Much of what happens in our lives is largely beyond our control and happens in seemingly random fashion, but we are largely responsible for our behaviour. It is our intention that determines the course of this. This is no less true when it comes to practising aikido. Our intentions are central to the outcomes and to the quality of our training.
It starts even before we enter the dojo, as without the intention to show up, there will be no practise. I often say to students that one of the biggest lessons that aikido can teach you is just to show up. When you do, you will make progress. It won’t always be easy, but it’s especially important to battle through those moments of difficulty, as that’s usually where the most learning is to be gained. It’s an obvious truth both on and off the mat, and one that will make a big difference to how much we achieve in life. Perhaps not surprisingly it is also the hurdle that most students trip over and I don’t know a club that doesn’t see this all the time. (It is a personal opinion, but it is my fear that in this age of instant gratification, the ability of people to be persistent is diminishing and I fear that this doesn’t bode well for the future).
Once you enter the dojo, your intention sets the tone for the lesson. Firstly it helps if you use your self-awareness to determine how you feel both mentally and physically. When you have had a bad day, be consciously aware of this and set an intention to let this go. Equally scanning your body and knowing what needs to be protected or just stretched out, will avoid any unnecessary injuries or pain. If you are the teacher, it’s doubly important to start with positive intent and good practice to begin by scanning your students and getting a sense of just where they are at.
Once the lesson begins, then much of our practise is in partnership with others, usually in the roles of nage and uke. The intentions of each really need to be considered separately, as they are very different and both essential to the quality of our study.
Taking uke first, as without their intention to attack, nage has nothing to defend against. Uke is aiming to physically control nage with a view to bringing about his/her defeat and possible destruction. On the battle field, the latter is exactly the goal, but in the dojo it obviously takes on a more symbolic role. The level of energy applied needs to be set at an appropriate level for the person in front of you, the intention being to maximise learning for both parties. Once that has been determined, it is vital that even at the lowest level of energy, (standing still and grabbing nage’s wrist), that the intention of the attack is felt by nage. It is not the role of uke to stand their passively, but to threaten to take control of nage’s space and body. We want to bring the whole of ourselves to the practice, so it’s important that we are doing more than just pushing and pulling as this is just physical. Our mind-set is one of seeking control and extending into the space of nage. The idea is to integrate mind and body in the attack, because only when we do this are we able to truly reflect back to our partner what results from their response. Purely from uke’s perspective, it puts them in a place where they feel the most and therefore learn the most about what to do or not to do when it’s their turn to be nage. It also provides the opportunity to follow smoothly and honestly, which from both from a learning and martial awareness perspective is essential. Putting it metaphorically, uke needs to be constantly taking nage’s temperature and actually nage needs to be doing the same in reverse. When this happens, aikido does look dancing.
In theory, once we attack, if our opponent maintains the principles of aikido then the seeds of our own destruction have already been sown, but the fact is that most of us in the role of nage are imperfect at some point, and the then the good uke will probably have an opportunity to counter and in doing so save themselves. It is vital that the initial intention of the attack is maintained either until the technique of nage breaks down or uke has successfully been shown the error of their bad intentions.
In the role of nage, the intention must be to bring your best self to the mat. That means being centred, grounded, relaxed and aware. There should be no desire to dominate or control, just to be. When faced by uke, nage must fully embrace their negative intention with the desire to bring about a positive resolution not only for themselves, but also for uke. The best practice occurs when both parties are left smiling and with a kind of physical glow. Put simply, whilst enduring bumps, bruises, breaks and sprains may produce a very strong mind, it more commonly results in students leaving.
There is at least one thing that uke and nage share in terms of intention and that is that they both need to have the desire to park their egos outside of the dojo. We all are there to share the experience. We lend our bodies and experience and literally everyone has the capacity to teach us something, but only if we are open to that possibility. We all make mistakes and it never helps if the assumption is that the problem has nothing to do with us. We need to open to the possibility that we are human after all and as such we gain much by being honest with ourselves.
Finally let’s not forget the role that the teacher plays in all of this. It is his/her intention that sets the ambience of the club as a whole and the tone of every lesson. Just like a waterfall, everything flows downwards and impacts on everything below. So as teachers, we have to be mindful of what we are trying to create and ensure that everything we do and the plans that flow from our intention are congruent with this, as undoubtedly we do reap what we sow.