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Sensei was discussing with me the concept of the limbic brain, the part that controls our autonomic nervous system. More familiarly, it is the system that regulates the "fight, flight, or freeze" instinct when we are confronted in a dire situation. She points out that in the wild, a lot of prey enter the "freeze" state when captured by their predator: once it feels the lion's jaws lock in on its neck, the antelope's body goes stiff as it mentally discharges from reality, defaulting to the natural instinct that helps keep it from feeling pain. If the lion accidentally slips, the antelope seemingly comes back to life, rigid body contorting in a few spastic shakes. Where just a moment ago its body prepared it for death, survival instinct kicks back into gear just as quickly, the nervous system pumping jolts of adrenaline to re-activate every fiber of muscle and allow it to get away.
Underneath this human skin, we are primordially the same animals, experiencing similar urges during a physical confrontation. Depending on our natures, we default to one of the three responses, and in aikido, this is arguably most apparent when we practice jiyu waza, free-form attacks and defenses. Unbound from the confines of repeating a demonstrated technique over and over, perhaps nothing is quite as liberating—and as intimidating—as being allowed the freedom to attack and defend ad-lib. Jiyu waza is aikido's closest to a competitive martial art's concept of sparring in that you never know wha
I was always bad at chemistry because I have trouble learning what I can't visualize. The world of molecules, ions, periodic tables, and formulaic balancing was lost on me—I couldn't see any of it, so as a result, nothing made sense. In aikido, I would grasp onto kernels of wisdom from various training partners to extract meaning from initially confusing techniques. Here are a few that I've filed away to refer back to:
First bokken suburi: To avoid using excessive arm strength while swinging the sword, therefore wearing yourself out faster, first "squash a bug on the tabletop with the hilt," then cut down and extend.
Ikkyo: To keep the ikkyo lock, "keep the Freddy Kreuger fingers pointing up."
Nikkyo Omote: The hand change is "like the axle of a train wheel staying vertical while going round," or "like holding a cup without spilling the water."
Nikkyo Ura: To keep the torque on uke's wrist, keep the palm facing you, "like looking into a mirror."
Sankyo: The hand change is "like peeling back the layers of an onion."
Yonkyo Ura: Keep uke's arm extended once in the yonkyo hold and "trace the radius of the circle before tracing the diameter" to bring down to the pin.
Kotegaeshi: When turning uke over for the pin, one hand holds the wrist while the other pushes the elbow to uke's nose. Then turn the arm "like a steering wheel" instead of pulling on it.
Iriminage: The free hand that takes down uke goes up and over the chin, "like a wave breaking over a rock
These techniques done on the knees require a greater level of precision, a more forceful maneuvering through every step. Sitting kneecap-to-kneecap, there is less mai-ai--distance--between you and your partner. The cheats of using arms strength and vertical leverage do not apply, and balance becomes harder to take as your partner sits stable, closer to the ground.
Sensei explained that suwari waza techniques stemmed from the ancient samurai ways, where a warrior could not rise without permission from his lord. As a result, the samurai devised ways to attack while still seated in respectful seiza. Sensei also said it would help us learn how to move if, from a seated position, we were suddenly attacked--the rules of blocking, blending, and moving out of the way still applied, the most important lesson being, don't freeze.
I used to be good at shikko, the knee-walking that my former Sensei was so keen on using as a warm-up exercise. Now, either my knees have softened after having been out of practice, or my age comes upon me in the form of stiffer joints. My kneecaps throb and my legs burn from cut-off blood flow. I close the distance between my partner and myself, moving in tight to his body, trying to make every joint lock precise and controlled. One advantage of suwari waza is that, seated, I do not feel so much that my petite 5-foot frame is being towered over by a world of giants. Down now to my level, I slide, pivot, and pin, learning how to walk and move in an enti
Most aikido techniques are performed either to the front of the training partner--"omote"--or to the rear--"ura." Both aim to break balance for the take-down and pin. Ura has always felt more powerful to me as a technique, more concentrated on the circular and spiral movements characteristic of aikido. When it's being done to me, there is a brief feeling of being off-balance, followed quickly by an out-of-control spinning where my training partner is the center axis and I am the spoke of the wheel.
Like what William Butler Yeats calls the "widening gyre" in his poem "The Second Coming," the centripetal speed begins at a concentrated point of power and spirals outward, gaining momentum as it becomes a bigger and bigger circle. There is a moment when my mind is gripped by the fear of the body losing control, and I have to make a conscious effort to breathe and allow myself to go with the flow. Arms akimbo, body flailing, and legs losing traction, I fly like I've just lost grip on the merry-go-around on the playground during it's maximum speed, and the room flashes by in a blur, and then I am on the ground, often bruised on my way down as my flesh impacts the mat after gathering velocity.
Ura waza is much like life when it spirals out of control; you can feel it coming, can even brace for it, but in the end, you will be swept along with the tide, watching things spinning from their logical, stationary position until they pass by in a blur, until they no longer make sense.
When that dull, throbbing pain took hold like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my arm, I forgot to breathe. The sensation shot up to my brain like electricity and shut it down; I couldn't think, didn't even register that my eyes were squeezed shut and my jaws were clenched closed until I heard, "Relax. It'll hurt less if you don't stiffen up." Then my training partner let go of his grip, and everything came rushing back to my senses: the sound of my own blood pumping in my ears, the whoosh of air flooding into my lungs, the smell of the dojo, the sight of dust streaks on the training mat on which I lay.
Sensei said, "There is a nerve in the arm, about a palm's width up from the wrist and near the outer bone." This is yonkyo, and finding the nerve can be tricky because its placement on individuals can vary depending on the size of their palm. Once it's found, though, applying pressure to it in the right way can make for a potent submission take-down. When it's yonkyo day at the dojo, I cringe; and I'm fairly certain that I'm not entirely alone in that reaction. I hadn't realized that a simple nerve in the arm can paralyze the entire body. Like a strike to a pressure point, it could cut off the breath and cloud the vision. It leaves bruises 3 inches across on the length of the forearm. It gives people the paranoia that they've gotten permanent nerve damage. It instills power to give, is painful to receive--and one day I'll get it right and execute a perfect yonkyo on eve