Seminar notes 1998
(In May 1998, an Aikido group based in southern Bicol asked me to conduct a short seminar. As a fairly recently fledged yondan then, I was very conscious of the presumption in someone so junior conducting a seminar; but I salved my conscience with the thought that, at the time, there was nobody more senior than yondan (Aikikai-conferred) in the Philippines. The eagerness of the students was both touching and inspiring. A few days after returning to Manila, wanting very much to make a difference, I dashed off the following thoughts. I addressed these thoughts to that dedicated group in Bicol; but these ideas may be of some interest to others. RSReyes)
A. ATTITUDE ISSUES
Our attitudes color our progress in all endeavors, including Aikido. The following are the attitudes I hoped to encourage at our recently concluded seminar.
1. DISCIPLINED OBSERVATION. Personal progress in Aikido is impossible unless we are prepared to be systematically observant. We all tend to continue doing what we are used to doing. The familiar is very comforting. Purposeful observation is what will lead us out of any rut we may be in and into improvement and growth.
Some specific advice: When the sensei demonstrates a technique, he will typically perform the movement four times: twice on the right side, twice on the left. Look at the overall movement during first two repetitions; single out areas that you think you'll need to remember. Then, during last two repetitions, focus on the footwork. Footwork is crucial because it places you in proper position to perform the technique. Be wrongly placed through insufficiently precise footwork, and you can't do the technique (or rather, you'll be forced to use muscular strength to complete the technique).
2. HUMILITY. By humility I do not mean a sentimental self-effacement usually deployed as a social tactic, especially among Filipinos. True humility is a specific, non-sentimental attitude that puts us in position to be effective observers. True humility means being willing to set aside what we already know, or what we are convinced we already know, and to try something new (i.e., to be willing to be in a position to fail...or succeed). It is true openness.
Without humility and openness, we cannot practice effective observation. Lack of humility makes our observations inaccurate from the very beginning, for if we are convinced that what we have just seen is "something I already know," then we are by definition not detecting the innovation in it, and we miss an opportunity to polish one little aspect of our technique, a little aspect that could be a gateway to a whole series of breakthroughs.
If we are convinced that we already know everything there is to know about a particular technique, then progress to the next level is impossible. We have effectively declared that there is no next level to aspire to. Therefore we must continuously struggle to attain humility and openness, because our frail human nature is instinctively proud and defensive.
3. EMBRACE THE BASICS. Just one radical change in one attitude would make a big difference in the quality of our Aikido practice. And that radical change is to welcome, rather than shun, basic techniques. Not merely tolerate it as a necessary chore, but to actually take pleasure in basic technique, to look forward to it, to prefer it.
Sad to say, the Filipino character tends to belittle "basic" subject matter. (Or do I slander the Filipino character? Is it not rather a universal trait on planet earth?) We want to hurry on to more "advanced" techniques or subject matter. Young Filipino Aikidoka prefer to do spectacular koshinage or sword practice rather than kosatori ikkyo.
This is understandable, because the attractive aspect of any discipline is naturally its more polished, more complex manifestations. Enthusiasts are drawn to baseball by its elegance and precision and rhythm and explosiveness as practiced at the highest levels. Art lovers imagine they want to be painters because they are seduced by the fully formed works of the masters.
But, as much as our eyes and our emotions lead us to prefer "advanced" material, our experience and intellect tell us that mastery of the basics is the only possible foundation that will allow us to achieve these greater things. Deep down we know that only a commitment to the basics will lift us from being mere spectators and "appreciators" into true achievers and innovators. The more solid the foundation, the taller the structure can be, is a common maxim in the Aikido world. The greater the Aikidoist's mastery of the basics, the greater is his potential to perform intricate movements - the "advanced" techniques that so bedazzle the uninitiated. The greater our grasp of the fundamentals, the greater is our potential to formulate, in our mature years, genuine innovations that will contribute to the the growth of the art.
Conversely, the shallower the Aikidoka's familiarity with the basics, the flimsier will be his technique, the more superficial his entire understanding of Aikido; and unless he regains perspective and makes a commitment to master the basics, the more limited is his ultimate potential for growth in Aikido.
To be more concrete (and go out on a limb), I believe that 90% of an Aikidoka's time during the first 10 years of practice should be spent on basic techniques. It will help if, when we think of basic techniques, we think "building a strong foundation," rather than "simple subject matter for beginners."
4. THE VALUE OF CROSS-POLLINATION. You yourselves have experienced at first hand what it is like to practice in isolation, cut off from outside influences. Isolation promotes inbreeding. You yourselves have seen the dramatic improvements in your Aikido after just one year of reaching out to outside sources.
Continue being open to all opportunities for learning. Welcome all visiting practitioners regardless of skill level. Do your best to be present at seminars by visiting shihan. As Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba puts it in his book The Spirit of Aikido, we should welcome everybody who wants to practice, and, as another manifestation of the same respect for others, we should also not chase after students who have decided to stop practicing.
B. TECHNIQUE CONCERNS
We addressed the following technique issues, which I feel rank among the most important and interesting aspects of Aikido technique. This list is by no means complete, but then I do have to have something fresh to say during the next few seminars.
1. Centering is the most important thing to strive for in Aikido technique. It is the one constant in all techniques. One method I have found very useful in attaining centeredness: Keep your torso vertical throughout the movement to encourage... no, to force, your body to learn centeredness. How so? By keeping the torso vertical (shoulders over hips) while doing all techniques, you are depriving your body of the ability to use upper body strength.
And why do we go out of our way to avoid using upper body strength? Because the use of upper body strength unbalances us at the very moment we exert it.
Soccer rules forbid the use of the hands, and so consequently develop superior fine-motor skills in the players' legs and feet, which elicits much admiration and respect, such skills being "unnatural" to the mainstream population. Similarly, in Aikido, we deny the body the use of upper body strength in order to liberate the greater power that is in our centers (the hip area). In time, the centeredness becomes natural, and we can do techniques with the torso fully vertical, without having to struggle consciously to do so. When we attain this state, we can do techniques powerfully while remaining fully relaxed and balanced.
2. Economy of footwork. The shihan (masters) that we watch with admiration in seminars and videos are wonderful to watch because their movements are both powerful and elegant. We lesser practitioners can be powerful but far from elegant, or "elegant" (usually just soft) but not powerful. This power and elegance that we so admire can come only with dedicated practice, sheer concentrated practice-with-reflection carried out over long periods of time.
One important component of this sought-after quality of power-with-elegance is itself a subtle technique: economy of footwork. Aikido shihan have very precise footwork. They will not take four steps when only three are necessary; neither will they take two steps when three are called for. My first sensei often said: "Aikido is 80% footwork."
As wobbly beginners, or insufficiently attentive intermediate students, we often take too many steps in performing techniques. The reason is, we are not sufficiently centered yet. This is no crime, of course. We all go through this stage. What's important is to recognize the experience and understand how it undermines us. Beginners are forced to make many small adjustments of their legs and feet in order to keep their balance while doing a technique. The effect is that we take one or two or three too many steps while doing most techniques. Our footwork comes off as busy, frantic, uncontrolled. To the observer, the overall impression is of imprecision, fuzzy definition, and overall untidiness of movement.
Again, this is not something to be sneered at. All of us go through years of this stage. It's an unavoidable stage. (We just want to make sure we're able to outgrow it.) What this rather indicates to me is the richness, the unending fascination of Aikido: there is so much to strive for, on so many levels.
How do we make progress in attaining economy of footwork? First, we resolve to pay more attention to the direction our center (hips) is facing during a technique. Second, we strive to make our hips achieve a greater range of motion (in terms of degrees of rotation) without unnecessary footwork. Remember, we can move our hips a full 180 degrees without any footwork (tentai), as we demonstrated during the seminar.
Also, go back to a concept we discussed earlier - disciplined observation. Apply systematic observation to the shihan every time you get the chance, and try to "steal" his movement. It's better to "steal" a technique than to be given it on a silver platter, because stealing a movement means we were rigorous observers, and we end up owning the movement more profoundly. And from a shihan, whatever technique he chooses to demonstrate, there's always lots to steal: stance, posture, body orientation, body alignment, wrist rotation, use of leg power, shoulder relaxation, timing, "street opportunism," active and passive use of body weight, and much more.
Another approach: experiment by yourself when you do not have access to the shihan (a typical condition of the Filipino Aikidoist). The act of experimentation itself refines your technique (and builds your character), as you go through the cycle of firsthand discovery, firsthand failure, firsthand synthesis of your experience, and so on all over again, again and again.
3. Three parts of any technique. On the second day of our seminar, I offered this formulation: Each Aikido technique has three parts. The first part is the entering movement or irimi, which includes the initial atemi. Second is the technique itself. Finally, there is the takedown, which can be a throw or a lock. In explaining this idea you will recall I used iriminage and sotokaitennage as examples.
The most important part of any technique is the first part, the irimi. (This is my opinion, and I take full responsibility for it. Other teachers may disagree.) The reason I make this assertion is that I have seen too many Aikidoka treating the entering movement too casually. They slur it, as if this was a pesky little detail on the way to the really meaty part. Most Aikidoka behave as if the only part that matters is the technique itself (the second part, in my formulation). The usual result: either the technique doesn't work, or the Aikidoka needs to resort to muscular strength to do the technique.
Why do I feel that the irimi is the most important part of any technique? Three reasons: First, this is the time you unbalance uke. Fail to unbalance uke, and you can forget about applying the technique successfully. This is so obvious as to preclude any discussion. (An important component in unbalancing uke is the use of wrist technique, which I talk about elsewhere in this letter.)
Second, irimi is the time you position your body in a strategically advantageous location from which to do the technique successfully. In Aikido jargon, you aim to be at uke's "dead angle," or weak side. If you are wrongly positioned at the completion of the irimi, if you are too far from uke, or too close, or you are too much to the left or right of uke, or you are facing 10 too many degrees off, you can't do the technique. You simply don't have the leverage. Or, just as bad, you'll have to use muscular strength to force the technique, which defeats the whole purpose, and which won't work in any case if your uke is 30, 40 pounds bigger than you. Who wants to learn a martial art whose techniques will work only with people smaller than yourself?
Third, a properly executed irimi gives you options, the luxury of having two or three or four techniques to choose from in the split second before you actually perform the technique.
This is one practical test of the flowing consciousness, isn't it, the ability to change technique at the last moment? In contrast, as beginners, we would usually start off with a preconceived idea of doing a particular technique, and plunge on regardless; the result was often a bodily clumsiness, bespeaking a mental rigidity.
If you do the irimi properly, if you unbalance uke successfully, if you position your body correctly at uke's dead angle, you can do the second part - the technique itself - with the greatest ease.
4. Wrist rotation. We illustrated how the large, "gross" components of movement, such as centering and footwork, are not enough to guarantee the effective application of a fighting technique. In all Aikido techniques, wrist rotation is necessary to control uke fully.
Wrist techniques are subtle wrist and hand movements that play crucial roles throughout the various parts of a fighting technique. (a) Role #1: In irimi, or the entering movement prior to any technique, wrist rotation helps to unbalance uke during the entering movement, with absolutely no exertion of strength by nage. (b) Role #2: In the actual technique proper, wrist rotation serves to manipulate uke those last few critical inches of body placement that enable nage to do a fighting technique successfully upon uke. It's like a fine-tuning knob on our stereo system that supplements the main tuning knob. (c) Role #3: In the final projection throw at the end, wrist technique helps steer uke to fall towards a specific direction desired by nage, or to fall in a particular way intended by nage. Again, it is a fine-tuning knob that supplements the main tuning knob of nage's gross body movements.
We mentioned that wrist technique is really just one (important) manifestation of the center: our center projects ki through our arm and hand, and into and through uke's hand, arm, and body, for the purpose of destabilizing him. It is a precision instrument.
In sum, we saw how wrist technique can help nage do any technique with more precision through being in greater balance and being in greater control.