I am having issues with the word “energy.”

My first issue is in its overuse. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, semi-permanent home of the Grateful Dead, words like “energy” and “lifeforce” were more than New Age terms to describe the world; they frequently ended up as the names of some of my classmates*. Hearing someone talk about “energy” has often given me the image of an aging hippie staring off into space, mumbling about how we’re all connected in this vast cosmos…

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way because as soon as I myself use the term during aikido class my own students start to roll their eyes a bit at me. I’ve just about decided to drop the word from my vocabulary altogether; I can’t afford to use terminology that causes my students’ brains to switch off.

My second issue with the word “energy” is its common-use definition. Specifically, the fact that it is quantifiable. People often talk about how they need “more” energy, or that they’re “out” of energy. Even the notion that you feel “energized” implies that there are times when you don’t feel energized at all.

To address the first issue, I’m going to try and drop the word energy from my teaching vocabulary. I haven’t set upon a new term to use in its place yet; currently, I have words like “zanshin,” “power,” and “presence,” but nothing has become a permanent replacement. I want to find something, however, because the notion that we can move with a noticeable implementation of hidden strength is very important to aikido practice. We need to be able to describe not just the physical movements or the mental thought processes, but the net result that occurs as these two worlds combine. One could, of course, use the word “ki,” which is highly appropriate. However, I fear that in an English-speaking class this word has even more of a “New Age” tinge to it than the “energy.”

To address the second issue, I want to try to explain to my students that this feeling, whatever we call it, is not something that we turn on or off. It is already on, and it remains on throughout our lives. If we don’t feel it or perceive it, it is because we are moving or thinking in ways that inhibits its impact. Moving stiffly, for example, clouds our perception to its impact. Thinking negatively does the same thing. By studying correct movement and by employing a positive mindset, we don’t “turn on” this feeling; we simply become more aware of its existence. Just like the sun rises and sets, but if we don’t bother to look up from the ground we likely will never notice it.

My open question: what word or words best describes this feeling of mind-body coordination to students? Is it ki power, with its unusualness to English speakers? Is it power? Is it simply energy, and my own experience with the word has clouded my judgment?

*No, not really. But some of my classmates had names that came pretty close.

6 thoughts on “Energy

  1. How about “Oomph” as a possibility? It has that squash to the ground sound that energy might bring to an opponent. It is a single syllable like Ki or Force.

    Even that far far away saying of, “May the oomph be with you” doesn’t sound all that bad.

    Oomph. I like Oomph. If you are having issues with the word “Energy”, try “Oomph”.

    PS – Don’t forget you often have NRG on the mat; at least when he is helping with the kid’s class.

  2. My understanding of ki is its correlation to the breath – as in “kiai” (the dynamic version of “aiki”). Respiration (breathing) shares an etymology with the word “spirit”. Spirit might work well, because it’s something both tangible enough to understand, yet has an ineffable quality to it without sounding too weird or new-agesque. Energy is physical – spirit is both physical and metaphysical. (It’s really a shame that the concept of ki has gotten such a bad rap due to all the carnival hocus-pocus that has been written about it. Ki is very down to earth – there’s really nothing mysterious or unapproachable about it.)

  3. I often use the statement “intention.” It implies energy usage, direction, commitment and attitude. Something may happen whether I care about it or not. But intention lends something of power to my action. It is energized greatly. When I intend something with all my will, I add a driving force to it. As I was teaching Tae Kwan Do years ago I often picked a black belt student to block my punch. He knew it was coming and when it was coming, but with my serious “intention” he could not block it. Maruyama Sensei throws uke no matter what uke does, correct? If you do not like the word energy, consider replacing it with intention.

  4. I agree with John about using the word “spirit.” The idea of always being a martial artist, in and out of the dojo, of being ready for anything is a general awareness I think. Maybe something along the lines of awareness or instinct would also help in your efforts to get your point across.

  5. I think I also like ‘oomph’ better than any of the alternatives. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘energy’ as in the physics definition – ‘ability to cause change.’ I’ve also been talking a lot lately to my students about ‘releasing’ instead of ‘throwing’ but I also don’t want to sound like I’m teaching hippie-aiki.

  6. There are two aspects to what you mean by “energy”. One is the old literal translation of Ki to its Sanskrit roots as “Prana” which is probably best translated as “life-force”, or “something” which all living things have and non-living things don’t. This is something we all have, and can’t be turned on or off, as you say. It is something that defines life, albeit perhaps tautologically.

    However, if you consider “energy” in the aikido teaching context, as in “sending energy”, Rick Sensei’s idea of “intention” seems very much apropos. Often when I explain unbendable arm, I use the image of the firehose, but what I’m really getting at is using that image to guide your mind, to have a particular intent, and get out of your body’s way in fulfilling that intent. In many ways it is a mental construct that guides your body to a desired goal, in other words, “intention”.

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