Zen and Aikido: An Exercise

First, a Technique

We begin with your opponent, the uke, standing in front of you, grabbing your arms at the elbows, pushing slightly. Your job is to slide off-line to the left with your left foot—whether entering forward or retreating back—and then pivot on the ball of your left foot so that your right leg swings around behind you, turning you 180-degrees. If you can do this while raising uke’s right elbow—the one grabbing your left arm—while simultaneously lowering uke’s left arm, your opponent will lose his balance and be thrown.

In the Aikido parlance, this is a “pivot throw,” one of any number of kokyunage techniques—also known as “timing throws,” or “breath throws”—that seemingly rely more upon finesse than any other principles to throw your opponent.  These are the techniques that you cannot “make work;” they are not forced so much as they simply happen by virtue of the circumstances, which in this case are uke’s push and your pivoting out of the way, essentially allowing uke to fall on his own accord.  In a sense, uke throws himself with minimal guidance from you.

Fundamentally, these kokyunage techniques happen because you do not provide your opponent with the reaction—in this case, the resistance to his push—that he expects.

So, how do we teach a technique that should just happen?  In Aikido, we traditionally do this beginning with a contrivance: Uke knows in advance that he will be thrown with this technique and willingly gives his energy to create the attack without attempting to resist or to counter your defense; this allows you the opportunity to practice.

Here, martial arts “realists” are very critical: “That technique will never work. What if I do this?”

The Experiment

After practicing this one technique for a bit, we change the instructions:  We begin the same way, with your opponent grasping your elbows; this time, however, you grasp your opponent’s elbows as well.  Now your orders: “See who can throw who first.  Begin!”

As you might expect, a lot of fun chaos ensues.  Classmates jockey for advantage, whirl each other about, push and pull, and so forth.  One or both eventually fall, and they get up and begin again. You may conclude that the realists were right: that pivot throw technique for the most part did not work…

but who said to use that technique or to make it work?

The Zen in the Martial Art

Let’s do a very quick analysis from the coarse to the fine:

  • Beginning with the intention to throw and not to be thrown, the nature of the interaction changes from the outset.  This was no longer, “I was pushed, so naturally I pivoted;” this was “I must defeat you.”  There was palatable tension between each pair—playful, friendly tension, but tension nonetheless.  The habitual tendency to meet resistance with resistance and to “lock horns” was clearly evident, and this is contrary to traditional Aikido teaching of relaxation in the face of conflict.
  • The assumption that we must use the last technique and make it work—and the assumption parallel assumption that your opponent will be trying to use this same technique on you—naturally foiled any successful outcome more often than not. It cannot be overstated: making a technique work (in the sense of forcing a technique) is not the province of Aikido.
  • Why did everyone inevitably hold on to his opponent’s elbows throughout the interaction, even while being swung about?  Yes, it was the starting position, but recall that the successful throw did not require the defender to grab.  Interestingly enough, the students did not maintain the grabs because they thought they had to; rather, more focused on the game, their minds were essentially not free to consider releasing the grip! When the mind is focused over here, it is not tracking what’s going on over there.
  • Finally, when the circumstances were right, the technique did just happen.

After discussing these points, we resumed the same practice with a new objective: Become an observer in the interaction.  See if you can notice when you have locked horns with your opponent.  See if you can notice when you are stuck in the interaction, and see if you can recover and fix it.  See if you can feel when something is not working and then change it.  See how you respond when you are pushed or when you are pulled.  What is your natural reaction?  Can you notice it and change it on the fly?  Also take the time to explore your partner’s reactions—what happens when you push or pull?  Are you actually aware that, except perhaps for your elbows themselves, your entire body is available to you? And are you aware that, when your opponent is grabbing your elbows, his own hands are not immediately available to harm you, and that if you keep his mind occupied or off-balanced, he might not be able to let go?

It would be nice to say that this miraculous insight resulted in perfect Aikido, but of course that was not the case.  The quality of the practice did change toward better Aikido, though, and that is a good thing.

Some Notes

I explain very simplistically—and perhaps erroneously—that Aikido is a layer above jujitsu techniques.  We have whatever physical techniques (and underlying principles) that we can master under stress at our disposal.  Using them freely—“with mind and body integrated,” as some would say—to generate spontaneous and appropriate responses to physical encounters is part of the deeper Aikido practice itself.  Deeply realizing—and not in an intellectual sense—that mind and body were never separated in the first place, and manifesting this realization in daily life, is a goal of the Way (the “do” in Aikido) itself.

The parallels to how Zen practitioners work in meditation are unmistakable.

And as always, this is the focus of my own study as well as my teaching.

By Joe

Puzzle Wrestler & Mountain Herder. Math & Computer Nerd since the 80s. Longtime linux (current debian, ubuntu, raspian, centos, gentoo), currently fighting feebsd. Over-complicates networks for fun, occasionally secures them for profit. Develops own tools & services (cli, web services, and lately some android). Degrees in Math, Belts in Aikido. Zen, Motorcycle, Ham Radio, Homebrew (Ale, not Radio), Coffee & Tea, some Mandolin & Fiddle, MDA Advocacy (son with Duchenne), …

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