Join Date: Jul 2015
Atemi and traditional Chinese medicine
A few nerdy notes regarding atemi and it's connections to traditional Chinese medicine:
Atemi is an integral part of aikido. It is generally a strike towards an aggressor which is meant to distract, create openings for aikido techniques. This strike can be very light, just a light tap on the cheek to distract an aggressive drunk so that the broken bottle can be removed from his hand or he can be controlled by a gentle (but adjustable) lock. On the other hand, say when a terrorist attack is ongoing, and several people have been shot to death already, an atemi can be hard in the extreme if it is about disarming a person about to kill innocents. The hard atemi, which is to be used in life or death situations - where it cannot be avoided - cracks bones, extracts teeth, rips tendons, and crushes muscles. This type of atemi is meant as a (very) serious distraction, one which also (at least to a degree) incapacitates the aggressor.
There are many tsubo points (acupuncture points, atemi points, trigger points) that can be used very effectively in atemi. Many descriptions of the potential use of these points are to be found in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and its many derivatives. This has often, quite naturally, focused on the positive effects, the healing and strengthening aspects of manipulating one or several of these points. In the martial arts, though, these points have rather been described in terms of their potential as entrants to harm in combat. The study of the elements, meridians, and tsubo points of TCM has been integral to the development of virtually all Asian martial arts. The importance of TCM-based atemi in e.g. Aikido makes it clear that a basic understanding of TCM can be very relevant to training in the Asian, and other, martial arts.
Illustrations of meridians and tsubo points can be easily found through google.
An obvious, and quite important atemi point is often called the "third eye". It lies on the governing vessel meridian, a few mm above the midpoint between the eyebrows, but is not always considered a point on that particular meridian. It is one of the three main centers in/on the human energy body and is the location of the Ain chakra.
This point is considered to represent cognitive thinking and (self)consciousness. It is also the traditional numinous center, i.e. the location of contact with the numinous (God). In modern neurology the frontal cortex has been shown, indeed, to be the seat of the abovenamed phenomena.
A hard strike to this point is extremely confusing. It is not necessarily particularly painful, but it is associated with lightning flashes before the eyes, thinking/coordination/orientation collapse, and unconsciousness.
It should be remembered that the prefrontal cortex is the brain's center of being, the seat of the actual (self)consciousness. A strike to this area, while potentially very effective as atemi, is also potentially lethal or severely crippling. The power which may severely distract an aggressor could very easily turn into an unintended killing or permanently crippling blow.
This point is one of several natural targets for the initiation strike (version) of shomen uchi.
Point Gall-bladder 1 (pupil bone hole) is located at the temple. A strike towards this area is quite painful and has some effects similar to a strike at the third eye point described above (extreme confusion, unconsciousness etc.). The brain area behind this point is the frontal cortex, the part of the brain carrying out higher functions (planning, thinking etc.). Therefore, a hard strike to this area may cause unconsciousness, concussions with lasting brain damage, and death. This point, just like st1 and si18 (see below) is particularly exposed in e.g. ikkyo (and ikkyo entrance), kotegaeshi techniques, and several techniques against yokomen uchi attacks.
Point stomach 1 (Tear container/Face bone hole) and point Small intestine 18 (Cheek bone hole) are located close to each other in the frontal cheek area, st1 located between the corner of the nose and the "tip" of the cheek, and si18 located at the "tip" of the cheek where one can feel a little hole in the bone.
A strike towards this area will likely affect one or the other or both points. Both points, when struck or pressured, are very sensitive and painful. The eyes will tear up and the nose will start to run. A hard strike may actually fracture the cheekbone and could cause permanent nerve damage in the area and could damage an eye causing temporary or permanent blindness. These points are, again, particularly effective in connection with ikkyo, kotegaeshi, and entering defense against yokomen uchi attacks.
Point small intestine 17 (Celestial countenance) is located high on the lateroventral side of the neck in the angle of the jaw, slightly to the side of the larynx. This point may be difficult to actually reach with a strike since it is located in quite a protected location. Finger strikes and finger pressure, however, is extremely effective at this point. There may not be extreme pain associated with an atemi to this point, but it will produce an extreme feeling of choking/strangulation panic together with a severe cough reaction and feeling of difficulty swallowing. This point is particularly effective in e.g. self-defense-oriented irimi nage techniques. A severe finger strike to this area may actually fracture the larynx and induce both lethal bleeding and choking.
Si17 is much used in the "harder" variations of irimi nage, using the middle and ring fingers to press hard into this point and into the side of the larynx. This very effectively moves uke in one direction and can be used to fix uke's head against the opposite shoulder in preparation for the final throw.
Point large intestine 18 (Protruberance assistant) is located centrally on the side of the neck, very close to the main neck arteries. A strike or pressure here is very painful and compromises both breathing and swallowing. A moderate strike to this point will have consequences for swallowing and will produce coughing and tearing of the eyes/runny nose for several minutes. A hard strike to this area, due to the proximity of the neck arteries, may be fatal.
Point conception vessel 22 (Celestial chimney) is located at the base of the larynx in an obvious depression between the proximal ends of the collarbone. Just a light pressure with the middle finger will provoke a violent reaction which will either make an aggressor back off quickly or will seriously injure, or even kill, an attacker. This point must be treated with extreme caution. Any threat against this point provokes extreme panic and the point can thus be used as a "persuation point" (drop the knife orů..). This point is often considered to be a significant "emotional meeting place". Presumably, contact between cv22 and the middle finger, the tip of which represents the very emotional and truly central pericardium (fire element) energy (ki), can establish an effective emotional connection between uke and nage.
Point large intestine 4 (Union valley) is located in the depression of the meeting between the index finger and the thumb. It is often used specifically in ikkyo (and ikkyo entrances) and nikkyo. It does represent a point which is easily found with nage's thumb and the point does give the option for some painful control of the technique. One pitfall is that it is easy to let one's thumb slip from this point and into the grip of uke, at which point the technique is lost and uke may gain the upper hand.
Point pericardium 8 (Palace of toil) is located in the middle of the palm. This point is strongly associated with central, deep emotions, which means that contact between the strongly emotional and deeply communicative pericardium meridians through the tip of the middle finger and pc8 (classical kote gaeshi grip) may be able to strongly affect the emotion and energetic states of both uke and nage.
Point conception vessel 17 (Chest center), located along the midline of the body and in the "deepest" part of the chest. This point corresponds to the heart chakra (Anahata) and, even if it is rarely used for atemi (sensu stricto), it is a point strongly associated with empathy, emotionality, and spirituality, which means that it has a strong potential importance in any human interaction. For a very pure calming interaction a palm (pc8) placed against cv17 is excellent. There may be complications in terms of "modesty", but a middle finger placed against pc17 can represent a second option, albeit not as effective.
Cv17 is very effective as a "pain producing" point and a middle finger knuckle rubbed against this point is a softer version of saying "back off" than e.g. a middle finger against abovenamed cv22. A hard strike against this point is potentially lethal (may provoke instant life-threatening heart arrhythmias) and should be avoided except under extreme circumstances. A hard strike towards cv17 will always produce a strong choking sensation for a few moments.
Cv17 is also the (mu/bo-point) for the pericardium, which means that certain sensations at this point indicates a problem with the pericardium (heart protector) energy (fire element). One of these sensations, much used in romantic symbolism, is "heartache", which represents an intense sadness, a weak pericardium energy, often representing the passion and happiness of fire being quenched by the facts of the world.
Point cv6 (Sea of ki) is located approximately 4 cm below the navel.
This point, rather than being a specific atemi point, is very important because it represents the main center of the energy body. Any action by an aggressor will be reflected in this center, also called Dantian in Chinese/Seika Tanden in Japanese, which can be translated as both "Sea of ki" or, more simply -- energy center. This is the main focus of practically all oriental martial art, healing, meditation practice etc. This point represents the hara chakra.
Point liver 13 (Camphorwood gate) is located on the side of the torso at the little "peak" at the base of the ribcage. This point is very sensitive, and a strong strike will completely wind an aggressor. Liv13 is easily accessible in connection with e.g. attacks with yokomen uchi, shomen uchi, as an elbow strike while executing kaiten nage uchi mawari, or as an alternative atemi point in connection with ikkyo (and ikkyo entrances). Liv 13 is also the alarm (mu/bo) point of the spleen.
Apart from the specific tsubo points there are several sensitive areas that are useful in terms of atemi.
The whole face area is a natural atemi zone. Apart from being an area containing many sensitive atemi points, especially several ones along the stomach meridian, the face does contain several sensitive structures such as the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. A strike, finger stab, or just hard hand-pressure against any of these will cause severe distraction in an aggressor. In an extreme life or death situation the face is an obvious area to attack, even to the point of desperate measures like a pencil in an eye, a nostril, or an ear, a key or comb drawn along the face, or even a cup of hot tea over the whole face. The face is often the most accessible way to really cause damage to an aggressor if this is indeed necessary.
The neck is a generally very sensitive structure, connecting the head and the torso in terms of blood (veins and arteries), nerve signals (spine), and air (larynx). The whole neck area is therefore a natural atemi target. The drawback of this is that hard atemi strikes towards the neck always risk causing serious injury or death.
The torso has several weak zones which can either be seen as quite separate from atemi points but also, just as reasonably, could be considered an area where several atemi points can be hit at the same time, thus producing a combined effect.
A good example of this is the "solar plexus" area, roughly extending from the lower extremity of the breastbone to the navel. Point cv12, cv13, and cv14 can be included in this area. Point cv14 (Great gateway) is coincident with the Manipura Chakra and is also the bo/mu point of the heart. Therefore, pain or a strange sensation in this point may indicate that something is happening with the heart.
The back becomes accessible as an atemi area in connection with more techniques than is often realized. Quite obvious is the ikkyo, where an ikkyo that is resisted very hard can be facilitated by an elbow strike towards several points and general areas on the back, e.g. the middle of the shoulder blade or the area just inside the shoulder blade. It should be noted that the inner track of the bladder meridian along the sides of the spine contains the Shu/Yu points, each representing a diagnostic and manipulative point for a specific organ or function.
Another example could be the entering into irimi nage where a tsuki into the kidney area before grabbing the neck of uke and beginning the "first turn". The same area can be struck again in connection with the change of direction and the final throw in irimi nage.
The torso also contains the groin area, which can be very effective in terms of atemi. Remember that there is a sexual dimorphism, though, and that not all aggressors are men. The groin kick (kin geri) can be very effective, potentially actually very damaging, but it must be remembered that a kick towards the groin area can be very easily blocked with the legs. A strike towards the groin is rarely as effective as seen on film, it must therefore be warned against relying on the proverbial "kick in the nuts" as reliable self-defense.
The arms Elbows/wrists/shoulders contain several areas and points that can be used. The outer edge of the elbow (epicondylus), very close or on the gall bladder or large intestine meridian, is an area where hard pressure from a finger can give much help in connection with e.g. shiho nage.
Yonkyo(omote) is applied at a point located in the area of points lu7 and lu8 along the lung meridian on the lower part of the underarm. In practical aikido this point is found by putting nage's little finger in the crease at the wrist joint. This will place the 3rd joint of the index finger at the "yonkyo spot". For the application of yonkyo ura waza the index finger joint of nage is placed more towards the side of uke's arm, against the radius bone, along the path of the urine bladder meridian (Masunaga extension).
This hold is complicated by the fact that some people are extremely sensitive to it while some others are only moderately affected. The hold, in order to be effective on those less susceptible to it, must be accompanied with a strong hanmi stance and a strong ki. Even so, in yonkyo -- as in every other technique -- one should remember that any technique can be countered or may fail on account of several reasons. Therefore -- always be prepared to follow up with an alternative.
In connection with Ikkyo the edge of the hand (te gatana/hand sword) is placed on the back of the arm at a location just above the elbow, lying on the triple heater meridian (Th11, "clear cold abyss"). This area is very sensitive and often an ikkyo lock, once on the ground, can be held only with one hand if the edge of the hand is placed at the right spot.
The fingers are naturally sensitive areas on the body, and most grabs can be broken by bending just one or a few fingers in isolation. In a serious confrontation it should be remembered that a few broken fingers is seriously incapacitating.
Atemi directed towards the legs is quite rare in aikido. There are kicks and defenses against kicks in aikido, but they do not represent a large part of aikido training. This may be an area deserving of increased attention, especially if the purpose of aikido training is self-defense. If one chooses to direct atemi towards the legs there are three main avenues this could potentially go. Atemi strikes with the hands towards targets on the legs/feet are relevant in connection with hanmi hantachi. These atemi could be directed towards the knee or thigh just above the knee as well as the shinbone and the nerves along the front of it.
The least harmful, but still "attention-grabbing" kicking leg atemi is the roundhouse kick (mawashi geri) towards the back of the thigh, hitting the target with either the instep or the front of the foot with the toes pulled upwards/backwards.
More potentially harmful is the roundhouse kick or side kick (yoko geri) towards the knee. In a very serious situation it should be remembered that a hard kick against the knee will often completely incapacitate an aggressor simply because of a complete inability to stand up and move around. The drawback is that there will likely be permanent damage to the knee.
A very distracting atemi would be the traditional foot stomp. This can break toes but will not cause serious injury. The foot stomp can be very relevant when being grabbed or restrained in some way.
It must be remembered that atemi, at least the principle of it, does not necessarily have to be a strike, it can be a painful lock which is applied quickly, a finger poke in the eye, a cup of coffee in the face, or it can be a choke or strangulation, an atemi is an action intended to distract and confuse.
A concept, often overlooked, which can also represent atemi, is the kiai. This is a shout, which may take various forms, and which serves to both concentrate the ki and at the same time distract and confuse the aggressor. The kiai may sometimes, in the more esoteric branches of aikido, be associated with the kototama theory of esoteric Shinto. O Sensei, who practiced esoteric Shinto, e.g. wrote:
To the enemy lurking within
Cut with EI!
Receive with YAA!
And guide with IEI!
See things clearly
Shout Ya! and pick up the beat
Do not follow your opponent's lead
(O Sensei, Doka 76-77)
The kiai combines the power of the mind with the power of the breath with the power of the voice. If kototama theory is added the voice provides the power of the word. In this connection O Sensei referred to the opening words of the Gospel of John in the New Testament:
In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God
And the word was God
(Gospel of John 1:1)
This is quite similar to the words of the Bhagavad Gita:
I am Om (Aun), the Word that is God
(Bhagavad Gita 7:8)
There are many similar statements in religion, philosophy, and science regarding words, concentration, and "mind over matter". In aikido it is important to include both mindset and vocalizations in the "physical techniques".
The principle of atemi, described in this article is generally based on the assumption that physical conflict has been unavoidable, keeping in memory the principle of aikido that the best way to handle conflict is to avoid it altogether. Atemi represents the application of the principle of wu-wei ("doing without doing", "achieving without effort" etc.), which means that the principles of atemi can just as well be applied to many aspects of life in general, not least in terms of leadership -- more often as vocal or written "atemi" rather than physical strikes. This will be discussed in a later article.