Sunday, July 27, 2014

Don't cut corners (Part 2): Techniques

Think of how the human body moves. Our natural movement is smooth, not jerky. We are most comfortable with smooth acceleration and smooth deceleration, not in abrupt starts and stops. We resist, instinctively, any movement that is not comfortable. When we fall, we brace ourselves and stiffen up, since we know that a hard, sharp impact is ahead. This behavior is not learned, but instinctive. But if we don't perceive danger or sudden change, we don't react or resist; our instinctive warning systems aren't activated.

How can we leverage this in aikido? In a previous blog, I wrote about "don't cut corners" with respect to our attitude and effort on embarking on the aikido path. Here I'll address some technical issues that may help in making moving our partners an easier effort. I don't take credit for this, since several aspects of this were introduced to me by my colleagues in the art. You know who you are, and I'm truly grateful for learning about much of what is below from you.

Look at the anatomy of a straight punch, the kind we usually practice in aikido. Though not quite a straight line, there is a continuous path from the spine through the back and the arm to the fist when contact is made, with no corners in that path. With a roundhouse punch or yokomen attack it is even clearer. Reflectively, if you want to control an attacker's center, or at the very least, his spine, you have to create a path to the spine from wherever you make contact that is free from corners. If you induce a corner, as is common in my practice with yokomen shihonage irimi, you disconnect from your partner and face resistance.

A senior instructor suggests to "lead out the end of the jo". The jo is the longstaff we use in aikido practice. If you want to move a jo through the air like an airplane, you can only move in arcs. Similarly, to move your attacker by "leading out the end of the jo", you have to move the point of attack in arcs -- don't cut corners. My experience is that if you consider the straight line through the shoulders as a jo, use the arms to lead that "jo" out through it's ends, and you face very little resistance. If you manipulate that axis, you connect with the spine, which is a good initial surrogate for the center, and can manipulate the body reasonably easily as a result. At Frederick MD, we have been experimenting with this concept for the last 6 months, with some success.

Let me attempt to provide an example. Let's look at yokomen shihonage irimi The arm comes in at an arc. As we block and pick the arm up, we continue that arc taking the arm up while turning the body. If you get eager to turn uke by creating a corner at the shoulder, the arm goes across uke's body but uke stops moving. He naturally resists since this feels unnatural to the uke. If you, as nage, maintain the arc from the neck through the shoulder to the wrist, you find that uke resists far less, and often cannot resist the turn as shihonage is applied.

A natural question to ask is, how do we reconcile nikkyo and sankyo to this concept. We are mostly taught that nikkyo and sankyo are defined by a physical orientation defined by corners; the proverbial Z-shape for nikkyo and the right-angled arm for sankyo. My personal thoughts are that these morphological definitions are limiting and I have seen that merely achieving these shapes isn't enough and can be resisted reasonably easily once the pain is accepted. My investigation continues into how to most effectively control uke's center through these joint "locks".

I will admit that explaining aikido technique in writing is infinitely difficult since there is so much feeling and physical negotiation going on during a technique. One of the better descriptions of "don't cut corners" can be found in the famous illustrations in Westbrook and Ratti's book "Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere". As another senior instructor recently said, we all need to research the art to figure out how the fundamental aspects are put together into effective technique. Feel free to experiment in your local laboratories to see if this concept can work for you.

Don't cut corners (Part 1): Starting on the path

"Don't cut corners" is an exhortation we hear quite often, passed from parents to children, teachers to students, mentors to apprentices. The point being conveyed is that shortcuts are not a reliable pathway to success. Sustained success only happen once the hard miles are traversed.

Aikido, and in fact all martial arts, are by their very nature experiential and kinesthetic. Learning only happens through physical practice and interactions with partners, not by reading a book. The physical mechanics are but a part of the story. This learning process takes time.

One of the first questions new students often ask is, "How long will it take me to get to black belt?" My usual answer is, it depends on your history and your effort. Aikido involves a lot of re-learning: unlearning old bad habits and replacing them with new better habits. Just learning the form isn't aikido; it's about absorption of the form and feel of each movement. Each of us has our own rate of absorption. No shortcuts there!

As students come up the ranks, they are often frustrated that they can't perform like their instructor. Their throws aren't working. Uke feels heavy and hard to move. They haven't yet absorbed important aspects of the technique, be it distance, timing, direction, rhythm. Can't cut corners here, despite the frustration. I will often emphasize one aspect of a technique that provides tangible improvement, and have the student keep working on that one aspect. Once that becomes proficient, I move to the next aspect. It takes time, thought and effort to understand and absorb each aspect. Cutting corners creates incomplete understanding, and that creates gaps in understanding that comes back to bite you later and ends up taking longer in the end. As instructors we try and help students by showing paths that are not effective and should be avoided, as well as paths that have promise. That way, each generation's path of discovery becomes more efficient as we stand on shoulders of our seniors. If we are diligent in our guidance, what took us 15 years to accomplish might take the next generation 12 or even 10 years. Cutting corners just takes longer.

The big secret is, even advanced students are doing the same thing, regardless of whether they have 5, 10, or 20 years of experience. All that changes is that the refinement is at a higher level. We're all trying to figure this art out, and the only way to do this is to continue investigating different aspects of technique, seek advice from seniors, and then see was works and is effective for you. That's really why serious practitioners can't cut corners. This art isn't cookie cutter. Each person has to personalize the art, and realize what works in different situations for himself or herself. History, body type, physical ability, mental calmness and level of understanding all play a role in this process. This is a lifelong process, even if you don't cut corners.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Kokikai Summer Camp is coming up next weekend. I have the honor and privilege of, for the first time, recommending a student for black belt. I inherited Larry when I joined Aikido Kokikai of Frederick, MD 3 years ago, but the way Larry has relaxed, and improved, amazes even me. I suspect, if Larry would see video from 3 years ago, or even a year ago, he wouldn't recognize himself. Larry has shown great dedication, resolve, correct attitude, and openness to learn over the years. Several years ago, I wrote in this blog that aikido is about peeling away our layers until out essential selves are expressed; I have observed such peeling away of layers in Larry. Kudos!!

Having a student up for black belt, a milestone in Larry's aikido career, made me reflect on my practice and how I lead practice in Frederick. I look for ways to try and explain concepts that make the art more approachable and accessible. More ideas arose from a joint class with Maryland clubs a couple weeks ago. Recently I came upon a meme, "Don't cut corners", that seems to apply to the art at different levels. This will be the theme for a series of posts coming up on this blog.