Aiki Syntax, Part 1 by Ross Robertson
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In the early to mid 1990's, I found myself teaching aikido at
elementary schools around the Austin area. At each location, we would
meet for one hour a week for six weeks. Some of the kids would become
repeat students, but I had to assume that I had only six hours to
impart something meaningful, useful, and real to these kids. I didn't
it was possible, and I almost refused the opportunity.
I'd heard the story that one day a challenger walked into O-Sensei's
dojo. I believe the fellow was a high ranking something-or-other, and
he wanted to check O-Sensei out. The story goes that O-Sensei
declined the challenge, but told the visitor that he could fight one
of his students, and pointed to a beginner sweeping the mat. O-Sensei
then took the student aside, gave him some instructions, and the
student handily defeated the challenger, who then joined the dojo.
What was it O-Sensei said? Even if the story is apocryphal, there is
a tantalizing challenge to our own sensibility. We could say, in
effect, "No, you can't fight me, but you can fight the one with
beginner's mind who has just the right key to understanding." What is
These considerations led me to develop what I call the "Aiki Syntax."
The understanding is based on the idea that all successful aiki
encounters unfold in four identifiable stages. These must occur in
the correct order, and when properly performed, each one leads
naturally and inevitably to the next. Furthermore, if we concentrate
on doing these things only, we can forget about technique as it is
commonly taught in aikido dojo. By doing these four things in the
correct order, all of the standard defense forms emerge spontaneously
We should also understand that this is not advanced aikido, something
to be taught only to high ranking students after they have mastered
years of basics. This is basic, fundamental aikido. Beginners
should be taught this as early as possible. If someone is able to
follow simple instructions, they should be able to handle a reasonable
session of jiyuwaza or randori on their first
This works for children as well as adults. Experienced observers are
usually amused (if not amazed) to see ikkyo, sankyo,
shihonage, various forms of kokyunage and sudori,
and even kaitennage blossom out of nowhere, manifested by
someone who has clearly never been taught these things. When I
present a seminar to a group for the first time, I like to take
advantage of the opportunity to test the theory. And so far it has
held up very well.
In other words, the Aiki Syntax is a magic seed which will grow the
beanstalk of aikido, enabling Jack to confront giants.
There are two sides or aspects to the Syntax -- one for
tori and one for uke, defender and attacker,
recipient and initiator.
The four stages of the Aiki Syntax is as follows:
Aiki Syntax: Tori
Aiki Syntax: Uke
We will examine each of these in more detail, but for now, certain
things must be emphasized in this preliminary introduction.
1) The process is cyclical, not linear. So, "release" automatically
becomes "open;" "return" leads back to "seek."
2) These are not discrete stages, but overlapping concepts which are
present throughout the encounter. Phases are identified by their
dominant characteristic, but each element continues throughout the
cycle. For example, opening up of space defines the initial stage, but
openness continues while merging, grounding, then releasing. At the
same time, each of these are present in the idea of opening.
3) No stage should be forced in any way. Each happens naturally at its
own time. Should the process ever become "stuck," it may be
necessary to reset the cycle to the beginning.
4) The roles of uke and tori are fluid and
interchangeable. If you are attracting force to you, the Tori Syntax
applies. But if you are moving toward a goal, even if (initially)
drawn in against your will, then you are acting in the capacity of
If we set aside the distinctions, we see that there is really a kind
of a unified syntax, which may be expressed as follows:
Also, we should not get too attached to the terminology. The words
I've chosen are just convenient handles for something we should
experience in training. For example, in my kids' classes, I might be
just as inclined to say "First, get out of the way. Then, take
whatever body part the attacker gives you, and put it gently toward
the ground. Don't forget to let go so you can get away." This is
just another way of saying "open, merge, ground, release."
Finally, we need to recognize that other arts have similar concepts.
In judo, for example, there is the well-known formula of kuzushi,
tsukuri, kake. While the Aiki Syntax is very different, the common
theme is that encounters unfold in identifiable phases. Understanding
these stages is of tremendous value in training. Problems are often a
matter of doing the right thing but at the wrong time.
I also believe it is misleading to think of kotegaeshi, tenchinage,
koshinage, and so on as techniques. Rather, these are simply
recognizable forms that may arise in the course of the encounter. The
real techniques have to do with "how do we open space for energy to
flow through? How do we cause or allow a joining to occur? How can we
let the energy find its own natural course to a grounded state? When
and how do I let go?"
There are thousands of attack and defense forms, and O-Sensei called
them all "empty shells." Mastery of a thousand things is foolish,
if they all come from just a few things. Moreover, we are likely to be
overwhelmed in a crisis if we have too much to remember, too much to
do, or if we fear we have not had enough experience to make us ready.
We owe it to our students to give them something easy to remember,
easy to perform, and reliable enough to help them survive an attack
situation. We need to teach them the few things that will help them
grow the thousand things for themselves.
All things complicated are made up of simple things.
Years after developing the Aiki Syntax, I read the following from
Robert Nadeau in Susan Perry and Ronald Rubin's book "Aikido
"Once O-Sensei told me, very clearly and
emphatically, that the truth of aikido could be caught in a very short
moment of time. 'If you catch the secret,' he said, 'you can do
what I do in three months.' And, now that there are people who have
been training in Aikido for 30, 40, and even 50 years, it has become
apparent that it is not the length of time that one studies that makes
I don't know what the three-month secret is. I don't know what
O-Sensei may have whispered in the ear of that student, and I'm not
an O-Sensei. What I do know is that asking myself these questions
makes my own aikido better, simpler, and more efficient, and enables
me to pass this along to my students.
"I have spent the last 30 years
looking for that three month secret."
In aikido, there are no shortcuts. But there are many many wrong
turns. As teachers, we need to help our students take a more direct
path, eliminating unnecessary detours and useless meandering.
I am pleased to present these ideas here to you for your own
consideration. Make of them what you will. If you find any value in
them whatsoever, please pass them along. If not, it is of no
Next month: The Aiki Syntax of Tori.
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