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R.A. Robertson 04-19-2013 10:33 AM

Seven Rules of Training
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I have my own Method these days.

There is a particular approach and a specific experience of aikido that I want to communicate. It's not particularly at odds with more traditional or mainstream forms of aikido -- in fact, if you do what I ask, I believe it can greatly augment your other training. And what's more, I still enjoy and endorse most forms of training typically encountered in the typical dojo. While I am always impatient with inefficiencies that I perceive, and am often vain enough to think I could help, aikido is aikido, and I do love good aikido.

Anyway, for those who want to play in my system, I have a set of rules or guidelines to use as a framework. It's important to keep in mind that what I want to communicate is a kind of Aiki Improv. There are no set outcomes, and the regular roles of uke and tori are either blurry or absent. Either player may fall, be thrown, be pinned or otherwise controlled. It's a bit like judo randori, but within a tighter set of parameters for the exploration of certain principles. All good improv, whether jazz, theater, comedy, contact, or other, works best when there's an underpinning framework.

The first three rules take precedence over the subsequent four, and establish a ground for safe, sustainable, and enjoyable training. These are the Meta Rules. The next two are the Rules of Solid, and the remaining two are the Rules of Empty. Typically one player agrees to play the role of Solid, while the other plays the role of Empty, but in advanced play these roles can be free and fluid.

Here in succinct form are my Seven Rules of Training:


Safety and Respect
Go Slow, Pretend Fast
Accept Small Ambiguities


Decrease Distance
Increase Pressure


Push Empty

Explanations follow:

The Meta Rules

Safety and Respect

These should be self-explanatory. Safety means creating an environment and a set of understandings that are conducive to injury-free training. This requires an awareness of every individual's limitations and a universal desire to do no harm and to receive no harm. While aikido is a physical activity, and yes, most assuredly a martial art where there is a statistical likelihood of injury over time, we nevertheless should be intolerant of carelessness or malice. Injury in any degree should not be sought or accepted as a kind of trophy or sign of seriousness or level of commitment. At a minimum, injury should be seen as an impediment to further training.

Similarly, we have to respect ourselves and one another. Training has to be enjoyable and rewarding, even if it remains difficult and challenging. We have to care for our partners and see to it their experience of us is productive. We must endeavor to know them well enough that their quirks and traits and limitations are constructively managed such that progress is made, and enthusiasm for training is not diminished.

Go Slow, Pretend Fast

I also express this as "Don't Break Time."

Go slow. Training and practice is a study. To be useful and efficient, we should slow it down. This allows us to observe a chaotic unfolding of events more closely and accurately, and to adapt our response patterns in a measured and reasonable manner.

Pretend fast. An actual combat encounter often occurs extremely rapidly. Since training at full speed and with full force is no longer training, but actual combat, we have to do our best with simulations. This is what I mean by "Pretend Fast." The physics of inertia while moving at high velocity are not the same as the physics of a leisurely pace. To make a more realistic simulation, we must make our leisurely pace behave as if we were moving at full speed, with all that it entails. It's fine if there's a natural rise and fall to the rhythm of the encounter, but sudden bursts of speed, instant stops, or changes of direction that would be impossible at or near full speed should be prohibited. Players should agree on a basic tempo consistent with their shared skills around which the rate of change should gravitate. Stepping outside of that tempo is a kind of breaking time, and should be avoided.

Accept Small Ambiguities

The seven rules are meant to be brief reminders of larger, more complex ideas. Fastidious and literal interpretations tend to lead to endless debate and confusion. Large ambiguities must be clarified, but hair-splitting angels-dancing-on-heads-of-pins are of no real concern. It's a shame that this has to be made explicit, but experience has taught me that it does. A few examples of small ambiguities are indicated below.

The Rules of Solid

Decrease Distance

This is simple. An attacker or an initiator or a provocateur must identify a target and go after it. Alternatively, the target may be lured into a proximate field of action. Either way, distance must be closed. (Small ambiguity: moving through space is an expression of the Rule of Empty, yet this cannot be avoided when closing distance. Nevertheless, closing distance belongs to the Rule of Solid, as it is aiming at a target.) Decreasing distance is both a prelude to and an expression of Increasing Pressure.

Increase Pressure

Pressure is a convenient term meant to include the forces of compression, tension, and torque. These can be expressed as hitting, pushing, pulling, twisting, locking, leveraging to overthrow someone, squeezing, and so on. As much as possible, the attempt at pressure should be maintained relentlessly, and the increase of pressure should persist within the bounds of safety and respect, or until a natural stasis point is achieved.

Both of the Rules of Solid serve to increase the likelihood of what I call the "Collision of Solids."

The Rules of Empty


Integration avoids the Collision of Solids. When things come together, merge, and move as one, they do not collide. When things diverge and go their separate ways, they do not collide. Alignment looks at all the elements in a system and assesses their headings and their potential for movement along vectors, and coordinates the entire system toward coherent movement and structural integrity. Forces are balanced and minimal pressure is maintained, or pressure is released before it is allowed to build up beyond the structural and functional limits. (Small ambiguity: the merging of Solids may require a closing of distance and slight increase in pressure for the sake of unification. Nevertheless, this merging is an expression of the Rule of Empty.)

Push Empty

"Pushing Empty" simply means directing the movement of solids towards open space, or towards a balanced, grounded state. It means being a doorway rather than an obstacle. It means moving through doors rather than through walls. Pushing Empty does not increase pressure beyond the minimal amount necessary to join or merge or engage. Pushing Empty can mean allowing oneself to be moved and directed with an almost complete compliance, yet doing so without getting in a bind. The awareness is always on all the solid components of the system, yet the focus of attention is always directed toward empty space, where free movement can occur, and where safety is more likely,

"Emptiness" here does not refer to any mystical "Void." It is the literal open space between solid objects. "Pushing Empty" is no different from what you normally do when you successfully drive a car or walk through crowds, You have to be aware of all the obstacles in order to avoid collisions, but you select your path where the way is free and clear -- where the path is open.

In a sense, Pushing Empty reverses our sense of figure and ground. We pay attention to the figure, the "subject" in the normal sense, but it's really the background that should attract our energy. All our movements should be toward the space where nothing is.

Actually, there is one exception to this, and that is the literal ground we stand upon. It's ok, and often necessary in the alignment of forces to move with gravity from higher energy states to lower ones. So in addition to focusing ourselves toward a spacious and empty background, we can also move towards the solid ground beneath our feet, even as we Push Empty. However, we do so in the continuing spirit of integration, not to collide, and not in a way that increases the pressure in the system. Instead, the ground becomes a natural resting place for the pooling of a settled energy.


When first encountering this system, students are often confused about what to do. That's understandable, because beyond these rules there is nothing really prescribed. It's funny that when we are confronted with an endless freedom of choice, we often feel at a loss for something to do. What I enjoy most about the framework is that you can do anything -- really anything -- within the parameters of the meta rules and within the boundaries of your role as Solid or Empty.

So what we do is explore. We experiment, We communicate. We take turns understanding the roles and their implications. We find that either role may prevail under certain circumstances, and that is a useful thing to know. Pushing Empty does not work at all times and in all situations, and we need to discover its limits. Pushing Solid is found to be utterly useless and ineffectual when there is nothing solid to push against. Each player will at times discover an impasse, and that's when situations can be rewound and repeated and studied so that each player can learn.

One thing I really do recommend you avoid doing is "technique." Yes, I said you can do pretty much anything, and that can include traditional aikido techniques. The problem is that if you've gained any proficiency in "technique," you may find that you're doing it from muscle memory and you may not realize that you're stepping outside your role as Solid or Empty in order to be successful. Avoid this.

When you can successfully avoid repeating your well-rehearsed patterns of traditional aikido technique, you may find yourself at the root of Takemusu Aiki -- the source of the generative nature of aikido. From this source, forms do arise. These emergent forms are quite often the very same as the ones we've been taught for years or decades, but now we're doing them from the inside out, and not from the outside in. Actually, we're not really doing them at all, so much as they just happen as a result of the other things we're now supposed to be doing. If you're Solid, you've got just two things to do. If you're Empty, you've got just two things to do. But each of these things have infinite expressions.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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