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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > March, 2004 - Aikido and Aiki
by George S. Ledyard

Aikido and Aiki by George S. Ledyard


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What is it that makes Aikido, Aikido? If anything it's got to be aiki, this word which we loosely translate as Harmony. Yet what is often presented as for Aikido seems notably lacking in aiki making it more another form of jiu jutsu.

An understanding of balance lines, the mechanics govern body movement, proper positioning, etc. are the foundations of technique or waza. Initially, Aikido training is about mastering this level. Strength, speed, power, and focus are developed. The basic elements of timing and spacing become second nature, as well as an intuitive understanding of suki or openings, ones own and ones partner's.

But if practice of our art stops there, it stays on the level of jiu jutsu. It remains merely an efficient method of physical manipulation of the partner or opponent. This is the level of the physical, the realm of science which can be observed and quantified, can be understood and explained in concrete fashion by the thinking, logical functions of the brain.

Aiki is the term which refers to the intersection of the physical with the Mind and Spirit. It is fundamentally a term which has to do with relationship, between things, between beings. In terms of waza it relates to how the physical interaction as two people come together is effected by their perceptions, their thoughts, and their emotions.

In this realm explanations are difficult and usually metaphorical. Effects can be felt and sometimes observed but causes seem mysterious. Interactions are characterized by a lack of tension exhibiting a quality of "naturalness" which is not found in the merely mechanical. This is the realm of aiki and it is what makes the aiki arts, including Aikido, unique.

The great practitioners of the aiki-related arts, of whom Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido, is the most famous but not by any means the only one, all exhibited technique which lacked tension. Physical tension, mental tension, any tension whatever is largely a product of the mind. Training to develop aiki necessarily focuses on simultaneously relaxing the body and the mind.

O-Sensei used a term, take musu aiki, to describe what he saw as the essence of his art. Take is the same character as the bu in budo, the "way of the warrior". Here it refers to the techniques of the martial interaction or waza. Musu is the same phrase that is found in musubi (lit. to tie the knot) which is used to describe unbroken connection between the partners in Aikido. Musu has a procreative or generative meaning as well. So in this context, take musu aiki could be said to mean that waza (martial physical technique) arises out of or is born from the state of aiki. When the partners, or opponents, come together, technique spontaneously arises. O-sensei would often say that his techniques were "Divine techniques", that the Kami simply "revealed" these techniques to him. It is precisely this element of technique happening, seemingly without an actor that characterized the Founder's Aikido and should serve as a model for our own training.

To begin to experience this, it is necessary to lose one's attachment to the success of a given technique. Unfortunately, most Aikido training tends to increase this attachment rather than decrease it.

The standard training model in Aikido is for the Sensei to stand in front of the class with a partner who takes the role of uke (the attacker) who executes a particular attack. The Sensei then executes an appropriate technique which the students attempt to imitate.

The problem with this training model is that from the very start it is artificial. The uke knows what technique is to be done and consciously or unconsciously changes his energy in anticipation. This can make the technique difficult to do, creating a situation in which the nage (defender) tries to force the technique in order to make it look the same as the Sensei's. This is fundamentally not aiki. A great degree of tension is introduced into a student's technique in the attempt to duplicate someone else's technique.

The uke may not even be giving the proper energy for the technique demonstrated by the teacher, but nage will work very hard to get that particular technique because that is the expectation. This is not conducive to developing the sensitivity required to utilize aiki, rather than physical power, in doing technique.

One response to this problem is to take the energy out of the interaction between the partners. It becomes the attacker's job to facilitate the defender's technique. The attacker is no longer "attacking" but merely going through the motions. This allows the nage to relax, develop flowing movement, and feel positive about their practice because everything seems to be working.

The problem with this solution is that it is a fundamentally faux solution to the problem of having aggressive tension in one's technique. When harmony exists in technique only because the attacker is acting in agreement with the defender then all martial meaning is lost. This is like saying Aikido is a form of conflict resolution when there isn't any conflict.

It is a fundamental requirement of the practice that the attacker do his job. If he is grabbing the defender, then he must give a grab which is designed to connect with the defender's center. If he is striking it is the fundamental definition of what he is doing that he really attempts to hit the defender. It is impossible to understand aiki when the energetics of an interaction are counterfeit. A partner with an arm extended towards one's head isn't doing a strike; he is holding his arm out. A partner with a weak grab isn't grabbing anything more than your wrist. A real grab would attempt to control the defender's center. It would be designed to impede nage's movement, off balance him, and prevent him from executing a counter strike or kick. If this isn't what is happening, then the entire interaction between the partners is flawed. A committed encounter is absolutely fundamental to developing real technique.

Some styles of Aikido, in seeking to counter this type of degeneration in training, go to the opposite extreme. As if it were more martial to do so, you find ukes that hunker down on every technique and make it difficult if not impossible for nage to do his technique. Nage in turn seeks to develop physical power, rather than aiki, in order to prevail over these resistant partners.

But once again we have a fundamental problem. In encouraging this type of tension on the part of the attacker we are developing habits which are extremely bad from a martial point of view. Immovability has no function in the martial arts; it simply creates all sorts of suki, or openings, which the nage can exploit. Technique should never be simply "stopped". If nage leaves an opening, then the attack should be reversed, not forced. A good reversal is one that the uke doesn't feel coming until it happens. It is the result of allowing the energy of the interaction to complete itself naturally without artificial force being applied. So what is the solution? Choosing between practice that is too cooperative, too soft and flowing, and martially ineffective versus practice that is too rigid, too physical and equally martially ineffective is not much of a choice.

Think there are ways around this dilemma. First of all Aikido practitioners need to know how to strike; not just the powerful but stiff and slow strikes done by many Aikido students but real striking with speed and power utilizing combination techniques developing focus while requiring relaxation. This would help people move away from the heavy handed technique used by people who think Aikido is just about hurling people hard to the ground. Weapons work helps in this area as well. One simply can't do weapons work with any proficiency if one is tight physically. It is helpful if the teacher makes frequent connection between empty hand and weapons technique so that students can execute their hand techniques with the same relaxed energy they use in their weapons technique.

Uke must not only attack with power but with an awareness of his openings. Nage should be encouraged to test these openings by throwing appropriate atemi at any point in the technique in which he thinks his .partner is open (Uke should be able to do this as well). When an Uke grabs his partner, he should be able to defend against any atemi thrown by the defender at that moment. His attack should be designed to do just that. This would keep him from over committing to a single attack and would cause him to put his attention in covering his suki. Technique at that point becomes more about pointing out the attacker's openings than grabbing him and hurling him to the ground or torque-ing his joints.

Once technique becomes more about openings than physical power the mental angle becomes more important. The perceived threat of an atemi to an open point can cause an uke to change his movement, adjust his balance, present an arm, etc. Technique becomes more about putting the attacker in a place where he gives you the technique than about you taking it. This part of what ki is about, using the mind to shape the body.

Intensity of practice needs to be slowly adjusted in such a way that it does not create tension. Some people believe that severe training is necessary to develop their strength of intention, their physical toughness. While true this must be accomplished in the proper way. If practice is done in a way that it produces a fear response along with the resultant physical contraction it is not being done properly. Practitioners will internalize that tension on a cellular level and it will appear any time a similar martial encounter is perceived. Instead practice should only gradually increase in intensity to allow the student to handle greater and greater amounts of energy with fudoshin or "immoveable mind".

While it is clearly necessary for a beginning level student to simply repeat a single technique over and over until the movement is ingrained, students from the third or second kyu onwards should be encouraged to use henka waza (adjusting from one technique to another as a situation dictates) when a technique they are attempting isn't working. Rather than force any technique the student develops the skill and sensitivity to feel where the energy is going and to direct his technique appropriately. This puts more emphasis on relaxation and sensitivity than muscle strength and false ideas of power.

The central challenge of Aikido training is one of finding the correct balance between developing strong intention, or will, and removing physical tension from technique. Yamaguchi Sensei taught that no technique should require more effort than simply resting the weight of ones arms on his partner when he is off balance. Yet, if we are "attached" to an outcome then we can't find the place where the energy wishes to go of its own accord. This very much has to do with the Mind. The only instant in which action can take place is the present instant. The past is over and can not be changed. The future has not yet arrived so no action can take place there. The present instant is the result of a flow of past instances which pass through the present instant towards the future. All events in the future are a set of probabilities which are a result of the past actions as viewed in the present instant. Whatever actions we take in the present instant will shape the probabilities of the future. So our actions can be executed with the idea that we are developing up a set of probable outcomes but we can not be attached to any of those. Attachment to an outcome means that the Mind is stuck in the past (it is stuck on the idea of the technique, not the reality of the instant). This is not aiki.

Anticipating the actions of the attacker puts the Mind in the future. This is very dangerous since the anticipated reaction of the attacker may take a different form than one thought. This can result in injury when taking ukemi and it can result in an attempt to execute an inappropriate technique when acting as nage. This is also not aiki. It is fine and necessary to see the probable outcomes of a action in this instant as this gives ones technique structure and forms the basis for strategy. If one can resist the temptation to step out of the present then we can be ready for any eventuality and technique can flow easily as a result of how the attacker and defender come together.

I think that a way to address this is to put emphasis on jiyu waza or freestyle practice earlier than is often customary. The students should be encouraged to find the easiest path possible for the energy of a given technique. If the technique they are doing doesn't work it should be permissible and automatic that they be able to make the adjustments to flow into a variation. A teacher who tries to force a student to do a particular technique a specific way is encouraging him to force his technique. He will have his Mind stuck on the "idea" of the technique, not the reality. This also not aiki.

Aikido is really about developing the capacity to stay relaxed and to stay in the present moment, even under stress. I think that we as Aikido practitioners and teachers can do a better job of teaching this to our students. This may involve getting creative about our teaching methods. Articles I write in the future may address this issue again.


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