This month's The Mirror column was written by Al Garcia © 2011.
Of all the concepts learned in Aikido, Irimi (entering), is often the most difficult to execute, because it requires an aikidoka to move in super-close to their attacker...a place most would rather not be. In a bar fight, do you really want to cuddle up with the person swinging a bottle at you? Probably not. You don't want to take the physical risk.
Irimi is explained as a way of moving into your attacker's personal zone once he's attacked you. While some would say that irimi is not, technically, limited to _responding_ to an attack, that is the form it most often takes in Aikido. In Irimi you move in so close that your opponent's room to move against you to counter-attack (or defend themselves) is limited or compromised. It's hard for him to use a bokken on you if you're in his armpit, or grab you if you're so close he hasn't the leverage to get a proper grip on you. But, really, how do you respond to an attack by moving in closer, willingly choosing to put yourself in that position of, let's face it, imminent danger?
I also study Iaido (Japanese Sword), and one of our Sensei just returned from a visit to Soke in Japan. In Iaido, bokken work can be done while working with paired kata, to demonstrate and explore movement that would be too dangerous with a blade. They did quite a bit of that there, and when Sensei got back he had us practice many of the movements. I happen to enjoy paired kata, because what we're trying to do becomes clearer. The movement I'm going to describe made little sense until I saw it's application--and logic--by doing paired bokken kata.
Many Aikido movements are somewhat similar to Iaido motions, but because Aikido is a body-art, not a sword-art like Iaido (which originated in battle), sometimes the exact movements don't match. However, the principle of Irimi exists in both arts. For example: your opponent in Iaido attacks you with a frontal sword cut--he seeks to cleave your skull in two--and you step slightly to the right to move your body aside, drawing your sword in front of and slightly above your head to block his blade. His blade strikes it and slides off towards the floor (his momentum is still forward), while you rotate your now-released-from-blocking blade over your head as you step forward, right into his armpit almost, and then pivot to the left, striking him on the back of his neck with your sword as he continues his forward motion, thus decapitating him. You would think, practicing with the sword, that we would find this entry less challenging than Aikidoka do, but
truthfully, many who swing a sword can be just as hesitant to get in that close.
Now remember, in Iaido we are playing with "three-foot razor blades", as one Aikidoka puts it. Moving in on one of those can be life-risking. The chop of a hand is one thing; the severing of a limb is another. Isn't there an easier, less risky way? Well, remember that Iaido is a battle-art, and often in battle you were not swinging a sword in an open field with plenty of room around so you could make the perfect strike or response. You might be in a town alley, or fighting in a room in the Imperial Palace, or another tight enclosed space--you often HAD to Irimi, because you had no other option. You might not like it, you might wish for an easier move, but to Irimi was the only logical response. In Aikido, if you're practicing under less than ideal real-life circumstances (bar fights, alley muggings, facing a gang attack with chains, etc.), instead of in the peace of a dojo, Irimi can often be one of the safer responses, bringing you close enough
so your opponent can't injure you severely with weapons, and putting him in a position where you can gain some control over his motions. Boxers do it all the time, getting close so the other guy can't hit them. The last thing your attacker's expecting is for you to move in that close. But, it does take courage.
Don't let practicing Irimi scare you; get comfortable with doing it. Get comfortable being really close to your practice partner: with moving into his/her personal space. Claim the space with confidence. Irimi is both a mental and a physical act: you project mental energy first, but effectively doing so is only possible if you are willing to follow with physical entry. People who aren't willing to do both generally don't do either effectively. Have a willingness to physically risk "entering under the blade", because often doing Irimi is the best option, in Iaido, in Aikido...in life. Sometimes we are too cautious, too polite, too hesitant. The way may be clear in front of us, but it requires taking real risk--what if I blow the move and my opponent "gets" me? Am I able to accept and be, if not comfortable with, at least accepting of, the risk? Can I do it? Irimi is a test of overcoming your fears.
For example: ten years ago (on the morning when many of us watched in shock as the Twin Towers in New York City were destroyed and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. in the USA was hit), a group of hijacked airline passengers flying through Pennsylvania, an Aikidoka among them, had to choose whether to passively accept being crashed into yet another building in Washington (Congress? The White House?) or whether to practice Irimi to prevent that, and possibly forfeit their lives (which they did). I'm glad they were brave enough to Irimi.
"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.