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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > September, 2004 - Henry's Kitchen
by Ross Robertson

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 lovely family.

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 other.

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.

So what?

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 balance.

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.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA

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