Jan 29, 2015
An Alternate Route

If traditional training methods leave your teams wanting more, maybe it’s time to consider another approach. At Northwestern, some athletes look to Eastern sports medicine philosophy to gain an edge.

By Darryl Aiken-Afam

Darryl Aiken-Afam, HFA, CPT, is a certified personal trainer, veteran martial artist, and shiatsu practitioner. He is the creator of Meridian Touch Sports Yoga™, and is the lead Sports Yoga Coach at Northwestern University. He can be reached through his Web site at: www.meridiantouch.com.

You tell the athletes to relax by breathing deeply from their hara and to identify the tsubos that are overly sensitive. Once they’ve done so, you focus your treatment on specific areas along the body’s metal and water meridians to provide pain relief, increase flexibility, decrease recovery time, and help them perform at their best.

Does this sound like nonsense to you? If so, you’re not alone–traditional Western approaches to sports medicine and athlete development don’t recognize or accept concepts like those mentioned above, and most athletic trainers in North America are completely unfamiliar with the philosophies of Eastern medicine. But I’ve seen firsthand how these philosophies offer diverse and surprising benefits to athletes looking to maximize performance and enjoy optimum health.

Over the past six years at Northwestern University, I’ve put the concepts of Eastern sports medicine to work for athletes on the football, soccer, crew, basketball, and tennis teams with excellent results. Using a system I’ve developed called Meridian Touch Sports Yoga (MTSY), I’m introducing athletes to a whole new movement paradigm and a training approach that emphasizes total-body awareness, openness to essential biofeedback patterns, and tapping into the energy channels that flow throughout the entire body. In this article, I’ll explain this unique approach and describe what the Eastern philosophy can offer to athletes of all ages and ability levels.


To fully understand the Eastern approach to sports medicine, you must appreciate the specific ways it differs from Western training philosophy. Traditionally, Western strategies for performance training are built around a general belief that more is better–more workouts, more drills, and more resistance, looking to make measurable progress in quantifiable performance factors, such as 40-yard dash times, one-rep max, and vertical jump height. Training programs are judged by how much they help athletes improve their numbers in those isolated, individualized measures.

Of course, performance goals are important and necessary. But the Eastern philosophy holds that too often they become the sole focal point of a training regimen, at the expense of considering the athlete as a whole person–at least in the realms of movement and energy.

The Eastern approach attempts to strike a better balance by devoting some of an athlete’s training time to activities that develop the entire body in ways not easily measured. The athlete is not asked to achieve a certain benchmark or perfect a specific move, just to perform an activity for the activity’s sake with inner awareness instead of outward performance as the goal. In a very short time, the benefits of those activities show up in the form of faster recovery, fewer injuries, and overall improved performance.

Another part of the Eastern philosophy is an emphasis on true rest as a key element of recovery. True rest means more than simply time away from the weightroom and practice field. For the athletes at Northwestern, their “rest time” usually isn’t really rest–it’s filled with academic work, social or family commitments, part-time jobs, and other activities that don’t give them the physical and mental relaxation they desperately need.

The kind of rest I talk about when I work with a team involves a genuine break from active engagement–a deeper sense of “letting go” that translates to all aspects of a person’s life. To reduce fatigue and stress, I encourage them to set aside time every day to do some of the sports yoga activities I’ve taught them, a practice that offers true rest for both mind and body. The effects of this lifestyle change are cumulative but can be felt quickly, and the athletes find that when they commit to it, a little time each day goes a long way. I also recommend that athletes seek regular massages to assist in the rest and recovery process.

The MTSY system addresses a key problem in traditional training programs: Many athletes, particularly at the college level, don’t have anything built into their training schedules to provide the therapeutic, relaxing, restorative, and flexibility enhancing effects they need for optimum performance and health. MTSY accomplishes this and gives athletes the physical and mental tools they need to feel more energized, rejuvenated, and prepared to face the challenges of their sport and everyday life.


A central concept of Eastern medicine holds that the body contains channels called meridians, through which life energy (called ki or chi) and blood are constantly flowing. Acupuncture, yoga, martial arts, and many other Eastern practices are based on tapping into and manipulating these meridians to achieve various physiological and psychological effects, including improved relaxation and flexibility, heightened body awareness and sensitivity, enhanced healing, and shortened recovery time.

According to the Eastern philosophy, energy within the body must move and flow in a balanced way at all times, or else disease and malfunctions such as stiffness, injury, and slow recovery will occur. The meridians that allow this flow are named for the five elements of Oriental medicine: earth, metal, water, wood, and fire. By activating specific spots called acupoints (or tsubos in Japanese) that are linked to various muscles, MTSY assists athletes in activating and moving their ki. The system also emphasizes breathing, supportive touch, and easy-to-perform natural movements, helping optimize energy flow through the various elemental meridians.

Before I begin working with any team, I first assess the athletes’ sport-specific needs and priorities, and work with the coaching staff to understand the physical and mental demands of their training and competition schedule. I also learn about the types of injuries the athletes are currently dealing with, any they’ve suffered in the past, and which ones they are most predisposed to.

Then, I begin to apply the five-element paradigm of Eastern medicine to determine how to proceed. For example, let’s say a baseball or softball team wants to improve grip strength for better bat control and swing power. Traditional Western training would suggest relying on repetitive strength exercises for the hand and wrist. But the Eastern system teaches that grip strength is related to the metal element meridian. Rather than focusing only on the hand and wrist, I’ll prescribe exercises that increase flexibility and function in the hamstrings, lateral torso, pectoral muscles, down the length of the arms, and out to the thumbs and index fingers–all of which are located along that same metal meridian.

By making the energy meridians a focal point of training, the athletes will develop greater grip strength while also becoming more flexible and stronger overall, and they may experience other metal-meridian benefits as well, including better lung function and digestive function in the large intestine. These associations may sound difficult to believe, but they’re based on over 2,000 years of Eastern medicinal practice and supported by much anecdotal evidence. They also follow the same principles used in acupuncture, which offers benefits that have been backed up by scientific research.


So what does an MTSY session actually look like? To give you a sense for what this innovative training method consists of, I’ll explain a session I’ve performed with the Northwestern football team.

When the players come into the training space, they grab a mat and a pair of tennis balls and lie supine on the floor. After they’ve had a moment to relax and clear their minds, I instruct them to begin finding their active tsubos–sensitive points where they feel soreness or tightness–running along the water meridian, which passes through the erector spinae muscles and extends into the sacral area.

They place the tennis balls at the sites of their tsubos and lie down over them, while at the same time initiating deep breathing from the hara (lower abdominal region). The pressure created by lying on the tennis balls activates ki and blood flow, which relieves sensitivity and tightness in those areas. Once they feel a spot becoming less sensitive, they move the balls as many times as needed to hit each tsubo they can identify.

This initial stage of MTSY activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs relaxation, restoration, and repair of the body. As they go through this process I ask the players which areas of their bodies they feel need attention that day, and I’ll customize the rest of the session based on their responses. Like many forms of Eastern medicine, MTSY combines elements of art and science, and I frequently improvise during the session based on my knowledge of the five elements and other Eastern concepts to ensure that I’m meeting the most urgent needs at that particular time.

Next, following the five-element framework, I begin directing the players through various MTSY solo movements. I’ll also have them perform partner-based exercises designed to address our main priorities for that session.

For example, one of the most popular MTSY exercises is called the Basic Water movement. This exercise, which is helpful for athletes in a wide variety of sports, looks to the uninitiated like a standard seated forward bend in which the athlete stretches their hamstrings and lower back. But with a focus on the meridian concept, the goals are much broader than simply trying to stretch hard, stiff, and sore muscles using force.

The body’s twin water meridians run from each foot through the calves, behind the knees and hamstrings, throughout the sacral area, up the spine on both sides of the erectors, up the neck adjacent to the cervical vertebrae, through the base of the skull, over the top of the head, and down the forehead, ending in the medial corner of each eye. The Basic Water move stretches this meridian, activating the full length of the water channels throughout the body. This is accompanied by kenbiki, a movement technique that involves small rocking movements that relax and loosen the body and mind.

The Basic Water exercise does function as a stretch, but musculoskeletal mechanics are not the top priority. Stretching the water meridians produces subtle effects that are difficult to fully appreciate without experiencing them directly, but athletes who perform this movement report feeling benefits that range from mental release to increased energy along the meridian, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and balancing and toning effects.

For an even more powerful experience, I have the athletes use a partner-assisted version of the same Basic Water movement. With a partner, they gain the extra benefits of body heat from contact, unique pressure and gravity effects, mutual kenbiki, effortless support, and the chance to move the body in the opposite direction from the original Basic Water movement, thus activating other meridians and promoting even deeper relaxation, improved circulation, and greater touch awareness and sensitivity. Effective partner work requires athletes to fully grasp the concept of “emptiness,” so they can sense what is happening in their partner’s body and give proper support and feedback. (To see how I teach athletes about this concept, see “Strong and Empty” below.)

The activation of tsubos, a key facet of MTSY, continues throughout the session as needed, and I incorporate it into a wide variety of movements. During the Basic Water, I might have the athletes place tennis balls at specific points, such as a tsubo called BL-36, located in the center of the upper hamstring right below the gluteus maximus, and one called BL-57 located in the middle of the calf muscle. Concentrated pressure on these spots makes a huge difference in how much an athlete can relax and increase range of motion in the forward bend almost immediately. These tsubos are also linked to relaxation and reducing pain in the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and calves.

Sometimes, a team’s coaches will tell me in advance about the training schedule so I know which body areas are most likely to be sore, fatigued, or otherwise in need of attention. I’ll also watch team practice sessions to gather this information. As I observe the players moving and performing drills, knowing the functions of meridians and locations of various tsubos throughout their bodies, I can quickly determine who needs what types of intervention. And during the MTSY sessions, it’s of course essential for the athletes to communicate openly with me about how they’re feeling and what their bodies are telling them.

At the end of our time together, I frequently send athletes away with “body homework” they can do to help with individual dysfunctions. The homework is typically something very simple, such as repeating an MTSY movement with the corresponding tsubo activations we did during a session to address a particular need, like relaxing and increasing flexibility in tight muscle areas. When players do this homework, they are being proactive with their own recovery, so the results come faster and they learn how to effectively take care of themselves.

The college athletes I work with are strong and tough, and they’ve learned to push through pain, discomfort, and fatigue. But I want them to look beyond the walls of pain tolerance they’ve built up and truly listen to what their bodies are telling them. By teaching them the principles of MTSY, I give them a new dimension of body awareness, reaching the realms of energy, contact, and movement that they generally don’t learn about in traditional athletic training.

With their newfound focus on body awareness, which is central to virtually all forms of Eastern medicine, I believe the athletes take away far more from this training approach than the immediate physical benefits. By learning to open their eyes to all the messages they receive from their bodies, they gain new perspective on the true meaning of health, and discover that everything their bodies tell them has its place in promoting overall wellness and optimum performance.


In Meridian Touch Sports Yoga (MTSY) partner-assisted movements, both athletes are required to be “empty”–that is, to feel soft and relaxed–so they can sense what is happening in their partner’s body and give proper support and feedback. It’s a symbiotic exchange that requires presence, alertness, and yielding at the same time. Many athletes are not familiar with this concept of emptiness, so I use martial arts demonstrations to help them understand it.

For example, I sometimes use the Japanese martial art of Aikido and the “unbending arm” technique. This demonstration of emptiness involves me inviting the biggest, strongest guy in the room to bend my outstretched arm while I use all my muscular strength to try and prevent him from bending it. In this state I’m using tension and force to resist his force with my fist tightly clenched. The athlete is younger, stronger, and usually bigger than me, so they overpower me pretty quickly–no surprise there.

After they collapse my arm, I stretch it out again, but this time I relax my body, breathing deeply from my hara, softening my extended arm and unclenching my hand so it is open and “empty.” I invite the same athlete to bend my arm again. Without fail, he cannot do it the second time, and those watching are astounded at the difference. They quickly grasp the idea that there’s more to true power than brute muscle force, and they want to tap into that power. As a result, they become open to the idea of allowing their bodies to be “empty,” which lets them take full advantage of the MTSY program’s alternative approach to physical and mental development.

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