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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > February, 2005 - Thoughts on Irimi

Thoughts on Irimi by "The Mirror"

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This column was written by Janet Rosen.

I started jotting down some random musings on irimi early in 2004; they reflected both on-the-mat training processes and idle late-night thoughts. During the year, as I kept training and thinking, the musings assumed form. A three month training hiatus in the summer/fall meant that certain thoughts could not be tested on the mats for a while, delaying this column...so it is purely coincidental that it follows Susan's wonderful column on the subject.

Those with more years in the art may read this and find themselves thinking "well, yes, and?" but, as one of my instructors, Nick Scoggins, said when we were chatting about irimi/tenkan issues, this one area offers decades worth of stuff to work on. So please bear with my fumbling attempts to make some sense of it all....

The joy of entering with a kiai, when the rhythm of timing and speed is so attuned to uke's attack that there is a vacuum you suddenly just completely fill, leaving him to be sucked downward with no conflict.....(sigh) With inconsistency the only constant in my training, this is an elusive event; that it happens at all is one of those bits of magic that keeps me going.

A beginner, especially one of an aggressive mindset, or even one who carefully watches and tries to imitate what the intstructor is doing, is apt to enter directly into the attack, creating conflict, confusion and frustration and the thought, if not the cry, "it's not working!"

Sometimes, especially with beginners, we parse out a basic static form of iriminage, breaking it into two discrete parts, first receiving and then entering. The receiving entails some form or combination of moving back, turning the hip, or tenkaning. Then one sees an opening that has been created and turns back or enters into it.

For the more direct "short form" of iriminage to be effective, to not clash and conflict, it seems that the opening must already exist. But where? This is a conundrum that I've had in my head a lot this past year, keeping eyes open for pertinent lessons on and off the mat.

I often joke that irimi is the operating principle of my driving: take the path of least resistance; unhesitatingly but smoothly slip into openings as they appear. So perhaps what I need to bring back to the mat is: perceive everything that comprises the attack (ma'ai really being the integration of speed, distance, intent and time that experienced drivers automatically work with), have faith that the opening is there, and simply MOVE.

Of course, back on the mat, much of the time that I try to do this, I end up entering directly into the attack, creating conflict, confusion and frustration, and the thought "it's not working!" OK, aikido is harder than driving a car.

So, is nage physically receiving the attack, but in a way too subtle for the student to see when the instructor demonstrates? Maybe one needs to find a little receptivity in even the most straight-line irimi. This proves troublesome to play with physically, so for a while I turn my attention to the flip side of that particular coin. Some folks say that all tenkan contains, or starts with, irimi. So perhaps my ongoing exploration of that phenomenon will help me better understand irimi.

In practice it is sometimes difficult to find the irimi in tenkan, especially with a partner holding onto your arm. Newbies in particular have a tendency to treat tenkan as a backing away maneuver. They may not show it in basic blending practice (tai no henko), but if they are asked to tenkan in the middle of a technique, chances are they will start going backwards. Even with years of training , many of us revert to this movement pattern from time to time, especially in the face of an intense attack.

Once again, driving a car teaches me the lesson. My standard Brooklyn style u-turn on a busy street to physically claim a parking space reveals the irimi within tenkan: there is no way this maneuver involves an iota of backing up or retreat. It is nothing less than a fully committed entry. It just happens to involve a 180 degree pivot.

One night, I go home after parking and think about how to translate this into body movement. I stand, eyes closed, and visualize/feel an entering turn. My hip moves forward as I start to pivot. This reveals that, unwittingly, I have often initiated the same turn with the other hip moving backwards. Hmmm...this is probably because I'm already thinking ahead to the "step back" to come. Over and over, first with my eyes closed, then watching myself in a mirror, I compare how it feels to initiate tenkan with the front hip versus the back hip. Then I try it in the dojo with a partner during tai no henko. It makes a difference; even though the eye doesn't see which hip is initiating the movement, your attitude and posture and timing are all altered, and uke feels a difference.

I think this invisible but palpable forward movement may be related to what Chuck Clark refers to when he says, "Think small irimi which enters into the uke's space just enough that they cannot complete their movement without changing something." It's like a little, unexpected disruption in uke's world.

With that example in mind, I try to find irimi hidden within other tenkan or tenshi (stepping back off the line) situations. In one class, the instructor set up this technique: Nage is in left hamni. As uke reaches to grab nage's forward left lapel with his right hand, nage is to brush the hand away with his own right hand and take a step back into right hamni. This should cause uke to deflect to one side, creating an opening for iriminage. My partner and I found this awkward and inconsistent. Then I realized it was a good opportunity to experiment. I stopped thinking about stepping back with my forward left foot. Rather, I focused on the idea of the right hip being the initiator of a small forward movement that would cause my right hand to enter and brush uke's grabbing hand. My contralateral left step back was the natural result of my rear hip having first entered. Down went my partner, so easily both of us burst out laughing.

It was still not consistent because there were so many other variables. But the percentages were increasing and it truly seemed effortless. I whispered to him, "Find the irimi to start it with." He looked really startled, then baffled, then started playing with it. And he threw the heck out of me. Later that class, the same "aha!" for me with a different partner, a slightly different attack and technique, but the same underlying principles: find the irimi in the tenshi.

So through trial and error it becomes apparent that by visualizing entering with the rear hip, a step back or tenkan can act as an irimi. Now, can I apply the reverse? If my aim is too play with "short form" iriminage, the direct entry form, can I integrate the receiving by visualizing a withdrawal of one hip that creates a vacuum for uke and a corresponding direct entry of my other hip?

I realize that I've been doing something like this during kokyudosa. OK, my strange version, which is done standing because of my bad knee. Sometimes I do it starting from a very still and static position (it can turn into a lovely "push hands" kind of energy exchange if the partners are attuned to it). But I also like to do a more dynamic form.

Initially, I modeled it on "rowing exercise," only with a partner attached. But if I went straight back and then straight forward, there was nowhere for my partner to go except into me, and then nowhere for me to go but into my partner. Predictably, this created conflict, confusion and frustration and the thought, if not the cry, "it's not working!" There needed to be a method to be circular, to receive and extend, but without stepping.

The answer was to have a deep center, hips connected well under the ground via the feet, and then feel a circle with my hips. As my partner moves in to grab my wrists, I extend to invite and welcome him. But at the same time, my back hip initiates the arc of a rearward and slightly downward circle. So I welcome and receive at the same time, accepting and drawing him in. The circle is constantly moving, across my sacrum to the forward hip and forward past there, creating the energy to move my partner away. There is a corresponding weight shift (from front foot down across some subterranean place to the rear foot, then back to the front foot), without any stepping or sliding, that is integral with the hip movement.

Over time what began as a musing about the hips becomes embodied. If I'm distracted or in my head, it's not accessible; if I settle and open to it, it's as simple as smiling and inviting uke and letting it happen.

When I start thinking about transferring this principle to iriminage, the image that is evoked immediately is the basic paired bokken practice: as your partner raises to strike shomen, you also do. But you move slightly off the line of attack, so when you cut down it is on a newly defined center line. Working this empty hand, the going off the line starts as a large gesture, because working large helps to define for body and mind what I'm trying to do. Eventually I start paring it away, becoming more subtle, playing with how little "off the line" is enough. This is where the playing is as 2004 begins to wind down. So if the opening exists within the attack, perhaps nage's "receiving" lies in reading the intent as the attack is initiated, then aligning to be in entering mode as it arrives.

So simple.... (sigh)...yeah. right.

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