Configuring the Inevitable :: Practice :: Lesson 1 :: Balance
Ten years ago this month, Jun Akiyama initiated a new feature on AikiWeb. He decided that he would like to have an ongoing series of monthly columns written by various guest authors. I was pleased to be among the inaugural cohort, and have since managed to contribute an article for each month of publication, up to this present writing.
My first article was "Vitruvian Man Meets Da Vinci Girl," and is in the collected archives of all the AikiWeb articles published prior to March 2007. I've found it a difficult and interesting challenge to come up with something original to say each month. As my own understanding in the art has matured, my sense of what really needs to be said keeps getting pared down. The distillation of what I now know could be written on a dinner napkin.
Nevertheless, I continue to turn the jewel in my hand and try to see it in new lights, from different angles, and with a different reflection. A lot of my contributions have been sub-par, I'll freely admit, but hopefully even they have something to say about a thought process or an idea just out of grasp. Overall I'm proud of the output, and will occasionally revisit something I've written. Once in a while there is something that I really like, a letter from the past by a very hopeful person wanting something meaningful for a future, more mature self.
I'm extremely grateful to Jun for opening this door. I'm honored to be in the company of some very fine authors, teachers, and practitioners. I'm especially thankful for everyone who has taken the time to read or skim my essays, hopefully to then give a bit of consideration, and perhaps even attend you in your own training. Most of all, I deeply appreciate the commenters who have joined the discussion and extended the conversation. Nominally I am the contributor, but all of you have enriched my life in some way. I'm also indebted to my friend and consort Catherine Parsoneault who provides valuable feedback on my first drafts.
Milestones are arbitrary, but they bring an opportunity for reassessment. Approaching the ten-year mark, I've put some thought into how best to continue (or whether to at all -- retirement from a long term enterprise is always a temptation). But here it is: I've been approached a number of times over the years by students in my own dojo or at seminars, by friends, family, and even strangers asking when I would write "my" book. In fact I've carried the idea of a book around in my head for a very long time, and keep waiting for the perfect moment to start, and the clearest of visions for its completed form.
Of course, I've known all along there is no perfect moment, that clarity is ephemeral, and the best way to begin is to put a foot forward. In that spirit -- and assuming Jun keeps me on in the stable for a while longer -- I'm going to be using my column to draft what I hope to eventually turn into a book. My ambition is to create a chapter a month, though I reserve the right to take a break from the book and turn in an essay on whatever happens to be foremost in my mind at the time.
At any rate, this is my public declaration that my project is hereby initiated. I'll need your help in keeping me honest and on track. All worthwhile things I've ever done have been in the company of valued collaborators. I'll strive to do my very best, but I'm counting on you to make it better.
The title I've carried around all these years is this: "Aikido and the Art of Configuring the Inevitable." My fondest conceit would be to create something timeless and essential -- a 21st Century Art of War, a new Book of Five Rings, or another Unfettered Mind. I've allowed these giants and others to stand in my way for too long, even as they were clearly pointing the way down my own path. There are already so many books now on technique (and almost none when I started my own training!) that I had hoped to avoid adding any volume to that noise. I really wanted to lay out a logical and inescapable theory such that a motivated reader could derive the truth of aikido for themselves, starting from a small set of first principles.
Such thinking always leads me back to my table napkin. Now I see that I will need to work with both theory and practice if I'm to say anything beyond a mere collection of proverbs. Although I'm setting out without a clear map, not even bothering to work out in detail a table of contents, I do so with the knowledge that the trailhead, path, and destination all exist simultaneously. Everything is in place in space and time, even if it must be experienced one step at a time. By now I've been down this road many times, and while it's different in each of its seasons, I'm prepared to report on the key features and scenic overlooks as we come to them.
Lesson 1 :: Balance
What does it mean to be balanced?
How do we know when we are in balance?
Let's begin our practice with a very simple exploration of the physical expression of balance. This will be a standing exercise, so either find a way to read along as you practice, or else read through with understanding and then try it out for yourself.
Stand upright with your feet comfortably apart, side by side. Take a moment to relax if you wish, but make no special effort at perfect posture or ideal breathing. Take no thought of meditating. Do allow your hands and arms to hang limply at your sides. Your hands should naturally fall into the area that I call the "Pocket Zones." That is, the area where your pant pockets normally are. The Pocket Zones will become very important in later lessons, but for now, simply take note that this is where your arms most naturally fall when they are relaxed and unperturbed.
While looking straight ahead toward the horizon, direct your attention to the bottoms of your feet. Feel the distribution of pressure there.
Is the pressure the same on the right foot as the left? Is there more pressure on the balls of the feet than the heels? Consider each foot individually. Is there more pressure on the inside edge or the outside?
Now take a few moments to shift your weight around. Do what needs to be done to equalize the pressure on the bottoms of both feet, until the left and right, the front and back, and the inside and outside edges all feel about the same.
This should be relatively easy, although it's possible you may have an injury or disability or some other asymmetry which is working against you. No matter, do the best you can and come as close to the ideal as possible in the moment.
When the pressure on the bottom of your feet has been equalized, it's safe to say that you are now well balanced. In fact, there is a point of perfect balance where the pressure is perfectly distributed. As you spend time with this exercise and increase your awareness and sensitivity, you'll get better at noticing this single infinitesimally small point. This is an aspect of what we mean when we talk about being centered.
If you do find this point, notice that it is impossible to stay exactly in it. We are living systems, and try as we might, we are simply not capable of perfect stillness. Rather, we seek a more dynamic kind of stillness, what T.S. Eliot referred to as "the still point of the turning world," where "the dance is."
While it's important to become acquainted with the exact center, we should not become fixated by it. Perfect balance exists at a single point for any given posture, but a more functional understanding of balance is to see it as an area, or zone.
In fact, now you should explore your Zone of Balance. Starting with as even a distribution of pressure on your feet as possible, shift your weight left and right, forwards and back, and to the inside and outside edges of your feet. If you go far enough in any direction, you will find a rather definite threshold, beyond which you must take a step or drastically alter your posture to keep from falling over.
Everything inside this threshold is your Zone of Balance.
Inside this Zone of Balance is a great deal of freedom.
Once you understand these simple concepts, feel free to play with some variations. Instead of feet side by side, advance one foot in front of the other. See how much you can change your posture while keeping the pressure equalized. Keeping your feet in place, notice that if some part of your body goes forward, an equal amount of mass must go backwards (bend forward, and the hips must shift rearward). The same is true for left and right, and all the diagonals. For every displacement in any direction, there must be an equal and opposite displacement in order to keep the pressure equalized.
Although we are practicing this as a standing exercise, the same principles apply even if we are kneeling, sitting, leaning on a prop, or even lying down. The number of contact points may change, but the distribution of pressure is key. Also keep in mind that equalized pressure is not the same as equal pressure -- rather, each contact point carries its respective load proportional to the rest of the system.
In summary, we know when we are in balance by paying attention to the distribution of pressure among our contact points. A more perfect distribution of pressure brings us closer to a more perfect balance. In addition to being a singular point, balance should also be understood as a zone. Balance is better toward the center of the zone, and more precarious toward the edge, or threshold.
Beyond the threshold is what we could call a Falloff Zone. We can also think of it as a Recovery or Transition Zone, where balance must be shifted from one position to another.
Knowledge of the distribution of pressure, the Center of Balance, the Zone of Balance, and the Threshold edges will inform all aspects of our continued training.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
Re: Configuring the Inevitable :: Practice :: Lesson 1 :: Balance
I have enjoyed reading your columns and learning from your perspectives.
I have enjoyed sharing our thoughts here.
Jun takes risks with us and it your case, it paid off.
Re: Configuring the Inevitable :: Practice :: Lesson 1 :: Balance
Enjoy the columns a lot.
On balance, its such an interesting area - its been explored in the sports sciences (football, dancers etc..), ts seems the awareness and the recovery from the loss of can indeed be trained and is not as well honed as one might think in many professions. That the fall off zone is inside our contact points was a real revelation to me. Look forward to hearing more
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