Just a head's up. Grab a cup of coffee (or a pint!) or print this one out or something. Sheesh, I got carried away.
Ken McGrew wrote:
We don't force Uke or take from Uke. We don't impose, generally speaking, but lead, follow, and shape.
Uke's structural integrity is compromised by the act of attacking, both spiritually and physically. To truly attack is to become vulnerable, at least momentarilly. To attack someone you must go to them, and this intention can be used to lead the attacker outside of his balance. Once unbalanced, if the motion is continued, there is no opportunity to resist. If resistance is encountered or if something doesn't go as intended, it is always possible to change (either inside the technique or to a different technique, or no technique). I think too often it is the lack of a true attack that gives Uke the opportunity to live in the egotistic delusion of resistance.
I understand what you are describing conceptually and intellectually. I also think that Aikido, when it is practiced as Budo, a means of cultivations of the self, should have attaining this level of technique as one of its primary goals. However.
"We don't force Uke or take from Uke. We don't impose, generally speaking, but lead, follow, and shape."
"Uke's structural integrity is compromised by the act of attacking, both spiritually and physically. To truly attack is to become vulnerable, at least momentarilly. To attack someone you must go to them, and this intention can be used to lead the attacker outside of his balance. Once unbalanced, if the motion is continued, there is no opportunity to resist."
I have issues with these two statements. Hypothetically I would agree with them, however I think actual application of techniques in this fashion is incredibley difficult. Very, very, very
few people achieve this level of technique I think, not that we shouldn't all try to obtain it. To me, the level of technique you are describing exists at the li
level. Considering that most people who join Aikido dojos will never move much past the shu
level and even fewer onto the ha
level, I think obtaining this level of technique is out of reach for the vast majority of people. That being said, considering the limited nature of attacks in Aikido and "aikido speed/intensity" of attacks found in many dojos (everyone knows what I mean when I say this) I could see where someone might falsely believe thay have attained this level of technique (not implying you Ken, just making a general statement).
Aikido attacks are very limited in their composition. I realize many would argue they are designed to be "generalized" attacks in order to simulate a wider variety of attack possibilities. However, the attacks in Aikido remain very simplistic. Attacks in Aikido do not deal with kicks, knees, elbows, the clinch, groundwork, shoots, takedowns, and a myriad of other attacks. Sure there are a few dojos that train with some of these attacks, Mits Yamashita sensei's and our own David Valadez and Kevin Leavitt here on Aikiweb come to mind, but they are in the vast minority. Most Aikido dojos practice with basic hand strikes and grabs only, which does not prepare one at all for actually dealing with attacks. There is also the intensity/speed issue I mentioned earlier. I think most people who have been around Aikido for years and have traveled to many dojos are aware of the lack of intensity/speed in many dojos. Furthermore, I've rarely seen Aikido dojos deal with combinations of attacks. What happens when someone feints/jabs 3-4 times high and low, making limited contact but pushing you
out of balance before delivering a haymaker? I don't think Aikido, as it is practiced by many, and especially in the manner Ken describes, prepares people for these types of attack. Instead I think it produces a false confidence within themselves, as well as not preparing them to actually be able to physically apply the techniques in real life situations (perhaps not even apply the principles of AIkido mentally or emotionally in non-physical encounters).
Practicing in such a cooperative environment also leads to such a false sense of security. For instance you state: "Once unbalanced, if the motion is continued, there is no opportunity to resist." I think that most of the multi-art practitioners on the board would disagree with you here. I absolutely agree that when Aikido practitioners act as shite that it should be their responsibility to comprise uke's ability to resist and to minimize the window of opportunity for uke to resist. However, in a cooperative environment, how is one ever sure that this is being accomplished? Furthermore, in the majority of dojos I have vistied in the States and abroad (I'm using Yoshinkan terminology here as it is my base but I have visited a wide variety of Aikido dojos outside of the Yoshinkan system), once shite takes uke to the ground, ukes tend to just passively lay there. I know in the Yoshinkan we focus on a consistent application of control through the throw and during the transition to the osae, but it is a difficult task even with years of practice. It also assumes that the uke is just going to lay there. it is much more plausible that someone would immediately begin to fight and resist and attempt to get up. Not to mention what would happen if the person being attacked had even a passing familiarity with groundwork. I realize that the general counter argument to this line of thought is henkawaza and kaeshiwaza. However, what is the likelihood of someone responding to an aikido technique being applied to them with another Aikido technique?!? Very low I would imagine. And if it did occur I imagine both parties would laugh and head out to the pub for a pint!
I suppose what makes me uneasy with the type of training you are describing is not the training itself. Ideally, I think it should be the ultimate goal for all of us. However, I think by practicing solely in this fashion it actually inhibits us from reaching the actual level that we are attempting to emulate. Perhaps it is just my bias of being in the Yoshinkan, but I don't see how it is possible to attain the level of control of uke that Ken describes with out actually knowing, like empirical first-hand knowledge knowing, that one can apply the techniques to an uke regardless of whether the uke cooperates or not. Just accepting that techniques work in the fashion as to explained to us by our teachers, just because "they say so," does not constitute a good enough reason to me to have faith in the techniques I have learned.
Assuredly, everyone needs to take time, a long time, in learning about techniques and the timing, movement, and distance that goes into applying them in a cooperative environment. This is the only way to learn. There are drills (kata) in every MA from Aikido to Karate to BJJ. However, never moving out of the zone of cooperative practice never provides one with actual first-hand knowledge of how the techniques work in a "live" environment. Instead, one merely develops hypothetical outcomes for conflict situations. Sure, the techniques are presented to you as theory by your instructors, but unless we as students never actually put them to the test, they instead remain only hypotheses to us. I am using the "classical" definition of theory here: "a proposed description, explanation, or model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena ( in our case, applying technique in a conflict situation), capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation." How often do members of the Aikido population put their techniques to the test?
If we look back at the "good old days" of Ueshiba sensei's dojo, it would seem rather often. Shioda sensei was notorious for going out and testing his technique, as were many other deshi of the day. If it worked for them it should work for us right? I don't think so. I'm sure most of us have participated, or heard of the game where a dozen or more people gather together in a circle. The first person whispers a 3-4 sentence story to their right, and people continue to repeat what they heard around the circle. Invariably by the time the last person hears the story and repeats what they heard aloud, it barely resemble what the first person originally said. Amplify that over decades, generations of instructors (good and bad), cultural misunderstandings and mistranslations, and the sheer volume of material included in Aikido and it is amazing we're all on the same page about kamae!
How are we supposed to have real, empirical understanding of the techniques that have been passed on to us without testing them? Not in a egotistic, or combative manner but in terms of trying to better each other in a cooperative spirit! This occurs in many styles of MAs! I have been to Karate dojos where, during sparring the practitioners look like they are trying to take each other's head off! However, as soon as they are finished, they laugh, smile, and give each other a rough hug. They are just as good of friends as two Aikido students and competition has done them no worse for wear. In fact they are helping make each other's technique better. The same thing occurs at the Sambo club at which I train. We drill (kata!) for 1-2 hours and then roll for another hour. There is no malice between us when we roll. While we are both attempting to submit one another, we are both cognizant that through this type of practice we are actually helping one another grow. Certainly it is more difficult to maintain this type of constructive attitude in a competitive environment where it is easy for egos to expand, but that is not to say it does not happen!
Without an element of truly putting oneself on the line, creating an element of risk in training, I think the possibility of growth remains very limited. When we risk nothing in training, there is little impetus for us to push ourselves past our comfort zones. If one always practices at a comfortable pace, takes easy falls, cooperates, etc. then, I personally, do not see how growth can occur. Growth could certainly not take place for me at that pace. I think everyone is aware of the type of risk I am speaking of as well. I would hope everyone remembers their first breakfall, and how it felt before they did it. Or the first time they partnered up with a very senior student, or took uke from their sensei, or a visiting shihan. There is an apprehension there, a sense of risking ourselves before we step into those situations. Yet, somehow, we overcome. Having this type of feeling, I like to term it as "risk," propels us into new levels of our training, and should help us grow wider and deeper in our martial understanding. Also in terms of "ego," are we sure that it is not the ego that is holding some of us back from testing out techniques in a "live" environment? In Aikido there is always a set outcome when one is shite, in "live" training there is no such guarantee. Can we be sure it is not the ego in ourselves as Aikido practitioners, as our technique "always" works (we were told so!), that is keeping us from stepping outside of our comfort zone and discovering how techniques work for ourselves? Could we not handle the bruising to our ego when our techniques do not work?
Is this type of training not what Shioda sensei and others have spoken of as shugyo? Truly austere training? Pushing oneself to the limit in order to develop as robustly as we possibly can? Again, I appreciate the level of technique that Ken is describing. I believe it possibly to be the level of technique that the likes of Ueshiba sensei and Shioda sensei had later in their lives. However I think it is a fallacy for us to attempt and move directly to that level of training! These people who came before us spent many years paying their dues with very hard (austere) levels of training. In a sense, they went through the entire alphabet, before reaching their goal, Z. The level of technique and training Ken describes to me is at the X-Y-Z level. Yet if we start at X-Y-Z, we might understand those last letters, but do we really know the whole alphabet? To go even deeper, do we know the history of the alphabet? Its roots and origins? How did it develop and why? Should we not attempt to gain this same type of insight and understanding in our Aikido?
Even moving outside of the physical realm of conflict, does this type of practice Ken describes help us apply the principles of Aikido to the rest of our lives if it the only way in which we have practiced it? I would imagine most of us have been in non-physical conflict situations where things did not come at us smoothly, in a pre-ordained fashion, and barely struggled with us as we dealt with them? Conflicts sometimes come at us this way, but they also sneak up from behind and blind-side us. then while we're down conflict's three buddies, Problems, Trouble, and Stress, come up and dog-pile on top of us. I think practicing with higher levels of shugyo and resistance in a "live" environment helps prepare us better for these types of situations. The come-at-you-fast-and-unpredictable types of conflict that we sometimes in encounter throughout our lives. If we only practice blending slowly and cooperatively in Aikido can we really assume we can blend with non-physical conflicts in our lives that do not come at us the same way? I don't know.
And of course, all this is far outside the bounds of a beginner student in my mind. Perhaps even for most students. But should we not expect his level of training and technique out of our upper-most seniors and our instructors? Do they not need to have as large a breadth of experience as possible in order to deal, not only with conflict situations, but also to better relate the teachings to as wide a variety of people as possible? Also, is it really necessary to answer these types of questions I have asked throughout this post if we intend to only practice Aikido as budo, purely as a means of cultivation of the self? Maybe not. Should we expect this level of depth and experience out of our instructors? I think so. I'm truly fortunate in that I think I have found instructors in Aikido and Sambo that are at this level of training.
I too would like to eventually have my own dojo some day and the thoughts and questions I have expressed here often come to my mind. They are part of what drove me to look outside of Aikido; to find some of the answers to these questions.
Lastly, Ken, please do not take this as an attack on your post or methods of training. I really appreciated your post! It helped coalesce a lot of thoughts that have been jumbling about my head and think about the nature of my training. Cheers to everyone who reads this monster!
All the best,