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Sensei was discussing with me the concept of the limbic brain, the part that controls our autonomic nervous system. More familiarly, it is the system that regulates the "fight, flight, or freeze" instinct when we are confronted in a dire situation. She points out that in the wild, a lot of prey enter the "freeze" state when captured by their predator: once it feels the lion's jaws lock in on its neck, the antelope's body goes stiff as it mentally discharges from reality, defaulting to the natural instinct that helps keep it from feeling pain. If the lion accidentally slips, the antelope seemingly comes back to life, rigid body contorting in a few spastic shakes. Where just a moment ago its body prepared it for death, survival instinct kicks back into gear just as quickly, the nervous system pumping jolts of adrenaline to re-activate every fiber of muscle and allow it to get away.
Underneath this human skin, we are primordially the same animals, experiencing similar urges during a physical confrontation. Depending on our natures, we default to one of the three responses, and in aikido, this is arguably most apparent when we practice jiyu waza, free-form attacks and defenses. Unbound from the confines of repeating a demonstrated technique over and over, perhaps nothing is quite as liberating—and as intimidating—as being allowed the freedom to attack and defend ad-lib. Jiyu waza is aikido's closest to a competitive martial art's concept of sparring in that you never know what attack will come out from the person you're facing off with, or how your body may respond. When students get to practice it for the first time, they may tense up when they see an attack coming: the instinct to freeze. Or they may back up a few steps to give themselves room to think: the instinct to flee. The first step of doing good jiyu waza, before you get to refining ma-ai and technique precision, is to mentally overcome those two instincts that come most natural. Moving instead of freezing allows you to blend with your attacker, kicking into gear those techniques that you had to practice over and over to ingrain them into your muscle memory, to prepare you for this. Going to your partner and drawing out the attack instead of backing up helps you claim that open space and dominate.
For the students new to jiyu waza, for the timid or unsure or unconfident, even for the ones that tend to be over-analytical when given free reign to respond to an attack, it could be quite a challenge to start off in the right state of mind. Your body's screaming at you to do something other than what you think is best to protect yourself from pain. But over these primordial animal instincts is human skin, coupled with human logic and the ability to define courage, to push strength. Standing off in preparation for jiyu waza, take a moment to claim control over your limbic brain. When "hajime" is called, it's time to fight.