Stepping on to the Verbal Mat – 1. Let’s warm up!

Why do you warm-up and stretch before an activity? Your answer to this question for a physical endeavour will be remarkably similar to that of the reasons why we practice verbal stretching in Verbal Aikido: elasticity, flexibility and injury prevention.

Well, the Verbal Aikido workshop in Geneva last Saturday saw the 2014 VAP (Verbal Aikido for Peace) Tour drawing to an end. Without a doubt I can say that one of the activities that participants from all over Europe wanted to do again and again was our verbal stretching! So for those who missed out on the tour this year, here’s a brief overview of how to get warmed up for your exchanges.

StretchJust like physical stretching, verbal stretching enables us to:

  • feel more supple and comfortable with our articulation(s)
  • avoid getting hurt when pushed or pulled in certain directions
  • fall more gracefully

Before starting this exercise in the Verbal Aikido workshops and classes, the guidelines for verbal stretching (called an ‘open attitude’ kamae) are explained to everyone as follows:

  1. Let go of the need to be right (about your definition of the word being “stretched”).
  2. Search with curiosity to increase one’s global understanding of the given word or phrase.
  3. Stay open to the perspective that words are always evolving.

Let’s take the word ‘flexibility’ and see where it could take us in a verbal stretching exercise. Pay attention to your own feelings about the answers given in this example:

A (Leading the exercise): “What does the word ‘flexible’ mean for you?”

B: “Emmm, adaptable I suppose, like someone who can go along easily with what other people are doing, without complaining.”

A: “OK, and for you what is positive about being flexible?”

B: “Well I see it as positive, I mean, you need to be flexible in life!”

A: “Why is that?”

B: “Because things change, and if you never adapt to the things that change, you’ll never… you won’t survive. I mean, especially in the business world.”

A: “What negative aspects can you see to being flexible?”

B: “Negative? I dunno, I suppose if you’re too flexible, people will walk all over you.”

A: “OK. What would be the opposite of flexible for you?”

B: “Rigid… is the first word that comes to mind.”

A: “Anything else?”

B: “Stuck in their ways, strict, never giving in…”

A: “And what is the opposite of that?”

B: “Always giving in I suppose.”

A: “What is the connection for you between ‘giving in’ and ‘being flexible’?”

B: “[***] Ummm, the connection between the two… letting go?”

Can you feel the stretch? In the course of this exchange, did you find yourself thinking “that’s right”, or “that’s not right” at any moment? If you did, you lost your ‘open attitude’ kamae (stance)! It’s not as easy as it sounds, and even after leading this sort of exercise hundreds of times, I still have to occasionally stop myself from anticipating a response or displaying facial gestures that may influence an answer. In the words of O-Sensei – “Cast off limiting thoughts and return to true emptiness. Stand in the midst of the great void”, or if you prefer: “Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path.” (Thích Nhat Hanh).

We really sense the variety and abundance in the definition of our words when the same word is stretched by subsequent participants. You may already have started to recognize how the techniques proposed for stretching can contribute greatly to all involved. Those who are simply listening have the opportunity to work on their open attitude kamae and develop Irimi by genuinely seeing from another’s perspective. Those who lead the stretching get to practice the ‘meaning prod’ technique, and develop their capacity to detect destabilization (indicated by ‘[***]’ at the end of the example above). Finally, the person being questioned can focus on stabilizing their Inner Smile in exchanges and expressing themselves with greater eloquence.

These benefits are most apparent when later, in the verbal sparring, a word that came up in the stretching is used, there’s almost a sigh of relief as people take on a word with which they are now particularly comfortable articulating. Above all, when we have extensively stretched a word with a negative connotation (criticism, insults, etc.) you can truly sense the ease and verbal flexibility with which the students manage their responses – preventing injury from both themselves and their partner.

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Stepping on to the Verbal Mat – 1. Let’s warm up!