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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > January, 2006 - The Nature of Aiki

The Nature of Aiki by George S. Ledyard


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I remember as a child I was fascinated with Astronomy. One of the great tools of the day was the Mt. Palomar Observatory which had the largest reflecting telescope in the world. It had a 200 inch mirror which happened to have been made by the Corning glass works in New York State near where I grew up. I actually got to see one of the blanks just like the one from which the actual mirror was made. It weighed several tons. Yet, in my readings I came across the fact that the whole telescope was powered by several small electric motors, 1/3 horse power, if I remember correctly. This was achieved by a system of counter weights which made it possible to move the entire structure with ease. The whole structure was a marvel of balance.

I have come to see that Aikido is pretty much all about finding this balance, in ones technique, inside oneself, in ones relationships. In fact I think this is pretty much the definition for "aiki". From a practical standpoint it may be useful to identify several aspects of "aiki" as a way to make the concept clearer for students of the art. The first aspect of "aiki" in Aikido is what I would refer to as the "aiki movement". This is the fundamental level of the art. It's about discovering how one can move ones body in such a way that one can put forth power which doesn't conflict with the power of the partner / opponent.

One can be functional in Aikido if one has a basic understanding of this aspect of "aiki", in fact most of what one encounters if one travels around the Aikido world, so to speak, is focused on just this aspect of the art. The Aikido Kihon waza are fundamentally about developing a foundation of understanding in this area. Aikido students accomplish this via exaggerated flowing movements as well as static technique practice. One of the problems I see in Aikido today is that, for many, even some highly ranked practitioners, this aspect of aiki is the only aspect of "aiki" emphasized in their technique. This reduces the art to a mere understanding of how body mechanics work. If one understands how the balance lines of the body work and how the various muscles function one can execute technique by optimizing ones own alignment and structural integrity and disrupting the partner / opponent's. This is what I would refer to as the jiu jutsu level of the art. This non-opposition is only the first step towards achieving "unity".

The next aspect of "aiki" is actually dependent on the understanding of the previously described aspect of the "aiki of movement". I will call this the "aiki of joining" or unifying on the physical level. I see a fundamental distinction between merely being able to move in a way that is non-oppositional and understanding how to join ones physical and with those of the partner / attacker. One can see an example of what I referring to just by looking at the simple exercise of performing a tenkan movement when grabbed with katate-tori. At the beginning of ones training one is often grabbed by a strong partner and one finds oneself unable to move. At this stage the fundamental understanding of how to move without running in to the partner's power is lacking and movement is difficult or impossible.

As one increases his understanding of body mechanics one gets to the point at which he can move and the partner can't stop him any more. This is not a particularly sophisticated level of understanding however. At this level of execution the nage may be able to move but his movement merely "escapes" from the "attack". The execution of the tenkan movement fails to effect the uke in any substantial fashion; he is still in his original position of strength and his alignment remains unaffected.

In every Aikido technique there is an instant in which the nage "accepts" the attack of the uke, in this case the grab. When the grab is first executed the uke is able to use his extensors and contractors to deliver power to the nage. Once the nage accepts the attack or grab, a unity is established and the attacker experiences a very marked diminution of his strength. When nage moves, not only can uke not stop him but uke moves as well. So, in our example of the tenkan movement, the uke's position and structural alignment are altered when the nage turns. In fact, the only way not to move would be to let go and break the connection.

Whereas the move up in technique from the "aiki of movement" to the "aiki of physical joining" is a substantial jump in ones skill level, it is still only an intermediate understanding of technique. Uke and nage are still "two" and accomplishing the "joining" of the physical energies is still a matter of re-acting on the part of the nage. If his understanding of timing and spacing is good he will be able to do effective technique at this level but there is still a "suki" or opening that the highly skilled attacker could exploit.

O-Sensei often spoke of the concept of "katsu hayabi" or "instant victory". In a spiritual sense this concept basically refers to the idea of just letting go of ones illusions and being Enlightened "in this instant" (similar to the Rinzai Zen concept of "Sudden Enlightenment"), but when referring to the martial interaction it refers to the idea that the fight is over at the moment of contact. So, in our example of katate-tori, the uke's center is taken at the instant he grabs nage. So, in a sense, this represents a coming together of the "aiki of movement" and the "aiki of joining". Movement is already taking place by the time the attack arrives so there is no time-lag between the attack and the defense, the technique is on at the instant of contact.

The question at this point becomes "what is moving?" and "when does it move"? O-Sensei stated that his technique didn't rely on "timing", that it was essentially beyond that concept. The only way to understand what he meant is to understand what I will call the "aiki of unity". The nage no longer even thinks of a separation between himself and the uke. They are essentially one. This reality exists in the Mind before it manifests itself in a physical technique. Even when one does not see any physical movement, the Mind is moving within that physical stillness. If one projects ones "attention" to the opponent's center, one has already "entered" before the physical movement has manifested that entry. So the issue of re-action time becomes moot as I am already in. O-Sensei talked about this in his doka when he talked about "already being behind" his opponents when they surrounded him.

This is the most sophisticated level of aiki as it relates to the opponent / partner. It requires the joining of "intentions". At this level it becomes impossible to move separately from ones partner / opponent. No longer is there a re-action because the connection between the two partners is so deep that any energetic change on the part of the uke is immediately reflected by a shift on the part of the nage. Now I have to say that my own understanding of this is somewhat minimal at best. I have only sporadic success achieving this state of connection, just enough to know what I'm shooting for but not enough that I'd want to rely on it ina life and death encounter. I have had it done to me by Saotome Sensei many times and most recently by Ushiro Kenji Sensei, the Karate teacher. I have read accounts of O-Sensei and Takeda Sensei in which opponents experienced an inability to attack them because they could sense that there was no "opening" (the suki I mentioned before). One of my friends saw a Kendo demonstration match between two practitioners who were being awarded 8th Dan. They stood motionless (to the eye) across from each other until the referee declared a draw. Their mental connection was so complete that neither one could attack the other. The entire "battle" took place in their Minds.

All three of these aspects of aiki which I have delineated, "the aiki of movement", "the aiki of physical joining", and "the aiki of unity" relate to the aspect of aiki which has to do with harmonizing with the partner / opponent. Aikido also certainly requires what I will call an "internal aiki" which has to do with harmonizing ones own energy. Mike Sigman, Ellis Amdur and others have had on-going discussions about this aspect of the art both on Aiki-Web and on Aikido Journal. This aspect of Aikido is about developing internal power. It is developed by various training exercises which have become either uncommon or absent altogether in modern Aikido but which were probably central in the development of the legendary ability displayed by people like O-Sensei and Takeda Sensei (this is discussed on Aikido Journal in Ellis Amdur's article "Hidden in Plain Sight").

Of course making a distinction between these aspects of aiki is really artificial. They are all connected and it would be rare for someone to have more than a superficial understanding of one aspect and not have any understanding of another of these. But I do see a sort of progression of development in most folk's Aikido which indicates that understanding of one of these aspects does not automatically mean the same level of understanding of the other aspects. I think the hardest aspect to accomplish is the internal aiki. Development of internal power of the type that O-sensei, Takeda Sensei, Yoshida Sensei etc. were able to access is quite rare. Most of what I see being propagated under the name of Aikido focuses almost exclusively on the aiki of movement level of the art and many people seem quite unaware of that these other aspects of aiki exist, except as manifested in the stories of the legendary Founders who could do all sorts of things that the rest of us can't. Aikido needs to become more clear about these different aspects and it should work to develop training designed to foster an understanding of these various aspects. Without that, there will simply be no more teachers of the caliber that once existed.


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