This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Susan Dalton © 2014, all rights reserved.
Lately I was reading comments under a blog about the ineffectiveness of aikido. One person talked about "deadwood and less than compelling practitioners." Deadwood! That's the useless part, huh? The part that needs to be pruned away and tossed. Hmmm. I'm that person sitting in seiza, always thinking Sensei's comments are directed towards me even when they aren't, but here's the thing: I know some might see me as a less than compelling practitioner, and I choose to be no more compelling than I am. Here's another thing: effective technique isn't what matters. We'd been having this discussion/argument/wrangle in our dojo between the aikibunnies and the mashers. To be honest, our dojo is somewhere in the middle, and even our most extreme dojomates are middle of the roaders on the aikibunny-masher spectrum. Still, it's an age old conflict, one that manifests in many dojo and on many discussion boards. In our dojo the discussion wasn't exactly a male/female divide, but most of the women tended to see the issue one way, and most of the men tended to see it the other. The word "effective" was being hurled around. I'm bigger than the other women in our dojo and strongly put together, so I wasn't feeling manhandled as some others were, but I was dismayed when the issue came up at a
black belt meeting and the initial reaction seemed to blame uke. I've been doing aikido 23 years and yes, I can put a nikyo pin on you that will cut off your airway. I can probably do a kaitenage that will break your nose and your shoulder and your elbow and, oh hell, your wrist too. I guess that's "effective" technique. But I have to go to work in the morning, and I know you do, too. I don't think people should get hurt on the mat. Nage's responsibility is that as his/her power increases, his/her sensitivity toward uke must increase, so nage can feel the right amount of power to apply and uke is not hurt. Now, I'm not going to claim that I'm above hitting a pressure point or two when someone sees little motivation to move. And as I get older, my favorite technique is nikyo. I even like that nasty sankyo where nage is holding only to uke's little finger. In fact, I like all the nasty pins. But if I'm doing one, I go slowly so uke has time to take the stretch and slap out. Uke gets to decide how far we go.
However, learning to sense and accommodate uke isn't just about "being nice" and taking care. Developing that sensitivity and ability to read "the other" (and ourselves) crucially benefits our own training. Years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacques Payet Sensei for Aikido Today Magazine
. Mr. Payet talked about being uchi deshi for Goza Shioda Sensei. He laughed as he told me about standing outside a door every night waiting for exactly the right moment to open the door for Sensei. He had to get the bath water the exact right temperature, and bring the rinse water in at just the moment Sensei wanted it. At first Mr. Payet felt lost and clueless; however, as time went on he developed the ability to know when to be where with what. He could relax and just "feel it." Most of us don't do that kind of training now; we have to develop these skills in ways such as breathing with the entire class during warm up exercises as we move in sync with everyone in the room and relaxing and reading uke with our bodies during technique.
I had a head start on this sort of training. My father suffered from mental illness, and I never knew what to expect from him. In order to be safe, I had to be able to "read" the air in a room. Is that mysticism? No, it is years of awareness and paying attention. And this type of awareness has kept me safe in other situations. When I was a flight attendant, one night I was an extra,
which meant I travelled alone. In Pittsburgh I got into a van to go to the hotel, and the van driver exuded a frightening vibe. He started talking in great detail about a flight attendant who had been raped in New York, then said, "Flight attendants are the only type of woman who can satisfy a man sexually." I could feel that I needed to remain calm and show no fear or reaction whatsoever. He told me I had not even noticed that he had taken me off the main highway and he was now prepared to take me down a dirt road toward the top of a mountain. He explained that the city was very beautiful from here and he wanted to share the view with me. I sensed that although my assertions would not impress this man, he would respect that I already "belonged" to another man. "I'd love to see the view," I said. "But my husband is expecting me to be back at the hotel when he calls. We better just go straight to the hotel." I kept speaking normally to him and he took me to the hotel.
I wish I could claim that I handled the entire situation well. I did not. Shaking, I closed my hotel room door, locked all three locks, checked under the bed and in the bathroom, and called my husband and cried as he tried to convince me to notify the airline, the van company, and the police. Then I drank a glass of water, sat on the bed, and convinced myself I had over-reacted. That's probably not what the man meant at all. He hadn't actually touched me,
and I wasn't hurt. Maybe I had read the situation all wrong. Maybe he really did just want to show me the beautiful view. I waited quite a while to report this man, and I hope no one else was endangered because I did not listen to what my body and my husband were telling me.
So, yes, when I started Aikido, I was a fearful, intimidated, little aikibunny. I had to learn to stand my ground and own my space. I've learned some valuable lessons from a masher or two. Really, I like to think they've learned a couple things from me, too.
We call our shihan in Japan every so often, and during our last conversation we told him about our aikibunny/masher discussion at the black belt meeting. "A common problem," he said. "A discussion most every dojo will have to have. I want you to practice accurate technique enjoyably."
So what's the difference between accurate and effective technique? Accurate means I have the correct hand/foot/body positions and good posture. I am connected to my center, my breath, and my uke and am using correct timing and miai, or I'm as close to all these ideals as I can get. Effective means the technique is going to work, regardless. If I have to crank or torque or muscle, by George, you are going where I want you to go. I have stopped doing aikido with you and am doing aikido (or something!) to you. I am no longer listening to your body and our connection; I am listening to my ego.
Personally, I dislike the notion that some folks are deadwood. All ukes are good ukes, and everyone brings something to the practice. I have little patience with aikidoka who only want to work out with the "best", most athletic ukes. We never know what our dojomates are overcoming to put themselves on the mat. The most physically talented are not always the ones to derive the greatest benefits from practice. I had a student whose aikido was not particularly beautiful. She struggled all semester with entering, posture, and pins. Sometimes she got so frustrated she cried and left the mat. But she always got back on. And at the end of class, she thanked me and told me this class had given her the courage to leave an abusive relationship. I could share many examples like hers. She could trust in a safe space where people take care of each other. Taking care of each other is more important than effective technique; however, we can all practice accurate technique enjoyably.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.