It Had to Be Felt #60: Henry Kono: "Yin and Yang in Motion"
Henry Kono was regularly teaching seminars in Ireland by the time I started practicing aikido, back in the early 2000s. Although I was exposed to a lot of different teachers I had no real idea that there were different styles, so when the dojo where I trained hosted Henry, he was just another interesting sounding instructor to me. Even to the eyes of a novice, however, he was very different from pretty much any other aikido instructor. First of all, he was small, a few inches over five feet tall. He moved differently too. The reference point in all is classes was his time in Japan and training under Ueshiba Morihei. This was the core of everything he did.
He didn't structure his classes in a 'technical' step-by-step sense (e.g., demonstrating a technique and its related variants, and adding from there). Rather, he simply demonstrated the same basic movements and techniques, returning to core themes and principles, principally the concepts of yin and yang. (He discusses his opinions on these subjects in detail in an interview in the Members section of ‘Aikido Journal').
Another unique aspect of his teaching style was that he often arranged students in lines as opposed to pairs. Tori would do the technique on each member in the line. The next in line would then become tori and so on. Henry used to say: "You are not horses. You shouldn't use aikido as a workout to fly about, and work up steam and sweat." I never saw any other aikido teacher do this ‘line practice.' It was only when I went to Japan and saw that it was a pretty widespread practice in schools of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu (called rinban keiko) as well as within some koryu. To many of us, a lot of what he was doing and talking about seemed to be beamed in from another planet, but I later realised that a lot of what he did was couched in a specific context and culture. However, I think he deliberately downplayed that aspect in favour of concentrating on the principles he was trying to get across. "If you could get this," he used to say, "you could get aikido in a few months,"
He also said "Judo is an art that uses muscle. Aikido is an art that uses energy." He would explain that this energy was the force that powered our bodies. He said that if we didn't have our skin holding it all in, we'd explode in all directions, due to the latent forces in us: our circulation, breathing etc. I took this to mean that this was the 'power' one needed to harness to do aikido, as opposed to 'adding' to this by building up our muscles, stamina etc.
Another quote I remember: "Knees are the elbows of the legs." It seems ridiculous at first, but actually contains a lot of depth when you think about it. Without getting too high minded, this kind of teaching is actually quite traditional. It's a method to get one out of using habitual mindsets and thinking patterns. It's akin to the thinking of jazz musicians like Miles Davis when he says "Don't play what's there; play what's not there," or Ornette Coleman lamenting that "We in the Western world suffer from too many categories and classes; we've forgotten that we all still have diapers on."
Henry insisted that your intention must go to the very tips of your fingers at all times throughout the movement/technique. If you pull in your fingers even a little, he said, aikido stops and force takes over. At that stage, we force a technique onto uke, and the balance is lost. We become yang, and try to force uke to become yin. For Henry, yin and yang was the underlying principle of aikido, which he said he got from Ueshiba—it always manifested at the point of contact. This is where yin and yang forces met, and this equivalency of contact needed to be maintained throughout the movement of technique. Ideally, tori allowed their body to adjust to uke's force without conscious effort or planning. They simply maintained this neutral point of contact, and allowed their bodies and feet to move accordingly.
It seems straightforward, but it was incredibly difficult in practice. The initial problem is that we were all 'unbalanced' within ourselves. We didn't allow our own energy to flow smoothly through our bodies, so we couldn't hope to meet uke's incoming energy appropriately. For Henry, this was a result of social conditioning and aging. When we are young children, he said, our awareness or intent naturally extends to the tips of our fingers or toes, but as we grow up, we tend to ‘hold' this awareness into ourselves. Our thinking takes over. So, the most important thing for the practice of aikido was to recondition this natural state.
Henry used a variety of methods to highlight this. He used visual aids like sticks and hoops to draw attention to where our attention should be in a technique—at the point of contact between uke and tori—and to highlight that even as the technique progresses and the shape changes, this neutral point remains consistent.
He also used direct and blunt instruction to get people 'out of their shoulders.' "You're too high!" he would say to me, slapping my shoulders impatiently. "Relax! Relax!" This was before I even took a step to begin a technique! He'd keep at it until, in a vivid memory for me, my body changed. I stopped trying to force myself forward. I inhaled and allowed my head to lift and look straight. And then I felt the most peculiar sensation. It was like the weight of my consciousness dropped from the centre of my head down through my body, and settled into my lower abdomen. Then this centre in my abdomen opened and expanded. Instantly Henry felt the change. "Right." This expansion continued and I felt the weight settle in my feet. I took a step and this movement carried up through my body and out into my hands. "Okay," said Henry.
This was the core of how Henry moved. He would take small steps and never compromise his posture, or make his structure rigid. Uke would give him a grab/push, and he would instantly readjust with tiny steps, dealing with uke's incoming energy vertically through his body rather than meeting it/avoiding it horizontally. Uke's energy was doing the work through him. I never noticed any overt use of his shoulders. Any movement always seemed to initiate from his whole body. Done at speed, he could flip and pin uke in the blink of an eye. But he was always very demanding. Uke had to be 'out' at this point of contact as much as tori for the duration of the technique. The technique existed because of two, not one. He joked once, "The Japanese invented aikido because they can't dance!"
I can't really say that I was his student, more like I trained with him several times over a period of about three years. He often got frustrated with our utter inability to get what he was trying to communicate. He could be quite waspish, but I appreciated his sense of humour, and he had something very unusual that he stuck with and taught with great integrity.
Oisin Bourke started his practice in aikido in Ireland. In 2003, he moved to Japan and trained in aikido's root art, Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. He relocated to Ireland in 2012, where he currently has a small dojo teaching Daito-ryu.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
Re: It Had to Be Felt #60: Henry Kono: "Yin and Yang in Motion"
I had only one opportunity to get hands on with Kono sensei and found his instruction and technique very congruent with my study although the linguistic and pedagogical constructs were different than my practice, the practice was not trying to achieve different things. He was a force to be reckoned with and I enjoyed my encounter.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #60: Henry Kono: "Yin and Yang in Motion"
The first time I was uke for Henry Kono sensei was at our club in the Netherlands. Later on Henry Kono sensei told me he picked all the big guys on purpose. Not because I doubted his own ability but because he wasn't sure we were willing to listen to what he wanted to teach.
The way of men is expressed through the hands, the way of the universe is expressed through the feed. I have heard this so often I can dream it. Yet it seems to be very hard to do. Right!
You have to be out, out always out. And Henry Kono brought all kinds of devices and gizmos to the dojo to explain to us what he meant. Sticks, wheels, balloons, etc. Adjust your feet, lower your hips, be out. Right.
If you truly want to learn aikido take ukemi. Learn, feel, become sensitive, be out and feel. Don't try to block or do something else, just give your partner ukemi. Right!
You don't understand about Yin and Yang. You can say that again, I am absolutely clueless. I have studied a lot on this and I have some ideas, but for the big part I am still clueless. Right!
Absolute freedom comes from having no choice. Now and again a technique happens, not because I did the technique or wanted to do the technique but because it was the only thing that could happen. It is rare, but when it happens I see the big WTF in their eyes. Not because something was done to them, on the contrary and they are left clueless about what happened.
One of the things I heard Henry Kono express quite often was his hope that one of us would get it, maybe not now but in 20 years and when we then look back we would understand what he was trying to teach us.
I have been his uke in countless occasions. I know what I felt, I saw what he wasn't doing.
I still think about his lessons, because what he taught me is unbelievably different from everything I see around me.
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