One of the most frequent expressions that I hear amongst the students is them telling each other that a particular movement is simple, but not easy to do. I believe that this statement underlies the unique challenge that Aikido presents to us. When we can recognize this situation, we then have to ask ourselves the difficult question of what are we doing that impedes in our ability to do something that is essentially simple to do. As a example of this fact, have a person grab you katate-tori style. Let the person hold on as tightly as possible and try and forcibly free your arm. Have the person grab your wrist again. This time, imagine that the center top of your forehead itches, simply scratch that spot with your pointer finger. Notice how the person’s grip simply disappeared almost as if the person intentionally let go. If you re-create that same motion very slowly with no one holding your arm, watch how relaxed your arm moves with your shoulder remaining settled in place. Notice how your forearm naturally turns in a relaxed manner. Now, have somebody grab you the same way quickly as possible and you try and scratch your head as quickly as possible. All of the sudden, what was a simple set of movements became difficult to perform under the pressure of a more realistic type of attack.
We are confronted with some interesting observations. Our bodies can move in a relaxed, natural manner and inherent in those movements are stability and power that come from the movements of a unified body. When we try to force some type of movement, we contract our muscles in such a manner that our limbs quickly reveal movements that indicate the body does not move in a unified manner. There is a cultural belief that posits that the stronger your muscles are, the stronger your body is. Muscles, in conjunction with our joints, are designed to help our skeletal structures articulate movement. Our bones are stronger supports than our muscles. Despite this awareness, we exercise in manners that try and replace our skeletal strength with muscular strength. The typical result is that a joint becomes too rigid (unable to articulate movement freely) and that extremity is no longer integrated into a unified, skeletal structure. As a simple example of this, stand with your arms at your sides and palms facing outward. Have a person stand on your dominant side and use the arms to prevent you from doing a bicep curl. It is not difficult to stop the attempted curl. Now, Have that person block that arm movement again. Imagine that this person is not there and simply scratch the top of your head with your fingers. Notice how easy that movement becomes and the person cannot stop that movement. Repeat this quickly with the person using quick force to stop your quick movement and watch how quickly this process falls apart again. Optimally, you need good muscle tone that enhances the strength and articulation of our skeletal structures. We need to develop that muscle tone in a manner that keeps our reciprocal muscle groups working in dynamic equilibrium as we develop muscle tone. Most forms of body-building do not “hard wire” in this important component.
The musculature in our body work in a tandem, reciprocal stress manner. In other words, the movements that we can consciously control are governed by one set of muscles that help articulate movement in one direction, while being simultaneously balanced by a set of muscles controlling the articulation of movement in the opposite direction (eg.- Bicep and Triceps muscle groups). When we do relaxed, natural movement, there tends to be a dynamic equilibrium between the muscle groups. When we force a movement, this dynamic equilibrium is typically thrown out of wack. The result is that the nearest joint stops functioning in it’s optimal manner causing a cascade of joint failures, leading the an unstable core structure.
When we practice our Aikido, we should work at a speed that enables us to maintain a stable, core structure while moving our body parts in the most effective and efficient manner as possible. Simply observing those movements without stress indicate to us proper, natural movements. Static grabs are simply starting points. Nishio Sensei would correctly point out that this type of execution was practice and not budo. Static practice enables us to get a lot of feedback in regards to our movements and the responses that they engender. Just because we practice from static positions should not give us license to practice in a manner that exposes us to many openings. If our slow practice has no openings, then we are practicing in a sound manner. We then need to build upon this starting point by moving slowly so that we can continue to move in the most efficient and effective manner possibly. We should always teeter on the verge of success and failure and slow down to experience mostly success as a means of “hard-wiring in” proper movements. We still need to always be vigilant to practicing in a manner that does not create openings for further attackes and counter-attacks. When we are experiencing difficulties, we can freeze our movements and go through a helpful checklist. 1- What is my posture like? Postural instability robs the person of effective strength. 2- What is my breathing like? Most people hold their breath when they experience force that is stopping their movements. 3- Where am I tense and my muscles locked in contraction? Relax those muscle groups while still extending Ki. 4- Where is my intent? Typically it is not connected to the other person’s center. Reconnect with the person so as to move as two structures unified into one. Resume your technique so that it executed solidly.
Ultimately, we want to be able to execute techniques with the pressure and speed of realistic attacks as if we were practicing in a slow and relaxed manner. This stable, calm and focused core is the foundation of all great Aikido. We should endeavor to develop our Aikido to always reach high levels. It is best to be very patient in this learning process. Trying to move too quickly, too fast will result in us having to discover and undo many, many mistakes (I know this from a lot of personal experience).
We will explore how our bodies operate under a variety of conditions and speeds. It is important to know where our thresholds of success and failure are. We need to focus our attention on how and why we allow ourselves to take something simple and make it difficult. We need to train in a manner that aims toward always increasing our ability to execute techniques under stressful conditions by “hard wiring” in the continued ability to keep something simple, easy to do.
Marc Abrams Sensei
(Original blog post may be found here