Dojo: Shoheijuku Aikido, Fukuoka
Join Date: Sep 2002
Re: It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher
Since I wrote my IHTBF column about Suganuma Sensei, after many more experiences and personal investigations of internal power, I have observed and sensed much, leading me to consider, at various times, re-writing my column based upon those things. However, every time I approached the task, I could never quite capture what it was I wanted to express. It was as if something elusive was missing. The other day, that thing became apparent to me, as the result of an unexpected question.
There is still much I don’t know, most of it might be better answered by someone more familiar with Koichi Tohei who has had a clear influence (see the video of Suganuma taking ukemi for him) as well as Osawa senior, from whom his technique is based. When I hold an image of Suganuma Sensei in my mind, however, it is always of him sitting on the mat while we drink tea after training, thinking of something to discuss, looking down and at an angle, in the midst of that uncomfortable, but familiar silence as we watch him contemplating.
To begin with, allow me a transgression. After returning from one of Dan Harden’s seminars, having spent 4 days watching a man who has developed uncanny skill, I was shocked that I couldn’t watch anyone demonstrate Aikido any more — the “can’t unsee” factor was so strong. Yet, a few days later, having been sent to the mat by Suganuma Sensei with that sensation of him having done almost nothing at all, sucking out my energy and sending me slamming into the mat, I realised that he does have something magical that I still wished to understand.
To answer the how, I have to go back to the day, at post-training tea, I asked him what feeling he has when he performs a technique on someone. His response was to go downstairs to his library and pull out a book by or about Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he had highlighted a passage. In it (going from memory) Emerson describes staying at a farm, whereby he is asked to help take a horse out of a stable. Unable to do so (the horse just pulls back against his efforts) he is surprised by the ability of a child to lead the horse out easily.
This stuck with me for a long while. I know, in simple terms, if you keep just ahead of someone moving to grab your arm, for example, you can easily lead them into a technique. We do this all the time in training. But what once you have made contact? That, I had since thought, requires well-developed Aiki/Internal Power skills, and left it at that in my mind.
More recently, his son, Katsuhiko Suganuma, demonstrated a concept whereby you extend a fist out in front of you and lock your elbow in to your centre. Even preventing movement if someone grabs that fist, it is possible to perform shihonage lightly and effortlessly, much to the surprise of the person making the fist. In experimenting and discussion afterwards, I had trouble understanding the mechanics of this, and went home contemplating it, whereupon it became obvious. I had known the answer all along. Consequently, I realised why Suganuma Sensei had shown me a description of a child leading a horse.
To understand the answer (and thus what Suganuma Sensei does) we have to ask the question: How do we perform kuzushi (destabilisation) in Aikido? What is going on in the body? Consider someone performing a standing aiki age on their partner, who ends up raised up on their toes, unable to control their own body, let alone their own balance. We see that while nage is maintaining physical structure internally, they are bringing uke very slightly out of balance. Consequently, uke reflexively attempts to correct for this through their hold on nage’s hands, and nage turns this power back against them, destabilising them more, resulting in a feedback loop in uke.
The key aspect of this is: The initial destabilisation is only very slight. Consider for a moment a person standing in a stable posture. If, without their feet moving, they move one of their limbs away from their body, or one is moved away, they will be brought into instability. Naturally, our body reflexively corrects for this by moving our feet to bring ourselves back into stability. We do this, in essence, when we walk. We extend a foot forward, taking ourselves off balance, then shift our weight forward to bring ourselves back.
Back to the exercise we did with Katsuhiko Sensei, if you hold a fist out in front of you without moving it, and turn left or right on the spot, your fist will draw an arc. If we consider just the horizontal plane for simplicity, shihonage takes uke’s hand in a straight line across their body. If you touch an arc and a line together, from that point they diverge, first only a slight amount, then a great deal more.
Going back to my description of how a person is destabilised if they extend, or have a limb extended away from their body, a technique like shihonage takes them out of stability starting with a very slight instability into a large one (the divergence of the line from the arc). This is the key.
The reason it has to be slight for it to work has to do with how our body reflexively reacts to being destabilised. If you pull or push on someone forcefully, they will, in turn, pull or push back in the OPPOSITE direction. But, if you draw someone very slightly out of stability, they will, reflexively, correct for it by moving their body in the SAME direction. Thus, leading the horse. In essence, along with an aiki age-like feedback loop, it is tricking uke’s body into leading itself into great destabilisation. The combination of this with decades of well-developed internal structure, technical skill and timing, has resulted in this seemingly magical ability to perform the techniques without any effort.
Of course, this doesn’t always work perfectly. I have both seen and felt Suganuma Sensei resort to powerful and more forceful technique when he is unable to execute technique in this manner, such as when uke is too stiff. However, the image that will be forever cemented in my mind is that of him, with every person, intently focussed on executing a technique with great smoothness and precision, and me being sent into the mat as if by almost nothing.