The Way is Walked
The International Aikido Federation Congress and international seminar in September ended with demonstrations made by more than thirty of the national aikido federations. It was an interesting smorgasbord, showing just how many ways there are to do ikkyo and iriminage. I found myself looking at feet more than hands.
Beginners in aikido tend to pay attention only to what the hands and arms do, but forget about the movement of the feet. Advanced practitioners, on the other hand, do almost the opposite. They focus on steps, positions, the movement across the tatami. The arms tend to play a less and less important part of what makes the aikido technique work and flow.
When I look at really skilled aikido practitioners, what comes across as most striking is the authority by which they walk around on the tatami. By their steps, they seem to take control of the whole dojo, not just the area in which they do their technique at the moment. They claim the whole tatami as their land, where their own laws apply, as if they had been proclaimed emperors of it.
That authority is beautiful to watch. It makes their aikido so natural it becomes self-evident, unquestionable. It's by how they take their steps -- the attitude as well as the actual mechanics of it -- that they decide the outcome already long before uke reaches them with the attack. When you see them move across the tatami, you know that their techniques are irresistible.
The importance of how the legs are used in aikido is evident already in how we dress for it. The white keikogi above the waist, and the black hakama below it. The two fundamental parts of the aikidoka, joined at tanden, the center. It can be described as an X, where the center is where the lines cross. Above are the two arms doing the techniques we have all those Japanese names for, but below are the two legs making it possible. Like the branches of trees and the roots of them.
From the center and down, the space marked by the hakama, we get stability and mobility. Without it, the body would be no vessel and what's above it would accomplish nothing.
In my experience, those who know how to walk on the tatami with the above authority are also the ones the most competent at what takes place above the hakama. And although this walking can look very different from one aikidoka to the other, they seem to have some things in common.
As far as I've seen, they all lower their center, getting them closer to the ground, extending their steps. That's easy enough to explain as a way to increase stability and power. They also turn their body exactly in the direction they move. Exactly. That's not as easy as it may sound.
They also have a strangely soft way by which their feet sort of slide on the tatami, almost like ice skating. They don't lift the feet much, nor do they drag them heavily on the tatami. To a bystander it might almost seem as if the tatami is slippery, but still they don't ever slip. Indeed, like ice skating.
But what's even more apparent is their awareness. Each step is taken with a dedication similar to how an officer gives an order and points with the whole hand. Now there, now there, and now there. No stumbling, not the slightest unintended extra step. They walk as if following a grand plan, sort of like each position of each foot at every step had been marked beforehand on the tatami.
Yes, it's by their walking that they take control, and the rest of us just have to comply, seduced by the sheer sovereignty of it.
It makes perfect sense. Aikido is a Way, Do, so it doesn't exist until it's walked. Before that it's just a potential. In order for the potential to become reality, we need to learn how to walk.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido
Re: The Way is Walked
Your article reminded me of a day many years ago at New York Aikikai. A small group of us, I think it was one o'clock class were seated at the far end of the mat by the windows and Yamada Sensei, whom you know, was demonstrating a technique. Then we got up and did the technique. But as for myself, "not exactly" (a phrase popular in American general conversations several years ago to signify the concept of no, without just saying no to what the other person had said)
But Yamada Sensei didn't mince words like the phrase that became popular decades later. He looked at me and asked "Didn't you watch?" I can see why it bothered him. At the time I don't think I had the nerve to explain, "But I was watching your feet!"
This is not to say I was really smart in those days, I'm only telling you this because when he did the technique it was so powerful it seemed evident that it was important to watch the feet, as in a comment often made at a magic show, "How does he do that?" Maybe we thought we understood the hand movements, maybe I thought I had succeeded in memorizing the hand techniques, though I knew we should pay attention to the fine points when Sensei was demonstrating, but for some reason that day it occurred to me, since we were a small class and almost at his feet that I should pay attention to what those feet were doing.
Thanks Stefan, for giving a fuller explanation of that flash of inspiration. Too bad I was too embarrassed to mention it to Sensei later, He probably would have understood because I often had awkward moments learning the techniques and probably needed to watch the feet that day.
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