This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2014, all rights reserved.Parallels
It was a desire to improve my horsemanship that first brought me to Aikido, and right from the beginning I have seen parallels between ourselves, as students of Aikido, and horses, being trained for riding. The skills we need to develop, the methods and progressions of teaching, and the ways in which we learn have much in common. There are great similarities between a sensitive training partner and a softly responsive horse, and between a perceptive, compassionate teacher and a sensitive, skillful rider.
As in our Aikido training, a goal of horse training is to develop willingness and responsiveness, the ability to listen attentively with the body and blend with the direction offered by one's partner with softness, in a relaxed, confident state of mind. In horsemanship, as in Aikido, reaching this goal involves years of patient work, building the student's confidence and skill by presenting new things in a methodical way, as the student is ready to learn them, and developing the strength, conditioning, and agility to support the actions required.
Asking for more than the student can handle mentally or physically will introduce tension and resistance, and can be discouraging and stressful. It is asking for poor results at best, and resignation or injury at worst. Taking shortcuts, using tricks or gimmicks, and skipping ahead are recipes for long-term struggle and failure.
A Goal of Training
Ideally, a horse should move freely, in a unified, balanced way - just as we should. Their back is rounded up, abdominals engaged, and hind feet come well under, providing power, and allowing the front end to be light and to move easily. This is sometimes referred to as being "collected." The horse seeks contact with the bit in their mouth, to better feel the rider's light cues, and feels for slight, unseen shifts in weight or leg positions. It may look like a good rider is "just sitting there," but there is a constant stream of communication going on, and the horse is actively listening and responding.
There is a saying about horses, that "everything we do is training." It's true. From the time we approach our horse in the field to the time we undo their halter and release them after a ride, it's all training; the more clear and consistent we can be in our direction and feedback, the more easily our horse will learn what's expected. This is especially true when riding. The rider is always training the horse. A skillful rider supports the horse in moving well, using its body correctly, staying soft and supple, and being light on its feet. A good rider, like a good teacher, helps the student develop the habit of correct movement through countless gentle, timely reminders.
At first, like the horse, we need frequent correction from out teachers, and not too subtle. Eventually we need fewer and quieter corrections. The right way begins to feel right. Having been reminded of a more natural way to move, and having felt it over and over, we begin to return to it more often on our own. In horse training this is called self-carriage, when the horse carries itself well as a matter of course, without the need for constant support from the rider.
Being Strung Out
Horse or human, we can't all begin in this state, and even having achieved it now and then it's easy to lose it.
Sometimes horses under saddle move in a manner that is "strung out." This is especially true of young horses just beginning their training, or ones who are unfit or out of condition. They don't know yet how to use their bodies correctly, or simply aren't able to because they lack strength and coordination. They can lean into the bit and stop listening to subtle cues. They get too "forward" and disorganized, flailing ahead sloppily. We see this ourselves during training, too. We can rush through techniques, reactive, out of alignment and ungrounded.
Mentally they and we seem to get into a sort of determined tunnel vision, plowing ahead. It's almost as if they are thinking "Come on, we need to hurry up and get somewhere!
Physically, they charge along, heads stuck out, backs hollowed, unbalanced, falling forward into each step. They literally carry their weight too much on their front legs. Horses in this state are often said to be "on the forehand." Their balance is ahead of their center. It's hard for a horse in this state to change gaits easily, turn quickly, or stop solidly.
Like us when we have lost our center, they are off balance and unfocused. It's physically and mentally difficult to notice and respond to subtle cues.
The Half Halt
Riders have a tool for helping bring the horse back to a balanced, centered place, aligned and coherent, where the horse can listen and respond more readily. This tool is called the "half halt." It is a little regrouping while underway, similar to the cue for a complete halt, but less. We don't need the horse to stop or change direction, and we certainly don't want to punish or reprimand them. By using the half halt we ask the horse to wake up, get their center back, move in a more integrated way, and pay attention.
We need these "half halts" in our own training, too. Although we are returning to a more natural way of moving, at first, having been away from it for so long, it feels awkward. We fall back on habitual behaviors, not staying present, and not paying attention. We flail through life, chin out, hurrying along, distracted. We need to get our center back, reorganize, wake up, and continue moving forward.
Day to day, on the mat, Sensei is there to help us to make these corrections, and to remind us to check in with our bodies. Move from center, eyes up, posture open. Check your base. How does your alignment feel? Sometimes we need nearly constant reminders. Like horses learning to move well, we get it together, and fall apart again. We find our center and lose it right away. We are present for a moment, and then it's gone.
Until we achieve that "self-carriage" we need Sensei to show us, making a hundred little corrections until we can begin to feel it on our own. Then, when we pay attention, we can correct ourselves. We can tell if something feels right and natural, or misaligned and awkward. Even then we get distracted and lazy sometimes. At this stage, we often need Sensei to remind us get our focus back and pay attention.
Taking It Off the Mat
As with so many aspects of Aikido, there are broader applications in our lives outside the dojo.
Beyond needing these wake-up calls, these half-halts, in our training on the mat, we sometimes need them in our lives. We need to regroup, notice where we are, lighten up, and continue on in a more aligned way. I recently experienced this in a conversation with Sensei.
Since the start of the year Sensei has been offering "Clarity Sessions" to interested dojo members. About every 6 months we can each sit down with him for an hour-long focused chat to discuss our practice and how it relates to our experience outside the dojo.
We all have our habitual routines in life. We go to work, feed the cats, and do our laundry. We can charge through our days like that strung-out horse, rushing, chin out, in a hurry to get somewhere. We can even fall into a comfortable routine of training. It's easy to show up for class, clean the dojo, train for exams, help the beginners, tend the garden, go to dinner together... In spite of our enthusiasm and dedication and sincerity, it's still just a comfortable routine. We‘ve stopped paying attention. We can become unconscious, sleepwalking.
Just as we, like young horses, might start out physically weak, needing to develop the muscles necessary to move well and act clearly on the mat, we also need to develop our "muscles" in other areas of life. We need to be reminded to wake up and pay attention, to feel into our experience so we can respond fluidly and appropriately, to look and see if action is called for, and to summon the courage to take it. These conversations with Sensei are just such reminders - half halts that bring us back to center.
I have found these sessions to be surprisingly rich and valuable. I leave them having a broader perspective, seeing myself a little more objectively, and having new aspects of Aikido on and off the mat to work on throughout the year. Conversations like these, whether with one's sensei, a mentor, or a committed friend, can be that "half halt" that brings us back to our centers, with our feet under us, ready to go forward. For a moment we can drop our reactivity, cease our plowing blindly ahead, and instead open our eyes and look at where we are going, and then move out smartly, in a more relaxed, aligned, and effective way.
"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.