The Healing Art of Aikido

by David Sonnenschein


Aikido, a martial art developed in Japan during the 20th century, translates from its Japanese origin as "Flowing with the Universe as a way of Life." It is distinct from other martial arts (that are often practiced to gain fighting prowess) by developing a strong body and a mind that is calm, and whose natural reaction in a confrontational environment is defense rather than offense. The ultimate goal in Aikido is for the individual to develop mental, physical, and spiritual integration with a general sense of well-being, especially while dealing with the stress of daily life.

Along with training in self-defense, are Aikido practices in meditation, breathing and healing. The healing practice is known as Kiatsu (not to be confused with Shiatsu that works with the meridian system and deep pressure) and was developed to correct injuries that occurred while practicing Aikido. It expanded to encompass a broad range of techniques to help a myriad of physical ailments such as backaches, headaches, menstrual cramps, painful or dislocated joints, weak internal organs, scar tissue and circulation problems. The basic principles of Aikido are fundamental to all the healing work, so we'll first get an overview of what those are.



All four of the following principles are interdependent and you cannot accomplish one without all the others. Conversely, if one principle is being done properly, you will naturally be able to do all of them.


One-point is physically located just below the belly button and is the balance point of the weight of our body. It is our center of movement, will-power and knowledge of the physical world around us. There are many centers in our body relating to different kinds of energy (e.g. heart for emotions, throat for communication, third eye for intuition, etc.), but in Aikido the one-point is the focus.

Keeping one-point basically means to keep your balance. This is accomplished by having a sturdy triangular support of the body, whether you are standing, sitting, or in any other posture. Exercises train and test the ability to withstand a push or pull, so that ideally nothing can knock you over. You are simply rooted to the ground with no effort.


This sounds simple, but most of us carry around tension somewhere in our body (as well as our mind) which can keep us from being fully present. Relaxation also requires attention and practice, especially with the daily stress most of us endure. Breathing and meditation exercises are very useful to alleviate this stress and increase relaxation. Kiatsu will not work properly if the practitioner is carrying tension, as they will not be able to feel what is going on with the subtle energies in the person being treated, only in themselves.


The concept of "weight underside" is analogous to the idea of water running to its lowest possible level. As our body is made mostly of water, it should feel like it is totally obeying gravity and allowing itself to drop toward the ground with no resistance. This can be demonstrated by holding the top end of a pole or cane that touches the floor on the other end, using first the thumb and forefinger. Someone tries lifting the pole and finds it fairly easy because the muscle tension created follows the top of the arm toward the neck and head. Doing this a second time holding the pole with the two smallest fingers, we discover that when someone tries to lift the pole now, it seems much heavier. This is because the muscle tension follows a line downward like water, under the arm, down the chest to the one-point.


Tai Chi refers to this as "chi", yoga calls it "prana." Ki is the life force that flows through the universe and our beings. Although it is not normally visible, this energy can be recorded with Kirilian photography, and some clairvoyants can actually see this in colors and shapes around bodies.

The extension of Ki means that we are not holding on or keeping this for ourselves. We have no fear in sharing, because there is an abundance of this energy available for all. As a matter of fact, by extending Ki to another, the universe actually supplies even more to yourself as you become an effective conductor. When you practice Kiatsu, it is common to feel more energized after you have been giving to another, because the channeling of this energy benefits both the healer and receiver.



A simple exercise helps to feel how Ki can be expressed for each person. Holding your hands palms facing each other a few inches apart, imagine a ball of energy. (This is very similar to the Tai Chi exercise of creating an imaginary sun between the curved arms.) When you feel any sensation at all, experiment with the distance between the hands to see if the energy rises and falls accordingly. There is no one correct sensation, so it can be as diverse as heat, pressure, tingling, electrical, cooling or magnetic force.

Further exercises refine both sensation and projection of Ki, so that the practitioner can be very specific in the treatment needed. The field of Ki energy coming from an injury or unhealthy tissue can be distinguished by its texture, size, boundaries, origin and directionality. After sensing this, the healer adapts their quality of extension of Ki to what is appropriate for the condition being treated.



Sometimes there can be an occasion to apply Kiatsu in first-aid. For example, someone may twist an ankle on a curb and with Kiatsu treatment done immediately, this can prevent any swelling and diminish the pain greatly, as well as avoid a long recovery period. However, in these circumstances one must be aware of the social and legal implications, using good judgement and intelligent verbal communication so that both the healer and the injured person are comfortable with this kind of treatment.

In a classroom situation or with a client, the controlled atmosphere lends itself to treating more complex, long-term ailments, and can utilize multiple treatments with follow-up. It can be applied as purely a Kiatsu treatment, or integrated into other disciplines and techniques. The principles of Aikido can enhance any practitioner's awareness and application of energy, as well as helping the patients with their own health.



A Kiatsu treatment ideally consists of a complete, relaxed approach to the health problem with four consecutive stages: diagnosis, set-up, transformation, education.


First through dialogue, the practitioner establishes a history of the ailment, including both physical and psychological elements. What happened? How long ago? Is it chronic or acute? What health and environmental conditions surround the problem? What was the baseline healthy state before the problem occurred?

Then through scanning with the Ki energy, a direct diagnosis of the individual's problem is obtained, including information relating to tissues, interaction between organs, and pathways of nervous or muscular disorders. An analogy is sonar, which emits a signal which reflects back a simile of the environment. Movement of the joints using principles of Aikido can also reveal the exact origin of a problem. Note that the more subtle energies are easier to read before touching the physical body.

Sometimes it is useful to ask about the history of the ailment only after doing the scanning, so that there is no intellectual influence upon the energy diagnosis. If indeed the healer is working from one-point, then the information can be remarkably accurate and serve both the healer and the one being healed in building a strong confidence level in the treatment. This psychological factor can add an extra boost to the recovery rate.


To prepare an area for a direct injection of Ki energy, sometimes it is necessary to treat the surrounding area first. In the case of a very sensitive or painful point, this can be a kind of anesthetizing of the area. If there is a lot of tension, the soft tissues may need to be relaxed above and below the trauma. And in more cases, it is necessary to actually induce tension at specific points so that the body itself will work in conjunction with the healer when, for example, a vertebra must be moved.

When a long-term problem is being dealt with, often there are a series of compensations that the body has created to try to balance itself. Like a temporal jigsaw puzzle, it is important to follow a specific sequence of preparations to be able to reach the root cause.

In general, the flow of Ki energy originates from the spine and moves outward along the nerve pathways, accumulating at specific "trigger" points. This is contrary to massage (e.g. Swedish) that works with the cardiac system by moving the fluids from the extremities toward the heart. Therefore, these styles of treatment can be best used during separate sessions.


Weakened or diseased organs can be treated with the revitalizing energy of Ki, which increases the blood flow and nourishment to the area. This type of treatment usually requires a series of applications to make a significant change in health, but the symptoms may begin to improve within the first treatment.

On the grosser physical side of treatment, Kiatsu can set out-of-place joints with a minimal use of force by applying the Aikido principles and proper preparation of the surrounding tissues. In fact, the injured body helps to rectify the problem by simply being guided to the position for the joint to fall back into place by itself. The guiding must be exact, though, following a specific trajectory lead by the practitioner.

Pain (headaches, contusions, cramps, etc.) can be alleviated with application of Kiatsu, by affecting the nerves and blood pressure. Treating the symptoms can often lead to a shift in the core cause, as the traumatic walls are dissolved. So once the acute pain subsides, then there can be a deeper area accessed to be treated effectively.

Note, however, that eliminating the pain entirely may not be the best path (even if it feels so good at the moment for both the healer and the healed), as this pain can serve to remind the person that their body is still healing. Unfortunately most people disregard the advice to take it easy if there is no pain, and can worsen the problem by using and abusing the injured area too soon.


Immediately after receiving a Kiatsu treatment, a person should be made aware of the changes that may have occurred on deeper levels than they feel physically, and what they might expect in regards to their recovery over the following hours, days and weeks. Perhaps they may need to avoid some activities, food or environment, or do some rehabilitation exercises.

Why has the person entered into this state of dis-ease in the first place? Perhaps the cause of, for example, a lower back problem stems from compensation with the neck that is straining because of bad eyesight in front of the computer for many hours. Besides alleviating the painful symptoms, the Kiatsu practitioner can be most helpful in discovering the underlying cause of the problem. If it is some habit that develops bad posture, then the person must first become aware of this and be given some suggestion for rectifying the cause (like get a new eyeglass prescription).

Often there may be subconscious emotional issues or perhaps even a deeper layer of karmic or pastlife elements that have provoked the physical symptoms. These analyses are outside the realm of Kiatsu per se, but are worthwhile to be mentioned if they seem apparent. If the person is open to pursuing a more complete healing, other health practitioners can be recommended in the appropriate areas.



There exists a neural network of "trigger points" that are fundamental in Kiatsu. When activated, these release muscle tension, increase blood flow and stimulate nerve pathways. Some lie near the surface and others are deep under muscle tissue or behind bones. They often are activated in specific sequences during the set-up stage of the treatment.

The application of Ki is done usually with some pressure, but interestingly the points respond more effectively when the pressure is released and the Ki continues to increase with a light touch. It is as though the tissues relax their guard, and then the Ki has much freer entrance.



The idea of dimensionality is a useful image for learning the concepts of Kiatsu, as well as applying this in practice. This is not a traditional teaching, but rather an approach to the subject that I have developed on my own.


The first question arises, does this energy exist? To feel this reality, we must bring it into our awareness, its first dimension of being. Consciousness, energy and matter are transmutable according to esoteric philosophies, as well as quantum physics and holographic theories of the mind and the universe. The first dimension helps us with the "where" or position of the experience.

In this healing work, it's very important to know that what you're feeling is being generated internally or externally, even though in an ultimate sense, we transcend these boundaries. So we use different hands to feel one area on another person, or use the same hand on different areas. This helps us distinguish where the energies are originating from, what is being transmitted from outside and what you are fabricating from the inside.

When you scan with your hand you should always maintain one-point, so as not to generate muscle tension or change in blood pressure in your own body that might create a kind of energy "noise" or interference. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is to sense the changes outside of your own body.


The second dimension helps us first to perceive, then to control the direction of the flow of Ki. This is most easily developed in exercises with a partner, where one person receives in the palm while the other transmits from their fingertips. The flow has a very distinct direction that can consciously be altered simply by changing from the fingers to the palm between the partners.

The principle of directionality applies to both diagnosis and treatment of a condition. When the flow (or lack) of Ki is observed in an unhealthy body, this can give clues as to the cause of the problem, which may not be where the symptom or pain is occurring. During treatment, the Ki may need to flow up or down, right or left, so that the practitioner should learn to master this ability to control directionality with extension of Ki.


The third dimension is what we commonly sense as the solid nature of our world, giving form to our bodies and their tissues, organs and energies. Beyond the physical touch, visual cues and verbal descriptions, the Ki energy can help identify the shapes, boundaries, textures, linkages and current state of health in the body.

The interrelationship between cause and effect within the body can often be traced through a sequence of three-dimensional linkages. For example, if someone has a bad knee, this may be from an imbalance in the hip or lower spine that is being compensated in the leg. Like a jigsaw puzzle, this can be discovered and treated with Kiatsu.


Diagnosis, treatment and education function in the context of time, meaning that the past, present and future must be perceived as integral to the process. Information of the past can come verbally, visually or intuitively through the awareness of energy fields. There can be several possible roots of a problem, such as illness, trauma, environment, posture, emotions or genetics. These past experiences and elements come together like a funnel into the "now."

This "now" spreads forward in time toward many branches, possible futures, including health, relative stasis or disease. Our task is to visualize a healthy future. This can be fairly rapid, for example, in the form of seeing a tense muscle relax before it has actually relaxed. Or it can be a longer term imaging, like healing broken bones or unravelling a complex pathology that has taken years to build up.

Sharing this "future vision" with the person helps greatly, as the mutual positive imaging helps generate the transformation of consciousness to energy to matter. Words can be very helpful in communicating and synchronizing intent through the fourth dimension, while educating the person as to how to avoid aggravating the problem and increasing the chances of a complete cure. This can include modification of posture, work habits, exercise, diet, emotional states, relationships or seeking diagnosis and/or treatment from other therapists in specific fields.



Kiatsu can help all health practitioners because it generates a balanced, relaxed condition that benefits both the healer and the patient. Rather than becoming drained, the healer can raise their own energy level by using the fundaments of Kiatsu by serving as a conduit for the universal life force.

My experience in other healing modalities is not as in-depth as Kiatsu, so I must make a disclaimer for making any generalities (and possible misconceptions) in the following observations. The intention is to bridge the possibility of integrating Kiatsu with more commonly known and used healing forms.

The subjective experience I have in comparing many of these healing modalities is that they each occupy different or overlapping frequency bands or energy fields. This feels different to me in my hands and also seems to create different internal imagery, as well as different experiences for the one being treated. The mental and energetic constructs are also varied, generating different levels of consciousness, and ultimately different types of transformations in the body and mind. However, like the many languages of the world, they all serve to communicate between the healer and the patient, and often can join to create a powerful synergy.

Reiki - A spiritually guided life force energy, Reiki flows through the hands to wherever there is a deficiency in energy, removes energy blockages or stagnant energy, and balances the Chakras. In many ways it is similar to Kiatsu, except that it is considered to be guiding itself with its own wisdom, and being unresponsive to the direction of the practitioner.

Polarity - The hands are used as conductors within the electro-magnetic patterns (Human Energy Field) expressed in mental, emotional and physical experience, with the intention of balancing the opposite poles, as with yin-yang. Like Kiatsu, the consciousness of the practitioner is a vital link toward obtaining health.

Feldenkrais - A series of precise, guided movements alter habitual patterns and provide new learning directly to the neuromuscular system with thinking, sensing, moving, and imagining. Useful for overcoming limitations brought on by stress, misuse, accident, or illness, this can be an excellent complement to Kiatsu.

Shiatsu / Acupressure - With a name similar to Kiatsu, this practice differs by using the energy system of Traditional Chinese Medicine and considerable physical pressure on the acupressure points that lie along the many meridians. Applying the principles of Kiatsu in conjunction with Shiatsu can add to its effectiveness.

Barbara Brennan - By first diagnosing the multi-leveled auric field (physical, emotional, mental, pastlife, etc.) of the patient to find areas that have been distorted, the practitioner channels healing energy in specific frequencies to charge, balance and restructure the field. Kiatsu is one of the frequency subsets included in this work.

Cranial Sacral - By gentle manipulation of the cranial bones, spinal, and sacral bones, the overall body function and specific organ or muscle function through the central nervous system can be affected. Kiatsu can be a valuable training for sensitizing and in general complement this healing modality.

Trager - Non-intrusive, rhythmic movements on each part of the body facilitate the release of deep-seated physical and mental patterns, allowing the recipient the possibility of moving effortlessly and freely on their own. The effectiveness can be greatly amplified when done in conjunction with Kiatsu.

Swedish - Manipulations on soft tissues promotes relaxation and rehabilitation, while the organs of elimination, such as the skin, lungs, kidneys and intestines are activated, directing blood and lymphatic fluids from extremities toward the heart. This is the opposite movement of Kiatsu, from the spine toward the extremities. So in general, these two treatments are not done simultaneously, but can complement in sequence.

Chiropractic - This popular modality is a scientific approach to diagnosing and treating the neuromusculoskeletal system. A chiropractic adjustment is a specific and precisely executed manual force directed to a joint, with the objective to restore normal joint and nerve function. Some of these techniques are applied in Kiatsu, and Kiatsu can also facilitate chiropractic work.

Bioenergetics - Working with the body and the mind to help people resolve their emotional problems and realize more joy in living, techniques include regulation of breath, pressure point massage, and encouragement to hit, cry, and scream. Injecting Ki energy into these pressure points can increase the effectiveness and deepen the emotional outlet.

Chi Kung / Tai Chi - These energetic and movement practices promote vitality, longevity and spiritual cultivation, as well as health in the practitioner by developing their chi (or Ki). Someone with considerable experience in these disciplines will most likely attune to Kiatsu very quickly.

Pranayama / Yoga - In the yogic tradition, air is considered the primary source of prana or life force (Ki). Breathing techniques are practiced to increase health, sharpen the mind and relax the body, all vital components of Kiatsu as well.



My experience is that everyone can learn Kiatsu and that it can certainly improve your own mental and physical health along the way. The speed to which each person can develop these skills will vary, but it is surprising how many can feel the Ki energy when it may have never even been a conscious presence before.

I am a case in point. My introduction to Kiatsu was through a couple personal injuries (not related to Aikido) that were healed by my Aikido master, B.J. Carlisle in La Jolla, California in 1975. Having a father as a medical doctor and holding a degree in Biology, I was very grounded in rational science at the time. So I was completely astounded by the ease and quickness of the healings and inquired as to how I might learn this as well. B.J. was just beginning to teach Kiatsu, so I eagerly joined the class and studied intensely for a year.

We developed our sensitivities to Ki, learning how to perceive, direct and modulate the energy with exercises in pairs. Our experience of how the body worked without worrying about the anatomical names allowed us to note when the flows were smooth or broken, aligned or out of balance.

Each week we would treat a different part of the body with a guest who really needed help. B.J. would first do the diagnosis without speaking, then each student would do the same and then we would all share our perceptions, comparing notes. The differences were as important as the similarities, so that each person could identify their own style of perception and receive validation for this. There are no set rules how the Ki should feel, but the emphasis is on how to interpret and what to do with the energy forms.

In return for receiving this teaching, B.J. requested that we pass this on to whoever is motivated to also learn and practice the healing art. I feel privileged to do this now.



Aikido Kokikai of Rochester -

Jasukai Martial Arts Society -

The Aikido FAQ -

Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido -

Ki-based Healing Arts -