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Off Center, and into the Zone
Off Center, and into the Zone
by Ross Robertson
Off Center, and into the Zone

Keep one-point. Get centered. Develop a strong center.

You may hear this sort of thing all the time. You probably do exercises to help you have a feeling to associate with these commands. If you've been practicing a while, you might even be pretty confident you know what they mean.

But do you? What center are we talking about? Where is it? What is it? Does it even exist? What is it to "have a strong center?"

It shouldn't be difficult. After all, we know what a center is. It's a point around which things revolve. It's a place of balance or equilibrium. It's a locus of stillness. It's a concept that matters to physicists and engineers, so it's normal for it to be important to the study of aikido. And yes, it matters to me. So much so, that I named my dojo the Still Point Aikido Center.

And yet, like any other geometric singularity, if you look at it closely enough, you find it's just not there. Or rather, in this case, it turns out not to be so singular. It seems there's more than one One-Point.

Our bodies have a spacial center, located where the sagittal, coronal, and transverse planes intersect. In the hips, just below the navel. Right where the people who like to talk about the One-Point place it.

But is that really the most important center? Our center of mass roughly corresponds with our spacial center in normal standing posture, but it shifts about quite a lot as we move. So our physical center and our spacial center sometimes coincide, but are really separate. Furthermore, there are centers of attention, points of emotional equilibrium, and balance of judgement. There are shared centers when we interact with other people, or even objects.

All of these are important. All of them deserve study. So naturally I think it's a mistake to instruct people as if there is only one center. Maybe there is something like a center of centers, the One Place around which the constellation of other centers revolve. If so, you won't understand it unless you understand the others. But by now, we're talking about something much more complicated than our standard simplistic commands can cover.

So I don't use these terms so much any more. When I do, I try to indicate which center I'm referring to. But these days, I talk more about what I call "zones."

Zones are also places of equilibrium, but are not fixed points. In some cases, they may have very precise boundaries, yet be nebulous shades of gray within those limits. Zones also relate to degrees of freedom. A simple example is a pendulum that is free to swing in any direction. It's boundary is determined by the length of the rod or chain, but once in motion, the bob could be anywhere along its arc paths. Though bounded, its zone of free movement is composed of not one, but infinite points.

When perfectly at rest, the pendulum will, in fact, return to its center, a single point. But here's the important distinction: when the pendulum is moving, it's still in equilibrium, as long as it's in its zone. Zones are more about freedom of movement -- "keeping your center" can lead to fixity.

A force perturbs a system. When our pendulum is pushed or pulled, energy is given to it. Inertia and friction must be overcome, but otherwise, the pendulum offers no resistance. Going with the push or pull keeps the system in balance, as long as the force does not damage the parts. (Actually, breaking the parts would return the overall system to a kind of balance also, but one that we seek to avoid in self defense.) When the pendulum is released, it will still move naturally and freely. Again, this movement is an expression of equilibrium, and the movement stops when the energy of the system has settled down.

Of course we are more intelligent than a passive mechanical system. As such, we can apply what I call "directed non-resistance." This means that we can learn to move intelligently in the presence of a force so that our parts cannot be broken or damaged. An increase of energy will perturb us. In this sense, "perturb" does not mean "annoy," but simply that we are moved. Understanding our natural zones allows us to move freely and without conflict.

So we could speak of having a "rest" zone, where we stand or sit or lie unmoving and at ease. I call this the "Pocket Zone." If pushed or pulled, we become perturbed, and so we move out of our pocket zones. I teach my students about arm zones, posture zones, leg zones, and even falling or "ukemi" zones. Perturbations will take us from one zone to another. Knowing about these allows for freedom of movement within them, and how to effortlessly transition when moving from one into another. If we can join with the forces that push or pull against us, we may learn to direct those forces without stress or strain.

Even in the face of an adversary, we can be agents of equilibrium, and we can direct the system away from harm. By knowing our own limits, we understand our zones of freedom. We can then apply this understanding to whatever system we are in, including self-defense situations. Once the perturbations are past, the system invariably returns to a grounded, or energy neutral condition.

As an exercise, try this: Stand with any sort of posture where you feel relaxed, aware, and not on the verge of falling down. Let that be your definition of good posture. For this exercise, keep your arms absolutely limp. This may be more difficult than you think. Ask your partner to slowly lift either of your arms, or both. You will offer no resistance, but your partner should feel your arms' natural weight. For this exercise, your partner will agree not to look for ways to strike you.

As your partner moves your arms around, notice when your shoulder becomes affected. Now move your feet so that you may keep good posture. Still, offer no resistance. Walk forwards or backwards, with small steps. Stop if your partner stops. If your partner lets go of your arms, they should swing down and fall into their own pocket zones, right around where your pant pockets would be.

For this very basic exercise, your partner should also avoid joint locks and torsion. Introducing these variable later, one at a time, will be very valuable, but not just now. Your first goal is simply to learn to move with any reasonable force at an appropriate learning speed, without resistance, while keeping good posture.

Eventually you will find areas where your arms belong, and areas where your arms can go that threaten your posture. With experience, you can move in such a way as to keep your arms in their zones, even without really moving the arms themselves.

Imagine pushing or pulling on a low-hanging tree branch. If you are strong, or the branch is very weak, you could break it off. But imagine now if the tree could swivel freely in place. The chore becomes much more difficult. And now, pretend the tree could somehow move across the ground with complete freedom, using its roots to move rather than fix it to the earth. Now it would be nearly impossible to break the branch, especially if the tree were clever in directing the overall movement, but without resisting the force.

In other words, it would be impossible to move the branch out of its zone, because the trunk makes a movement which exactly corresponds to whatever force is put on the branch. In this way, the whole system moves, yet always within its zones.

Note that in our example, the magic tree makes no effort to throw or pin. This kind of exercise may in fact lead you toward a very different kind of aikido than what your are used to. If so, you can blame it on me if you like.

The simple point here is that "keeping your center" can convey a kind of resistance which I find counterproductive. It's as if you've got some sort of geometric territory to defend, some crown jewel which must be protected at all costs. But a center is something you have without effort. It's not something you can lose. It does not require you to defend it in any way. So you can relax about the whole "center" thing.

All that really matters is that we understand that harm comes through any mutual resistance that exceeds the structural integrity of the parts in a system. Eliminate those kinds of resistance, and you eliminate harm.

But aikido is not the art of surrender or capitulation. This is where the zones come in. What I call "zones" are nothing more than areas of freedom, or degrees of mobility. Learn how your body moves without running into itself. Investigate the edges of your balance. Familiarize yourself with these boundaries until they are real things that you can see and feel. Apply this knowledge to moving with one or more partners. As I have said so often, "walk through doors, but don't walk through walls."

If you must, you can use this knowledge against others. But the more adaptable you are amidst perturbations, the more balanced you remain in movement, and the more effortlessly you will return to natural equilibrium.

Then the less you will need to control others. Is this not the meaning of "true victory?"

So by all means be aware of you center. Be aware of all of your centers. But understand that a center is just one point in a much larger field of potential. Even if it's the most important point within that field, it's nice to know that we need not be fixated on it. Nor should we be fixated within our zones. We simply need to respect the boundaries of balance and movement, so we can always reside inside the zones of equilibrium and flow.

Equilibrium and flow. Two aspects of a single thing. And that's the one point I'd really like you to keep.
Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, TX, USA
Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.
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Old 12-05-2009, 03:57 AM   #2
Dojo: UTA aikido club
Location: arlington
Join Date: Nov 2009
Posts: 58
Re: Off Center, and into the Zone

If i may,
The excercise that you just mentioned, can it be done with a boxing bag?? I was trying to do that a little bit today. Letting the bag swing and just keeping in contact and then having it swing around by just rotating it rather then giving it any resistance or force. It was more of a supplementing the motion in a way. Understanding the speed at which it is moving away and then push just a little bit harder to give it that energy then close my eyes and dance around it always keeping in touch but never letting it hit me.
Would that come close to what you are saying?
Thank you for your time,
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Old 12-18-2009, 03:32 PM   #3
R.A. Robertson
Dojo: Still Point Aikido Center
Location: Austin, TX, USA
Join Date: Jul 2002
Posts: 346
Re: Off Center, and into the Zone

Piyush Kumar wrote: View Post
[\] Would that come close to what you are saying?
Thank you for your time,
Hi Piyush,

Your exercise with the bag nicely illustrates part of what I'm talking about. Arranging yourself to fit its trajectory without interference, perhaps helping it go where it will, is certainly part of the puzzle.

Alternatively, you could catch the bag at the limit of its swing, climb on, and ride with it. This also would cause no interference (if you manage it smoothly), and would, like my pendulum example, help you understand both its limits and its degrees of freedom.

By yourself, you are like the bag in that there are ways you can move and ways you cannot, unless something becomes broken or severed. The bag is pretty simple, but we are more complex. It really helps a great deal to map out our own limits and boundaries of freedom (see http://www.aikiweb.com/columns/rrobertson/2004_03.html).

When you interact with anything, whether it's a punching bag or another human being, the two of you come together to create a new system. This system now has new limits and new freedoms, and changes the basic map of the individuals involved.

As a simple example, imagine holding hands and walking with a close friend. So long as your hands are clasped, the arms remain free to swing between your bodies, but a little further away than when walking by yourself. But unless you let go, the act of scratching your ear will be very different than when you try it alone.

This is easy to manage with a friend. Two bodies become one and seek to move in a coordinated harmony. It is much more difficult to do this with an enemy who is actively seeking to harm you. Yet if you can be the part of the system that keeps everything in balance and oriented towards a normal range of freedom, then the combined body or system will continue to operate coherently.

This is a much different approach than going in with the assumption that we must throw or pin. These things also have their place, not unlike how we might want to put our own leg in a cast if that part of the system has become broken. Yet the goal is still to return everything to working order as soon as possible.

I hope this helps somewhat. The short answer is that, yes, by doing the kinds of experiments you are doing, the thing itself will teach you how you and it can behave well together.


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