By John Messores
Originally published in Aikido Today Magazine, #81 Vol 16 Number 3, May / June 2002.
Where do you think you will be if you are attacked? In a well-lit space, barefoot, with mats, wearing loose fitting clothes, completely warmed up, stretched out, alert, well-rested, facing your attacker with ample time to size up the situation? Do you think a real attacker will step back and indicate with which hand he will begin his attack?
Why are the martial aspects of our training necessary? Because they give an edge, a spark, a push to our training. Even if your Aikido is a metaphor in the study of conflict resolution, it’s necessary to push to the next level by more intense training.
That doesn’t mean rougher. If you are stuck trying to be stronger, faster, and harder than everyone else, the higher aspects of Aikido training will never have a chance to grow.
How do you know when you are training with enough intensity? Hard training is done with focus, without preparation, and by training outside the “comfort zone.” Intense training should feel just a little frightening to both Uke and Nage. Aikidoka should explore beyond their limits, and remember that every action for Uke and Nage come from battle techniques intended to kill or disable an opponent. One of my Japanese seniors, Shigeru Suzuki Sensei, once told me that without hard training my Aikido would never “higher up.”
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O-Sensei prohibited competition from our training. Our training Is not for dueling, which is a form of competition. A duel has a mutually agreed upon time, place, and number of participants. Here or someplace else, now or later. Too often our training looks like a duel. Two students stand in front of each other and agree to begin. Because they have agreed upon an attack and take turns defending we say that they are not competing or dueling.
But we do not just train for combat. We train to refine ourselves. To change the world we must improve ourselves. We use this martial way, Aikido, to polish our hearts, our character. The more pressure we have in training, the greater the opportunity we have to grow. Aikido is not just a dance, exercise or metaphor for life. A purpose of our training is character development.
Aikido technique is derived from martial training. But that does not mean we practice for street fighting. The technique we train with in the dojo is not exactly the technique I expect to use on the street. The dojo is a place to train in principles, not specifics. I am not trying to imagine every possible attack and memorize a list of all possible responses to be brought up under the stress of an immediate life or death situation. I won’t know the specifics of a real attack ahead of time. I won’t know the when, where, how, or how many. I do know that I am more likely to be attacked in certain places, times of reduced light, and when I am distracted (such as taking money for my wallet).
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In Aikido we train against generic attacks. Shomenuchi and katate dori seem unrealistic and useless to people who have seen a boxer’s jab, hook, roundhouse and uppercut. Karateka attack with a variety of punches, kicks and strikes. Wrestlers throw and immobilize, judoka throw, immobilize and choke. Which one will your attacker use? Which method will you train against? If an attack comes at you in the dark, from the side, will you have time to decide whether it is a roundhouse punch or a yokomenuchi? There are differences between yokomenuchi and a roundhouse punch.
Every attacker throws a punch a little differently. Each punch is a unique event, never to be repeated exactly. Our task is to respond to this unique punch in exactly the right way. Being human we won’t achieve 100% perfection – but we try.
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When teaching Aikido seminars I often see Ukes step back in a traditional Karate stance before beginning their attacks. Training in Karate can certainly result in powerful attacks, but is it necessary that we train against it in our everyday training? Or against a simulated boxer’s hands-up position?
When training with beginning Aikido students, seniors frequently indicate which hand (left or right) they will attack with. This becomes a habit that the beginners pick up. It is not necessary to telegraph to a senior student which side the attack will come from. This overzealous concern to make someone look good in practice actually hinders the growth of our fellow students. Learning to sense a real attack is absolutely basic to our progress in Aikido and should begin soon after our introduction to basic movements.
A real attacker on the sidewalk has no intention of letting you know that he’s going to attack. Yes, there are other scenarios where an attacker might be angry, shouting that he’s going to kill you, but let’s continue to consider someone who isn’t as helpful. In our training we need to sense the subtle indications of the impending attack. An attacker standing in front of you. Don’t just watch his hands or listen to his verbal abuse. Watch his overall position. Weight shifts, hips begin to move, the eyes suddenly look from your face to another part of your body that he intends to attack. He has stopped yelling and his breathing has changed. This is all happening as he is curling his fist, coming in with a punch to your stomach. Don’t try to analyze this. Learn to intuitively decipher the message.
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Instead of the Aikido hanmi, Karate’s Zen kutsu dachi, or a boxer’s or wrestler’s crouch, try a more natural, relaxed, unaffected position. Narrow the distance between your feet, leave your hands at your side, your head and back straightened, not in a crouch. Your fingers should be relaxed in a slight curl, not straightened, spread apart or curled into a fist.
Both Uke and Nage need to start from this relaxed position. You won’t be able to assume your “fighting” stance if you are attacked for real. Nor will you be able to choose which foot you will have forward, or which hand your attacker will lead with. Get used to training with the “wrong” foot forward. Train from awkward positions or angles. Encourage Uke to attack from either left or right hand. Front or rear hand, This doesn’t require blindfolds or turning out the lights.
Uke, as you begin, try to minimize telegraphing of your movements. Don’t pull your hand back as you form a fist, shift your weight, or habitually flip your hair out of your eyes. Don’t suck in air so that it can be expelled dramatically. By reducing Uke ’s telegraphing, Nage will have to learn to read the smaller and more subtle indications of attack. This refinement will also improve Uke’s speed, overall control of the center and the whole body.
Remember that ma-ai (distancing) is not a fixed distance. The distance and angle from which he can attack will change with various types of kicks, punches and grabs. With an Uke, learn what is practical and what is possible in terms of attack. Don’t try a jab from ten feet away, or a roundhouse kick when you and Nage are nose-to-nose. If Uke is close, is he more likely to jab, or throw an uppercut? Watch Uke!
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Please don’t turn this type of training into another ritual. A real sense of an attacker’s intentions will come from being attentive and allowing the subtleties, the total sum of your attacker’s physical movements to educate your instincts.
The purpose of the traditional Aikido hanmi is not necessarily to practice placing yourself in the perfect position. The purpose is to train the mind. After training in hanmi take that attitude and awareness with you as you live your daily life. But you don’t have to assume an affected posture to ride on a lawn mower or wash your car. Take the presence and awareness of hanmi with you. Posturing and affected attitudes are colorful and entertaining in the movies, but they interfere with learning.