Nishio sensei was the fastest aikido teacher I have ever seen. This was particularly true for his weapons techniques. When he moved the katana in his own Toho iai
, or the bokken or the jo, it was almost impossible to see exactly what happened. Like magic -- the hand is quicker than the eye.
When he had his first seminar in Sweden, and we were supposed to copy his movements, we just gaped. Nobody could even begin to repeat his movements.
He seemed unable to do his techniques in a tempo slow enough for our eyes to follow. I often got the impression that he actually did slow down considerably, but to us it was still way too fast. We were even unable to notice the difference. Not until he reached his seventies did he manage to show his techniques in some kind of slow motion, step by step, so that we had a chance of tracing the ABC of it.
Speed is a splendid thing, which should not be underestimated in the martial arts. It's also great fun. The fragments of Nishio sensei's sword and jo techniques that I imagined to have learned, I enjoyed tremendously to do as fast as I ever could -- and pretend that it was just business as usual. Well, I still do that, more than occasionally.
Nishio sensei's aikido techniques were certainly quick, too. But when you have an uke to move around, there's another limit to the speed possible than when working with a dead object. You had to be his uke to experience just how fast he was in his aikido.
Oh, I almost forget about his atemi. They were even faster than his sword and jo movements. He made a series of three or four atemi at the time it took me to do one -- on a good day. And that was just as visible (or invisible) to the bystanders as it was to uke.
Slow motion karate
A friend of mine back in the 1970's, who was very accomplished in karatedo, had found a method of teaching his students fast techniques -- by practicing them in slow motion. His classes were done in slow motion, from start to finish, whatever the technique. Even high kicks like jodan mawashigeri
were done in slow motion. That's no piece of cake.
We were so used to seeing him and his students practice in slow motion that we almost forgot how quick they could be. But of course he could shift to full speed at any time, and that speed was very impressive. By slow motion training he had taught his body the most efficient and precise way of doing the techniques, so it was well prepared for explosive speed and force.
The time consuming sword cut
When I was a very young aikido student, our teacher Ichimura sensei told me about another karatedo teacher, one that he praised highly, who also occasionally practiced very slowly, indeed. This karate teacher would make one complete cut with the sword or the bokken, lifting it from chudankamae to jodankamae, and back again in the cutting move -- in 45 minutes. One cut.
Ichimura told me this with a voice full of awe. He explained how advanced that was. "I can only do 30 minutes," he confessed.
I tried it a few times the following months. I didn't manage more than ten minutes or so. But it was very rewarding. To draw the sword that slowly, I had to do it by breath alone, using my breathing as sort of a pump, and focusing sharply on my intention.
And cutting as slowly as I was able was sensational. The cut felt like it was traveling a great distance in a speed approaching that of light. In my experience of it, the slowest and the fastest were the same.
On a more practical note, I also noticed how slow motion polished the precision of my sword cut. In normal speed bokken suburi, I had great trouble cutting with any stability. It felt like the bokken was wobbling on its way down, no matter how I tried to fix its trajectory. Actually, the more I tried to stop it from wobbling, the more it wobbled. But in slow motion it sort of found its own track and stuck to it. Not the first few times, certainly, but when I had given in to the exercise fully.
No hurry in aikido
It's funny how we use speed in practice. I frequently notice with aikido students that they speed up the movements they are unsure of, as if that would help. Of course it's the other way around. Only by slowing down at moments of uncertainty are you able to correct them. So that's a very good way of discovering weaknesses in your technique, which you would be unaware of if only rushing through them.
And it goes on. Slowing down in practice allows for all kinds of sophisticated discoveries. Not only is it the way to learn how to move very fast, but it's also the path toward perfection. When done very slowly, your technique reveals the smallest errors of directions and the tiniest unnecessary steps. You sort of clean up your act.
Doing aikido slowly is more difficult than doing it fast, so it's a more rewarding way of practicing.
I've found my delight in slow practice increasing through the years, and I have a tendency to devote more and more of my classes to it. Sometimes it may very well get kind of boring to my students, especially the young and eager ones. But I keep coming back to slow practice with a gradually stronger conviction of this being the superior way.
Can it be so that my aikido actually improves, the slower I do it? If that's the case, will it mean that I have reached perfection when I stop completely?
Or am I just getting old?
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido