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Non-physical aikido

My first instructor, the late Hamish Macfarlane, told me that aikido is 90% mental.  This does not mean that the physical aspects should be neglected, but that they are not all there is.

Centering is particularly important in aikido.  Centering is physical (turning about your center, extending from your center), mental (relating all actions to your center), and emotional/spiritual.  The last item is what I want to address.

Self defense is a scary and emotionally difficult situation.  When somebody physically pushes, you turn.  When threatened, you do the same thing: you don’t allow yourself to be moved emotionally, but rather you blend and turn.

When pushed physically, you retain a strong center, but do not use it to push back.  You can do this, of course, and it will work if you are the bigger stronger, person.  But that is not aikido.  When you turn, you blend with the incoming energy, you add your energy to the incoming energy, and steer it to where you want it to go, typically around your center, then either let it go, or direct it into your technique.

When pushed emotionally, spiritually, it is equally important to be resolute and immovable, while not using this to resist here either.  Rather, blend and turn.  Even if you are logically correct, saying “you are wrong” is going to cause conflict.  If, instead, you say, something like, “that is an interesting position”, you are making contact, forging a connection, just like when you avoid a physical attack and make physical contact with the attacker’s center.  Then if you say, “can you tell me why you think that”, you are adding your energy to the incoming energy.  Then, you can ask questions to lead the energy of the discussion, perhaps to where you want it to go.

Once you have control of the situation, physically or emotionally, what you do with it is also related to aikido.  You can in either case cause a lot of damage, but the way of aiki is to minimize the damage to an attacker.  Physically, we use the energy to throw uke into an ukemi that is both survivable and within their capabilities.  We can do the same in an emotional conflict.

In either physical or emotional aikido, practice is, of course important.  Knowing how to do kote gaeshi does not mean you can actually do it.  There are subtle movements of the body, arms, legs, etc that have a huge effect on the effectiveness of the technique.  The same applies to non-physical aikido also.

We do typically practice the physical sort of aikido quite a bit, a lot for some of us.  We probably practice the other aspects a lot less.  I was never taught these other aspects, so I probably don’t address them enough either.  I was expected to learn them through osmosis.  Certainly the various aspects of aikido are not separate.  Studying the non-physical aspects will also enhance the physical ones.

Finally, just as different practitioners have different styles of physical aikido, there are different styles of non-physical aikido also.

 

On Basics

Everybody likes to do the fancy stuff, big impressive throws.  They are fun to do, but it is really the basics that are important.  When folks start aikido, it is about memorizing where to put your hands and feet.  By the time you get shodan, you should know all the common techniques from all the common attacks.  As you move on, you get away from names and categories, and just do aikido.  Sometimes I have to think about what to call a technique I just did.

From what I remember, O Sensei wasn’t big on names.  He’d just demonstrate something, and tell the class to practice that.  His son, Kisshomaru, was apparently the one who systematized things.  That does make it easier to teach and to learn.  But it is cutting aikido up into convenient chunks.  At some point, you need to go beyond that and work on the underlying stuff.  When you work on a named technique, you are practicing aikido.  When you work more directly with an attack without names getting in the way, you may be doing aikido.

So as you progress beyond shodan, it is increasingly important to look at angles, distance, and timing.  Angles are what allow a physically smaller person to overpower a larger person.  Distance determines what one person can do to another, and as two people are often different in size it is not necessarily symmetrical.  Timing determines the dynamics of the interaction.  Often quite small changes are all that are necessary.

Angles relate to both uke and nage.  Uke needs certain angles to deliver an effective attack, and nage’s angles in relation to that line also effect how dangerous an attack is.  Nage needs certain angles relative to the line of attack in order to deal with that attack, and certain angles relative to uke in order to be able to move uke.  Useful angles start with the feet, where they are pointed, and so on.  Angles of the body (hips and shoulders) and arms are also important, and are based on the feet.

The obvious aspect of distance (ma ai) is whether uke can hit you.  As the distance decreases, there comes a point where uke goes from being unable to hit you to where he can hit you.  If he is intent on doing damage, crossing that threshold will trigger the attack. The distance will of course be different for different weapons, whether natural weapons (foot vs fist) or others (e.g knife vs jo).  There is even a difference in distance between an open hand (shuto) vs a fist.

Both parties can affect this distance.  One of the most important aspects of timing is controlling that distance.  If the distance is changing at a regular rate, the timing of the strike is very predictable.  Nage can manipulate the timing by his own movements.  And, of course, so can uke.

So, back to basics.  Exploring these issues works best with techniques you are very familiar and comfortable with.  If you are working on improving a technique, you are probably not able to also work on angles, distance and timing.  So we all need to improve our techniques, but as we get up in rank we also need to work to transcend them.

What is aikido?

Over the last few years I have been thinking about this again.  More and more, I have been coming to the view that aikido is a way to limit damage.  There are so many ways you can hurt an attacker, and aikido opens up many of these ways.  So ikkyo is an opening for breaking an attacker’s ribs with a reverse punch.  Kote gaeshi is an opening for breaking his ribs with a side kick or, a little later, with a round kick.  But if you see these options and can realize them, but take the less damaging one where possible, that is aikido.  Kind of like you can’t really be a pacifist unless you can kill.

This approach also has the useful aspect that you can practice aikido at close to full force.  A lot of arts you have to practice as kata where you punch and kick the air, pull your punches, or wear protective equipment.  Aikido, you can cut loose, and with enough training uke survives just fine.

I used to think of aikido as the “light side of the force”, and karate as the “dark side”.  Now this isn’t a very oriental way of looking at things.  A more oriental way might be to see the two sides as two parts of the whole.  The two are complementary.  I kind of saw this logically, but I am seeing it more these days in how I practice.  If you practice with the intent of hurting people, but not doing so, aikido works better, and there is less conflict, not more.  Now this is almost American: carry a big stick and walk softly.

Was this at all close to how O Sensei saw aikido?  Most Western aikidoka relate to O Sensei as the little old man with a grin shown in the pictures on most dojo.  However, there was a darker side to him.  He did teach the Japanese military at the Nagano spy school.  One of his most influential teachers was Sokaku Takeda.  I can quite see O Sensei as having this view of aikido.  A lot of our teachers learned aikido in post WW2 Japan, when Macarthur acted a lot like a shogun and martial arts training had to be under the radar.  In that climate, they probably were not taught the more martial aspects of aikido.

When O Sensei opened the original Hombu in Tokyo, it was common practice to visit a new dojo and check out the teacher.  If he couldn’t beat all comers, he wouldn’t last long.  So O Sensei obviously was able to kick ass.  So maybe my view isn’t so far from the one O Sensei had.

Dealing with aggression

After last night’s practice, I drove home thinking about how we respond to aggression in aikido.  If, for example, somebody pushes you, you can push back.  This is very typical in our society.  It works fine if you are bigger or more aggressive than the other person.  Doesn’t work well if you are smaller, and is not very aiki (though there is timing there also, which can be aiki).

A little more subtle, you can deflect the push.  This can work if they are just pushing with their arms.  But if they are charging forwards, they will run right over you if you are smaller.

You can just go with the push.  Much more aiki.  If they knock you down, you do ukemi, and roll back to your feet.  If you blend really well, you can use their power to move you well back out of harms way by the time you are back on your feet.  You can even add a bit of an angle so that even if they are charging, you are off their line of advance.

You can go with the push and turn.  This can get you off their line of advance, and if you stay connected you have the start of a technique like kote gaeshi or irimi nage.  You can turn either to their front or rear.

You can also slip off to the side and enter, perhaps either striking them or throwing them back the way they came.  You can do this even if you are smaller, because you are not stopping their center, but rather are doing what Musashi called “attacking the corners”.  Most people have a flinch reflex that takes them away from a strike to the head, so this results in a very nice technique if you time it right.  Too fast a strike, and you will hit them.  Too slow, and they can move their head to the side to avoid it (which can lead to another technique, such as kaiten nage).

These same methods work for strikes as well as pushes, but can be a bit harder to learn, as everything happens more quickly.  However, once you learn them the techniques can work even better, for the same reason.

They can also work for non physical aggression.  If somebody is being verbally pushy, pushing back merely raises the levels of aggression and rarely changes the other person’s mind.  “Yes but…” tends to work better than “No, you are totally wrong…”

Kyu testing

We had a successful kyu test yesterday, and all three candidates passed easily.  Testing is a bit stressful, to give students an opportunity to work on dealing with stress.  Everyday life is stressful.  If you ever have to defend yourself, that is stressful.  We all need to understand how stress affects us and how to deal with it.  In aikido, we deal with stress by practicing remaining centered and relaxed.

Physiological and psychological changes in response to stress include tension and narrowing of focus.  It is important to keep breathing naturally, and maintain awareness of what is going on around you.

Harmony and flowing

On Saturday we worked on flowing movements.  Often people try to throw uke, and in particular, try to do so using their upper body strength.  This works about as well as trying to cut through a target with a sword in the same fashion – not well.

The first exercise we did was to hold the bokken and move it like a figure eight (as in katate hachi no ji gaeshi with a jo), from the hips.  This means the movement is powered from the leg muscles, which are much stronger than the arm muscles.  The arms only connect and guide the sword.  This exercise is harder than it appears, especially for western males.

The hips move first, then the shoulders, then the hands, and finally the tip of the sword.  It should feel like you are a whip, with the body being the handle, and the sword the lash.  And on the two diagonal parts of the cut, you have to turn the sword so that the cutting edge is leading.

Then we grasped uke’s hand as for kote gaeshi and threw them by moving the hips.  The aim was to use the hips, rather than the shoulders, to throw uke, and to focus on nage’s movement rather than on throwing uke.  A graceful flowing movement works better.

Uke can at this time practice similarly, allowing the gripped hand to move first, and the body last.  This has the advantage to uke of spreading the energy nage is delivering both in body location and time, making the ukemi quite easy.

From there, we worked on doing technique as cutting with a sword.  Most techniques are shomenuchi cuts with a sword.  If you cut at the wrist so as to rotate the arm in pronation (rotating the thumb inward, so that the radius and ulna are crossed), you have ikkyo or nikkyo and related techniques.  If you cut the wrist the opposite way, in supination (rotating the thumb outward, so the radius and ulna are not crossed), you have kote gaeshi and related techniques.  If you cut through uke’s head, you have irimi nage.

Kosa dori kote gaeshi, in particular, is three sword cuts: a horizontal one to break lose from uke’s grip, another to take kuzushi, and a third, vertical, one to throw uke.

It is critical in these movements that you think of cutting with the sword rather than thinking about doing a technique on uke.  Most likely, the difference is because when thinking of a sword cut you are intent on making a smooth complete cut, while when you are trying to throw uke you are thinking of an interaction, one that uke can easily stop or at least mess up, when the technique becomes difficult and ugly.  Interestingly, relatively new students find this approach easier than more advanced students.  I guess I haven’t stressed fluid movement enough.

For any successful technique, connection from nage to uke is critical.  Once you have the movement down well, you have to connect it to uke without damaging the fluidity of the movement.  Nage can do this by altering his position relative to uke and by stretching the movement to accommodate to uke’s body size.  He can also alter the timing of his movement in particular going faster or slower to accommodate uke’s movement.  All without impairing the flow.

Uke can and should do the same things, altering his position and movement to connect to nage.  And why should uke do this?  Initially, because it hurts less.  If you are stiff and uncooperative and nage does a good technique, you will be thrown anyway, but it will hurt.  With kote gaeshi, for example, you can get your wrist, elbow, and/or shoulder badly wrenched.  And when you do hit the ground, you will hit it harder and less gracefully, which hurt more also.  Besides, blending with nage is the best way, perhaps the only way, to perform kaeshi waza.

Spring Seminar May 20, 2017

“Tips, Tricks and Secrets of Aikido” with Gorman Miller Sensei.

With 25 years of experience Miller Sensei provides unique perspective to accelerate your Aikido training.

  • Saturday – May 20, 2017
  • 10:00 – Noon and 2:00 – 5:00
  • Location: Sand Drift Aikido
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  • All Ranks and Affiliations Welcome
  • Dinner Included (Asian Fusion)
  • Price: $40.00

See Seminary Flyer and  Aikiweb Mention.

Practicing on the new mat

There were eight of us on the new mat.  It isn’t the full 900 sq ft yet, but we were able to practice easily without falling into each other.  While it requires more awareness, this is actually good for developing spacial awareness.

We need to finish laying the mat and remove the excess foam, then we will be able to paint the walls.  Then we can put up the weapons racks again, and it is basically finished.  Then we need to schedule the spring seminar.

how to practice aikido

I am concerned that there is too much resistance in the dojo.  In particular, a stronger, higher ranked person should never block another student from doing technique.  What is important is that we each get a chance to practice our techniques.  Uke should give a strong honest attack, or sometimes a weak but still honest attack so that somebody that is new or not physically strong can still practice technique.

What do I mean by an honest attack?  Often, I see uke not resisting, but not accepting the ukemi either.  This does nothing useful for either party.  It is not good for uke, because they are not practicing good ukemi – which is critical for kaeshi and henka waza, and also to avoid getting hurt.  It is not good for nage, because they know that they are not doing technique, that uke is merely tanking for them.  So an honest attack is one that simulates a full bore attack, while moving more slowly and using less force so that nage can successfully practice his technique.

I must admit that I like it when I get somebody that is difficult to do technique on.  So I no doubt encourage the wrong sort of practice.  However, you might have noticed that I am actually quite easy to throw.

So when do we get to practice aikido full strength, with full strength attacks?  Any time that you are working with somebody of similar rank and strength, and it is clear that both parties have practiced enough to benefit from this sort of practice.  If either party is finding it difficult to do the desired technique, then the other person needs to work harder at flowing and being a good uke.  Any time somebody has to strain to make a technique work, they are no longer doing aikido.

There is a fine line here, because we do need to learn how to use our strength productively in a technique, but most people do this before thoroughly learning the technique and this is counter productive.  Merely trying harder is hardly ever the most productive way to practice.  Rather, we should be studying how our body and uke’s body interact so that we are effectively much stronger than our uke (angles and leverages rather than muscle).

Finally, you may be unable to do a particular technique on somebody, particularly if they know what you are trying to so.  In the dojo, the correct response is usually to ask them to use a bit less strength.  In the street, the correct response is to change technique.  This is what Musashi calls “letting go four hands”, though “mountain sea change” is also relevant.