In a dusty cloud of sandalwood incense, a samurai purifies his armor to become invincible in the looming duel. Dressed in a silk kimono, he thrusts his two swords in a belt wrapped around his waist. “It’s time,” he thinks to himself.
On his way to the sanctuary, he reviews his combat strategy one last time to fully integrate the knowledge into his body. Then, all thoughts stop, as he bravely faces his opponent without an ounce of fear…
The samurai were fierce, highly skilled warriors of ancient Japan. Similar to the knights in medieval Europe, this group of elite combatants were part of a military nobility that lived by a strict code of conduct. But the samurai weren’t your average soldiers. Their masterful use of the sword, spear and bow went beyond human potential and into the supernatural. Even today, they are considered the most skilled and courageous warriors the world has ever seen.
When we see masterful athletes, artists or martial artists, we admire the great sacrifice made to accomplish such feats. But we often silently think, “was it really worth it?” As an artistic gymnast for 18 years, I often found myself asking the same question. But the samurai did not sacrifice their lives without a good reason.
According to ancient Japanese philosophy, the purpose of life is to raise one’s spiritual awareness through self-mastery. By using the breath to unite the body and spirit, one can eventually reach enlightenment. In other words, as the samurai trained the body, mind and emotions, they also elevated their consciousness.
Samurai Tips for Modern Life
So, what can we learn from these infamous warriors about self-mastery? Does their wisdom translate to modern life? Yes, it does. And thankfully in the 17th century their code was written down in the Bushido or “the way of the warrior”.
Here are six things we can learn from the samurai to live an extraordinary life:
Have a good posture
How do you move through life? Are you slouched in front of a computer or do you carry yourself like a samurai? Your posture is a direct reflection of your inner world. When you have a good posture, the breath can effectively circulate throughout the body, promoting vibrant health and a stable mind. A healthy posture also promotes awareness of the body and restores balance. Practice the following postures daily until a healthy posture becomes automatic:
Seated posture: The Zazen posture, used for seated meditation, is at the heart of the zen practice. To use this posture, place a zafu, or a small, firm pillow, on the ground. Next, sit in a cross-legged position on the pillow with both feet flat on the floor. Try to rest your knees on the floor by slightly shifting your body forward. Place your hands on your legs, and join your thumbs. Now imagine the top of your head reaching towards the sky. Lastly, relax your face, concentrate on your breath, and listen to your body.
Standing posture: Practiced in Taikiken, a Japanese martial art, the standing posture is dynamic, yet soft. To use this posture, stand with your arms by your sides and palms turned towards the thighs. Pay attention to your center of gravity, which is slightly below the belly button. With your chin slightly in, lengthen your spin, and reach your head towards the sky. Relax your shoulders, and focus on the breath.
Master your mind
Samurai training went beyond physical exercises. It was also about disciplining the mind to free oneself from negative thoughts. As Jirokichi Yamada, the last official headmaster of the Japanese martial art of swordsmanship, said, “Sword and mind must be united. Technique by itself is insufficient, and spirit alone is not enough.”
So, how can we master the mind? The simple answer is through movement and the breath. In Japan, kata refers to a detailed choreographed pattern of martial arts movements. Each movement is coordinated with an inhale or exhale.
To bring this practice to your modern life, choose a craft that you practice regularly. It could be yoga, dance, or even knitting. Next, choose a repetitive sequence of movements. For instance, sun salutations for yoga, shimmies for belly dance, and Garter Stitch for knitting. When performing the routine, pay attention to your breath, and try to harmonize it with your movements. As thoughts pop up, acknowledge them, then bring your attention back to your breath.
Master your emotions
When the samurai faced their opponents, they didn’t curl up in a ball of fear. They were calm in the face of danger, reacting like a well rehearsed routine. You see, the samurai understood the impermanence of things, and therefore let go of the fear of death. Without fear clouding the subconscious, they had impressive intuitive abilities.
To cultivate a fearless spirit and enhance your intuition, take a page from the samurai’s code. When life throws a curve ball, see the ball from an impartial perspective. And more importantly, stay calm without completely relaxing your body and mind. Simply be aware of what is happening, while staying emotionally detached from the outcome.
From music and dance to even a sales pitch, everything in life has a rhythm that accelerates and slows down. But are you aware of this natural ebb and flow? The samurai were very observant warriors. They perfected their own harmonious rhythm, but more importantly, they understood the rhythm of their opponents. Naturally, this skill came in handy when they wanted to throw off their opponent with an unexpected move.
The principle of rhythm can be applied to any kind of strategy from business and marketing to the performing arts. For instance, in dance, I shimmy and shake with all the predictable moves until I don’t… An unexpected movement keeps the audience excited and engaged.
But strategy aside, understanding rhythm can also help us cultivate a calm spirit. When life gets chaotic, we know that order is just around the corner. And so, we don’t panic during the tough times. Instead, we observe our thoughts and emotions. Just as the yogi masters say: “You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.”
Elevate your perspective
The samurai developed the capacity to see beyond the limits of the average muggle. When going over their combat strategy, they practiced two forms of perception. From a distance, they observed their opponents, as if they were up close. And face-to-face with their opponents, the samurai saw them, as if they were far away. In this way, they had the capacity to see the looming battle from multiple perspectives.
In everyday life, we often view the world up close and oh so personal. But taking a step back from the situation provides a much needed global perspective. Once you see all of the dynamics at play, focus those hawk eyes on your target. When the timing is just right, swoop down and go after your soul’s calling with courage and fearlessness.
Be of selfless service
Being a samurai was all about selfless service. In fact, the word ‘samurai’ is derived from a word meaning ‘to serve’. In medieval times, ‘service’ meant being prepared to die for one’s lord. And while that is an intense commitment for anyone, selfless service (within reason) is a very noble cause.
Why? Because selfless service takes us beyond a self-centered mindset and into the realm of compassion, empathy and unconditional love. When truly acting selflessly, we improve our relationships, feel at peace, and bring a positive perspective. In other words, by helping others without expecting anything in return, we enhance our health and wellbeing too.
To practice selfless service, start with small acts of kindness like opening a door for someone or helping an elderly person get on the bus. And when you find a worthy cause, volunteer your time. After all, your time is your most valuable asset.
The Samurai Today
During modernization in the late 19th century, the Japanese government realized that a unified army was a more effective fighting force. Naturally, the samurai class was replaced by modern armies and advanced weaponry. However, their values live on in contemporary martial arts. Martial artists embody many of the same samurai values of courage, loyalty, compassion and equanimity. And we can embody these positive traits too! With steadfast dedication to these six samurai techniques, we can become the heroines of our extraordinary lives.
What is your favorite samurai tip? Share in the comments!
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- Clarke, David. “The Importance of Good Posture.” Physiotherapy & Sports Injury Clinics | The Physio Company, Physiotherapy & Sports Injury Clinics | The Physio Company, 30 Sept. 2015.
- “Japanese Samurai Sword Techniques.” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group.
- MIYAMOTO, MUSASHI. LE TRAITE DES CINQ ROUES. BOOKLASSIC, 2015.