Agatsu – Mindfulness in Martial Arts

One of the martial arts terms that has always resonated with me is “Agatsu”. A term that has much to do with mindfulness in martial arts and unlocking the real power in our training.  

I remember discovering the term at the beginning of my Aikido studies , when I was devouring all the information I could find with an insatiable hunger to know everything at once.

We were given a curriculum booklet that held the techniques for all the belts. At the back was a glossary of Japanese martial arts terminology.  The term at the very top of the list: “Agatsu: – “Victory over your egoism.” I remember briefly admiring how zen aikido was before I moved on down the list to find all the translations for all the cool locks, pins, and throws.

Back then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know 🙂

As I carry on in my studies now, I feel this concept is the single most critical concept to develop through Aikido training. I’m sure that many students were like me: people who would read the brief description of agatsu in the manual, and see “egoism,” and think “I don’t have a big ego, I’m all set.” Or perhaps, feel they are not “egotistical” just confident in their techniques and its important to be confident to defend yourself.  

But we all don’t know what we don’t know in the beginning :)… and there is much more to unpack within agatsu than the simple glossary summary.

I have seen the translation equating “Victory over your egoism” to “Victory over your self,”… but Ego is not simply our self image or how we see ourselves in comparison to others. At is core, Ego is fear.  

Many people start training in martial arts because of insecurity, but it is the victory over our own fears and limitations that keeps us training in martial arts. It is the ability to calm the mind and abate fear in the face of crisis that is the real technique, the real takeaway from the dojo.

Some people assume that simply training in the martial arts will guarantee the levels of calm and confidence they see in the movies. However, I would argue that for those who are unable to gain victory over the ego, they will be held back from the true nature of these qualities.

There is a very real need to strive for this state in your training. Consider this from multiple perspectives. 

At a general application level, you may be able to perform and memorize any number of techniques in the controlled environment of the dojo.  However, if you are forced to apply these same techniques under duress and you freeze due to fear, your study of curriculum will amount to nothing more than a memorized list of movements.

From this perspective, training your mind to release your Ego in parallel with learning techniques would make sense.

At a deeper level, the Ego craves the future and the past as fuel, and your mind will create tension when you try to force it to stay in the present. But this is the agatsu training we need!

Consider actions you have seen or thoughts you may have experienced through the course of your training that you might trace back to the Ego.  

These types of thoughts and actions are driven by trauma or longing for the past or fear of what may come in the future.

“They did this to me when I was a junior… now its my turn!”

“What will people think if I do the wrong thing on my test?”

“Don’t they know my rank?”

Allowing the mind to attach to these thought patterns during training is teaching the mind “ego building” habits.  Just as we would coach a child who throws a tantrum wanting candy, we must train our mind to stay in the present and not give in to what it wants.

mindfulness in martial arts training

This will deliver victory over the Ego as a result. Being able to keep the mind in the present moment is the ultimate martial skill.

So how do we do this?  Funny enough, so much of our training has what we need baked in to the recipe!

For example, you can find opportunities to train just by following dojo etiquette. Why do we even have rules about how to line up, how to bow to people, how to address the teacher as “Sensei”, and so on?

Most people find these practices very unfamiliar when they begin their training because they are forcing us to confront the mind and Ego. Even these basic actions offer us all an opportunity for agatsu training at a very simple level. I know I have caught myself thinking about silly things like this, and constantly work to keep my mind from story telling during my training. All us, no matter our level, have these challenges. The training cannot extinguish this “bad habit,” but we can counter-act it with the “good habits” of awareness and by re-centering the mind as these thoughts arise.

Even in your general conduct outside of the dojo, if we act without ego or expectation, we are training our agatsu.  

I know on many occasions I would find Kimeda Sensei sweeping the dojo mats before first class on weeknights.  At first, I would rush to take over the chore, thinking, … my teacher should not be performing such a task!  But he told me it was his shugyo and he wished to continue.

I see now how valuable his example was.

We must be remain constantly vigilant in examining our mind and our actions. Working to stay in the present is the key to success.  If we want to develop the timing and sensitivity required to blend with other people’s energy and intent, we must examine the role of mindfulness in martial arts. We must clear the mind of the Ego and keep it in the present moment.

I wish you continued success in your training.

Osu!

Sensei Jason Moore
Chief Instructor, Aikido Durham
Aikido Yoshinkai Canada


This blog post is part of a shared series. For more insights into a variety of aikido-related topics please visit the other Aikido Yoshinkai Canada websites:

Aikido Shindokan

AYC Hamilton

AYC Ottawa