Aiki Syntax Part III: Uke by Ross Robertson
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Previously in this series, we've observed that the cycle of an aiki
encounter follows the natural pattern of breath: inhalation and
exhalation. This sets the theme for many basic activities in mundane
life: we bring food and drink into our bodies, we observe, listen,
feel, take in information and sensation. To do this well is the art of
the tori, and this is the yin principle of aiki.
The complimentary element is the out-breath. We excrete, we produce,
we speak, we build, we pursue a goal. Remember that kiai
(shout) is made up of the same kanji as aiki, but in reverse order. We
put our energy outward into the universe. To do this well is the
discipline of the uke, the yang principle of aiki.
Though our art is named "aikido," we should understand that "kiai-do"
is an implicit and necessary component in all that we do.
In each case, Buddha and Goldilocks would agree that balance is
achieved when we do these things in the right amount and proportion --
not too much, not too little... just right.
In training, we usually speak of "uke" and "tori (or nage)" as clearly
defined roles, and a person is identified as one or the other for the
full duration of the encounter. This is a useful convention, but it is
really an oversimplification. As I've stated before, the roles are
fluid with respect to the players involved. Tori is whoever is
receiving and assimilating energy at a given moment, uke is whoever is
expressing energy outward. To match this flow of energy between
players (and, to a significant degree, the energy of the environment)
is the essence of aikido.
When any or all of the players can match the cycle of kokyu
(breath) in a reciprocal manner, then aiki can happen. In other words,
an in-breath may be met with an out-breath, and an out-breath is met
with an inhalation, so to speak. But meeting an attacker's kiai (here
understood to mean any outward expression of force or energy) with a
similar yang response is likely to lead to collision. And if both
players are simultaneously adopting a yin attitude, then no encounter
or exchange is really possible.
The fundamental thesis of this essay is that when these energies are
appropriately harmonized, an essential order or sequence may be
observed. This is the Aiki Syntax.
Expression of energy outward is the defining characteristic of uke. It
does not matter if we are talking about a natural predator, a human
assailant, a thief, a spiritual seeker, a lover, or a student of any
discipline, the steps that must be taken in the attainment of the
prize are the same.
Action begins when we become aware of the potential for more
favorable conditions, and we must abandon our present state in pursuit
of a goal or target. This can be to eliminate a perceived threat or
to obtain something of benefit. It can be opportunistic, or
methodically systematic. Regardless, something has become the center
of our attention, and we move along a line of attraction to close with
it. We seek openings, or we seek to create them. We move in such a way
as to bring ourselves into the range of something we want to obtain or
Once we are in range and believe we can capture the initiative, we use
our energies to seize the opportunity. This is the moment for
predator, the stalker, or the assailant to pounce. Here is the
striking, the grappling, the tackling. Or, this is when the lover
professes devotion . Or when the student progresses, gaining an
insight. In all cases, the quarry is in hand, the target has been
acquired, we are locked and loaded. Time to fire.
An interesting decision must now be made. Have our efforts succeeded
or failed? If there has been a success, we must now take action to
keep what we've gained. The hawk returns to the nest with the fish.
The lion guards the kill against marauders. The assailant drags the
victim to a private place. The lover, having won favor, must now act
to keep it. And the student must process their knowledge to make the
grade. The prize must be secured.
And if we fail? The quarry has escaped, and so we must secure
ourselves. The mugger must flee the scene, the hunter must not become
the hunted. The spurned lover must heal their hurt, and the student
must make up for poor performance. We keep or regain our balance, we
take the fall and roll to our feet, or submit to the pin if
Like the Syntax for tori, this sequence is cyclical. Regardless of the
outcome, we return to the pursuit, either immediately or eventually
after rest and recovery. Predation continues, loving endures despite
all, learning and practicing and adapting are endless endeavors.
Fulfilled or empty, we return to the seeking.
I once heard that the Top Gun Academy sought to discover the best
strategy for winning dogfights in aerial combat. From World War I to
current conflicts, data was analyzed from field observation, personal
experience, film, and historical records. After the evidence was
compiled, the best tactic for sustained aerial combat could be summed
up in one word:
In other words, the more time spent in an encounter, the likelier the
chance for failure. In this case, failure can mean death, not just for
the pilot, but possibly for fellow combatants and civilians as well.
Instead, the tactics were boiled down to essential simplicity: See
him, kill him, get away. If we add "repeat as necessary," we see
that this closely matches the Aiki Syntax of Uke, at least in general
Of course, in aikido practice, we are not trying to kill our partners.
As uke, however, we are largely responsible for driving the encounter.
To do this mindfully, we need to seek actual opportunities to strike
or grab, and not stupidly imitate a gesture just to get things going.
If our strike should land, we should let it land, but with adequate
control to educate rather than destroy. If we grab, we should grab to
control. In all cases, we must learn to protect (secure) ourselves in
the process, by not inviting reversals unwisely, and being ready to
escape perhaps by rolling away when appropriate. We need to be
resilient enough to get up and do it again and again. In so doing, we
serve not only our partners, but our own learning of aikido when
expressed as kiai.
Although many conventions and agreements exist in the forms of aikido
training, none of them need violate the principles listed here.
Commonly, the uke will attack and tori will defend. However, at the
moment that tori takes control of the attacker, the roles have
reversed and the uke is now the one defending. This is perfectly
agreeable and efficient training, as each player gets a turn attacking
and defending in a single encounter. (By "attack," I mean striking
and grabbing in the ordinary sense, but also taking of balance,
twisting or locking joints, throwing or subduing regardless of how
gentle or forceful.)
Alternatively, the players may maintain their respective roles
throughout the encounter. Uke (so called) is charged with pressing the
attack continuously until the tori can successfully complete the form.
Tori "breathes in" the attacker by opening, merging, grounding, and
eventually releasing. In a more sophisticated view, tori may be seen
as acting as a conduit for the earth, which is the true agent of
receptivity. It is as if the ground is doing the inhaling.
Or the players may engage, ready at any moment to assume whichever
role is advantageous, or which best matches the energy of their
partner. This is more clearly seen in jyu waza, or freeform
practice, but also has its place within preordained kata
Finally, we cannot conclude this essay without noting the "nested"
nature of these roles. Truly, there is an element of yin in yang, and
yang in yin. Tori is not passive, but rather receptive. Although ready
to receive energy, senses are extended and we should feel expansive.
So there is a yang quality in receptivity. As for uke, we need not be
aggressive, but rather assertive. In the pursuit of a goal, we take in
a lot of information, fluidly adjusting our course as necessary. So
there is clearly a yin aspect to the pursuit In these ways uke and
tori are twins, alike in every way except which side of the balance
they happen to occupy.
Finally, things are made more complex by the choice of terms
themselves. Both "uke" and "tori" denote taking or receiving. For
students who wish to delve deeper into this mystery, I encourage you
to research the Shinto deities Izanami and Izanagi, reportedly central
to O-Sensei's underlying concept of aikido. According to the on line
source "Encyclopedia Mythica"
the names of these deities translate as "the female who invites," and
"the male who invites" respectively.
When we practice aikido technique or form, we learn to imitate the
expression of aikido. This may be necessary, but it can be misleading
if we think we are actually "doing" aikido. And as the saying
goes, "painted cakes do not satisfy hunger." Eventually (and I say
the sooner the better) we must learn to practice those things which
cause aikido to happen. Then, we are no longer trying to "do"
something, but learning to partake of its happening.
The Aiki Syntax is intended as a simple step-by-step guide for
matching these dual energies so they need never be in
conflict. Seek/Open, Seize/Merge, Secure/Ground, Return/Release.
Paired in this way, in this order, you can't go wrong. Perhaps the way
of reconciling the estranged lovers Izanagi and Izanami, is as easy as
... and as difficult.
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