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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > November, 2005 - Aiki Syntax Part II: Tori
by Ross Robertson

Aiki Syntax Part II: Tori by Ross Robertson

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Training allows us to evaluate situations in ways that are not available to us in the midst of a crisis. The ability to study, analyze, and evaluate is something that differentiates practice from implementation. One useful tool for study is to slow time down and look at the nature of an encounter moment by moment.

I like to study our defense forms this way. As a situation develops, I want to know what is essential at each particular stage of development as the encounter unfolds in time. By doing only that which is truly necessary, we acquire efficiency and clarity.

The Aiki Syntax is exactly this kind of analysis. It is a generalization of how aiki tactics must be employed for successful completion of the cycle of an encounter. Things must happen in a certain way, and more significantly, in a certain order.

There is a correct Syntax for both uke and tori, although these are artificial distinctions. It might be better to think in terms of the flow of attraction -- is the primary force coming your way, or are you moving toward an objective? Or, to put it in terms of kokyu, are you experiencing an inbreath or an outbreath?

It is the very nature of aiki kokyu that the breath cycles are matched in a balanced and reciprocal manner. That is, the outbreath of the attack must be met with an inbreath. Similarly, no exhalation of force is extended except when timed with the inbreath of the other party. This is, of course, a metaphor and does not mean we should attempt to time our actual breathing pattern with our partner's.

The first Syntax we will examine is that of the inbreath. We will refer to this as the Syntax of Tori, but please keep in mind that this just means that the main thrust of energy is flowing inward toward the subject.

The four stages of the Aiki Syntax for Tori are:

  • Open
  • Merge
  • Ground
  • Release
Before we look at each of these stages, it must be emphasized that they are only useful if the recipient is aware and able to respond. No strategy, no skill, no technique will be of any use of we are not aware of our surroundings. Situational Awareness is therefore the necessary preexisting condition for the Aiki Syntax to be correctly employed.


Kinetic energy which does not collide can do no harm. Our first priority then is to find a way to let harmful energy pass unimpeded. We must present no initial opposition to the force at hand. Instead, we look for ways of opening doors and creating channels through which energy may flow. This allows us to focus on controlling ourselves, staying well within our range of effectiveness.

"Getting off the line of attack" is often discussed in many aikido schools, and represents one aspect of this particular stage. In some situations it is not always necessary or even advisable to be off the line, so long as the energy may freely flow. In general, however, "get out of the way" is good advice.

This takes the form of tai sabaki, or "body change." Proper study of footwork allows us to create an opening in body-space that avoids all unnecessary action, and results in a configuration that matches the situation. With deeper understanding, every part of our body must be trained to accommodate a thrust of energy without opposition or harm.

As I have often said, "Walk through doors, but don't walk through walls."

In this case, we are being the doorway, and we are inviting our partners to come on through.


Once we have positioned ourselves to where the incoming energy can do no immediate harm, we must then participate in its direction. In order to do so, we must be properly joined with this flow. In aikido, the most obvious way this will occur is to connect with our partner, either taking hold, or allowing them to take hold of us. Or both.

In a hand-to-hand attack situation, the attacker must utilize one body part or another. In doing so, they often present a convenient handle. Most often this is one or both arms, but it may also be be a leg, head, shoulder, or the hips. Any part of the person that can be reached and grasped may work. And again, if we allow them to take hold of us, their energy is doing the work for us. Any connection employed by the tori should be relaxed and receptive.

The main reason the study of aikido is so complex is that there are many many ways of making anatomical connections. We can identify the main structures as follows:

  • Head/Neck/Shoulder
  • Arms
    • Upper/Elbow
    • Lower
    • Wrist/Hand/Fingers
  • Torso
  • Hips
  • Legs
    • Thigh/Knee
    • Calf
    • Ankle/Foot

Even after filtering out the improbable and the useless combinations, there remains a vast catalogue of possible configurations. From this, we must understand general range of motions for each part so that we may move in accord with its design.

Although this is an essential aspect of study, the good news is that it is not necessary to have mastered every conceivable nuance in order to experience good aikido. By joining with the energy, not opposing it, but continuing to direct it toward openings, aikido will naturally emerge.

At this point, we come to a very important concept: it is not always necessary to be joined mechanically. For human beings, we are also joined optically and sonically. In fact, for most situations, the optical connection will be the predominant one in the initial stages. The attacker must identify a target, and this is usually done visually. To close with their target, they must then proceed along a path of light. The defender should realize a profound implication here -- they have already penetrated the attacker's awareness and now exist within their nervous system. When so joined. any movement will have an effect on the attacker, and their trajectory may be manipulated before bodily contact is established. Although this sounds esoteric, it is fundamental and must be realized early on. This aspect of merging is not a special or unusual case. On the contrary, it is most common and typically forms the basis for any further joining that may occur. This may also be the basis for the mysterious phrase katsu hayabi, or "light victory."


Of its own accord, energy tends to seek grounded states. High energy will gravitate toward lower energy levels. Equilibrium naturally occurs as forces are in balance.

Having merged with a force, we then need to allow it to find its nearest grounded state. In aikido, this may result in the attacker falling or being lowered to the ground. While this is normal, it should not by any means be assumed to be necessary. Often the attacker may shift their attention from the attack to preserving their own balance. At this point, they may be likely to try to resist. If the defender insists on forcing them to the ground, resistance is increased by both parties. Inefficiency results, and the defender has now placed themselves in the dangerous position of being the attacker. Rather, we should learn to identify the earliest moment when the energy has reached a grounded state and not try to force it.

If it is actually necessary to subdue or overthrow an opponent, the following must be born in mind:

That which has no support must fall.
That which is not falling is necessarily supported.

For a human body, this relates to our structural alignment with gravity. If the head is above the shoulders, and the shoulders are on top of the hips, the hips are above the knees, and the knees are aligned with the feet, it is impossible to fall down! It logically follows that if we wish to assist someone in sitting, laying down, falling, or rolling, we must displace the head, shoulders, hips, knees, or feet. We can move one element off of its foundation, or we may move a lower element from beneath a higher one.

By continuing to move with the energy and seeking an open path, this should never be difficult. By understanding these fundamental principles, problems encountered in training should never be mysterious.


When the energy has reached a sufficiently grounded state, we may say the encounter has run its course. The conflict has been resolved, the intent or the ability to attack has been eliminated, at least for the moment. The defender must now disengage. In executing a throw, it is necessary to know how to release or escape the grasp and seek safety. After a pin or a controlling art, we must have an exit strategy, or else we are just as confined as our adversary.

Proper letting go of our problems is an essential survival strategy. To let go is to open up, so the Syntax completes its cycle.

The Aiki Syntax therefore runs its course from opening to releasing. In fact, merging and grounding may almost be considered optional. If we can open a safe passage for energy to pass by, then nothing more may be required. Even so, some element of merging and grounding will be present, even when not manifestly obvious.

Although based solidly in martial defense practice, the Aiki Syntax is meant to have global application. Any form of energy or event whatsoever may be met with the same understanding. We should remember that things which appear favorable, desirable, and beneficial may also unbalance us if we are not careful. By having a unified strategy, we do not need to behave differently with respect to harmful and benign forces. All things are simply events to be assimilated and integrated.

By embracing all that we encounter with an open heart, we realize our fundamental unity with all that we experience. In moving fluidly from a stable base, we are able to fit naturally with our circumstances. By letting go of everything as it passes, we ourselves may progress with little encumbrance.

Next month: Aiki Syntax Part III, The Syntax of Uke

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