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. 
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
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
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.
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 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
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
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
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.
 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
 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."
Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
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