When you first meet Marcus Teo, the president of SMU Aikido, it is impossible to miss the lightness in his speech and his easy-going personality. Although the gentle business student has always preferred the softer side of things, he shares that his practice of Aikido over the past two years have helped to mellow him even more.

SMU Snapshots caught up with Marcus to pick up some tips on how to work towards the same easy-going disposition.

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Marcus Teo, president of SMU Aikido

Finding Aikido

During junior college, a friend had briefly introduced Aikido to Marcus. The martial art immediately appealed to him for its graceful execution and firm code of avoiding injury to opponents. He appreciated the concept and philosophy that were different from other types of martial art.

“Aikido has its similarities to other forms of martial art in the sense that it involves a lot of discipline and there is respect for your seniors. But when there are obstacles, instead of going head on, Aikido teaches us to leverage on the attacker’s strength to subdue him so that we don’t use a lot of strength.”

Going with the flow

Aikido demands an intuitive understanding of the physics of forces, stability and rotational movement. It follows a sequence: (1) enter and blend, (2) redirect and break balance, (3) throw or control, and (4) let go and move away. A running theme across every technique is the concept of circular motion.

“If a guy punches me, instead of using force to block him, I let him continue through. Then, I use momentum to direct his blow downwards or to the side. Once he has committed himself to the punch he can do little to prevent the deflection and will be thrown off balance.”

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Demonstration of the blending and redirecting ways of Aikido

This concept of blending in and redirecting attacks has come in handy for Marcus even outside of the dojo. People react to problems differently; there are those who choose to run away and those who fight head-on. In Aikido, when running away is not an option, circular motion is employed.

“Applied in normal daily life, the concept of circular motion is like using negotiation to solve a problem. During an argument, instead of insisting on a point, the Aikido method is to relax and soften, to become open to the other person’s perspective and see things from his point of view. Once aligned, it becomes easier to bring him to your point of view, see your perspective, and subsequently change his perspective.”

The analogy, explained in this TedTalk by Jonathan Popelle, has been useful in guiding Marcus’ leadership role. As a leader, instead of pushing his opinions onto others, he has learnt to become more receptive to differing opinions. He adds that: “when you tense up, it becomes more likely for opposing opinions to be seen as personal attacks.” In Aikido, holding tension indicates that you anticipate a certain result. This becomes dangerous when the anticipation is wrong and catches you off-guard.

“Similarly, in life, sometimes you plan your events, but there will always be hiccups and unforeseen circumstances. Some people might get angry or discouraged, but the thing is, you can do that, or you can choose to take a step back, go with the flow, and along the way make the best of the situation.”

Avoiding negativity, inviting positivity

Having an open mind has also enabled Marcus to let negative energy be directed away instead of flowing through and affecting him.

“You learn not to take things too personally, and let negative energy from others be passed off. It is up to you whether you want to absorb the energy or not. When you do, you wind up becoming negative too, which naturally translates when you interact with the people around you.”

Marcus used to fear giving presentations back in junior college. His hands would tremble, making it difficult to read the script, which would make him even more anxious. On some occasions, his whole body would shiver from nervousness.

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Marcus leads a demonstration with confidence

He attributes improvements in his delivery of presentations to the calmness and breathing techniques that Aikido has taught him.

“It’s a lot better now when I present. I feel calmer and I let go of the worry that it might not go well. Now, before presenting I visualise how it will be and how I want it to be successful. So, when it comes down to the actual presentation, I’m just acting out what is in my head.”

There are similarities between this positive visualisation tactic and Aikido. In Aikido, students pick up techniques by observing the sensei as he demonstrates the same moves four times. Before performing the moves on their own, students are encouraged to calm down, relax, and do a mental simulation of the movements they are going to make. Keeping a calm and relaxed state of mind is important to prevent negative energy from building up, which often leads to stiff and rigid movements.

Finding your inner calm

These days, Marcus prepares for events which may seem daunting (think: exams and presentations) by taking the time to find his breath and calm himself down. He gamely shares some breathing tips with us.

“Breathing in through your nose, feel how your chest stays the same and belly inflates. Think about using your diaphragm to suck in the air, rather than the chest. Hold the breath for one or two seconds. Then, breathe out from your mouth while touching tongue to the roof of your mouth. This helps to circulate and connect the energy. After two or three rounds, you should feel more relaxed and calm.”

Conscious breathing encourages the release of negative energy and turns one’s attention inward. For Marcus, this meditation guides him to circulate his energy – increasing his focus and mental strength.

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Marcus and his sensei

Learning how to be open-minded, overcome negativity, and find ease are perks of a consistent Aikido practice. But Marcus shares that the greatest takeaway is at the root of these benefits – a change in mindset.

“You have the mind, body and spirit. Your body can be trained and spirit can be fed, but the mind is the hardest to change. Not in terms of knowledge, but mindset and attitude. Your mindset leads you to do certain things. You could be physically healthy, but a weak mindset will affect body and spirit. Aikido has helped me to have a more positive and relaxed mindset, and to learn to accept things as they are.”