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Aikido – A World of Paradoxes

My study of aikido never ceases to fascinate and amaze me. The further down the road I travel, the more mystical it seems to become, yet at the same time, it’s simpler too. It is a world full of paradoxes. Perhaps I can illustrate this by discussing three particular aspects of this, which form a focus for my own study:

  • It’s vital to look honestly at yourself and work on your own stuff, if you are to stand any chance of improving the way you work with others.

  • The less that you get in the way of an attack, the better and more creative your aikido will become.

  • We only learn techniques to ultimately let go of them. (They are not what aikido is about, they are only the vehicle to carry it).

The first of these is pretty fundamental, and whilst my own teachers haven’t used these words, the first things I learnt on the mat, didn’t involve anyone else. These were the four principles for coordinating mind and body taught by Koichi Tohei Sensei:

  • Centre

  • Extend

  • Relax

  • Keep weight underside

This was a pretty good clue that I needed to sort myself out before I could hope to be effective when working with a partner. (Of course I didn’t understand that then). These principles, when applied successfully bring about optimum performance. However, many students struggle to apply them effectively when just standing still, let alone when someone is grabbing them, or worse still is charging at them.

In other words, most of us have a lot of work to do to sort ourselves out before we worry about how to work well with others. Yet paradoxically, the best way to look at ourselves is to see how we work with others. Most teachers will tell you that you can’t hide on the mat, and your true self is open for all to see.

When you do practice with a partner, their job as uke is to help you do this. They follow your movement and intention to accurately reflect what is going on with you. If they do this properly, then when your technique breaks down, feels a bit lumpy or just doesn’t seem to be as effective as you know it should be, then the blame falls squarely at your own door. You were too tense, you weren’t centred, you disconnected from your partner, you tried too hard, or maybe you were too timid. Perhaps even more bizarrely, often the greatest insights about ourselves are to be had, when we uke for someone else and feel what is going on with them.

In a similar vein, most people’s instinct when attacked is to try to stop it. In fact, this is the last thing you should do. This always creates a clash and there is not much harmony in that. Also, a good uke will feel your intention and counter with another form of attack. After all, someone with serious intent to hurt you, won't give up when their first attempt has failed, and you might not have as much time and space to work out what they will try next. The reality is that in the attempt to stop the attack, it is quite likely that you will leave yourself open to an attack that you can't stop.

At first hand, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to let the attack develop, in fact it looks weak, but when you think about it, it gives you the advantage, as firstly it's your decision to let the attacker attempt to strike you, and secondly you know where their mind is at. Under these circumstances it is ok to let them have hold of your wrist or whatever, as long as you remain, centred, grounded, aware and co-ordinated. In other words, an attacker may have hold of a part of you, but they haven't got hold of you. In this state, we are able to move in an appropriate way that keeps us safe and leaves our attacker vulnerable and ultimately leads to their defeat, (not our victory), if they persist.

From the attacker's perspective, they expect to overwhelm their victim straight away or to be met with resistance. If they are met with no resistance, but equally no collapse, it almost always leads to over-extension on their part and consequently vulnerability. At this point, they either fall over or seek to come back into balance and to attack again. It is this energy and desire to attack you that leads to their downfall, in a very literal sense. The key point to understand here is that nage does not apply technique, they simply create an environment where technique can happen. Here's the thing to get you head round, the very act of trying to perform a particular technique on your attacker, is an attack in its own right, and creates the conditions for a good uke to get back on track, and to reverse the situation. Understanding this helps us understand why O Sensei said:

“Masakatsu Agatsu… True victory is victory over oneself.”

So this begs the question as to why nearly all aikido schools, including my own, base much of their training on teaching techniques and in many cases measure progress by how many techniques their students know and how efficiently they are performed. It is not the focus of this particular article to consider this, although I think it explains why aikido is largely split between those who see aikido purely as a martial art and those who see it more as a way of life. For my part, I have come to an understanding that technique is just a vehicle to carry the powerful principles that are at the heart of good aikido. Those ideas serve us well not only on the mat, but also in life generally. Yet increasingly, I am of the opinion, that we learn technique initially, only to throw it away when we are ready. More and more I find that technique just happens rather than being something I have decided to do and certainly that is when I feel that I am at my best.

So aikido is all about self-development, but it's hard to do this without working with others. It's at its optimum, when instead of trying to do a technique, we enter the flow and allow it to happen and finally we spend years learning techniques only to throw them away in the end. Weird stuff this aikido, but so fulfilling when you get somewhere close to practising it as I think O Sensei intended.

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