Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
Saotome Sensei's Aikido is sharp, effortless, and completely based on atemi. That doesn't mean he actually shows you the atemi overtly, but you quickly develop an understanding that atemi is fundamental to how he sees what he is doing on the mat. As long as I "respected" the fact that the atemi was there and took my ukemi accordingly, the atemi was more often than not, kept "implicit" rather than "explicit". But if I were to make the mistake of disputing the space with Sensei, there was ALWAYS an atemi right there that could be released in an instant.
I started with Saotome Sensei in his newly opened dojo in DC back in 1976. One of the earliest memories I have was Sensei stating that "if your partner knew that you wouldn't or couldn't do atemi, all techniques are stoppable" along with "every throw you do is a strike you are choosing not to do". Of course this was back in the "hippie days" and a number of folks with little experience but lots of enthusiasm were getting in to Aikido. It wasn't at all unusual for a Brown belt or Shodan to be running a dojo. I remember Sensei coming back from a seminar on the West Coast at which he had done a demo. His uke was Ikeda Sensei. Ikeda Sensei once told me that they never rehearsed these things. He said Saotome Sensei expected his ukes to try their level best to kill him, he would do the rest.
So, it was that kind of demo. The Aikido was almost entirely atemi oriented. Ikeda Sensei tried to knock Saotome Sensei out and Sensei responded with technique that was right on the edge of knocking Ikeda Sensei cold (but didn't actually hurt him). The level of energy being released was huge and the level of control that allowed Ikeda Sensei to get up and walk away without injury was phenomenal. At the end of the demo Sensei was approached by a woman who was a Shodan and was running a quite successful dojo. She informed Saotome Sensei that he clearly had not understood O-Sensei's message of non-violence and world peace.
I was at the dojo the night Sensei returned and he was, not surprisingly, still apoplectic. Fifteen years with the Aikido Founder and she was maintaining he hadn't understood the message... But, this was always the issue with Sensei's Aikido. People with a preconceived notion of what Aikido was all about would look at his atemi oriented technique and think it was violent. Sensei was always serious about the fact that this was Budo, that it was both a spiritual path and a real martial art. Many people would see the martial in his Aikido and make the assumption that it was lacking what they saw as the spiritual component.
Well, I was often that uke... I tried my level best to hit Sensei. I never succeeded, not empty hand anyway. I'd go in at light speed and the next thing I knew he was in my face... just as my feet would leave the floor, his hand would be compressing my nose. In other words no margin for error, no hesitation possible. He took the space you needed to be in to complete your attack. At the time I marveled at how quickly he could take that space without ever seeming to be in a hurry or move very fast. Later I came to realize it had always been his space, well before he moved it was his.
Sometimes he'd let me know it was his space, other times I'd think had a shot only to find the "suki" (opening) and disappeared just as I got there. Now I understand that there never had been an "opening", he was playing with what he'd let me see and what he'd put out for me to feel.
Taking ukemi from Sensei was about developing a lot of sensitivity. He wouldn't let you tank, and he expected full commitment when you attacked. But I realized that it was about heightened sensitivity without reactivity. He wanted you to feel it when he hit you with his "intent" from 8 feet away. But he didn't want you "reacting" the way a lot of Aikido folks have been allowed to do. You moved when you had to. You fell if there was kuzushi and you couldn't restore balance without creating more of an opening. If his hand was coming at your face, you were expected to parry it and continue the attack if you could. But if the hand was inside your attack and you would be hit if you hung out for an instant longer, he expected you to be gone. You had to go from 100% full commitment to being gone in an instant. One developed the ability to really commit but not be attached to it.
Aside from the experience of really being in the present instant which taking Saotome Sensei's ukemi required, the thing I most appreciated about the experience was just how committed I could be and how much energy that together we'd be playing with and how I was never, ever injured. All those years going full out at full speed, having Sensei take me right up to the edge of what I was capable of handling, and I was never hurt. I was more than twice his size and he'd lay me out effortlessly and cleanly. No matter how hard he threw me, I was always landed just as I needed to land. It was always some of the cleanest Aikido I ever saw. It truly was non-violent... he could play with the energy of Kali Warrior Goddess of Destruction and you would walk away just fine, knowing you had "died" repeatedly... but still just fine.
Last edited by George S. Ledyard : 04-24-2012 at 03:21 PM.