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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > May, 2004 - Resistance and Flow
by Ross Robertson

Resistance and Flow by Ross Robertson

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The great aikido master Sir Isaac Newton used to admonish his students that every force has an equal and opposite force. I would like to paraphrase this great insight as follows:

You are always one-half of any resistance you encounter.

As a corollary, we might also add:

When you resist yourself, you divide yourself.
You are the resistance you feel.

In our own training and in our daily lives, we frequently feel that we encounter unwelcome levels of resistance. In some cases, we wind up feeling like we are pushing against a brick wall. At other times, we notice our partner seems disconnected, going through the motions, they fall down without our involvement, and we may feel cheated of our chance to practice. Still again, we may discover emotional, intellectual, muscular, or other structural obstacles within ourselves that impede the effortless progress of a technique. How can we best address these challenges?

For starters, it must be said that we desire an uke who understands how to press an attack all the way through the technique until escape or accepting a pin is the last best option left for them. Further, they must do so within certain parameters that make the given technique appropriate for the occasion. Otherwise, they are subverting the lesson specified by the instructor. (Free styles of practice relinquish many of these constraints, but place their own demands for appropriate action from uke.) That being noted, we will now focus on things tori can do no matter what level of resistance uke provides, and perhaps use those lessons for our internal blockages as well.

Martial artists have long taken their cue from the Tao Te Ching which states "the highest good is to be like water." What can this mean in practical terms, especially in the application of self defense, and for aikido in particular? Moreover, water can be not only fluid, but solid or vaporous as well. How does this help?

Let's look at the kanji for "aiki."

The first character "ai" is said to represent a jar with a well-fitting lid placed on top. It therefore suggests a meeting, a joining, a general coming together; but more precisely indicates a right fit or a good match. I also find it helpful for the image to suggest the idea of containment. The character "ki" is said to depict steam rising from a pot of rice cooking, implying force, energy, or vitality. Therefore "aiki" connotes a balance of form and essence. When the yin (formlessness) of energy is directed, channelled, or contained by the yang of form, balanced structure and right action may result. [1]

In other words, we can't really interpret the admonition to "be like water" without understanding also the manner of its containments and conduits. To an extent, we become students of fluid dynamics. For aikido practice, I characterize this experience with four different categories. These are somewhat poetically named with a nod to the old traditions: [2]

Rain Falling

In this case, uke provides a relatively steady stream of energy throughout the technique. The intensity may be light, as in a drizzle, or heavy, or even torrential. In all cases, tori is advised to be an empty but active channel directing the flow to a lower energy state closer to the ground. Note that in this case uke is primarily handled as a flow of energy, while tori is both the semi-rigid boundary of containment, and also the empty space through which flow can occur. The only resistance is to channel and direct, but not to oppose the flow.

Water Pooling

This is much like Rain Falling, but the energy reaches a grounded state before actually descending all the way to the floor. Here, the flow of the attack stops in a mid-level energy state for whatever reason. Either partner may be the cause. Tori is advised to stay connected to uke, but to relax and not hurry things. It is a mistake to think that a technique must be accomplished in a certain amount of time, unless that is the specific agreement in partner practice (or if other circumstances dictate). Some techniques may occur in an instant, at other times the same technique may unfold in stages gradually over time. If tori keeps posture, awareness, and sensitivity, the energy of the system may build to a point where movement will again occur naturally, like water filling a hollow in a rock, then overflowing.

Vapor Rising

Sometimes, uke may withdraw the energy of the attack. It may be that they lack discipline in sustaining attention, or perhaps they are rightly responding to an ineffectual lead. Tori is again advised to stay connected and calmly observe the moment. Vapor Rising is characterized by the effortless evaporation of a technique before it has reached its expected conclusion. This is frequently an acceptable strategy for fostering aiki. In this case, we are not so much dealing with resistance, but rather the lack of it. Equilibrium has reestablished itself, and one goal of training is to recognize when to accept that.

If uke's attention and energy returns, then the Water Pooling analogy applies. If not, tori is advised to cautiously let go and disengage. During such moments of stasis, uke may be (in fact, should be) vulnerable to counterattack. Depending on training agreements within a dojo, it may be appropriate for tori to deliver atemi to show uke these vulnerabilities. However, this does amount to a role reversal, and tori is warned about the possible consequences of this action. Rather, it is often more advisable to train to let the technique evaporate until the next moment of flow occurs.

Ice Melting

Ice Melting is a way to escape a situation of aggravated resistance. The feeling is very much that of two solids coming together. Rather than resorting to a dramatic henka waza (not always a bad thing), tori may relax into the resistance in a measured and controlled manner. Tori should gradually let their muscles go from solid to "liquid." Uke's reaction will be to also soften reflexively, or to grab harder to chase the receding horizon. Either way, flow is restored.

Encountering resistance is not an indication of bad technique or bad ukemi. On the contrary, it is central to the very reason we train. We should in fact seek to know where the resistance lies, and what our boundaries are. However, attempting to force our way through barriers is seldom necessary, and not a good habit to live by. Experiencing an aikido technique is rather like (another metaphor!) being a blind person in a room or corridor seeking a way out. It's good to find the walls, but not run headlong into them. It's necessary to feel our way along the walls, but not push against them if they are truly solid. Eventually, the walls themselves will lead us to an opening, if one exists. However, we must also remember that it may require some effort to push open a door that is stuck.

Put more simply, we can make great progress in our technique if we simply move gently into resistance, but then always move along any barriers in a parallel fashion until the energy finds an opening, or is grounded at some natural equilibrium state.

Returning to our water analogy, it's also useful to look at some negative examples where things don't work optimally. Most often this manifests itself as blocks of ice grinding glacially against one another. But many other difficulties can be also expressed in terms of fluid dynamics. What is a technique like when a torrent of water bursts through a dam? What happens we we don't move with balance, and we are like a bucket sloshing all around its brim? What happens when we attempt Water Pooling or Vapor Rising, but find that the energy is simply stagnating?

Like all metaphors, "be like water" has its limits. Where one fails, it is useful to have others to pick up. For example, electricity also is expressed in terms of flow and resistance, and so it may be useful to look at an aikido technique as a kind of simple electrical circuit.

In all cases, the simple aim is to learn more about ourselves and our relationship to the world. Whether we do aikido for self defense, for spiritual growth, or for the simple joy of movement, we are changed by the process that we ourselves are creating. Water flows around a boulder in a stream. Over time, the rock itself is shaped by the flow. We may discover that we are not just the water, nor the rock, but the entire stream, the banks that cradle it, and the full cycle from ocean to well-spring.


[1] We should not get too hung up on the characterization of yin and yang. Forceful energy is also certainly yang, and the emptiness of a vessel is yin. Students of the Kabbalah may notice a similarity in the relationship between the first two letters in Hebrew, aleph and bet. In some traditions, aleph represents divine breath, or formless and limitless possibility. But for there to be a manifest universe, there must also be containment, here represented by a house (bet). The container is characterized in this case as feminine, as in the womb. All further development of manifestation is an expression and elaboration of these two primal principles in action and intercourse.

[2] These may be considered in their relationship to the two more common categories of training found in many schools of aikido, i.e. "kihon waza" and "ki no nagare waza."

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA

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