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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > May, 2005 - Initiative, Timing, and Spacing (Part II of II)

Initiative, Timing, and Spacing (Part II of II) by George S. Ledyard


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One cannot talk about timing and spacing as separate concepts. From a martial arts standpoint they are interchangeable; more space = more time, less space = less time. Size is just another way to talk about space and the same thing holds true: larger movement takes more time (slower), smaller movement takes less time (faster). In addition to being able to understand time in the sense of duration (as above) we need to utilize the concept of relative time or rhythm. There is the rhythm of ones own movement, there is the rhythm of the opponent's movement.

Awase is a term which refers to the relative rhythm of the attacker and defender. It describes the basic rhythm of normal Aikido practice when the emphasis is on mutual connection. When we practice there is no intention to defeat our partner. If we are training properly the uke initiates with an attack, pre-arranged or not, which he executes with intention and clarity. It is his purpose to provide his partner with good, clear energy with which to investigate the principles of the art. His job is to maintain connection with his partner's center until he is either thrown or pinned. The nage in turn establishes a connection with the attacker which he maintains until the energy of the attack reaches fruition, in a throw or pin as mentioned. At the beginner level this practice requires awase. The rhythms of the two partners are in sync. If one can use the oscilloscope as an example, awase is when the two waves on the screen are "in phase" (they raise and fall at the same time).

At higher levels of the art one recognizes that awase is a form of collusion between the partners in which they cooperate to produce a result. For instance, in a sword kata each person executes his movement in such a way as to allow the partner to respond with his own designated movement. This is quite different from a martial encounter in which every move in the form would be done as a potential finishing move. No one goes into a fight thinking he is the uke... These are artificial concepts created to make practice safer and more comprehensible.

The problem with awase is that both partners are equally connected. A movement from one can produce a timely response on the part of the other. Sometimes this simply means that the partner responds according to his assigned role in the practice. But if we are talking of a martial encounter it would mean that an attempt to apply a given technique on a partner who was in the same rhythm as the defender would result in a reversal or kaeshiwaza. In reality technique will only be successful if it breaks with the opponent's rhythm. The defender must put the attacker "out of phase" (the waves on the scope rise and fall out of sync).

Since most Aikido practitioners train in the basics extensively, it is often the case that they do not consciously utilize this concept of being "out of phase". For instance, atemi waza is the most common way to put the opponent "out of phase". Any given technique has a rhythm or beat. I often use dance rhythms to describe the beats in a given technique. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 is waltz time, 1-2,1-2-3 is cha cha, etc. The proper use atemi is to put the attacker "out of phase" with the defender. The mistake that many practitioners make when they apply atemi is that they add the atemi as an additional full beat. If the partner is in rhythm (awase) he is able to add his own response and still stay with the rhythm of the defender. This does not put him "out of phase".

It is much more effective to apply the atemi on a "half beat" that doesn't alter the essential rhythm of the technique being executed. A simple example would be the atemi required to successfully go under the partner's arm from the front for a technique like katate-tori sankyo without being struck by the partner's opposite hand. The atemi here is crucial to the movement; no matter how fast one tries to move he will be struck by the opposite hand unless there is an atemi to put the partner "out of phase". Execution of this atemi is often done in such a way that it cannot possibly accomplish its purpose, namely, to cause a defensive reaction on the part of the opponent which gives one enough time to pass under his arm without being struck. One typically sees the nage attempt to pass under the partner's arm while holding a rigid arm extended towards the opponent's face. This has a number of problems: a) there's no power in a "strike" like this; in fact it's not a strike at all. b) the opponent will almost certainly parry the arm. The rigid nature of the extension will allow the opponent to parry the strike with power causing uke's forward momentum to decrease making the under the arm movement difficult. c) the "rhythm" of the atemi is incorrect; the atemi must be executed as a half beat, not added as a full beat. Most Aikido folks throw the atemi before they make the step under the arm. Their idea is that their atemi will make the space they wish to pass through "safe" for them. This is fundamentally incorrect unless they can actually land the atemi to a vulnerable point and cause some level of incapacitation on the part of the uke. If that is accomplished, there may be no need to move under the arm at all for the technique. It is better to throw the atemi with the assumption that it will be parried and a counter strike launched. For nage to be successful in this he must throw the atemi just as he begins the step to go under the arm. Since the mass of the arm is less than the body, it is easier to accelerate it and although it was thrown at the same instant, as the step, it will reach its point of focus just ahead of the moving body. The atemi should be thrown correctly, not as a rigid extension, but as a lightning strike which will retract the instant after it reaches its focal point. If done well, the opponent will not even touch the strike as he attempts to parry due to the reactive gap. By the time he realizes he has not been able to parry and counter strike, the nage is already under the arm. Getting people to understand this is quite easy, actually. Simply ask the uke to parry and counter strike rather than simply parry when the partner attempts to go under the arm. If the atemi is done ahead of the step under the arm it will be parried and the nage will be struck. If the atemi is done just as nage commits to the step, it will reach its focal point on the half beat and the opponent will be unable to parry and strike back, even if he just manages to parry.

Another place in which the timing and intention issue can clearly be seen in the kata menuchi techniques (the attack is a shoulder grab accompanied by a strike with the opposite hand to the head). I watched students from my class training the other evening as they worked on a series of techniques from this attack. Although the outer form of the technique looked fine in most cases, the actual core of the technique on an energetic level had been turned upside down. I stopped class and called up several of the students and I took the role of uke, initiating the attack. In all cases I struck the student in the head before he could block my strike (the atemi on kata menuchi is usually done with the same hand as the shoulder which is grabbed by the attacker thereby forcing him to block rather than strike with his other hand).

As I tried to analyze why the students were uniformly late in their movements I realized that they didn't understand who actually had the initiative in the technique. But the real problem was that they got away with this misunderstanding when training with each other because no one actually attacked with the intention of actually striking his partner. Having trained for some time already in their Aikido careers and being familiar with how this series of techniques works, they had no actual expectation that their strike to the head would actually connect. After all, they were imitating my techniques as I had shown it and my partner hadn't hit me... They actually threw the atemi with the idea that the defender would block it, not with the intention to strike. This in turn allowed the nage to "react" by throwing his own atemi and forcing the uke to protect his face by blocking.

This is a disastrous occurrence when this happens in training. The entire interaction becomes energetically false. Students construct their understanding of timing and spacing based on false energy from uke and go forward thinking that what they are doing actually works when in fact their technique only worked because there was no actual attack to begin with. When I attacked, I put intention into my strike. I did not strike with the idea of facilitating my partner's technique. I simply executed the strongest grab and strike I could do. The students were, of course, shocked when they realized that what they thought had been working wasn't really working. After all they were training quite energetically, every body sweating up a storm, moving strongly and with power... They had allowed developed habit and their expectation of what was to happen to shift their intention.

Once the uke actually attacked with the intention to really strike his partner, it became immediately apparent that at this distance, the nage couldn't throw his atemi as a "reaction" to the incoming strike, instead he had to seize the initiative by striking the uke just as uke committed to the grab. This forced the uke to convert his intention to strike to a defensive block in order not to be struck. At the moment of contact between nage's atemi and uke's defensive block nage was able to use the energy of the contact to set up his technique. So instead of the false assumption that uke would attack with a grab followed by a strike at which time nage would respond and somehow take back the initiative and execute a technique, we see that although the uke intended to attack with kata menuchi, his strike is precluded by the strike delivered by nage. At this range if nage waits until there is a strike he is too late to deal with it effectively. This is a very good example of how a shift in intention allowed an action to take place at a distance when it should not have been possible. Once again, because Aikido students so seldom actually hit each other, they can easily develop the expectation that their strikes won't connect and they unconsciously stop attempting to do so.

I believe that we need to address the components of our Aikido practice. We have an array of grabs and several strikes in our kihon waza. I think that students should be made aware of exactly what they are attempting to do with a "wrist grab", what is the precise target for a tsuki attack. Each component has an essential meaning or purpose. In order to have clear intention in ones technique, one must be absolutely clear about how one goes about "creating" this essential component. In other words, in order for a shomen uchi to fulfill its definition it must have several elements. If a shomen uchi is to be a strike to the front of the head it must have proper maai. It must have enough speed that it has some real hope of striking the opponent. And finally, if it does strike the opponent, it is important that it have enough power to do what it needs to do in the martial interaction, namely create physical dysfunction or break the attacker's rhythm. This is true of every component whether it is a grab or a strike. The movement will have a purpose and it cannot be considered an adequate expression of what it is meant to be if it lacks any of the essential components. And if it is not an adequate expression of itself it is energetically false. Training with an attack that is energetically false is not only not worth while, it is actively detrimental to one's training.

It is one thing to do shomen uchi ikkyo as a beginner with a partner who has purposely chosen to back off on the speed and power of the attack in order to allow the beginner to figure out the movement. It is quite another to see a group of experienced practitioners training and realize that none of them can actually do the attack adequately. Every time you do a technique in practice you are imprinting a complex set of elements such as timing, spacing, rhythm, intention, etc. If one trains using energetically false attacks, one is imprinting a whole series of relationships which aren't true. Then when one actually encounters a partner who has effective technique and strong intention one is completely unable to perform the techniques that seemed to so accessible in normal training.

An understanding of the issues concerning timing, spacing, intention, etc is one of the things which allows someone to take his training up to the higher levels. I have only just briefly touched on these issues as they relate to Aikido practice. I think that once one becomes aware of how these different elements effect ones technique and how ones actions and intention actually effect ones partner, then a virtually infinite area for study opens up before you. If one aspires to take ones technique from the merely physical to the realm of aiki, it is an understanding of these elements that begins to get one started.


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