Unfinished thoughts on KI-MUSUBI from 2001

Linguistically, Japanese sounds exotic, which (like most things in life) is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because a Japanese phrase like ki-musubi forces non-Japanese speakers to pause mentally and to question seriously whether or not we understand the concept. Translated, ki-musubi is ‘to tie Ki.’ Now the curse of a foreign language is obvious: what does ‘Ki’ mean and what does it mean ‘to tie’ it?

In English ‘to tie’ derives from Old English têah, têg ‘that with which anything is fastened’ (and ultimately from Old Norse taug ‘rope’) and is related to rope-related action verbs like ‘to bind’ (*tegan, tgan), ‘to draw, drag’ (togian) and ‘to pull’ (ton). Good Anglo-Saxon words that Sir Walter Scott would approve of using, but the implicit idea (the hidden etymological assumption) in these concepts is coercive and forced.

In Latin the verb vincio has a broader semantic range: to bind, bind about, fetter, tie, fasten, surround, and encircle. It survives in English (through the present infinitive, vincîre) as vinculum, which means a bond or a tie and specifically in anatomy, a ligament.

Ovid was very fond of vincio. As a poet, his uses are metaphorically beautiful:

Miscuimus lacrimas maestus uterque suas;

Non sic adpositis vincitur vitibus ulmus,

Ut tua sunt collo bracchia nexa meo.


“Our mingled tears spoke our mutual sadness.

You clasped your arms round my neck,

more closely than the curling vines embrace the towering elm.”

(Letter from Oenone to Paris)

For Ovid being tied is the embrace of a lover, held tight and bound fast. Later authors like Cicero and Tacitus used vincio slightly more often (statistically) than Ovid did, but they focused on the obligations of being ‘tied’ to another as a member of a group. Later usage often expressed the concept by using the noun vinculum:

“…tum accedit mea quidem sententia maximum vinculum, quod ita rem geris atque gessisti…”

… your complimenting me has been exactly the same as, in common with your ancestors and entire family… (M. Tullius Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares, bk 15, ltr 11, sec 2).

To tie the knot is also a Latin idea: vinculum matrimonii (‘the bond of marriage’). But a bond of unity can quickly become a fetter or impediment. In the Latin Vulgate, the Book of Mark (7:35), we find, “et statim apertae sunt aures eius et solutum est vinculum linguae eius et loquebatur recte,” or “immediately his ears were opened and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke clearly.” (The man was ‘tongue-tied.’) But even later Latin acknowledged the positive aspects of bonds. In Colossians (3:14), “super omnia autem haec caritatem quod est vinculum perdectionis,” ‘Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection.’

The complex etymological history should indicate how the act of tying oneself to another has deep physical and emotional implications. Being bound in marriage (which we moderns need to be reminded, means that a unity is created from a dyad), being exactly of the same mind, and engulfed in a lover’s embrace are all the positive aspects of musubi. This concept is inseparable from productive training in Aikido.

In weapons training, the prosaically named sixth paired exercise, roku no tachi, is also called ki-musubi. Each practitioner must watch the other closely. The focus of the exercise is to develop a mutual awareness, a sense of timing, wherein the motions of both people are matched exactly: both people are of the same mind (sententia maximum vinculum). There are of course physical cues (breathing patterns, eye movement, etc.) that indicate that each party ultimately is watching the other in order to know when to respond. However, in the past, Yoko has made us practice this exercise from a distance in the dark in order to limit the visual cues and learn to sense when the other is moving. This is nothing mystical, it simply means paying very close attention to all possible sense data.

In practice it is very easy to get wrapped up in the personal experience of the art. This is unavoidable, especially when first learning the movement patterns. However, to progress in Aikido, one must move beyond his or her own physical experience (how does it feel, where does my hand go, etc.) and learn to ‘read’ the other person. In my understanding, this is ki-musubi.

All to often our focus on the personal experience of the art (even the Western teaching method of telling someone what to ‘do’) can form unrealistic ideals of self-sufficiency that puts one out of touch with interdependence and consequently out of touch with the very purpose of Aikido.


9 thoughts on “KI-MUSUBI

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