Henry's Kitchen by Ross Robertson
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On August 24th, 2004, I followed up on an invitation to fly to
Toronto to spend time in conversation and training with Henry Kono and
a few of his students. I spent the next few days sitting in Henry's
kitchen while he patiently explained the nature of yin and yang, which
he avows is the core of proper aikido. He would draw diagrams and show
me models that he'd fabricated as teaching tools and visualization
aids. He guided me through the motions, helping me understand the
essential difference in an aikido based entirely on the nature of yin
and yang. Nights and weekend afternoons we'd be in the dojo with other
students, attempting to put into practice his simple but elusive
concepts. The following article represents my line of thinking since
returning from Toronto... my continuing efforts to interpret yin and
yang. It most certainly shows a stage in a process, and not a finished
conclusion. The ideas are my own -- Henry would not likely agree with
this interpretation. But this article would not exist without him, and
so his patience and generosity are gratefully acknowledged. Thanks
also to Robert Bergman, my gracious host while in Toronto, and his
It's a circle with an "S" running down the middle, dividing the
figure into two equal halves. One side is light, the other dark. There
are two dots, one on each side, their hue borrowed from the opposite
half. Like two tadpoles chasing each others' tails, the emblem
suggests movement. Yet the line that divides and unites the polarities
never changes, and center point of its revolution is a living stasis.
By now, the yin and yang symbol has become part of the global lexicon
of symbolic thought. Popular among surf culture, and especially
prevalent in the martial arts community, it nevertheless is
recognizable to nearly anyone. So much so, that it is easy to take for
granted and not look too deeply at how powerful a teaching tool it
remains. Yet when Henry Kono asked of O-Sensei the question that had
been nagging at him, "How come we can't do what you do?" the
answer was uncharacteristically straightforward: "Because you don't
understand yin and yang."
This suggests that all students of aikido who wish to better
understand the mind of the Founder should look deeply into the nature
of what the yin and yang symbol represents.
The standard interpretation is that the design represents the union of
opposites, light and dark, male and female, warm and cool, high and
low, and so on. Yang is the universal masculine principle, expansive
and convex. Yin is the feminine, receptive and concave.
Since my week spent with Henry, I've been chasing down vectors and
contemplating natural forces and trying to characterize them within
the schema of yin and yang. Then perhaps, I might be able to better
understand the forces of an aikido encounter. For example, light
appears to me to be yang; gravity has a certain yin quality. Attack
energy seems yang; a calm and ready defense may be yin. Yet, just when
I think I've pinned something down definitively, I look at it from
another perspective, and the whole thing turns upside down. Maybe
that's why those two dots are there, and maybe that's why the whole
thing looks like it's constantly revolving, the one turning into the
The problem is that when you reduce the equation to simple vector
analysis, all forces go forward if you align your perspective with
that force. Even the effect of gravity on an object creates a force
vector pointing toward the center of the gravity well. So now the idea
of yin as a "receptive force" becomes difficult. Even in magnetism,
where there is attraction and repulsion, the forces can easily be
characterized by elementary force vectors. "Toward" and "away from"
are not inherent, but relative.
(click to enlarge)
A 3D medallion representing yin and yang. In this depiction, yin is
the dark and smooth glass, absorbing most of the light coming in. Yang
is hard and rough, and light is radiated outward. What other elements
of yin and yang exist in this simple composition? What is the
relationship of sky and earth, light and shadow, figure and ground?
From this perspective, all forces are yang. Even complementary
forces. What then, of yin? If yin is not a force at all, then perhaps
it may be seen as the medium through which a force may flow. Or the
equilibrium point of forces in balance.
Yin and yang are still relative. But rather than representing
characteristic properties, they may be considered as qualities
exemplified only in particular relationships. Water coming from a fire
hose is yang, but as the carrier of ocean waves, water is yin. Light
is generally yang, but empty space, air, and clear glass are all yin
with respect to the light traveling through it.
Well, for our purposes, it can be helpful to look at yang as the basis
for harmony or conflict. If we look at the alignment of force vectors,
we can characterize them easily:
This diagram shows forces in direct opposition. If the forces are
balanced, then equilibrium is the result. If the energy input exceeds
the capacity of the system, causing strain, overheating, turbulence,
or breakage, we would characterize this as conflict. In equilibrium,
the forces cancel one another for a net sum of zero, and a balanced
stasis is achieved. Yin is the representation of that balance.
Whenever forces align and combine along the same directional
path, whether toward or away from a vantage point, they may be
considered a single force. Here, the forces are additive. In this
case, yin is the point of absorption or emanation.
Forces joined in a system may flow in opposite directions
but not converge on or diverge from a single point. If rotation can
occur, the forces are tangential vectors. Again, the combination of
forces is additive and motion results. Here, yin is the still point at
the central axis.
This understanding of forces and their vectors allows for a
fundamental definition of aiki, and establishes a practical guide for
how it may be achieved:
Aiki is the balance and alignment of forces
within a system, tending toward equilibrium and/or flow.
Strain, breakage, and turbulence are symptoms of a system out of
Aikido is the study, methodology, and practice of aiki.
So if we approach our aikido from the perspective of yin and yang, we
see the attacker's energy as yang, and the defender's energy as also
yang. Conflict only results if we allow or produce forces in direct
opposition to one another. And even then, it is possible to match
forces in opposition to achieve a moment of balanced equilibrium. It
is somewhat reassuring to realize that all other configurations of
forces result in favorable outcomes.
When interpreted this way, the practice of aikido is to take
responsibility for allowing or facilitating a right balance of yin and
yang. Solid parts may fit into or flow through the empty spaces. Or,
the solid parts may join in such a way as to balance, align, or turn,
so that conflict and damage may be avoided. We must be as mindful of
the empty space as we are of the solid areas. We must allow for and
make use of the character of the environment: light and shadow, sound,
gravity, the contour and texture of the ground, and the properties of
other surrounding objects. Although moving from and revolving around
our own center, we should keep our focus of attention on the balance
point of the system we inhabit. We create openings as invitations
rather than vulnerabilities. We use yin to facilitate flow. Clarity of
mind, or mushin, is a yin state allowing for perception and thought to
occur without interference.
Attacker and defender are each yin and yang, independent of one
another. Together, they are also yin and yang if the aiki defender is
correctly matching the elements. At higher levels, the defender does
not do this, but simply allows it to occur naturally. Attacker,
defender, and the environment in which they play all combine to create
a whole wherein the elements of yin and yang are properly balanced,
matched, and aligned.
The yin and yang emblem, like any good symbol, is open to continuing
reinterpretation. Each new perspective need not eliminate previous
understanding. On the one hand, the symbol itself is a signal
transmitted through us across millennia. On the other hand, it is an
empty vessel, and whoever spends time contemplating it will find their
own energy and understanding aroused. Left hand, right hand... each
works together to grasp the ineffable.
(click to enlarge)
Yin and yang viewed differently. Here, yin is the transparent medium
through which force flows. The shadow cast by the model has reversed
the corresponding elements. Is the shadow yin or yang? What about the
hard ground which receives both light and shadow? And what name do we
have for the place where these elements converge?
Images and text © R.A. Robertson 2004, all rights reserved.
Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
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