By Carina Hamilton, March 2021
‘Shintaido is a unique combination of martial arts and body movement that cultivates the spirit along with the mind and body. It has been called a moving meditation. Shintaido forms exemplify openness and freedom, the movements you practice will provide a new way of experiencing your relationship with yourself, with others, and with nature & the spiritual world.’ Shintaido Handbook, Charles Burns, (2007).
My first introduction to Shintaido 21 years ago was a short sequence of five soft, big movements. This seemed liberating and fun. The movements with the arms and hands can also be done with Sanskrit sounds Ah, Eh, I, O, Uh – seed sounds or Bija which are also our vowels. Apart from these simple sounds, I was to learn that most other terms in Shintaido were in Japanese; but apart from a few instructions, Shintaido is not really spoken in words.
Primarily, it is body movement. It is translated as ‘New Body Way’. It is a means of connecting with our bodies through stretching and forms called kata which originate in the martial arts but which are adapted here to a non-martial purpose. I found out that Shintaido originated in Japan after WW2 in the 1960’s and arrived in Britain over forty years ago. It is practised by a committed yet small and growing group.
Shintaido was originally formed by a group of athletic karate students, who called themselves the ‘Optimists’ or in Japanese Rakutenkai. They explored jumping, running, stick fighting, sword technique and karate. They ran up and back down Mount Fuji, stood under freezing but enlivening waterfalls and lived life to the full, communally. They practised for hours every day and this is how a new movement and way of expression was born.
They were creative and had big ideas. Founding principles were influenced by and a fusion of perhaps unlikely elements: modern art, ancient philosophy, from Zen Buddhism and Christianity. As a result it has elements which reflect these, ranging from a serious formality and intensity, then a joyful letting go to acceptance, quietness and stillness.
The year I started learning Shintaido, a new book by the founder Hiroyuki Aoki was published (2000). His description of his intention for Shintaido is as follows: “I developed Shintaido as a way of reawakening the natural properties of the body, opening one’s consciousness, freeing the spirit and creating strong bonds between people. Shintaido is a form of body work that makes it possible to realize one’s true self, purify the soul and elevate the spirit.”
The early Shintaido-ists were influenced by American Quakerism through Kanzo Uchimura, the founder of the non-Church movement who rejected creeds, theology and church structures and refused to bow to the Emperor.
I do find that a few Quaker testimonies also run parallel in Shintaido: the peace testimony; simplicity and equality evidenced by the friendly spirit and lack of hierarchy outside of the practice itself.
Within it there is a structure which keeps everyone safe and the boundaries clear: I find has an equivalence to our Quaker ones: apart from the teacher or sensei in Shintaido there are experienced students (equivalent role…Es and Os) and all participants (friends). British Shintaido-ists have chosen not to elevate any one teacher to a pedestal to avoid confusion.
The methods used in Shintaido are unusual, and in its interpretation has become non-martial and avant garde. Why?
There was a fundamental shift from the world of fighting that arose in Japan out of the killing fields of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here two of the founding members grew up. From what I have heard, one of these, the main founder, Aoki sensei had a transformative experience when walking in those killing fields and came across a flower. He had lost his family –his mother, sister and brother in law- at Yokohama in 1945. There Aoki sowed Cosmos flower seeds. He was a non-denominational Christian (following the ‘non-Church movement’) and a pacifist; perhaps influenced also by the international peace movement prevalent at the time, thought:
‘How can we change the way we fight, so that instead of using a sword we offer a flower?’
He and his friends developed movements which had the traditional elements of martial forms but carried with them quite another intention. Aoki sensei says that ‘Shintaido is based on a spiritual philosophy called ‘Ten-Shin Shiso’ which means Philosophy of Heaven and Truth: It is to love rather than be loved, and to give rather than receive, which brings us joy and personal growth.’ Cutting the Grey Sky (2013).
Due to its many shared values, I could imagine that many Quakers would enjoy Shintaido practice, indeed many practitioners of Shintaido have also been Quakers.
When everyone was much, much younger the movements were big, physically demanding and extremely dynamic, though the same movements could be modified to the opposite extreme feather light movements. This is how with time and less flexibility movements have been adapted to become softer, gentler and have been successfully used by even the most frail and can be done in a chair. With imagination and intention the same big feeling can be accessed.
Shintaido has been taught to people with special needs for many years in Bristol and also to an autism group in Hounslow. It has many possible applications.
So it is with intention and using imagination, that in Shintaido we connect to nature around us, ourselves and other people and upwards towards the infinity of the sky beyond and the heavens above. This central concept is known in Japanese as
Which represents Heaven – Earth – Humankind. The purpose is to develop a harmonious relationship between those three elements inside and outside of ourselves.
(You find this concept imbedded as metaphors in other Eastern disciplines (for example ikebana flower arranging where there must be a clear representation of each level highest (heaven), medium (man) and lower stems (earth).)
Because all of these elements are included in Shintaido, the mind and the spirit play an important role in the practice, but the voice also plays an important role with those seed sounds. Somehow, the sound we make helps to unify the movements and their timing with the intention of the moment. Making the sound creates more energy and more focus. It helps one to really arrive in the present moment and you don’t have a way to be thinking about other things!
Another objective of the practice with sound is to find the way to unify these different elements of mind, body and spirit: ‘Unification’ in Japanese is called: Toitsu tai
In many practices that refer to spirit or mind, the body is little referred to; but here it is understood that stiffness and muscle tension may be caused by physical lack of movement or emotional and mental tension. So by releasing the body from physical tension and looking after it appropriately we can have more joy in our lives. Movement increases flexibility of joints and fluidity in the muscles. In Shintaido movements, one’s centre of gravity needs to reside ideally in the hip area called the ‘koshi’ from which movements should ideally be balanced.
This acknowledges that our consciousness and awareness resides not just in the head. The mind – and awareness – travels through and encompasses the whole body. You know that, if you have pain in any one part of it.
As I mentioned in Shintaido words are not much used, and all this is explored through the body movement and, crucially, through working together with partners.
We always bow to our partner before any exchange. This represents mutual dignity and respect.
In fact bowing forms an essential boundary of respect between one person and another. Out of respect we bow to enter the room or space where we are practicing. When we finish the practice we bow to the teacher in thanks and respect, to one another, and also on leaving the room. It is not possible to practice without this and in Quaker terms this would be considered ‘right-ordering’.
Through the joint practice and partner-work, we learn to listen with our bodies to what is happening, mirroring and flowing with the movements but also deflecting or encouraging. We explore precise timing of movements: we must sense the timing, either A timing (before the movement begins), B timing (moving out of the way just in time) or C timing is too late.
Influenced by Eastern thought, the hand and the body are understood to have energy centres running from (above) the crown on the head down through our centre to the ‘root’ at the tail-bone. There is one in the centre of the palm and feet. So Shintaido works by specific positions of the hands (opening or closing the palm representing giving, receiving) and the feet (which govern out direction); other elements include the eyes looking forward to the horizon.
Though martial moves are there and form the learning platform, they are seen not to overwhelm an opponent but to transform negativity as it approaches from whichever angle: behind, in front, from the side or above.
Shintaido has formed an important part of my life journey & I have found it very enriching both for the movement and philosophical elements within it, but also because of the relationships and friendships I made through it.
I can’t claim to understand everything about Shintaido nor indeed be physically able to undertake all of its rich and varied curriculum. But I do believe it to support the notion of interconnectedness, a special quality of connection between people and our environment; in Shintaido we develop it through a physical kind of ‘listening’ practice through the movement called ‘Ma’ in Japanese.
A joyful exercise
Shintaido is a radical and enjoyable approach to exercise and in many of its forms it is fairly simple. Like anything the more you study, the more complex the forms become. To my mind, it feels different to other systems because it encourages and believes in a person’s innate goodness. It has encourages our gifts, to transform limitations and seek a bigger more radiant, joyful view of life.
I found this when I began attending a weekly class in a local village hall. It did not take long to realise that here was an amazing, a masterful teacher. He always took care to check in with us to find out how we were and then insightfully base the teaching on what kind would be of most benefit. Learning with him felt like an incredible opportunity.
On one occasion a party of practitioners all went to the Gower Peninsula in Wales to practice on the vast sandy beach. This is where I learned a special and most beautiful meditation, walking with hands outstretched called ‘Offering Flowers Meditation’.
A year later there was 9/11. We had family working in NYC who were unharmed but we were quite rattled by the sight of what we saw on the television screens. Our Shintaido teacher found a way to help us feel grounded at that time, not to remain caught up in the shock and anxiety that the TV pictures induced.
But more precisely what actually is Shintaido? This is a question often asked and at times difficult to put into words. So I will do my best to explain.
The state of emptying one’s mind (Mugen) and ‘beginner’s mind’ are useful for starting the practice. From this we get let go of having preconceptions about what is coming.
The themes explored are giving and receiving energy, absorbing energy and offering energy. Without reaching up to the divine connection all of these movements remain isolated and incomplete. So by reaching to upwards physically towards the heavens, this helps us connect to our relationship with the heaven above and the earth below and everything in between (Ten-shi-jin).
There are these opposing and contrasting set movements which make ‘a form’ always beginning and ending with a bow. They represent the pull and push of life, one may be hard another soft (Yokitai), large (Dai) and expansive open hands (Kaisho), expressive light and playful, or formal (Sei) and serious; the culminating stillness when all this stops is magnified. Each movement requires concentration, which develops with the practice (keiko). Ideally throughout the body keeps a sense of uprightness from strength or connection to the abdominal core.
Another theme is cutting; I have often found this curious somehow, but relates to the original use of a sword: for with a sword you cut. You can cut from above to below (Daijodan or Jodan), side to side (Chudan) or in diagonal (Gedan). You find the most effective angles to use the cutting edge. In the practice you might visualize cutting away negativity from your partner and by so doing help them to be freer of pain, affliction or limitation. My recent understanding is that this relates to the Quaker ministry of discernment, which finds a way to separate the essential from the non-essential.
The practice begins and finishes with a bow (Rei), sitting or standing in a circle and a short meditation with eyes shut. While white practice clothes Keiko-gi are worn by all, there is no hierarchical distinction of belt (‘obi’) colour by practitioners.
So – Shintaido explores movement and meditative stillness, like ying & yang they complement each other.
Recently I heard the violinist Nicola Benedetti on the radio and this phrase resonated with this concepts: ‘Embracing opposites in how you get your greatest level of output’. (i.e. hard work and love)
Like the pull and push of the ocean which pulls the seaweed this way and that, backwards and forwards, side to side Shintaido uses these analogies to inform the movements and even builds the form of its movements on these analogies. For instance the practice called Seaweed (Wakame) can be done alone imagining the ocean or with a partner representing the waves of the ocean pushing and pulling you.
Always paring it down to basics we start with nothingness (muso-i), the empty space the Om or the ‘ung’ – sometimes we think of it as a seed, the essence. The seed of life starts small, the movement opens out and grows bigger, wider, encompasses past and present and reaches up to the sky to our highest potential. We wait there to receive the energy from nature and the divine. Then we can move forwards into the future managing our energy appropriately.
Let’s have a look at some of these forms.
Firstly the place we practice is called a dojo: a hall or field or on Zoom one’s kitchen or living room is cleared beforehand. Practitioners enter the space with a bow, a traditional mark of respect to the space and all those in it. It marks the difference between life outside the dojo and the practice itself.
After the bow, there is a short meditation with closed eyes. Then there is a warm up for 10 mins so as not to strain any muscles and then the teacher called sensei begins the session.
Shintaido has several branches based on traditional Japanese techniques, each has its own forms (kata & curriculum) and can be done alone or with a partner:
One of the most common forms of Shintaido is ‘open hand’ (ie no sticks). There are solo katas and joint practice called kumite, like the Seaweed practice I mentioned earlier or this one:
One of my favourite forms in open hand Shintaido is the fundamental movement called Tenshingoso, or cycle of life. A outline sketch of how to perform this short kata follows below and can be performed with or without using voice. To see a video of Master instructor Minagawa sensei taking his master exam in Shintaido performing Tenshingoso, see this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P654jFqWt7k
Bo or Boh (a six foot staff): basic techniques are balancing the boh, rotating it, throwing and catching it, swinging it and to practise the art of attack and defense
One application of the wooden sword is for meditation:
Meditation takes many forms and is at the heart of Shintaido, this practice with wooden sword was developed to sharpen focus and increase commitment!
Sit or stand comfortably in a correct posture, regulating your breath and quieting your mind. This will allow you to directly observe your real self. The object is eventually to get to the point where you can reach a deep meditative state even while you are performing any of the kata (including with boh).
By becoming at one with the life energy of the universe (ki) you can awaken your consciousness and free your spirit. Meditation correctly done will help you to do so.
In order to achieve a quiet and profound sense of humanity, begin by practicing meditation fifteen minutes a day; and gradually increase the amount to about forty-five minutes to one hour a day.
First bow. Take a deep breath slowly. Hold it for a count of four, then slowly release. Repeat once more.
The following is a way of relieving the tension that tends to settle in the head, neck, shoulders and stomach. Little by little release the tension, fatigue, mental inflexibility and weight of gravity from your head downward. Imagine releasing all these burdens, lowering them from your head to your neck, from your neck to your shoulders, from your shoulders to your chest from your chest to your stomach, from your stomach to your abdomen, from your abdomen to your perineum, from your perineum to the ground and finally to the depths of the earth.
Repeat once more, this time stopping the centre of gravity at your perineum. Be still and wait for the ki of heaven and earth to fill your body. Bow again to bring this exercise to a close.
Standing meditation: With the standing meditation you release tension in a similar way but stop the centre of gravity at your feet (do not let the energy leave the soles of your feet). There is a very beautiful meditation with 10-stages sitting or standing:
- Nothingness (hands held in front together)
- Spreading Light (hands to the side of your body facing forwards)
- Brightening the world (raise arms to waist height, palms up)
- Top of heaven (draw arms above your head, palms together pointing upwards)
- Diamond (Keeping palms together, draw arms down in front pointing away from you slightly)
- Offering flowers (Relax forearms to waist height level, palms face upwards)
- Offering the body (Extend arms upwards and outwards palms outstretched)
- Looking homeward (Arms still extended bring your palms together)
- Clearing the mind (Bring your elbows to waist height, cupping one hand in the other horizontally, thumbs meeting in the middle)
- Oneness; returning to being (Arms return to your side, finger tips pointing down)
Shintaido has also flourished in Zoom.
We have had to recreate it for restricted spaces, using any small stick or paintbrush instead of the long boh sticks or swords. The sense of connection between people has continued and developed as practices have evolved through the screen….There are Zoom sessions eight times a week from morning to the evening; regular classes are generally small and friendly and occasionally have participants from other countries too.
Though Shintaido is best appreciated in the actual experience of doing it, away from words, thoughts and concepts, I hope that sharing these impressions and photos has given an insight to its potential.
One of the things I have learned from Shintaido is that instead of seeing obstacles we can find possibilities, something new. Instead of comparisons, we have just this experience and looking far … can envision hope.