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What the Body Learns and Remembers
by The Mirror
02-07-2010
What the Body Learns and Remembers

A "The Mirror" Round Robin, compiled and edited by Janet Rosen
As the writers of The Mirror touched bases earlier in this new year, Susan Dalton noted: "I've got a brand new class going at the college. They've only been doing aikido for three weeks. Already if they have to be off the mat, they're jonesing...I can see they're thinking about aikido when they're not on the mat. In a few weeks when spring teases us a little, I know I'll see my old students, the ones who've already gotten their elective credits and aren't in the class any more, rolling down the grassy hill. What is it about aikido that makes it so addictive? Why is it so hard to watch other people rolling without rolling ourselves? Is it because aikido gets in our bodies?"

We often use the term "muscle memory" as a shorthand for how the body-mind system integrates patterns of movement so they are second nature to us. You don't have to go into a dojo to see this in action - just step into any good pizza joint and watch the guy toss and spin pizza dough in the air while barking commands to his crew and carrying on a conversation with the regular customers. It's pretty well understood that the gross movements of an activity need to be learned at this level before the student can move onto more subtle nuances or explore deeper understanding.

Susan seems to be touching on another point: that for many of us, some of the moves we learn are especially seductive, seeming to resonate with some inner sense of rhythm, body awareness, or way of moving in the world. Like her students, I find forward rolling a strong allure, and not just on grassy hills. A few years ago I walked into an immensely huge, freshly carpeted room in San Francisco's beautifully renovated City Hall and experienced an overwhelming desire to explore the whole space via rolling!

Similarly, during jiyuwaza, each person tends to have certain favorites. It is interesting that the default technique may not be one you consider your "best." Katherine Derbyshire notes she finds herself doing iriminage a lot. "Not sure why, as I wouldn't say my irimi nage is any better than any of my other techniques. Maybe because my teachers have so ingrained the need to enter that I actually do so, and then irimi nage is there."

Susan agrees, "especially yokumenuchi iriminage omote with the tenkan at the end. My arms aren't strong, but my hips are. Working on that one has helped me get all the parts moving in sync: arm, leg, and center...I almost never get anything the first time I see it. However, the first time I tried iriminage omote with a tenkan, it made perfect sense and my body knew where to go and what to do, I guess because it was put together out of parts I already knew...When I first did this technique to Sensei, he said, ‘That's aikido. Now put whatever you're doing in this in all your techniques.'"

I know what Susan means, because I'm also a slow learner, and of all the iriminage variations, this is also the one that comes most naturally (it is a very good technique for short round people!). My own favored technique in jiyuwaza is udekimenage (tenbin nage) or an ura version of shihonage; the entrance and set up for the two is pretty much the same, so which one I end up with is usually a matter of relative velocity at the moment I've entered and am in the correct place relative to uke. I think I favor them because I like getting to shikaku quickly and then doing something pretty economical in movement.

Linda Eskin isn't sure what to call the technique she comes to most naturally; in most places I've trained, it would be recognizable as a basic forward kokyunage: "...the ones where you step in deeply, taking uke's hand around over your head like a lariat and bringing uke down and into a forward roll. The odd thing is that we rarely practice that in class, it just shows up."

Another aspect of carrying aikido with us as we go through our day is visualizing or feeling some technique at odd moments. Nine years ago, when I was off training for a year in post-surgery rehab, sayu nage (sokumen iriminage) was in my mind almost constantly in a visualization and muscle twitching way, yet when I returned to training it seemed like nothing special - I didn't have any particular proficiency in it and it never became a default technique in jiyuwaza. So that may have been an odd artifact from NOT training. I asked the others: is there a technique you find yourself "doing" in your mind at odd moments off the mat, and if so, is it the technique you revert to in jiyuwaza?

For A.J. Garcia, her default techniques on the mat are indeed the ones she tends to play with off the mat: "A fast irimi, and shihonage (my all-time favorite move). Curiously, since I'm getting ready to test again in iaido, these forms are coming up for me a lot, although in a different art...A couple of my newer iaido techniques involve turning motions/downstrokes with a raised sword, the same sort of follow-through that you have in shihonage, and these are easer, since in aikido you have a body that you're dropping, but in iaido only the sword. I still practice that, too, mentally, working on making it smoother."

For others, it's a different matter. Katherine's reply to the question was, "Not really. Or if there is, it's whatever has been taught recently. Sometimes I'll find myself working through the hand changes for ikkyo-nikkyo-sankyo, etc., probably because I really emphasize those when I teach."

I also tend nowadays to find myself musing over something recently taught, letting my mind play over some small aspect. Susan seems to have taken this one step further into an ongoing experience: "When I was in Japan in 2004, my shihan taught tenchinage every time he taught, sometimes the entire class. So obviously he was giving me something to work on. That whole hand turning over thing, the equal and opposite, matters in all my techniques - I think that's what he was showing me. I try to do te sabaki - snake hands - when I'm walking or sitting or thinking about aikido."

It sounds like some of these are ongoing concerns, so I wondered what folks are currently working on "getting into muscle memory." A.J. is very purposefully focused on her upcoming grading of course! Susan is dealing with what is so very difficult for most of us: "learning new ways of doing technique that are already ingrained in my muscle memory. I'm learning some new kotegaishi that are just a bit different from our kihon waza, and I'm having to fight my body. My natural inclination is to do the techniques I know and do well, but that's the stuff ruts are made of, right?"

The rest of us seem to be working on some aspect of posture or how to connect and affect uke without unnecessary tension. For me this involves trusting that the way I'm learning to use my body in aiki taiso really is "enough" when working with a partner. I've also recently become aware of a very specific weakness in my posture that becomes shows up on simultaneous turning and dropping moves (such as on long forms of iriminage). Instead of simply dropping my center, I also tilt to one side to drop the leading shoulder, significantly weakening my own structural stability. So no matter what else is happening on the mat, I'm working on keeping mindful of this.

For Linda, it comes down to "Posture and alignment. Letting my body be straight, balanced over my hips, shoulders back and down. Keeping my hands in front of my center, not letting them drag behind my movement. Looking in the direction I'm going. And did I mention keeping my shoulders down?"

Pauliina Lievonen's reply makes me think of Chuck Clark's "hands are connectors": "There's really only one thing I'm working on lately, off the mat and on. That is not doing anything at all with my arms, but using them to connect my center to whatever I'm touching and then working from there. In jiyuwaza that seems to mean that my preferred technique depends a lot on uke since different ukes have different preferred ways of falling. In every day life it means noticing when I'm carrying the weight of an object too much with my arms, for example."

Katherine expresses the conundrum of getting things in and out of our mind-body systems, noting: "As for muscle memory, most of what I'm working on these days seems to be about awareness and feeling and subtle energy connections. Not muscle memory, so much as muscle forgetting, teaching myself to believe that all that tension just gets in the way. How do you raise your arms *without* firing your biceps? How do you draw someone in without pulling? That kind of thing....The other day in class, my shomenuchi ikkyo wasn't working, and wasn't working, and then it worked spectacularly well. Neither I nor my uke could figure out what I changed, he just said it felt "bigger." That's how my practice is going right now."

Finally, as a reminder that we really do make measurable progress, Susan relates this story: "You're heard me talk about ‘iriminage butt' where I stoop over and stick out my rear end. That seemed to be my default posture for years and unfortunately, not just at the end of my iriminage technique. Now on the mat and off I try to feel that string pulling me straight up, straightening my spine, lifting my head. I've been sitting on an exercise ball at my desk at work, too, and either that's changing something or my working on posture in aikido is. The other day someone stopped me and said, ‘What do you do? Your posture is so beautiful.'"
"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.
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