My methods of practicing and teaching aikido have evolved toward a preference for what I call a "zoned" approach. What this means is that I tend to not speak so much anymore about the center, the one-point, or any other singular notions of balance and equilibrium.
Instead, I look at things more as fields of attraction. In truth, these fields or zones do have an exact and precise center, just like a pendulum comes to rest at one and only one position. But the nature of a pendulum is understood by its movement, and the area of potential for this movement.
To use an example, your arm is very like a pendulum. When you stand at rest, the relaxed arm hangs down into what I refer to as your "pocket zone" (near your pants pocket). You can think of this as the arm's one-point or center, if you like. This position represents (either exactly or approximately) the arm's lowest energy state. I call this state "Normal."
Clearly the arm does not, and should not always remain in the Normal Zone. To move it from this position takes energy, either from the owner of the arm or from some force external to the body. The arm in motion or held away from its normal state (pocket zone) is said to be perturbed. The natural swinging motion of the arm when walking is one such perturbation.
There is a large zone of perturbation where the arm may move or be moved freely. Movement in this zone does not much affect the shoulder joint, and where stretching of muscles and connective tissue is negligible. This is the arm's Inner Zone.
When the arm is moved in such a way that the shoulder is significantly engaged, perhaps in turn engaging the torso, the hips, legs and feet; or when the arm is positioned so as to cause strain; we've crossed the threshold into the Outer Zone.
Beyond the Outer Zone is where real damage can occur. Call the outermost field the Failure Zone.
Together, the Normal (Pocket) Zone, the Inner Zone, and the Outer Zone demarcate what I might call a Zone of Tolerance. Tolerance decreases as we move from inner to outer. However, if we were to map the energy levels, we would see that it is not a linear progression. Moving from the Pocket Zone to the extent of the arm's length and beyond will take us toward the Outer Zone, but so will folding the arm into a tight, close, shihonage. Thus, areas too close to the body are also delimiters between Inner and Outer.
The above serves as a brief introduction or review of the Zone Theory of Aikido. These principles apply to all structural systems. The head, torso, hips, and legs all have zones similar to what we've just described. These collective zones overlap and combine into a larger systemic zone. This, in turn, combines with the zones of other bodies introduced into the system. There are also analogous temporal zones for optimal speed or rate of change. There are zones for perception, cognition, and emotion. All dynamic systems can be examined and understood in a similar manner.
One key to understanding zones is that they have limits. Within some zones, there is great freedom of movement with negligible perturbation in the rest of the system. We call this tolerance. Large actions may have minimal consequence. At the boundaries between zones we reach certain limits. At these limits, small actions tend to have proportionately large consequences. Tolerance is decreased. When tolerance approaches zero, damage or complete destruction is possible.
Note that in mechanical systems tolerance can also refer to a tight (but not too tight) fit. A threaded bolt must match its nut exactly. Too loose would, in fact, provide extra freedom of movement, but of the wrong kind. Too tight and there is no freedom of movement. In aikido, this also pertains.
Therefore it's sensible in the engineering of any robust system that all zones and their limits are recognized and understood. In this view, optimal engineering is comprised of a threefold agenda:
1) Keep the system within its Inner Zones.
2) Expand the range of Inner Zones, where movement is desirable.
3) Provide strategies of recovery, such that time spent in the Outer Zones is minimized.
The first agenda is conservative. The second is liberal. The third is a recognition that neither conservatism nor liberalism are without limits.
In aikido, the third agenda may be seen in ukemi and all that it represents. I'm speaking here of "ukemi" in the sense of falling and recovering -- uke as "the receiving body." Uke receives perturbations to their system, moves through the Outer Zones, and recovers. What is crucial in this lesson is that tori may also be uke.
Aiki is present when this threefold agenda is successful. When there is failure, byoki (illness, malady, imbalance, suffering) results.
But success or failure in what degree? What are the limits of aikido itself? Is there an Aiki Zone?
When people call for more tolerance in the world, I tend to cringe just a little. Not because I disagree -- on the contrary, I strongly agree and see it as consistent with the schema that I've just outlined. Yet, even though I see it as a necessary truth, I also see it as a partial truth. We could all use a bit more tolerance, but no tolerance is infinite. We need to know how to practice intolerance as well.
My study of aikido has helped me realize that some things are simply intolerable. Yes, we can stretch and become more pliable. Yes, we can learn to become more resilient. But not infinitely so. All things have limits. All things can break. Or break down. Or dis-integrate.
Strategy 2) above is not boundless.
Our systems of health and defense must correctly identify what is tolerable and what is not. We must know that we can tolerate some amount of time spent in the Outer Zone, but not indefinitely (remember there are temporal zones as well as spatial and structural). We must know what to do when things are truly intolerable. We must learn to recognize our own limits, those of others, and all systems we inhabit or engage.
Therefore aikido and related disciplines require a balance of tolerance and intolerance. Knowing the limits of tolerance is the same as recognizing what is intolerable. When we are able to see these boundaries more clearly, we can make meaningful decisions about avoidance and engagement, construction and destruction, healing and injury.
Tolerance teaches us to whistle while we work. We can take a spoonful of sugar. We can sing our songs of freedom. Whatever it takes, to make the passing of time more pleasant, to turn a difficult or ugly situation into something more beautiful.
At the same time, we should question if these are good habits. Are we genuinely making things better, or are we perpetuating a pattern of unworthy labor, or unhealthy dependency? Can we learn to see when we are truly doing what's necessary to survive, and when we are merely lubricating the machinery of slavery?
Tolerance is seen as a virtue, while intolerance is not. Yet tolerance beyond reason is as harmful as an irrational and peevish intolerance. And a just intolerance is a necessary prerequisite to rectification.
All of this can be revealed through aikido. Even without partners, we can study the zones of our own anatomy. We can see what moves without disturbing anything else. We learn where our freedom and our potential is, and we can develop a map of the territory. We can discover our own limits. We can discover how to extend our limits, and how far. We can learn to see that while we inhabit our bodies, our bodies inhabit a spatial envelope of invisible but very real geometries.
From this, we can investigate the analogs in our emotions, habits of thought, and personal narratives.
All things have structure. Structures align and harmonize, or else they conflict and impede.
Alignment is the key.
For more on this, see
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA