Learning by Feel
This month, the Mirror welcomes a new addition to our roster of contributing editors. Some of us were not that experienced when the column began in 2004, but five years down the road we felt that it would be nice to include someone who could reflect the view and insight of a relative beginner. Many of you already know Linda Eskin as a participant in the forums and as a blogger. She is currently a 6th kyu student, training with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego. She lives with her husband, Michael, in San Diego's rural east county. Linda is a Senior Experience Planner (usability) for Web sites and applications at Red Door Interactive. She came to Aikido via horse trainer Mark Rashid, and tries to incorporate Aikido into her work in the dressage arena and on the trail with her horse Rainy and with her two donkeys, Eeyore and Clementine.As a beginning Aikido student there are a lot of resources for learning about Aikido. We can learn history, etiquette, and philosophy by reading books and watching videos. We can find inspiration in others' stories, of how they came to the art, and grew through its practice. By watching and listening in class, we learn the basics of technique. By practicing together, with our teachers' guidance, we train our bodies how to move, and learn what is effective, and what isn't.
It wasn't accidental that I said learning "about" Aikido above. Becoming an expression of the art, in our bodies and hearts, is another thing altogether.
Learning the feel of Aikido is challenging. No book or video can convey it. Some writers describe the experience of having felt amazing technique, but reading those descriptions is as far from actually experiencing it as reading a restaurant review is from enjoying an extraordinary meal. There's a great saying that expresses it pretty well: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." (Possibly attributed to humorist Martin Mull.) Some means of communication are just poor vehicles for conveying certain kinds of information. To truly "get" the feel of something requires directly experiencing it through touch and movement.
One way of discovering how Aikido should feel is to do it correctly yourself. In class every now and then, I will get a technique right, and I can tell it's right (or somewhere in the general vicinity of right) by the feel of it. Suddenly a formerly awkward movement flows, or now there's a sense of effortless power. Things align, and feel solid. "Ah, that was it!" Of course, this requires getting it right at least once, noticing that, and remembering it. A tenuous process at best, especially for a beginner.
Another way is to get feedback from one's partner. In a class recently I was having trouble with kokyu ho. I'm always having trouble with kokyu ho - trying to muscle it, clotheslining poor Uke. Alas. This night I was working with a partner who is thoughtful, observant, and usually fairly serious on the mat. I'd attempt the technique, and he'd have this distant, contemplative look like "hmmm, no, that wasn't quite it." But on one try I just swooshed through it, and there he was, down on the mat, giggling. Giggling! Aha! I'd gotten it right! Of course, the feedback could also be as straightforward as a partner telling me that I'd done it right. Feedback is a little more reliable, since it is external. Even so, I find because it comes after the experience, it's difficult to remember exactly what it was I'd done.
A third way is to work with someone who can reliably provide a experience of how things should feel. I also ride horses, and am a beginner in dressage, which is essentially an equestrian martial art. When practicing dressage, or any other form of riding, as a beginner it is helpful to work with a "schoolmaster" horse. One who's been there, done that, and is willing to humor an inept new rider by demonstrating the correct movements, even when the rider isn't really holding up their side of the partnership. These horses, who should be nominated for sainthood, are in great demand. They let the rider experience how a particular movement or gait should feel. The distinction is usually not subtle, and often results in some sort of wide-eyed, amazed delight, and the inability to find words to describe the experience. Sensation is memorable. Once the rider has some experience like this with a schoolmaster, they will be able to tell correct from incorrect when training with other horses.
Having the opportunity to feel correct Aikido technique, beautifully executed, is a similar privilege, and produces similar results. I've had a couple of experiences of this recently, when a partner and I were struggling with a technique and Sensei stepped in to demonstrate. In one case he offered me a hand. I grabbed, and was immediately picked up and swept away like I'd been caught in an ocean swell. There was no force, no pain, and it seemed hardly a point of contact. Although I know we were only connected by wrists and hands it truly felt the way a wave feels, in chest-deep water, just before it breaks. Your feet come off the ocean floor and you are moved, powerless to resist, but unharmed, even comfortable. Another time Sensei was demonstrating the difference between being connected with Uke, and not. The whole point, of course, was to establish a physical and spiritual connection with the other person. But being the one it's done to is a strange experience indeed, and well outside our familiar way of interacting with people.
In both cases the experience was so unexpected and vivid that the physical and emotional sensation stuck with me for days. I might think I was just a little starstruck about getting to work with Sensei. Ridiculous, at my age, I know. But still... Thank goodness I heard a friend recently trying to describe the same experience. He had grabbed Sensei and then was just moving through space, without feeling anything being done to him. It was clear from the way he was speaking - like someone trying to describe an incredible concert, and not being able to find the words - that his experience was the same as mine. Even after months, the experience still seemed very real, immediate, and a little bit magical.
Feeling is evocative. It bypasses rational thinking, and goes straight to our heart. More important, or maybe because of that, in the context of learning a physical skill, feeling is memorable. We should seek out and welcome every opportunity to experience the feel of brilliantly-done Aikido directly. A friend suggested, when I was preparing to participate in a seminar with a visiting instructor, that if I had the opportunity to go up and feel his technique, that I should jump at it. I thought that might be interesting, but didn't realize the value of what she was suggesting. I understand now.
Linda Eskin © 2009
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
Re: Learning by Feel
Excellent article Linda. But then I knew you would do well.
I love this topic because I am a kinesthetic learner so ,to me, feel is the ultimate and almost only teacher. Nothing can help me understand a technique better than when someone helps me find what it feels like when it's right. You are so right. Words simply cannot express what it is like to have someone execute really smooth techniques on you or to, on that rare occasion, execute one yourself. :)
Re: Learning by Feel
I've just read Terry Dobson's book "It's a lot like dancing..." for the first time. One of the many beautiful things he said seemed relevant here:
What is more important than anything I say is that I touch you. Through me, through my touch, comes the touch of the founder of Aikido. There is no Bible you can buy that says, "This is what Aikido is." It is transferred from person to person. These vibrations pass among us.
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