Aikido is perhaps unique in its training method. Once a beginning student has familiarized himself with the basics of safe falling he is thrown into an interactive environment. Training is therefore always dynamic and contextual: training is in movement and with a variety of training partners.
There are distinct advantages – students learn early that contextually dynamic encounters are by their very nature messy, requiring quick adapting to the partner’s speed, angle, size and mass. The lesson, not always accurately imparted, is that because technique is always somewhat catch-as-catch-can to make it effective, the real lesson is that one must focus on principles. Principles of physics (applied kinesiology), the principles of proper targeting (applied anatomy and physiology), the principles of deception (applied psychology), and the principles of spatial relationships (timing, tempo, and distance). Again, in my experience, traditional training methods do not well explain (in pedagogical fashion) the principles being shown because of the veneer of Japanese – words like “ki,” “ma-ai,” “kimusibui,” etc. This smattering of Japanese with its semantic vagaries is problematic – subsuming details because of lexical poverty or worse, mystical aspirations.
And because understanding (hopefully) both expands and is refined as one continues to train and develop, the terms like “ki” or “kokyu” can themselves come to mean different things even internally – so again, the same terms applied as labels or explanations at different times in different circumstances uttered by different practitioners can only continue to muddy the water. So let us refine the terms.
I forget where I first heard the analogy, but if Tai Chi is masturbation, then Aikido is sex insofar in Aikido you always need a partner. A memorable image. But unpacking the analogy points back to a training method – Aikido is dynamic and partner based. As mentioned above there are numerous advantages to training in this way, but quick acquisition of clear movement is not one of them. Most of the time I watch even advanced practitioners who have sloppy control of their own body. Sometimes it is a lack of athletic control (i.e. poor physical development) but it often belies a general lack of clarity. Weapons training is supposed to be the panacea – meaning the movements of the sword and jo should inform and inculcate precision in the body art – but the link is difficult for most people to follow. Therefore, I would argue for a solitary training method (and Tai Chi is an excellent example of this) to fix proper form and fluid motion. Because Aikido always has a feedback mechanism (the partner) – improper feedback can stifle the development of good form – and worse, lax or limp or choreographed feedback (ukeme) leads to false confidence and vacuous understanding. But “fixing” the relationship between nage and uke is a complex (multivariate) problem, so let us isolate the challenge to nage – the practitioner executing a technique.
Most martial arts are first taught as a solo form – a “kata” – that allows a student to perfect a specific movement pattern: to learn perfect choreography. Of course the challenge with solo forms is that they are devoid of external feedback mechanisms – the work is all internal: the student must first learn the form, then seek continued refinement. Refinement could be reflection on the efficacy of technique when applied in the course of normal practice – “I moved thus, yet my partner did that” – a post hoc diagnosis of the encounter, or perhaps (albeit often frowned upon) a conversation among equal partners (here the archaic hierarchy of the system and general ego fails us all…) in real time to discover why a movement failed to achieve its intended result. Hence an argument for solo forms.
HERETICAL THOUGHTS – Kata, or solo form training I have started to introduce isolated forms as a means to guide personal understanding and foster precise movements. Solo training allows one to quickly repeat correct movements. The primary danger is that repetition doesn’t make perfect but permanent: so the emphasis must be on correct movements. So how do we recognize correct movements? First and foremost it requires mental focus. One must be able to visualize an opponent and the specific scene that sets up the particular technique. We are practicing a set encounter, an idealized situation that limits the variables (more on that later), and allows us to concentrate on our own body movements. Once the encounter is clearly in mind, next we must focus on developing the sequence of responses. What do I mean by sequences of responses? As I have mentioned in class, I abhor meaningless movement and if there isn’t a vital target at each point, at each response, then the movement is wrong. By definition it will be inefficient because it is serving no purpose. At best it is ornamental flourish and at worse it is ingrained bad habit (that must now be unlearned). Like sculpture, the art of human movement is refining, cutting away the unnecessary so as to uncover the true, or efficient form. Back to targeting. To understand targeting one must have at least a rudimentary understanding of anatomy and physiology. What hit at what point of the opponents body will elicit the response that sets up the next point in the sequence? This is a logic chain: a series of linked movements strung together based on human responses. In Aikido, the kihon, basic and fundamental, techniques actually contain a good logic chain if one teases them apart. But like most arts, instructors and students tend to dismiss the basic in favor of the flourish of flow – especially Aikidoists, it seems the flow is favored (indeed that may be the goal) but it is favoring the line over the point (more on that later too). To provide an example, let’s unpack morotedori kokyhu nage. And since in kata we are always nage our focus is on that roll in the encounter: The opening move is the “presentation” of the arm. Too often this is incorrectly shown as a blasé gesture – devoid of any meaning because it has no combative value. But when we understand what I call proper context, disciplined visualization – or if you need it in Japanese – one must always have shinken shobu, or “Action in dead earnest.” You must put everything you have into your Aikido as if it your life were at stake.
And this should manifest to a properly conditioned and critical thinker as: “What am I seeing and why am I being shown that?” If you cannot answer those questions to your satisfaction, keep looking. There are answers in the forms.
The opening move therefore is an attack – nage is the aggressor. (More on this concept later, but in short there are 3 primary presentations of timing – nage responding [a startle or flinch response], nage as aggressor, and the ultimate goal – nage as seizing the initiative [neither responding nor attacking])
Again, to set the scene: When holding the sword or knife, the presentation would be a gyaku yokomen (or backhand angle 2) strike and with empty hand it is a reverse back knuckle to the temple (or neck or clavicle). Because uke is threatened with severe bodily harm, they intercept the strike and attempt a control the arm and attempt a counter. That is pause 1. Evaluate. Are you in correct position? Does your striking arm actually have sufficient strength to be effective? Are you aiming at a target? Is it extended too far, are you throwing yourself off balance? Worse, are you balanced only because you don’t know how to hit? Have you moved to the flank – i.e. is your front foot off line relative to your opponent or have you remained on line and subject to a quick snap kick or other stop hit counter?
Pause 1 is the first point. You will be connecting a series of points. Your movement between points will develop the line. The line is what people see as the flow of aikido but if the lines are not connecting points then your movements are not correct – they are nothing more than rudimentary monkey-see monkey-do. Whatever it is, it ain’t martial.
Point 2 is when nage strikes to uke’s shin. Now there is a good deal a subtlety to get from point 1 to point 2 (that is why we train, to figure that out), but at its most basic: your attack was intercepted and blocked – and perhaps there is a counter being deployed – so you need to move to your secondary target. One needs pay very close attention to posture, etc., while moving from 1 to 2 but that is for class-time refinement. Now that we are at the shin keep the hand there – that is the fixed point that defines the axis of movement. You now spin around that point on a strong 180-degree line (tenkan) to be parallel to uke and at their flank (safe from counter). The goal is to minimize the amount of information (telegraphing) given to uke while gaining positional advantage. Point 3 is going to be raising slightly forward and up – this is to further extend uke’s balance but more specifically it would extract the weapon from a two hand grab – and then quickly snap naturally out and down while the arc of the hand turns blade up to the final target – the femoral artery.
As a kata – focusing on precise movements from each point to point should allow you to feel within your own body without the “noise” or feedback from uke to confuse your development. If you just move point to point with precision you should begin to sense the logic of the flow. Keep your lines as tight and fluid as possible – tight meaning keep the arc of the arm in a uniform and structurally sound form while moving it at a constant distance from your core. In Aikido the primary joint in the arm is the shoulder and wrist – the elbow should almost never be a primary joint (the elbow is a short weapon, close range system). This is merely one presentation of a specific encounter. There are several variations on morotedori kokyu nage – each dictated by uke’s counter – but the point of the kata is to provide you a tool to deepen your understanding of the art and to refine your movements – increase the precision. Adding this to your training methods is an augmentation of – not a replacement for – the standard classroom method.
Goals of Kata
I will continue to provide a series of solo encounters, but always keep in mind the goals and limitations described above. There is a method informing my iconoclastic thinking
When I started training, I had the benefit of three training partners who were all of a like mind – we were earnest and honest with each other, we trusted one another, and we were all looking for effective martial technique. Thus I had a great feedback mechanism – a crucible of honesty – but in some ways we probably all retarded a more subtle refinement of understanding because while focusing on the pragmatic we were often too locked into the contextual specifics. What do I mean? For example, with irimi nage we focused on an explosive entry to the rear and a forceful control of the neck to de-stabilize. Undeniably effective, but contextual to the dynamic encounter.
So, the kata should allow you to focus on the principles – good targeting, smooth transitions, and the ability to visualize counters (anticipate the potential responses). The kata, therefore, should first coordinate your internal mechanics. And I am trying to present kata only once run through the grist mill – making sure that it passes an honesty test – so that we can trust that it passes the test of conscious ability to analyze the situation and recall the appropriate technique when you need to act in fractions of a second. We cannot think in the moment – It is just too slow. The kata must “think” for us so that we can react appropriately.
Program your body. First, learn the movements related to the technique or response that you plan to make reflexive. Coordination and familiarity with the movements of the technique are what creates the ‘neural map’ that makes it reflexive. As I stated earlier – we must practice and repeat correct motion – mindful practice and quality repetition together with a clear understanding of the right mechanics are imperative. The more you practice and refine the movements involved in the technique, the more easily and quickly your mind can access them. After many repetitions, your mind will eventually consolidate all the individual motor movements – the points on the path – that comprise the technique into a line of flow. This is when the discrete points become a line of movement. From one stimulus (the initial encounter with uke), all the related movements will become linked together, in synchronic flow. This is possible because the movements and their relationship have become a trained reflex. Therefore, you should be able to respond without needing to consciously remember all the individual parts of the technique. Solo training can also allow you to take your time and really develop your coordination before moving on to reaction training – which is the typical dynamic in the classroom. In order to take advantage of muscle memory, you must first create an experience that you can remember. If your central nervous system does not have a complete profile on your technique, then you cannot expect the recall to be very smooth or accurate.
Partnered Training – the classroom setting The challenge is that in the classroom – both uke and nage must train with the correct sincerity – there should be a level of pressure because when practicing techniques under pressure, your training experience will often be etched more deeply into your muscle memory than it would be if there were no pressure. It is the stress and emotion from the pressure that causes this to happen. Your mind pays more attention when there is danger or challenge. This creates a more vivid memory. If after several repetitions under pressure, you do not respond in a manner similar to solo training, then slow down and reduce the pressure so you can get it right. Otherwise, you could develop bad habits – give yourself a better chance of getting it right by working on coordination at first. Don’t obsess over the tiny details – time on the mat will provide those insights – but make sure you can repeatedly perform the movement correctly on command at full or near full speed. This is applied learning – the kata becomes manifest. Or working the feedback in reverse, where the messy reality of training with another reacting human shows where you may need to refine your understanding of what the kata should be teaching you.
Pressure in training means, sincerity of attack, playing with the variables of strength, speed, and angles. If the kata is a Platonic form, then classroom practice is Aristotelean reality – the real world destroying your intellectual paradigm. Just remember – the kata probably holds the key, the answers you need. Keep looking.
On training and trust
I have told this story before but it was a formative experience for me. While training karate with Flores Sensei there were more women in his “aggressive” class than there were in Okamoto Sensei’s “soft” class. The most regular karate students were a lesbian couple. So I grilled them one day – why karate with a man and not aikido with a woman teacher? They said they could never do aikido because of the close proximity when training.
The close and constant physical invasion is a big psychological deterrent. So obviously establishing trust needs to be the first goal. This is an amazingly physical and intimate art. Like in any relationship if trust has been violated it’s hard to establish. And made more complex with the male/female dynamic.
Perhaps a general reminder: In traditional martial arts the senior student is uke. The senior “teaches” not by doing but by guiding through correct movement. This is quite the obverse side of a typical western male way of thinking of providing information but it is highly productive in transmitting a martial art. First it puts us as the senior in the vulnerable position – why? Because the senior can protect themselves. Build confidence and transmit from the correct response not the correct technique. Why? Because technique – the how to – is ultimately the least important part of the encounter. How does this manifest in training? There is nothing to correct – unless there is something dangerous going to happen there is never a good reason to stop a juniors movement Stopping an action to correct is going to be perceived as a dominate act but more importantly it stops the learning process abruptly. Try to guide the action to the better angle, put your arm in the correct relationship.
Last night while taking ukeme for Brian I told him to stop rolling his back without being able to see him. Lianne asked how could I tell? Simply by getting thrown and pinned a whole lot you should be able to sense what is happening in Both parties. This is the expression of “the spirit of aikido” or “kimusubi” it ain’t peace love and understanding in some vague philosophical sense but in the very real sense of establishing a genuine connection so that you can feel what is happening in both players simultaneously in order to focus on the common connection. You cannot take the hara if you cannot feel it right?
So it’s listening to the encounter – not trying to create an encounter. I haven’t gone zen or PC (Zeus strike me dead should I become so befuddled) but it’s just good combat sensitivity. If you cannot listen to/be sensitive to uke then ultimately you will be defeated by your deafness. The kill isn’t manifest in the block or the push or the force but rather in the thrust that isn’t seen or felt until it’s too late. Don’t rely on strength or simple dominance.
I think it’s easy to confuse intensity in training with moving fast and hard. That has its place but frankly it’s only useful to pound the body with your dohai and with mutual consent. But ultimately physical training is just conditioning it isn’t the art. The more productive learning is dealing with and learning how to deliver constant steady pressure. Firm constant contact is less threatening than ballistic or pulsating delivery of force. Again it’s just better combat skills. Try to beat my blade away and I’ll slip away for the kill. Keep constant contact with my blade I’ll have to trick your death from ya.
As the Mulligan sensei said we need a safe environment to cultivate new students (or retain the ones we have) to pay the rent. So teaching ain’t where the dojo should probably focus its efforts but rather on the cultivation of a place where we help everyone feel like they are making progress