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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > September, 2006 - What is Aiki?

What is Aiki? by George S. Ledyard


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From the standpoint of waza, or technique, "Aiki" is how we communicate with the partner / opponent's Mind via his various sensory organs. It is the way that we direct his "attention" (consciousness directs the "attention" to collect information) to create movement of his Mind. Because the Mind and Body are inseparably connected, affecting the Mind automatically affects the body.

The Mind must move before the body begins to move. It is the Mind that moves the body. "intention" provides the motive force for action; it necessarily precedes action. "Aiki" is the use of the partner's "attention" (various sensory inputs) to create movement of his Mind so that his Mind will move his body. Of the various senses "sight" is the dominant sense before the two partner / opponents meet physically. Sound is also important as is the so-called "sixth sense" which we will simply call the intuition. Once physical contact is made, "touch" becomes the overwhelmingly dominant sense.

In the martial interaction the opponent forms the "intention" to attack, his body initiates action, his Mind constantly his "attention" to pick up the information it needs to accomplish the intended action. It is this connection with the consciousness via the "attention" that allows the defender to use that channel of information flow to create movement of the Mind which will, in turn, cause the body to move. In other words, in "Aiki" one moves oneself in order to have the partner move himself. The direction the movement takes must work in accord with the basic physical geometry of the partner's body - weak balance lines, locking direction of the joints etc. But the partner moves himself along these lines because his Mind is led long those same pathways. So in essence, you do not throw your partner, the partner throws himself.


Key Elements of "Aiki"

Attention and Intention

The "attention" is the word used to describe the direction or point of focus for your Mind. When you put your "attention" on something or someone you are directing the various sensory organs to prioritize information coming from that source. The Mind takes the information from the various sensory inputs and tries to create an organized picture for itself. Quite a bit about the use of Aiki in the martial interaction has to do with confusing the Mind by creating conflicting messages for the opponent's Mind via the different sensory inputs. Placement of ones "attention" is critical for directing ones energy properly.

Exercises for directing the "attention":

  1. Two partners stand across the mat from one another. One looks down at his feet or the mat and thinks about something other than his partner. The other simply relaxes and is simply "receptive". At some point the first partner raises his eyes from the floor and looks directly at his partner, feeling as if he is touching him with his mind on the chest. Each partner should notice what it feels like when this connection of the "attention" is established.
  2. Do the same exercise but the two partners should look into each others eyes. This normally will feel quite a bit different.
  3. Now have the two partners both look down and at a signal from a third party, look up, establish visual connection with each others eyes, and then slowly walk forward towards each other. This is a sensitivity exercise, not an "intention" exercise so both parties should be directing their "attention" in a very soft and relaxed manner. You simply want to feel receptive to what it feels like when you reach out with your Mind and establish this connection. Then the two partners should walk towards each other. There is no "right" or "wrong" outcome to this. If a mat full of people do this exercise, some will walk right up to the partner and only stop when they are virtually touching. Others will consistently stop some distance away.
  4. Now, do the same exercise, but the two partners stand with their backs towards each other. Then they should walk backwards towards each other. Notice how the consciousness automatically shifted to "hearing" as the dominant source of input. Also, note how, in the absence of the dominant visual input, the Mind will strive to get information beyond just what it "hears" and will start to try to "feel" where the partner is. That is its attempt to use the "intuition", a sense that is very low voltage, so to speak. Normally the input from the intuition is drowned out by all the "noise" from the other senses. One has to really quiet the Mind before the input from the "intuition" starts registering in the conscious Mind. For fun, try doing this exercise with ear plugs. You can feel the Mind straining to get the information it wants from any source. In the absence of the information from the more dominant senses, it will try hard to reach out with the "intuition" because it needs input to make decisions.
These exercises are very simple ones designed to make people aware that the "direction of the attention" is a form of tangible connection and that this connection utilizes all of the sensory material available. Aikido practice should train one to direct the "attention" properly. The moment ones bows to the partner, the technique is already on. Long before the "attack" begins the two partners have established this communication between them. The information flows both ways through this connection, back and forth. A change in one side is instantly noted on the other side.

"Intention" has two aspects "strength" and "quality":

First, "intention" refers to the strength of the "attention". For instance, the act of Reading a book normally requires a relaxed placement of the "attention". However, if the material in the book is highly technical or is less interesting to the reader, he will have to put effort into keeping his "attention" on the material; this is "intention". In the martial interaction the "intention" required is very high. It is necessary to keep ones "attention" on the opponent's center and stay non-reactive to his kiai, feints, strike, grab, or sword cut. (This is fudo shin in Japanese; it means "immoveable Mind"). It requires strength of "intention" to deliver a committed strike and not be distracted by the opponent's attempts to defend or counter attack. In others words, this aspect of the "intention" is about what we would call the "will".

Second, "intention" is the action of the Mind that determines the "quality" of the interaction. In this aspect its function has to do with directing the movements of the body towards a desired outcome. What is the "intended" outcome of the interaction? If it's a training interaction the intended outcome is mutual growth, if it's a low level conflict with another person some sort of non-violent conflict resolution might be intended. But if the encounter is a real life and death martial encounter, then the "intention" will create actions which will probably result in the destruction of the opponent. In other words, this aspect of "intention" matches ones actions to the quality of the interaction.

The Japanese concept which regulates the interplay between "strength of "intention"" and "quality of "intention"" is "Makoto", or "sincerity". "Makoto" works to ensure that the energy of an interaction is honest, that it is completely consistent with the type of interaction that is talking place.

This aspect of Aikido training is very important to understand. Because training is about working with friends and acquaintances in a simulation of conflict, many people train with weak or no "intention". When they strike, they take the energy out of the strike or strike at an unrealistic distance. When they take ukemi they are anticipatory or over reactive. Weak "intention" is a lack of sincerity. The cause is almost always fear. Fear keeps ones "intention" from being clear. One can be afraid for oneself or even afraid to hurt another, it doesn't matter. Unclear "intention" is insincere, lacking in the crucial quality of "Makoto". In the movie The Last Samurai this was nicely described when Tom Cruise's character was described as having "too many Minds".

What separates the training interaction from the true martial encounter is not a difference in the "strength of "intention"" but rather having a different "quality of "intention"". The Founder created techniques which allow the whole hearted practice of the art with strong, clear, "intention" without injury to the partner. Because of this change in the physical techniques of the art, we can train in the spirit of "shin ken shobu" or the "live blade encounter" in which each instant, ones life is on the line. Training with this attitude is training with "Makoto". If the character of the interaction were to be different, as in a true life and death encounter, the "quality of the "intention"" would change and the direction given the action of the body, i.e. the techniques would change accordingly and the result would most likely be the destruction of the opponent.

Ki Musubi

Ki musubi is the term which describes the joining of ones "attention" with that of his partner / opponent. Obviously an attacker must reach out with his "attention" to the defender. His mind must form the "intention" to attack before his body starts to move. In the martial interaction this "intention" must be very strong. It is essentially a flow of Yang energy proceeding outward from the attacker to the defender. Energy is a form of vibration. Ki Musubi involves reaching out with ones own "attention" and touching the opponent's center. This does not mean that you push back against his "intention" with your own but rather your "intentions" merge his to your center and yours to his. A tuning fork will vibrate sympathetically if another vibrating fork is placed nearby. If one's Mind is relaxed and he extends his attention, he starts to feel the formation of the "intention" to attack rather than merely reacting to the visual cues that may be there as the attacker translates the "intention" to attack into movement with his body.

The ability to do this completely changes how one experiences temporal issues such as "timing" and "speed". In the paired interaction, ones Mind is already at the attacker's center before he initiates the attack. His body simply hasn't actualized what the Mind has already done. This is the key concept to be investigated. What do conventional concepts regarding timing and spacing (sen no sen, go no sen, sen sen no sen, etc.) mean when one starts to operate with the feeling of "already"? The reactive aspect of the interaction with the partner simply disappears and ones perception of time completely changes. Everything slows down and one feels as if there is plenty of time for whatever movement is required.

Ki musubi is essential in allowing the complete relaxation that can then result in the physical musubi at the time of physical contact. If one is in the reactive mode of trying to respond to external cues from the attacker, one is always just a bit behind, just a bit late. "Irimi" or "entering" is almost impossible in this situation. The experience of being late, feeling as if there isn't enough time to complete the desired action creates tension in the Mind and Body which makes "Aiki" impossible.

Exercises to feel and project "intention":

  1. Two partners stand across the mat from one another, as described above. They should direct their "attention" towards each other and make eye contact. One of the two partners will try to feel as if he were streaming energy from his hara towards the other partner. Doing this will probably make the partner doing the projecting feel like dropping his center. He should simply go with what feels natural. Then the partner walks towards the other and tries to maintain a constant strong pressure forward into the other's hara. Both should feel what this is like. It is possible that, if one of the two has very strong "intention", the other may actually feel moved to step back as the other moves forward. Some people actually feel uncomfortable when someone approaches them in this manner. That is the Fear that we spoke of earlier. Training is about learning to deal with that Fear.
  2. Now, have both partners do the same thing described above. If both partners are projecting their "intention" strongly at each other, as they move forward there should be a feeling of building tension or pressure building up between them. Not how it is fairly easy to stand up to strong projection at a distance but as the distance closes, the feeling of the projection magnifies exponentially. One can feel that one is actually approaching some point in space / time at which action MUST take place if this were a martial interaction. That is called "de-ai" or "the critical instant". Some people doing this exercise will feel unwilling to walk any closer to their partner than this point. Others can do so but will definitely feel as if they had to put more energy into their "intention".
  3. Now, have one partner do the projection, as in number 2, and then move forward and strike with full speed and power with a yokomen strike to his partner's neck. The strike should not hit the partner but should not stop farther than an inch away from contact. (Anyone who can't do this must work on his striking.) Both parties should "feel" what happens to them during this interaction. Often the "struck" partner will involuntarily flinch, even though he or she knows that they aren't really going to be struck. Sometimes, the striker will flinch when he strikes. This "instant" of tension is caused by Fear and it must be dealt with through training. This instant of tension will actually prevent the transition from ki musubi to physical musubi No real progress in Aikido is possible while this reaction remains the involuntary response to strong energy coming towards one.
  4. Do the same exercise as above but have both partners walk towards each other. Only one partner strikes but the other partner strives to move straight to the attacker's center without breaking stride or altering course in reaction to the strike. Once again, the ability to do this is a prerequisite for any real success in doing Aikido techniques. If one finds this difficult to do, one has discovered some internal source of fear that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. Tension is the enemy of "aiki" and fear creates tension.
"Irimi" or Entering

Joining the Minds or joining the "intentions" is the aspect of "ki musubi" we just described. It is really essential to have ki musubi if one is to establish "physical musubi" at the instant of physical contact. The term which describes this concept is "ittai ka" or "single body". It refers to the establishment of a state in which it is impossible for the attacker to move separately from the defender. Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei maintained that no technique should take more effort than allowing the arms to drop their weight on top of the partner's structure. This is the essence of Ikkyo, the core technique of Aikido. Ikkyo is about running a spiral which disrupts the alignment and allows you to rest your weight on the partner.

In order to accomplish this it is necessary to have several factors operating. Once again, we have to re-emphasize the need to complete relaxation. Physical tension prevents the establishment of "ittai ka" of which "Ikkyo" is the ultimate expression. On an emotional level this relaxation can only occur if one completely accepts the attack. If one tries to escape (due to fear) or to, in a sense, attack the attack (which also comes from fear) one cannot establish "ittai ka". The partner can then proceed to resist or counter the technique. The placement of ones "attention" is vitally important here. Ones "attention" must be "inside the attack", not "outside the attack". Regardless of the type of attack, whether armed or unarmed, whether the attacker's weapon is his body, a 3 1/2 foot katana, or a 10 foot spear, one must place ones "attention" on the attacker's center, inside the reach of the weapon, inside the point of focus of the attack. The placement of ones "attention" in this manner is part of the "ki musubi" which we have described. Since the Mind precedes the movement of the Body, placing the "attention" inside the attack is essential to execute the primary factor in establishing the "physical musubi">, namely "Irimi", or entering.

If one is to actualize the "Ikkyo" principle and establish "ittai ka" by physically resting ones weight on the partner's structure, one must absolutely be "inside" the attack. One cannot rest ones weight on the attacker if one is outside the attack (aside from the point that all of the attacker's power is on the outside of his attack). So at the very heart of establishing the physical connection or "musubi" of the interaction is the Principle of "Irimi".

Many Aikido practitioners believe that "irimi" means moving the body physically inside the opponent's ma-ai (this would be a way of describing moving the body inside the attack). But if the attacker's "intention" is strong, it is difficult if not impossible to accomplish this if one is reactive. What allows the "physical irimi" to take place is the "mental irimi" of placing ones "attention" inside the attacker's ma-ai on his center. There are various reasons why this is true that have to do with how the attacker's perception works but that is outside the scope of this discussion.

So what we now have is that "ki musubi" is required for effective "irimi". Now one might, as a practitioner, have the experience of being able to physically do an "irimi" without having an understanding of "ki musubi". I would maintain that this is the result of unskilled attacks rather than the utilization of the proper principles which govern "irimi".

So "ki musubi" precedes the physical irimi. Since that attacker has a strong "intention" to get to the defender's center, what prevents conflict when the defender performs his "irimi" to inside the attacker's ma-ai? The answer is another key component to Aiki, "spiral rotation".

Many people when asked to describe Aikido would say that it as an art in which the defender "gets off the line of attack, leads the attacker's energy in an arc and then redirects it back into the attacker's balance point." I would say that this is an incorrect understanding of what is really going on in Aikido.

There is a picture in Mitsugi Saotome Sensei's book Aikido and the Harmony of Nature in which two opponent's face each other while on a log bridge over a chasm. I believe this much better describes the fundamental requirement of Aikido as a martial art, namely, that the defender must "own his own space". This is actually the essence of "irimi". In the picture mentioned above one can clearly see that any movement "off the line" by the defender would put him off the log and into the chasm. But we "know" that Aikido is about blending right? If the defender holds the line and owns his own space when the attacker enters with his attack, how can he avoid a clash? How can he "resolve the conflict" so to speak?

"Rotation" Resolves Conflict

The answer to the above question is "rotation" and "irimi". The Founder had a quite complex explanation of why the coming together of the defender and the attacker would naturally result in "spiral rotation". For a good exposition of why this is so, read William Gleason Sensei's book, The Spiritual Principles of Aikido.

"Rotation" inherently contains "irimi". If one has a spherical object and it is rotating on some axis (it doesn't matter what axis), at any particular instant in time half of the sphere is Yin and half is Yang. Half of that sphere is moving "axis towards you and half is moving away from you. So at the instant of physical contact between attacker and defender, if there is "rotation" on the part of the defender, the energy of the attack begins to be deflected away from the defender's center in the direction of the rotation. At the same time, half of the "rotation" is moving towards the attacker, this begins to create the "irimi".

However, "rotation" by itself doesn't resolve the conflict nor does it automatically result in "irimi". One more factor must be considered to understand how rotation removes the conflict and results in "irimi". The location of the "axis of rotation" is crucial to the act of "blending" with an attack.

Human beings are not symmetrical. One can, however, think of our bodies as roughly cylindrical (for practical purposes). So the above statements about rotation apply if we have rotation of the body. But we have two supports for our structure, the legs. What makes this important is that our legs are not on the line of attack. It is the shift of weight from one foot to the other which serves to move the "axis of rotation".

Most Aikido students of any experience at all realize that they should be using their hips to produce whatever power they wish to utilize (actually it is more complex than that but let's stick with that for the time being). They also realize that hip rotation is required for all entries whether omote or ura. Where most Aikido students go wrong is that they do not understand that the "axis of rotation" in a technique is seldom ones center axis. Rotation on the center axis does not produce "irimi" and therefore will not result in a joining of the two energies of the attacker and defender.

  1. For example, try going a static exercise with a partner: stand with your legs evenly apart (not in hanmi) about shoulder width; your partner will do ryo kata dori (grabbing both shoulders). If one attempts to rotate the hips while having ones weight evenly placed on both feet, the result will be that one side of the body is attempting to pull the partner (the Yin side of the rotation) and the other side of the body is attempting to push the partner (the Yang side of the rotation). I will make a statement here that the student of Aikido will have to verify for himself through his own training. THERE ARE NO PULLING OR PUSHING MOVEMENTS IN AIKIDO. All attempts at pulling or pushing result in conflict with the partner's strength and essentially empower him. This should be readily evident in this exercise if the partner doing the grabbing is at all centered. He should be able to easily defeat any attempts at rotation on the center axis. But if the defender shifts his weight to one foot or the other, that foot, leg, hip, shoulder structures becomes the "axis of rotation".
  2. By making one side or the other the "axis of rotation" the defender has put one of the two points of contact (the shoulder grabs) on the axis. Now, without introducing any tension in the arms or shoulders at all, step back with the un-weighted foot until it is on the same side of the original "line of attack" (defined as the line which runs from the attacker's center to the defender's center). Now, the side of the body that carries the Yang energy (the side that rotates towards the partner) actually produces "irimi". In other words it can enter in around the attack to be "inside" the attack itself. With the "irimi" comes the possibility of the "draw" whereby the hip / shoulder that carries the Yin energy will draw the attacker into the movement thereby achieving the rotation of the hip and shoulder line which is the essence of the "ikkyo curve".
"Suberu" or Sliding

So if there is no pulling or pushing in Aikido, what is happening when movement takes place? One might visualize it this way Take the Yin / Yang symbol as representative, the line or curve where the White Yang and the Black Yin touch is always in balance. I call this the "seam". In Aikido all movement of the attacker must be along the "seam" or an imbalance results which instantly empowers the attacker. So, one can look at movement along the "seam" as a form of sliding the attacker along the "seam" rather than pulling or pushing. This is "suberu".

Exercise showing "suberu":

  1. The partner holds arm out as if he had done a shomen uchi. The partner places his hands on the underside of this arm as if he were doing an ikkyo technique. First try to do an ikkyo on the arm by levering the elbow (the usual but incorrect way of doing an ikkyo). The partner should be strong and centered. The ikkyo applied in this manner should not work. Then, simply touch the arm with light contact and shift ones weight into the partner along the entire arm and shoulder curve. If one is not using his arms to push, one should see the whole body of the partner start to shift. At that point rotate the hips toward your front and let the hands rest on the partner as your arms fall to your center. If you have managed to do this without actually pushing or pulling with your arms, you will find that you have done an ikkyo on the partner and his arm can still be absolutely rigid. The action of sliding his whole arm and shoulder structure along the "ikkyo curve" (see below) results in the ability to use the principles of spiral rotation without clashing with the partner's structure. This is "suberu".
This is especially important to understand when investigating the locking techniques of Aikido. Many Aikido practitioners look at joint locks as a form of attack to one of the body's weak points. The attacker submits due to pain and to avoid injury. But this is a misunderstanding. It is quite possible to get strong enough to make it impossible to injure some of the joints. Many people have an extreme pain tolerance and techniques that depend on success do not work on them. Finally, even if one can succeed in injuring a joint or causing substantial pain, in a real martial confrontation a committed attacker may choose to sacrifice that joint in order to complete his attack with another weapon or part of his body. Joint locks must catch the whole body, not just attack a joint. So, one can look at proper joint locking as a method of sliding the attacker along the "seam". Pain and physical dysfunction may be a by product of the technique but it is not the basis on which the technique works. The Ikkyo Curve

So the question now becomes, what is the "seam" in practical terms? Although much of what constitutes "Aiki" has to do with what I would call the "energetics" of the interaction between the attacker and the defender, no technique can ignore the basic physics or geometry of the relationship. One of the reasons that "Ikkyo" represents the fundamental technique of Aikido is that embodies virtually all of the principles of the art.

In this case we have come to a discussion of the "ikkyo curve". Look at the line that runs between the partner's shoulders (two points always have a line in geometry). Now visualize a curve that would run through both of those points and would pass just behind the partner's head. That is the "ikkyo curve". Almost every technique in Aikido has to do with sliding the attacker's energy along that curve ("suberu"). One might use an extremity, as in the various wrist and arm locking techniques, or move the whole body itself along the curve as in various throwing techniques. But if one seriously investigates technique, one can usually find the "ikkyo curve".

Recapitulation

  • As soon as the partner as an awareness of the partner forms one extends his "attention" out to his center to establish "ki musubi"; essentially, this is the "irimi" of the Mind. It places the "attention" inside the attack.
  • As the defender meets the attack, and this requires a relaxed clarity or Makoto, he sets up the desired "axis of rotation" by moving appropriately according to the circumstance. At the instant of physical contact he is already rotating on this axis. This produces the physical "irimi" which simultaneously allows the sliding movement along the "seam" which is "suberu".
  • The "rotation" must have an element of verticality to establish "ittai ka", or single body. The defender's weight must rest on the partner.
  • Additionally, the direction of rotation will usually accomplish the "suberu" along the "ikkyo curve". In this manner, the vertical alignment of the attacker is disturbed and the weight that rests on him makes it impossible for him to move separately from the defender, "ittai ka".
The Wave

The various parts of the body are responsible for creating movement on the different directions. Movement in the vertical dimension is created by the legs and by changes in the angle of extension in the arms. Movement in the horizontal dimension is created by relative movement of the feet and the movement of the hips. If you look at the movements that result from putting correct spiral movement of the vertical plane together with correct spiral movement of the horizontal plane you will see three dimensional spirals in the form of waves.

Saotome Sensei's Aikido and the Harmony of Nature offers copious examples of how the wave is one of the fundamental shapes in Nature. If one takes the "irimi" of proper rotation, combines it with the physical meeting of the two bodies (attacker and defender) which will result in "tai atari" or "full body contact" (tai atari is a physical expression of makoto), adds the element of "suberu" one can run the "ikkyo curve" which achieves "ittai ka". Once this "physical musubi" is achieved one has achieved a unity between of the attacker and defender, or more correctly, one has allowed the essential unity to express itself. This becomes like the two sides of a scale in which any change on one side is instantly reflected by an equal change on the other side of the scale. So any movement or energy put out by the attacker is instantly reflected by the defender in his own body. This creates the path ways along which the energy of the movement will run. If the defender is relaxed in mind and body, he will be able to feel what is happening and allow the energy to manifest in the way that it naturally wants to as opposed to attempting to force the technique. This results in the ultimate expression of Aikido, "Take Musu Aiki" which means that the techniques of the martial interaction arise spontaneously from the state of aiki. In other words the techniques create themselves. Often the Founder would say that the techniques were not his but rather they were "given to him by the Kami". When understanding of this principle starts to develop, a sort of "Aiki Koan" is revealed.

If the defender is "blending" with the energy of the attacker, and the attacker is blending with the energy of the defender, who controls the interaction?
If one gets to the point in ones training in which this question starts to make some sense, then one is at the starting point for understanding how O-Sensei may have thought about what he did.

This is just a basic description of the aspects of Aiki that govern the successful performance of Aikido technique. The other ways that Aiki expresses itself and the implications for the practitioner of training to understand these principles both in the Mind and in the Body is beyond the scope of this discussion. This exposition is meant to be of practical help in taking ones Aikido to another level. All good Aikido technique has these elements. Training is about developing an understanding of the various ways these elements can combine and the different qualities or aspects these elements can have. I believe that almost inevitably, this study leads one to want a deeper understanding of the Kototama which offers a description of these various aspects in the way that the Founder, himself understood them.


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