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.