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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > October, 2005 - Aiki Syntax, Part 1
by Ross Robertson

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 think

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 that key?

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 and organically.

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 day.

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

  • Open
  • Merge
  • Ground
  • Release

Aiki Syntax: Uke

  • Seek
  • Seize
  • Secure
  • Return

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 uke.

If we set aside the distinctions, we see that there is really a kind of a unified syntax, which may be expressed as follows:

  • Open/Seek
  • Merge/Seize
  • Ground/Secure
  • Release/Return

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 Talks":

"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 an O-Sensei.

"I have spent the last 30 years looking for that three month secret."

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.

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 consequence.

Next month: The Aiki Syntax of Tori.

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