Body and mind in conflict

Article by PracticeForte Afrfiliate Christian von Baumbach

In conflicts, as in all aspects of human life, there is a close connection between body and mind. A fight is never solely physical or mental, it is always both.

The Japanese martial art of aikido allows us to observe conflicts from an interesting perspective. The fundamental principles are learned and experienced through physical training, but the goal is the transformation and development of the mind.

In this article let us look at some principles of Aikido and think about what we can learn from these for dealing with conflicts in general.

The focus of aikido is not to defeat one’s opponent, but to defeat oneself. Consistent practice enables a person to overcome his or her own weaknesses and to bring body and mind into harmony. This also makes it possible to appear peaceful to the outside world and to approach conflicts confidently and in a respectful manner. Violence should never be requited with more violence. True martial arts represent the path of peace and harmony.

Similarly, mediation is not about winning. It is about self-reflection, mutual understanding and jointly finding a way out of a difficult situation. For the mediation to be successful the parties also need to overcome their own fears. The key to success often lies in themselves, not in their opponent.


Central to all aikido techniques is ki. Ki signifies the life force that is inherent in every being and it is intimately connected to breathing. The word aikido can be translated as the art or the way (do) of aligning or harmonising (ai) life energy (ki).

Aikido techniques are most effective where the application of force and one’s own intention are not directed against the force and will of the agressors, but rather flow in the same direction. Strikes to the face are not blocked but are guided further in the same direction by skilled evasion, causing the agressors to lose their balance and the aggression to flow into the void.

Similarly, mediation is also about overcoming real or perceived opposites by looking at all the aspects and reconciling them in a creative way. It is possible to forcefully block a verbal attack and to counter it with a brutal “counterblow”. Another option is to gently evade the attack, to understand what lies behind it, and then to look for arguments that do not oppose the “agressor’s” intention, but that in fact even support it. If I look for answers as to where the aggression is coming from and thus offer solutions that do justice to my counterpart as well as to my own needs and interests, if, in other words, our ki is in harmony and in alignment, then the conflict can be elegantly resolved.


Zanshin is a Japanese term that can translated as “remaining mind”. The first character “Zan” means to linger or remain and the second character “Shin” means heart and also soul. Zanshin is a physical and mental state of focused attention after a technique or action is performed. It involves staying connected with one’s counterpart and being prepared for surprises. To achieve this, one’s own feelings must be kept under control and the opponent must be taken into consideration and shown respect.

Parallels can be drawn here with active or empathic listening in mediation, where the attention is focused on the mediator to understand and qualify what is being said. It is equally as important not to judge the mediators and to allow them the opportunity to express their feelings honestly. Only in this way is it possible to create a safe space in which the search for consensual solutions can succeed.


One’s own posture and positioning in relation to the opponent are decisive elements in a fight. Only someone who has stability can act in an effective manner without becoming unbalanced. The distance between the opponents deserves special attention. In Japanese martial arts, the term “Ma-ai” is used to describe the proper distance: far enough away so as to be able to respond to any aggression in time, but close enough to remain in contact with the opponent and to be able to use one’s own techniques most effectively. The ability to sense the opponent’s intention and the appropriate reaction to it are crucial: if my opponent moves away from me, then I follow him. If he comes closer, then I move away. If he is circling around me, I turn to face him. This means that I am following my opponent’s intention, but not in order to admit defeat, but rather in order to maintain my own position and retain my ability to act. Aligning oneself with and towards the opponent is not a sign of weakness but is, on the contrary, a basic prerequisite for protecting oneself.

Being able to sense people’s intentions and react accordingly also belongs to a mediator’s repertoire. Posture and positioning can also be of key importance in mediation. Maintaining an upright posture and standing or sitting in a stable position is beneficial because it facilitates breathing, promotes circulation and gives a better overview of what is happening.

When mediators consciously use their bodies, for example by clearly turning towards the individual interlocutors and adjusting the distance depending on the situation, they are able to enhance the effect of communication techniques. Just as important, in a figurative sense, is to develop a trustful, close relationship on the one hand, and to maintain a professional distance on the other.


Akido training instils an awareness of the dynamics and fundamental coherences of conflicts. It shows the importance of inner calm, deep breathing and an upright posture, as well as of concentration and mental and physical flexibility. Practitioners of Aikido are well aware of how painful it is to react to an attack with rigidity and force, and how effective it can be to first sidestep and then react to the attack from a different angle.

The same applies in a verbal conflict. A forceful and aggressive counter-argument can hurt our “opponent’s” feelings, push him into a corner and end up escalating the situation. In such cases, it is often better to first retreat or to avoid the situation. This alleviates the tension and allows for a constructive resolution of the supposed contradictions.


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