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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.

Aikido and Atemi

Interview with John Messores Sensei: Aikido and Atemi
Conducted in 1997 by Guy Hagen and Adam Silverman.

H/S: Sensei, can you describe some of your background in Aikido?

Sensei: I began my training in traditional Karate in 1968.  I was introduced to Aikido in 1973 by a fellow Karate student.  At that Dojo, I was part of the original group that helped bring Saotome Sensei to the United States.  Iíve been Sensei’s student since 1975.

H/S: Like you, many of your students have backgrounds in other martial art styles.  Do you feel that having experience in other martial arts contributes to learning in Aikido?

Sensei: You can get personal inspiration from other martial arts.  I get inspiration from boxing and my background in Karate.

H/S: Instructors can be reluctant to let their students explore other styles and martial arts.  Do you encourage experimentation?

Sensei: Most people start their training at the most convenient school, selecting the Dojo up the street, according to price or convenient hours.  Few beginning students make an informed first choice.  However, people should not be bound to one instructor their entire career.  If they are attracted to another art they should follow it; students should always be given freedom.  They’ll do what they want anyway; and as people mature as martial artists, they explore more.  For those reasons, an “open door” policy is best; as students explore other martial arts, they may get tired and return.  Another important point to remember is that while other martial arts can provide inspiration for a student, or round out their training regimens, when the student comes to the Dojo they should be committed to doing Aikido.

H/S: What effect has your background had on your own technique and style of instruction?

Sensei: I enjoy working with atemi and more angular, sharper and harder moves in my Aikido. These sharper moves–Atemi, or what some people call “killing techniques”–provide a different way to explore Aikido.  Practicing nice circles can be good training, but  I feel there are other aspects to consider.

In the United States, many people have embraced just one aspect of aikido–the pacifistic variety for example–but that’s just one path.  There’s plenty of room for us all to find our own path in Aikido.

H/S: So you look at atemi and martial techniques as training tools?

Sensei: Each person has their own approach.  Training isn’t abstract or general, but applied; the “martial” aspect of training-the grinding against each other, pushing hard and fast against each other-helps students realize their training goals faster.  Other than atemi, you can even include things like chokes (shimewaza) or groundwork (newaza) to help illuminate a particular technique. Atemi can be as equally informative as evasions, wrestling, boxing, or other martial techniques.

Karate shows that there are many types of attacks.  However, many of them take a lot of time to hone.  If you don’t practice a lot of kicking, for example, you won’t have an effective kick.  If you don’t spend a lot of time developing a strike, it isn’t useful to pretend that it will stop anybody.

H/S: Short of studying another martial art, then, how can Aikido students incorporate these ideas into their training?

Sensei: Students should pay attention.  They shouldn’t just run in when attacking; in addition to being fast and hard, they need to learn to be sensitive and flexible.  Some guy off the street won’t attack with a clear, classical strike; you have to consider wild punches or jabs.

However, atemi is not just a punch or strike.  Atemi grows out of other parts of an aiki technique–part of the whole, not a separate component.  It is part of the variety of Aikido.  As you perform variations of any technique–shihonage for example–you should consider how atemi could be a component.

Another important aspect of this is that it leads both nage and uke into being sincere.  As a result nage delivers true atemi, atemi that keep uke on their toes.  This sincerity prevents students from viewing being uke as just making time until they get to be nage again.

H/S: “Finding your own path” in Aikido does not stop upon becoming an instructor.  Sensei, as a teacher, how do you continue to learn?

Sensei: Aikido can become the “jazz music” of martial arts.  When you are demonstrating in class you’re exploring as you teach; looking for new ways to express your technique, or to express old techniques better.  Eventually, you build a repertoire of effective teaching “tricks” that grows over time.

As a teacher, you can do what you want to, you can explore anything you want.  Students have to try and mimic their teacher.  Because of that, instructors can gain feedback by paying attention to their own techniques reflected through their students. If you look around the room and realize that all your students are doing poor ikkyo, you have to ask yourself why.  You have to ask yourself how you can perform and teach ikkyo better.  As a teacher, you students are your product.  As a student, you are your own product.

By watching your students, it’s like watching 20 people perform a technique incorrectly.  It’s good to watch everybody’s version of a technique; but its not good to say “this is the best way to perform shihonage” but rather “this is a good way to perform shihonage.”

There’s a fine line in teaching students while demonstrating techniques.  Instructors often select ukes according to their personality of attack, to better demonstrate a particular technique.  However, the students are not there to be killed or make sensei look good.

Every person has their own characteristics.  It’s easy for an instructor to rationalize away his or her idiosyncrasies.  But the public deserves professional behavior.  If this was old Okinawa, we would be training in a traditional Dojo, probably inside the family.  But here, we have to be aware of our public image-not just as a teacher of a self defense form or exercise, but as having something more to offer society.

Eventually, however, you have to take your Aikido off the mat.  We graduate from being a recipient of Aikido to a giver.  We grow by taking more and more responsibilities– for ourselves, for other students, for teaching, for the Dojo.  Eventually we graduate to our own Dojo, or to multiple Dojos.  These are all part of your growth as a technician–but the goal of aiki is not to be a great technician.  Technique is a “means to the end” of personal growth.

Things like life, jobs, families, can each take time away from your training.  So will things like the frustrations of running a Dojo or organization; we all have the same hassles.

This is the need for professionalism.  By professionalism, I don’t mean simply “businesslike”, but a balance between business and martial professionalism.  “Professional” includes the image an instructor presents–the haircut, the dress–but itís most important to consider conduct.  Professionalism requires earning the respect of the public, not just students–students have to be respectful!  You’re not professional until the public in general sees you as professional.

However, everybody has only so much time to train, and everybody has to find their own path, what fits them best.  One goal of Aikido is to find the form of aiki that best fits you.