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The Role of Laughter in Martial Arts: It’s important

Kato Sensei catching me photographing him
Kato Sensei catching me photographing him
Photograph taken by Paul Rest

The tragic and untimely death of comedic genius and Bay Area icon Robin Williams got me to thinking about the role of laughter and humor in our lives.

Where would we be without laughter, without this ability to have a good belly laugh not only alone but also with others? I’m sure this is a mechanism we developed early on as a way to communicate and to perhaps ease the tension in a confrontational situation.

The wonderful video of Robin William and Koko (the Gorilla) tickling and laughing together clearly shows that we aren’t the only ones who enjoy laughing. Dolphins and elephants apparently laugh, as I’m sure other species do as well. Alex the Parrot enjoyed laughter and had a funny string of one-liners.

In martial arts, to my ears a happy dojo is one where one can hear laughter before, during and after the class. Some of the most famous photographs of O Sensei are ones where it shows him laughing. Who can forget the nervous laughter we had during our first classes. Or, the laughter that followed when we gained a glimpse of some profound insight into the inner working of the Art.

We cannot laugh if our face holds tension. Or if we try, it comes off as sounding pretty stupid and shallow. Any martial art, Aikido included, asks us that we try our best to leave our “stuff” at the door, outside the dojo. But as everyone knows, that doesn’t always work. We’re always dealing with our “stuff” on the mat whether alone or with others.

I have often observed senior teachers crack a joke (most of the time at their own expense or in a funny manner) to lighten things up while training. The “stuff” we’re carrying suddenly becomes lighter, or is even forgotten.

Kato Sensei was always smiling and laughing during the workshops I attended. In fact, he often make funny quips in Japanese so quickly that Robert Frager Sensei, 7th dan, would have difficulty translating. In other words, there was real joy in the dojo when he taught.

After story is after dan exams in morning where it was obvious those testing were struggling, Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan told those testing in the afternoon, “Drink more coffee.” That was a brilliant way to communicate to everyone testing next that they needed to pick up their game. And there was a lot of laughter from those present.

When demonstrating a technique that doesn’t quite work another senior instructor will turn to the class and say with a smile, “Don’t do it that way.” It always brings smiles and a few chuckles from those in the class. I often notice that techniques are easier after those short comedic interludes.

Of course, there are those dour faced instructors out there who all but forbid laugher (or any sounds) on the mat. Everything is très sérieux. I’ve had one teacher like that during my twenty plus years in Aikido and one was enough!

I think it important that we always remember that laughter is an essential part of our human make-up. Sacred texts including the “Upanishads,” The “Bhagavad Gita,” “The Bible” to name a few of the texts and books, include verses or references to God laughing. The Greeks and Romans even had a god of laughter, Gelôs (the Roman name was “Risus”).

I will always be grateful to Robin Williams and those comedic geniuses that walked among us. (I’m sure you can quickly name a few others in a wink.) And I’m grateful those us in the Greater Bay Area had opportunities to see more of him and other comics than perhaps elsewhere.

I have always believed there is a bit of the divine in laughter. We can thank Robin and the others for reminding us to laugh—and that laughter is an important part of everything we do, including our martial arts training.

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