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Beyond Ritual

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.

Soft and Hard, the Spirit of Aikido in Irimi-Tenkan

Soft and Hard, the Spirit of Aikido in Irimi-Tenkan

In Balance: A Series of Thoughts (Part Two)
Soft and Hard, the Spirit of Aikido in Irimi-Tenkan
2004 by Sensei Gene Martinelli

If IRIMI is the yang of the movement, then TENKAN must be the yin. Hard and soft bring/is balance. IRIMI-TENKAN brings/is balance. Exploring further into the point made in the first part of this series; we continue to look at how our understanding and interpretation of a word or words may have a profound effect in our ability to do the AIKIDO technique correctly. Our choices in accepting certain definitions color not only how we approach those techniques, but also limit our options and our growth in AIKIDO.

In part one of this series I wrote regarding IRIMI-TENKAN:
You have counteracted the effect of the force attacking using IRIMI and gained balance. TENKAN directs the force to its harmonious conclusion.

Blends/directs/leads/controls/ all are words used to describe the action of TENKAN. It is so easy to take the hardness of your spirit and the power of your force in IRIMI and drive right through UKE (remember IRIMI is also blending). In some situations and position of NAGE and UKE relative to their environment, driving through UKE would be the correct choice. Why then in certain situations do we as AIKIDOKA appear to choose to soften our spirit and blending with UKE, we turn ourselves?

In entering UKE”S attack with a calm acceptance of death, either UKE’s life or yours, the mind and spirit become open to other possibilities. NAGE has taken control of the moment. But in this moment NAGE has done more than those few words seem to imply with the completion of IRIMI-TENKAN. MUSUBI, true martial harmony, must occur to actively choose TENKAN and complete the movement. Through MUSUBI (or in other words blending) we are given the opportunity to create life or perhaps a better choice of words might be an opportunity to spare lives, UKE’s life and your life. Your life however will be quickly over, if you think you will succeed by just having the proper mindset or a strong spirit without correct positioning and movement of your body. Nor will you be successful without correct distance, MA-AI, and timing, DE-AI. What seems the simplest of moves and the most basic of AIKIDO’s techniques contains all that is “AIKI.” IRIMI-TENKAN is often (if not always) the first move practiced. Why? All eight powers of the heavens are there in that movement: stillness and motion, powerful and relaxed, contraction and extension, hard and soft. So the simplest, easiest, and most basic move in AIKIDO encompasses everything that makes this an incredible art. Yet, in my opinion many of us as AIKIDO students tend to skip past the concept and principles in the IRIMI part of the movement and not quite grasp that the TENKAN part can be or is a strategy and a tactic in movement.

I once heard TENKAN (shortened on purpose) described as AIKIDO’s version of retreating or back stepping. I really like that description and wish I could claim it as mine. In any conflict we must not only be able to react, but our mind and spirit had better, in that instant, have created and developed a strategy for defeating our opponent or UKE, too. Whether you are facing one opponent or many there is or should be a purpose to your response in your movement and choices. In having “Hard and Soft” in the title of this article I chose to focus or pay particular attention to these two aspects. When I was in the Army, back farther in time than I care to admit too. Retreating was never taught or described as retreating; it was called “Advancing to the rear” and the reasoning behind this was, it demoralized the troops’ psyche and put them in a defeated mind set calling the action “retreat.” This defeated mind set does not occur when we use TENKAN. Quite the opposite, what may have appeared overwhelming is now controlled by your center and your choice of action (technique). You had entered hard of spirit, not hard, tensed, and stiff of body. The force coming at you is strong and so you choose a soft response, TENKAN. Soft here does not mean or imply weak, limp, or non-martial. Rather it is a solid martial response and by choosing TENKAN we have redirected the force attacking us and thus negated the attack and taken control of this force. In that moment your choice becomes either life giving or life ending, for example you begin to flow into SHIHO-NAGE and by deciding in very small degrees of angles in your body position, UKE”S arm position, and the direction and force behind that throw the difference quite literally becomes life and death. One can see that the soft movement not only gave us multiple choices within the throw, but it also is a devastating power. Again, because it bears repeating soft here does not imply weak, limp, or non-martial. Choosing a soft response to a hard action you are able to control the balance and the moment! In addition, the technique happens because of the hard and soft choices you make in IRIMI-TENKAN? It is an amazing strategy that Aikido has in its ability to redirect rather than to always meet a hard force with a hard force. Softness means flexible, relaxed, and breathing and seeing with a clear mind. Your mind, body, and spirit can together or separately be hard or soft and not all in the same choices at the same time. It is in this state of relaxed clarity that one realizes that from the moment of contact and as you turn in TENKAN you are controlling and directing both yourself and UKE. Balance.

So in certain situations as AIKIDOKA, we do indeed turn soft and turn ourselves blending and redirecting the force from UKE and therefore controlling and reaching balance. Ever notice that within the Yin and Yang symbol in the Yin or soft side there is a perfect circle of Yang or hardness, and within the Yang or hard side there is a perfect circle of Yin or soft side within. That is how balance is achieved. A hard exterior force is matched by a soft internal force and balance is restored. Water is often used in describing techniques or principles in martial arts. A favorite of mine is KOSHI-NAGE described as a wave crashing on a rock. In my mind, IRIMI-TENKAN is like a falling rock meeting the ocean. Unlike when a rock falls on land it leaves a mark to show where the rock impacted. When a rock hits the ocean, it is simply swallowed up by the water no matter how great the force of the falling rock. What really is the hard object and soft object in this analogy of the rock hitting the ocean? Because we have learned in science or more personally if you’ve ever taken a belly flop diving into a pool, that the soft surface of water actually causes a harder impact. Soft may well be the harder force, or the more correct frame of mind and spirit when doing IRIMI-TENKAN. You are seamlessly shifting from feeling like a hard driving force in that moment of IRIMI. Into a soft flexible redirecting force and like the overwhelming wave of water finding the weaknesses in UKE’s attack and exploit it.

In order to move fluidly and be flexible in your timing and movement your body must stay soft to respond to an attack. In the core of that softness lies the crystal hard knowledge and strength of spirit to succeed and restore balance. IRIMI-TENKAN, the most basic of AIKIDO techniques contains a seemingly unlimited number of choices and incredible power. This becomes open to you if you do not limit how you understand and interpret the words used in describing AIKIDO and AIKIDO technique. Harmony and balance occurs from beginning to end in the technique called IRIMI-TENKAN.

Credit & Thanks: I can claim to be the author of these series of articles, but without the editorial assistance, guidance, and down right straight-up and often heard saying, “Is that really what you meant?” help of Don Modesto. The two pieces of this series would not have been written. Don, thank you.

Gene Martinelli. Copyright © 2005 Jihonjuku Academy of Warrior Spirit.