Many years ago, I had the opportunity to sit at the controls of a very sophisticated B-52 flight simulator. At the time, I didn't know anything about how to fly any sort of airplane, let alone a giant Air Force bomber, but the tour of the facility allowed for some hands-on practice. As I sat in the cockpit, the flight instructor directed me to fly straight, then bank left. I moved the control device gently, felt the force feedback, and watched the dials carefully. Then, my instructor said calmly, "If this had been a real plane, you would have just torn the wings off."
Aikido training is also a simulation. We lack the high tech machinery of flight simulators, but our brains must construct constraints and parameters which aim for a realistic experience, while allowing for errors that are not catastrophic. Certain agreements must be made in practice in order to ensure a right balance of safety and realism, and which promote enjoyable learning progress in the art. Among these agreements is a negotiated speed at which a given encounter will occur.
Typically, slower speeds are safer. Slow movement also allows for easier study, in that mistakes may be caught and corrected earlier. Rapidly evolving situations are stressful, and while our practice should make us better able to cope under duress, stress is not an optimal learning condition. Slow motion practice allows us to look at aikido microscopically, where time is the dimension being scaled.
Yet slow practice can result in an unnecessary sacrifice of realism. In an actual combat encounter, though the full range of speed is possible, victory often goes to the swift. With higher velocity comes a higher energy and inertia. Physics reminds us that force is greatly magnified with increase in velocity. As mass is accelerated, the effect is not linear, but exponential. Traditional martial arts have always sought to exploit this.
When we slow our training down, we lose this sense of the reality of force. It becomes possible to cheat in ways that boxers and fencers and wrestlers could never get away with. For example, an uke could punch toward a specified target, and then change the course of the punch in mid-flight. Easy to do slowly, almost impossible to do at full speed and still be effective. Not only do we humans not have that kind of reaction time, but simple physics rules out such mid-course corrections when going at full speed.
Most of us are taught early on that such behavior is the sign of a bad uke. Remarkably, however, nage is often let off the hook (so to speak). The well-trained uke comes in at a reasonable practice speed, flows with nage, and if there is any acceleration or deceleration, it happens smoothly. Nage, however, is not only permitted, but often encouraged to throw with whatever speed uke can handle. It can look spectacular to see nage masterfully slowing uke down, bringing the situation under control, and then blasting a lightening fast kotegaeshi which launches the uke halfway across the room.
This scenario is excellent self-defense training for any uke prepared to handle it, but it represents a fraudulent form of stagecraft when done as a demonstration. The worst offenders will take a hapless uke, let them do their attack, flow gracefully into position, then talk, talk, talk, explain vectors, point out weaknesses of balance and structure, with uke just standing there like a mannequin, because that's part of the job description. Meanwhile the instructor has every opportunity to take advantage of position and posture, at which point the technique is about as demanding as shooting fish in a barrel. Literally, the instructor has pulled a fast one.
Unfortunately for everyone, it looks great. It's always a crowd-pleaser, and feels marvelous when you do it as nage. It also gives uke a chance to show off their cat-like ability to go from zero to sixty in half a second, and then fly like an acrobat. The travesty is complete when the enraptured students get up, pair off, and do their very best to emulate the circus act they've just seen.
Eventually some of these students become teachers, and this way of practice is habituated to the point that it is never even questioned. Some of the highest ranking shihan are guilty of this same behavior, and I'm confident each of them believes sincerely that they are transmitting the art honestly and realistically.
But they're not. Watch your teacher carefully. Watch your shihan. Study film and video examples and see if you can catch the famous instructor doing what I'm describing. Are they throwing faster than they were attacked? Or, did uke attack fast, but after having done their part, await their cue to be thrown? Is nage behaving in a way that, if uke had done the analogous thing, would be reprimanded?
I call this kind of behavior "breaking time." Breaking time is any situation where either partner violates the negotiated or understood speed of the engagement. It might be ok for one person to go faster than the other at a given moment, but it should never be ok for a person to accelerate or change course or stonewall, outside of what is possible at full combat speed.
To help avoid the tendency to break time, I've established a simple rule for myself and my students:
Go slow, pretend fast.
Training slowly is relative rather than absolute mandate. As we progress, we should experiment carefully with increasing the tempo. But slow training is the norm, and regardless of experience level, it's usually better to practice slowly than it is to go as fast as possible.
"Pretending fast" helps to restore at least a sensible semblance of reality in a simulated combat scenario. All players must remember certain things and act accordingly. If you run at full speed, it takes a few steps to stop. If you are punching or kicking or throwing with maximum force, you cannot effectively change trajectories beyond a certain point of commitment. If you are evading, you cannot dodge outside of a legitimate reaction time.
"Go slow, pretend fast" ensures that all players are operating within the same time continuum. This does not mean they always move at the same speed, but stay within the parameters of a simulated range of speed. Slow might mean "tai chi slow," or it might be a tad bit lively. What is always the case is that the speed should be slow enough that neither party can "win" simply by being the fastest. The encounter happens in such a way as to allow every player to escape harm, if only by rolling safely away or submitting to an immobilization.
Like musicians, the idea is to play a particular part which may be written or improvised, but at the same tempo as the other musicians. There can be accelerando and ritardando, but only in a way that the other musicians can follow. If a piece is being practiced very slowly, the musicians should avoid playing so many fast phrases that it would comprise an impossible passage when performed at natural speeds. In the same way, aikido players should never let themselves or their partners (or teachers or students) get away with something flashy or tricky, simply because the event has been slowed down to learning cadence.
Often we think we are going slowly, when in actuality we are doing something that would not be possible outside the simulation. Or, the action would be possible, but have undesirable and unexpected consequences in real time. When I tore the wings off the imaginary B-52, I had thought I was doing something careful and gentle. Had I been in a jet-fighter simulator instead of a bomber, the aircraft might have been able to handle my maneuver, but the pilot might not have been able to withstand the G-force. Because it was just a simulation, I could not have known any of this without the perspective of an experienced instructor.
If our art is to retain credibility and integrity, everyone involved must learn to realize the nature of the simulation, to best simulate the nature of reality.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.