Healing the Spirit – Healing the Body
By Dennis Hooker
Myasthenia Gravis (MG) is a disease in which voluntary muscles weaken and fatigue easily, especially after repeated use and toward the end of the day. I remember dropping things like a spoon, a pencil and other items. I remember not being able to walk up the front steps of the house, or step up to get in a bus. I remember falling down in the street and not being able to get up until some good person happened by to help. I remember not being able to pick up a fork to eat. These are some of the outward signs of MG. If left untreated MG eventually affects muscles used for respiration. In past years this stage was often fatal. The weakness and paralysis of MG results from the failure of voluntary muscles to receive signals from the nerves that control them. Throughout the body nerves control muscles by means of chemical messengers that are stored in the nerve cells at the point where the cells are closest to the muscle. The nerve cells and the muscle cell do not communicate with each other directly, but across microscopic gaps called neuromuscular junctions.
For a voluntary muscle to move a nerve cell must release a chemical messenger called acetylcholine, which must flow across the junction and contact the muscle on the other side. Only specialized areas on the muscle cell known as acetylcholine receptors receive the acetylcholine. MG results mainly from the destruction of acetylcholine receptors by antibodies, specialized immune-system antibodies. The target of an antibody is known as an antigen. In the case of MG the antibodies mistake the body’s healthy tissues and attack destroying these vital receptors.
I had a basic understanding of MG in the early years and medication was able to control it somewhat. However, I was a long way from being that healthy strong young man I once was. I lost my job and driving privileges. Losing my driving privileges was correct because at times I couldn’t use the brake. It was about this time I met the man who could and did change my life, Mitsugi Saotome, Shihan (Master Teacher). Although I had been somewhat active in Aikido for a few years prior to the meeting I had no hope of ever going further than I was and of course I had no idea of the physical and spiritual training that was yet ahead of me. After undergoing a relapse and having surgery to remove the thymus, an organ in the chest that is part of the immune system, I had almost decided to give up on the hope of a normal life again. That is when I asked Sensei (teacher) for help.
Before getting into the training methods used, I have reproduced for you parts of a letter to me from Saotome Sensei.
“You ask for my guidance. Your body has a weakness. I know you understand that the physical and the spiritual worlds affect each other, but because you have a physical weakness or disability does not mean that your spirit is weak. It will serve to strengthen your spirit, as I know it already has. If your physical attitude is one of aggression and violence, then your spirit will be aggressive and violent; but if your physical attitude is one of harmony, your spirit will be affected in that way. This is what is meant by the physical affects the spiritual. God often uses a disability as a gift to make the spirit grow and give deeper meaning to your life. Deep breathing and the movements of harmony are very important, not aggression, not conflict, but also not weakness. The true power is in spiritual confidence, flexibility and compassion, in never giving up. Most important in any training, especially misogi, hara is the reason you are training. You must train with an open mind and always you must try to do God’s will. Your spirit must strive to purify its self and search for unity with the Holy Spirit. Discover and appreciate the beautiful gifts in life, enjoy the sky, the song of the birds, the food that you eat the air that you breathe and give thanks with your body, mind, and spirit. Discover a bright and positive mind. Find a good balance between food and sleep, exercise and take the time for relaxation. Enjoying life is giving thanks to God.
Exercise and meditation will help but what is most important is what you think of your life. If you don’t understand the direction misogi will not help, refining your life will not help. The most important thing to realize is that you are truly a child of God. Your life has deep meaning to help others and set a good example.
All Aikido practice is misogi – adjustment and control. All Aikido practice is meditation. Aikido is misogi waza. But be careful. Do not let your physical situation harm you mentally. This is most important. Understand your limitations and thank God for your life.
When you do the practices outlined, please be careful; listen to your body. Please remember that balance is important.”
Although yellowed with age and ragged from handling I still read this letter for inspiration from time to time.
The above-described characteristics of Myasthenia Gravis have a direct relationship to the type of training prescribed by Saotome Sensei. From this point I must rely on Sensei’s words to express the training undertaken and I believe you will see the relationship between the training prescribed and the disease.
“In the study of the martial arts and in spiritual training a strong emphasis has always been given to the practice of controlling the breath to most effectively realize its power and cleansing properties. It fills the body and the spirit with the energies that radiate from every part of the vast universal spaces, rich living radiation charged with God’s love.
By the breath the space inside the body is equalized and unified with the space outside the body. Stale air, depleted of energy and carrying accumulated poisons is exchanged for air, which is fresh and charged with the many universal essences, the electricity of the universal spaces. This cosmic energy, that fills the air, must penetrate each individual cell of the body.
Normally we take about sixteen breaths each minute: but by sitting quietly in seiza (Japanese fashion sitting), relaxed and breathing deeply from the Hara (the center of the body about two inches below the navel) in the tanden method (the tanden method is abdominal breathing done correctly), the number of breaths is easily reduced to two or even one each minute. Drawn in slowly and powerfully, the air is forced deeply in to the hara. As the hara expands, the air begins to fill the lungs and the chest expands. As the cavities are filled, inhalation continues and all the cells of the body are infused inch by inch with the electric pulse of life. Although held momentarily within the body, the air is not static. Continually moving and expanding with the fever, it forces the vibrations of life into every tissue. Then starting again with the hara the air is expelled even more slowly. The body is completely emptied and a vacuum is created within each cell. Fresh air rushes in with expanded energy to fill the awaiting vacuum as every cell in the body seizes the next breath.
As the breath slows, becoming more complete, the volume of air greatly increases. The heart slows down; its rhythm echoes with power as it forces the blood to surge mightily through the veins, quickly purging waste and dead materials from the body. The brain is stimulated and sharpened by the increase in electrical current. The signals transmitted by the central nervous system are transported more rapidly, the body’s defense mechanisms are stronger, and all parts of the body glow with the vitality of improved circulation. The delicate membranes at the tip of the nerves are bathed and coated with a fluid which calms and refreshes the body and the mind.”
The tanden breathing method was the first step in my rehabilitation. It took some time but eventually I could feel the heat grow inside my body. I could actually feel a tingling in every nerve. With my eyes closed, breathing deeply and strongly I could feel the energy surging through my body. For the first time in years my whole body felt alive and power that might be common to most people was new to me. Through this exercise my body became stronger and my mind and spirit calm and under control for the first time in long time. I could feel a real and distinct change taking place in my body, some of which can be attributed to the medication, but I believe the majority of the change was do to the `exercise. I had been on the medication for years without this kind of growth. This exercise consisted of sessions of at least two hours a day every day for over a year.
However, as all things can be done to excess so too can this exercise. When I had reached sufficient levels of energy in the body and mind, through deep breathing, I began to experience periods of euphoria and depression, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations. It was at this time Saotome Sensei started me on the next phase of my rehabilitation. This exercise would incorporate physical movement with deep breathing. This would assist in toning the larger muscles of my body as well as continuing my respiratory and nervous system conditioning.
The next activity undertaken was the meditation / deep breathing practice of Funatori Furutama. Again I must rely on Sensei’s words to convey the effect of this practice on the mind, body and spirit.
“Funatori is an exercise familiar to Aikido students everywhere. Moving the hips it is the classic motion of the fisherman as he rows his boat to his daily work, of the samurai as they rowed their warships into battle. Accompanied by a powerful kotodama from deep within the hara, voice and body set up the vibrations of the ebb and flow of life.”
The body ceases movement as the vibrations of the last sound roll out into the farthest reaches of space. Feet released from the hanmi of Funatori practice, move into the relaxed, shoulder width stance of Furutama meditation, knees slightly bent, spine erect. A deep, slow breath is taken in through the nostrils. The hands are joined, left over right, lightly enclosing a small emptiness between the palms. They are lifted over the head as if stretching the whole body to the heavens and brought down to a position, just below the hara. As the hands fall a pressure in the hara forces the breath deeper and compresses it within the body. The eyes are half closed and time becomes nothing as the breath is slowly released through the mouth. The joined hands begin a smooth steady vibration, which resounds throughout the body causing it to shake from head to toe.
The rhythm is set up and the vibration on each breath shakes the fresh energy deeper into all parts of the body, into the hara, the brain, the fingertips, and the toes. The breath is released naturally by the rhythm of the vibration and the air is expelled from the body.”
At times my body was out of balance when I would start. My eyes would be rolled back and have a glazed look and my eyelids would droop half closed, this is a classic sign of Myasthenia Gravis. I could not fully open my hands, and at times I could not lift my arms above my head. Sometimes while rolling my hips forward in Funatori my front leg would give way and I would fall. However with continued practice I could extend the sessions a little each month. After the first six months my physical condition at the start of Funatori Furutama did not matter because, by the end, my clothes were soaked with perspiration my eyes in place and clear and for all practical purposes I had full use of all body parts. I would also feel spiritually awake and more alive than I had felt in years.
I would recommend that any student desiring to undergo this type of training do it with the assistance of a qualified instructor. I would also recommend that they read “Aikido And The Harmony Of Nature” by Mitsugi Saotome. My wife, children and students can attest to the power of this activity in altering ones physical and mental makeup.
This training took place over a period of years. I continued to train, to the extent possible, on the mat nearly every day. Training on the mat was in the form of both student and teacher. By this time my physical strength was greater than it was had been in years, but mentally I was almost to a state of collapse. I was going through bouts of anxiety and depression. I must admit, had I followed sensei’s instructions regarding Funatori Furutama, and not used it to excess, I could have avoided this stage. Now it was time to get control of myself. This calming of the body and spirit was accomplished through the use of chinkan kishin. This is a sitting meditation designed to bring into balance the physical and spiritual being.
There are many methods of training and each individual will need to find those that are appropriate for them. The one most important thing is that you find a knowledgeable and competent teacher. This kind of training is not child’s play and must be done with guidance.
Here is where I learned to make the best out of every situation. Just like that little kid sitting in the classroom unable to grind that stone of knowledge, learned how to polish the spirit of optimism. In those times of my early teenage years when Myasthenia Gravis would hit me out of the blue I learned to polish the mirror. At those times when I could not walk through the wood for some strange reason I could not understand I learned to lay real still be very patient and became a very good shot. When you run out of options you must deal with, and make the best of, the inevitable. Don’t hate what you can’t do and don’t hate anything within you. These only causes conflict that will one day need to be resoled before you can start on the healing process. Instead of dwelling upon what you can’t do, rejoice in what you can do and learn to do it the best you can.