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Root and Branch
Root and Branch
by Ross Robertson
Root and Branch

The other day when I was presenting, I mentioned that students should be aware that many teachings which seem fundamental actually are not. Many of the things that we encourage (or insist on) may be extremely useful for optimization, but are not in themselves essential.

For example, it's nearly universal in aikido circles to tell our students to relax. Indeed, performing in a relaxed and confident manner is profoundly helpful, and worthy of much time and attention in training. But I would never want to convey to students that it is impossible to do adequate aikido unless they are relaxed. We must expect that a crisis might reach a point that is overwhelming, but where action is still necessary and possible. What if the mandate to relax is the very thing that convinces someone that they cannot manage? What if the effort required to achieve some preferable state of relaxation is the very thing that delays what is truly necessary?

Can I demonstrate that perfectly adequate aikido is possible when one is, to quote David Byrne, "tense and nervous, and […] can't relax?" I believe I can, so long as certain other conditions are met.

The point is, there are many desirable attitudes and habits of perception, postures and muscular skills, and perhaps breathing techniques which demonstrably make our performance better. Yet which of these mean certain failure, if absent?

I urge you to be very, very careful about what you consider truly necessary. Every single useful thing which we come to depend on can become a trap. Examine your assumptions about what absolutely must be in place in order for aikido to happen. One by one, see if you can eliminate each instance and find a way to still do aikido, whatever that means to you. Very likely performance quality will suffer, but can you still manage somehow? If so, as an exercise, make a habit of dispensing with that tool once in a while, and then be sure to continue to make good use of it as it is available.

In my view, there are very few absolute requirements for there to be tolerably "good enough" aikido. Some things are truly essential, without which failure is almost certain. Once you know these things, you should make all your training subordinate to these root concepts and practices.

When so doing, you will be able to say why relaxation is helpful and what foundational principle it serves. You should be able to be very clear about why good posture is so important, but also be able to show what to do when a structure has been momentarily destabilized, and how even that can be an opportunity. Do you want to have a strong, stable base? Develop that, but also question if it's always desirable, and what benefits there may be in being more fluid and gliding. Learn which is best in what situation.

Assume that you are injured and in an inescapably blind rage or panic. Know that something still remains for you to do -- then do only that.

I believe there is a hierarchy of teaching and understanding. This structure itself is mutable, but not so formless that we should ignore it. Teaching and learning become terrifically enhanced when this hierarchy is utilized as a robust framework. Every student and practitioner at every level can benefit from exploring how the different parts of our knowledge relate and are ordered. Many teachings have hidden dependencies, and tracing this chain down to the deepest core will reveal how all the outer branches serve the central understanding.

Don't get me wrong… you can do perfectly plausible aikido without all this. What I'm recommending here is simply an enhancement to your current understanding. Yet sooner or later you will be tripped up by something you thought was necessary, but not available in the moment of crisis, or else not really the most appropriate thing for the given situation.

That's when you might wish you'd taken the time to delve deeply and discover the innermost root of your art.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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