey as a middle aged aikido student has not been a linear progression: a severe knee injury, surgery and rehab, and changing dojos a couple of times have taken my body off the mats for periods of time, but have never diminished my love of the art and my commitment to training.

In my ninth year of training in aikido, beginning to look towards my first kyu test, a couple of minor knee reinjuries were a clear wake-up call that “continuing as usual” was not an option. It seemed that posture, body mechanics, soft tissue problems (muscle, fascia, tendons), and various weaknesses and tensions were all contributing to the problem, but I couldn’t figure out who to call for help.

My orthopedist only knows scoping and cutting. After two knee procedures, I trusted his abilities to do those things quite well, but doubted that a  third procedure would be the solution to my problems.

A physical therapist might evaluate my muscle strength and teach me some new exercises and stretches, but I didn’t know how to find one who could really evaluate my body use and work with me on structural changes.

I had done some Feldenkrais many years ago for a chronic neck problem, and had not found it very helpful: it told me where my range of motion collided with my pain, but not what to do about it.

The bodywork that I have found most helpful over the years is myofascial trigger point therapy . It assesses posture, range of motion, and pain patterns to identify muscles that are chronically holding tension, unable to either fully contract or fully stretch. Unfortunately, my therapist has emigrated! But we are in email contact. Will had always suggested that Pilates would be a useful bridge between his work and my aikido, and as soon as I described my situation, he referred me to a local Pilates rehab specialist.

These are the issues I presented:

®) knee: 2000 acl allograft and medial meniscus partial removal I’ve had problems with the joint being a little loose,  and in the past year have had a couple of small reinjuries of the meniscus with pain and swelling that took my off the mat. Long walks were enough to give me pain across the tibial plateau. My right quads are chronically tight as a result of years of knee protectiveness. Aikido training is effected, despite avoidance of specific techniques, in that large lateral movements (sweeping tenkans, being moved quickly around my partner) create pain and have the potential to reinjure the meniscus quite severely.

A long-term, intermittent problem that can arise hours after training: the left inner thigh goes into incredibly painful tetany/spasms. I’ve never been able to tell if it was adductors or medial hamstrings. It does seem to be related to occasional carpopedal spasms, arch/plantar fascia problems, and a chronic (L) hamstring tightness not abated by stretching.

Getting Started

The rehab started with evaluation and neuromuscular re-education, in order to start correcting problems before jumping into Pilates exercises. This included hands-on work, which is exactly the kind of myofascial trigger point work and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation that I have found so effective for me in the past. I was also taught how to work on my trigger points at home using a rubber ball and a foam roller.

The evaluation of my gait and posture picked up some old problems I hadn’t mentioned. While the knee injury is on the right, my left side was tight, carrying most of my weight, and working harder than it needs to. My upper body spiraled to the right. On walking, my right leg moved normally, but my left leg stepped forward prematurely, not waiting for my center to move. The left iliotibial band along my outer thigh was so tight that I used my low back to initiate leg-raising. Direct work on the trigger points there felt like my femur was going to fracture!  Thanks to lots of aikido training, I pretended it was a weirdly located nikkyo and just relaxed and breathed deeply into it.

In the days after the first session, I noted some new pain and tightness patterns, and the pain in my right tibial plateau was a lot more bothersome. I wondered if perhaps many abnormal holding patterns on both sides of the body are knee-protective; if so, will there be a transition phase during which  I’ll be more, rather than less, vulnerable to knee injury early on this rehab process?

On my second session, my left leg still worked too much. When I walked, it moved forward before my center did. We did a variety of techniques to address this:

I was taught a basic precept of Pilates: going into a “neutral spine” posture by engaging the deep abdominals and -- in my case -- allowing the upper sacrum to relax towards the navel. My chronically tight left hamstrings have for years been pulling the pelvis in a way that flattens the lumbar curve, and correcting this will be a critical part of the rehab process.

Other techniques are breathing and, by mental focus, slowly opening the psoas and subtly moving sacrum, pelvis and hips in a process that is like a one person version of craniosacral “unwinding.”

Finally, I stood with the small rubber ball under one heel, balancing on the heel and on the lateral and medial wide parts of the foot. I made sure I was in neutral posture, and lifted my other foot off the floor, for an exercise to promote vertical alignment. At the end of the session, my right leg was finally under my center when walking, though it still struck the floor harder and flatter than the right.

During the next few days, the right knee was very sore and the left hamstrings very tight and sore. I continued to do at-home trigger point therapy and exercises. At the dojo, two days after the second session, I sat out 10 minutes during  first one- hour basics class and then bowed out just about an hour into advanced class. This is the best I’d done in a month. It was not a feeling of improvement in aikido per se, but my body seemed to be moving better. Overall I felt more balanced and integrated, and walking much more over-the-feet, despite the left  hamstrings and the right knee still being more painful then baseline.

At the third session, we continued with a lot of pressure point work on the iliotibial band and stretching of hips, butt, and hamstrings. The “clam” was added to the regimen; this sidelying exercise engages the abdominal core and pelvis, then raises the knee of uppermost leg via spiraling from the inner thigh (not engaging the hip to pull it). The more work I did, the less correct it was. The focus was on grounding and extending. This is the first time parallels with aikido struck me.

Changes, Good and Bad

Again, in the days that followed, there was some soreness and tightness, but it was abating and the at-home program provided relief. The next time at the dojo, I trained in both beginning and advanced class, only sitting out during a short koshinage loading session. My knee was barely aching, incredibly minimal. Over the next couple of weeks, my ability to stay on the mat improved, attributable not to any change in cardiovascular status, but to more efficient posture and movement.

The fourth session was at my request mainly a consolidation of the previous three. I explained that I could not release trigger points on the iliotibial band, hamstrings and quads with the rubber ball, and learned to  use the foam roller instead. The whole program got fine-tuned, with specific pointers for body positioning during exercises.

Within days, a new problem arose. On the exercise bike one morning, every time my left leg moved, I felt the left quadratus lumborum  fire (this is the big muscle in the lower back, running alongside the spine down to the top of the pelvis and over to the hip). It was very weird to not be able to figure out how to move the leg without engaging the quadratus lumborum (QL). Working trigger points was not helpful. I noticed when walking that the QL was working overtime, and that left the leg, hip and spine felt like a single unit. It was very frustrating not to be able to do anything about it.

Obviously, session five was spent looking at the QL problem. It turned out that it was doing the work of the left medial glute, high on the back hip, which was intact but for some reason not being activated. We worked on breathing/unwinding, followed by highly intensive hands on bodywork. At one point, trying to relax between deep breaths, I had to ask if it was time to bring out the thermonuclear devices. Finally, when everything was somewhat beaten into submission, I was shown how to locate and fire the medial glute. Trigger point work for the QL, plus two exercises to isolate and fire the medial glutes, were added to my homework.

Progress Report

As the weeks go by, I find myself more and more often in neutral posture. Walking becomes a form of training. From time to time the left hip rises and falls as the QL acts up; it feels like an unnecessary limp I cannot get rid of. I try to do “falling down” walking about our flat, falling into each step, back in neutral posture, shoulders relaxed down and back over the hips, head floating above, and a hand on each medial glute to feel it fire. Subjectively it feels like I am pitching forward Groucho Marx-style. My husband watches and swears my posture looks just fine. When I focus on “falling down” walking, the QL quiets down.

One night, after doing a lengthy trigger point and exercise regimen, I find myself sitting on the floor, legs apart, first sitting upright, then leaning forward. This has always been my least flexible posture. I still cannot open my legs widely, nor can I lean forward very far. But I am sitting solidly on my sitz bones for the first time since I was a teenager, and my hips feel very open and at ease.

Last week, for the first time in many years, I was at the dojo training four days in a row. My knee, despite still hurting with prolonged walking, barely bothers me on the mat, and I have to remind myself that I’m still at-risk for acute meniscus reinjury. I have not had an episode of left inner thigh muscle spasm in six weeks. My iliotibial bands, left hamstrings and right quadriceps are looser, and when they tighten up, I’ve got the tools to address the problem. My posture and gait are improving, and I’m slowly becoming more adept at breathing, visualization and other tools for self-unwinding of problem areas.

Three Ways Aikido and Pilates Complement Each Other

1. Using breathing and relaxed extension to find the most efficient way to move

There can be several neuromuscular paths available to do any particular action in the body. There is really only one efficient way, though. Many of us, due to old injuries, emotional patterning, structural defects, etc, have learned to use alternate routes that might have been useful at one time, but over the years have become ingrained bad habits.

Lying on my right side, my task is to raise my straightened left leg. My automatic first choice was to use low back muscles. It is awkward; after a few repetitions, it is just plain uncomfortable, and it is clear that with more repetitions, I’d be heading for an episode of acute low back pain. I am taught how to fire the medial glute to initiate the action. It is hard to isolate; we work together and I am intermittently successful, then more so. It clearly takes less physical effort than using the low back. We go another step: I integrate breathing so that on the exhale I engage the deep lower abdominals, let my pelvis to into a neutral position, and then extend down, lengthening the leg to allow it to rise. It felt effortless.

In aikido, we’d call it “kokyu.”

2. Go up to go down, and vice versa

In the above example, before I could easily raise the leg, I extended down it, a feeling of lengthening to and past the foot.

In the dojo around that time, our exercise was to do a tenkan blend (tai no henko) variation that would extend upward, taking uke’s balance up onto her toes. Exploring with my partner, most of the time it was not quite working. I relaxed, recentered with her grabbing me, extended down and forward, and found the up in a natural spiral from this. Uke went up on her toes. It was hard to replicate, because (naturally!) I began working on it too much, but at least I had an example in the body to learn from.

Waves go up, crest, and naturally go down. I think that this is a principle we use a lot on the mat, explicitly or not, playing with space and direction.

3. “Allow the system.”

That’s one of Nadeau Sensei’s most often used phrases. I like it as a shorthand on the mat to remind myself not to work at technique. The minute I do, I’ve blown it. When you remove your struggle, your conflict, and are just present and engaged, what remains is allowing “technique” to happen.

Over and over again, this happens in my Pilates rehab sessions: I am asked to do a certain task, as large a movement as lifting a leg, or as subtle as opening a hip joint. My first attempt uses ancillary muscles, pushing and working, just like the aikido newbie who tries to use contracting biceps to move her partner. I start paring away muscles, finding more direct routes, disengaging unneeded muscles. Eventually, it is all breathing, extending, not even thinking about muscles at all, and allowing the movement to happen.


My limited personal experience finds many parallels between aikido and Pilates that allow a certain degree of cross-learning to occur. This certainly enhances the value of Pilates for an aikidoka who either has a specific rehab goal or who is looking for an exercise regimen to complement her budo training.

Just as no one martial art will serve all students, no one form of rehab or exercise will serve all who are in pain. I am happy with my results so far and will be continuing this path. It may not be the right one for you...but it is worth serious consideration.

You cannot learn a martial art correctly, fully or deeply from a video, only mimic the grossest forms of it. The same applies to rehab and exercise. If you are interested enough to look into Pilates as exercise, find a certified instructor. And if your needs include rehab for a specific problem, look for an instructor who is further certified to do rehab that includes myofascial therapy and neuromuscular education.

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TIN May 2005