Friday, October 30, 2009

Ikkyo versus Not-Ikkyo: Intention in Aikido

Techniques in Aikido?

When an instructor sets out to demonstrate an Aikido technique, essentially he is not doing Aikido.

Ridiculous?  Well, yes and no.  If we think of Aikido as a martial art that has movements like this and techniques like that, then naturally "doing Aikido" includes "doing techniques."  Indeed, the basic practice of Aikdio has participants working in pairs, taking turns performing a particular defenses against a particular attacks.  From this point of view, the student would like to know that each particular technique is effective, and the teacher should be able to demonstrate its effectiveness.  To prove effectiveness, naturally the technique should work under adverse conditions including heavy resistance, yes?

Actually, no...

Take a Step Back: Intention

Suppose one person's intention of "I must do the ikkyo technique" encounters another's "I will not allow the ikkyo technique to be done to me"---Ikkyo versus Not-Ikkyo.  Before you know it, a wrestling match is underway---the manifestation of the two intentions in opposition.  One must prove he can; one must prove the other can't.  This opposition is completely contrary to the higher practice of Aikido.

Over time, the student practices many, many defenses against each attack with endless repetition.  But why so many?  After all, if you could make that ikkyo work under any circumstances, you would never need another technique, right?

Ah...  So, it turns out that the best defense against the famous not-ikkyo attack is generally not the ikkyo defense itself.  As a matter of fact, in some styles, there are several techniques that essentially begin from a position that may be described as "ikkyo failing," including nikkyo, sankyo, and kotegaeshi...

But, taking one step further, one may ascertain that not-ikkyo is really not a particularly threatening attack and probably requires no defense at all!

But, in an actual interaction, when in the midst of ikkyo you find resistance to ikkyo, you should naturally adapt.  Remaining sensitive to the changing circumstances and finding the appropriate response to a physical threat is the realm of Aikido practice.  "Getting stuck" trying to make a technique work is a failure in Aikido practice.

So, Who Needs Ikkyo?

Is this absolution for your ikkyo that never seems to work?  No, of course it is not.  Within your encounter, you have available to you whatever physical techniques, principles, movements, and so forth, that you have practiced under similarly stressful conditions.  If a poor ikkyo is in your bag of possibilities, you are naturally at a loss.  Conversely, if more, better practiced techniques are in your bag, you are in a better position.  However, the practice of not getting stuck itself does not require a large number of techniques; rather, sincere practice that includes watching for these details, including learning to sense when you are stuck, is enough.

So, We Cooperate Then? No!

So, woe to the nage (defender) who needs to practice his ikkyo while his uke (attacker) is intent upon practicing not-ikkyo.  Uke must be corrected to note that this is not the time for this type of interaction.  And woe also to the nage whose uke holds the cooperative intention "his ikkyo will happen!" After all, when should it be the attacker's intention to cause a particular technique to happen?  In neither case will nage have the opportunity to practice the technique properly.

Ideally, uke need only hold an intention such as "control (or harm) nage," or more specifically "control nage by first grabbing his wrist" (designating the attack), to begin the exchange.  The exchange, then, however chaotic, will flow from and be bound by these intentions.

It can be tricky to navigate...

So, from where did this thought come?

Last night I had the pleasure to demonstrate Aikido's versions of ikkyo, nikyo, and sankyo, to a handful of friends with varied martial backgrounds and competitive spirits.  Picking a competitive martial artist friend about 100 pounds heavier than I to demonstrate a finer point of ikkyo, I met his evil grin and his not-ikkyo...

... and I failed quite miserably!

The failure was allowing myself, the de facto instructor, to be drawn in, attempting to force the ikkyo against another's not-ikkyo, first for the sake of instruction, and then as a battle of physical strength.

Hopefully I did not leave anyone with a bad impression of Aikido.  At least I found a reminder of what I am personally practicing in the Zen-based investigation of the art.  There is where I need to work.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Do you only develop rote skills in your martial practice?

Thought does not move the body.

Yell at your hand and demand that it move! Does it? Of course not... Yet, assuming you do not lack certain ordinary functionality, you can and do move your hand at will, without thought and without concentration.  What is it exactly that does this?

And what can possibly interfere with it?

What sensory perception is your left foot providing you right now? Without calling your attention to your foot, you may not have even consciously been aware that it was there; but, now that it is, what do you feel? How about your right hand? What does it feel? And when you brought your attention to your hand, what became of your foot? Bring your attention to your your left hand. What does it feel? What is 9 x 6? When you did the math, what happened to your hand?

In the middle of the night, walking on a dimly lit path, a thin wavy shadow on the ground catches your attention. Seeing a snake, you momentarily seize. Realizing it is only a stick, you gather your composure and continue on. What is it that made a snake out of a stick, and what made the body respond as it did?

In your own martial arts practice, are you simply learning rote mechanical skills, or are you also challenged to consider things a bit more deeply? Can you imagine the difference such practice would have on your training?

What might "integrating mind and body" really mean in practice?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Reference Thread for Aikido and Zen

It is not strictly necessary that martial artists study the duality of their study with Zen, nor that Zen students study the duality of their practice with the martial arts.  Until it is thoroughly understood why this is so, though, the student who enjoys the dual practices of finding one's self both in thought and in physical motion may have some advantage.

The link below is to a discussion that started with a question or two on AikiWeb and moved to my personal blog. It is viewed often, but we are really fortunate when someone is inspired to question or comment on the thread.  As time passes, my understanding deepens and I make the opportunity to test the understanding in class.  It is a fun process, integrating Aikido and Zen studies, and it is the root of what we are trying to accomplish at Sword Mountain Aikido and Zen!

Pay a visit to the thread.  What are your thoughts?

Inexhaustible Things: Aikido: Uke, Nage, and Mushin

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who is in Control?

O-Sensei said that Aikido was to be practiced joyously, yet there is no question that discipline as a necessity in any martial arts practice.  Are the points of view at odds?  It is only a light paradox at best, since---particularly in Aikido---we understand that we are training to remain calm and relaxed under extreme duress.  It becomes the instructor's job to balance the forces within the class, or perhaps to take advantage of whatever energy is present that day and to use it as part of the day's lesson.

The Situation

Today was a bit unusual:  There was a mixture of rowdy goofiness and frustrated tension among the students.  Some, in particular, were enjoying the impact of their silly behavior upon the others' frustration.  From the outside, it was clear seeing the goofiness spreading among some of the students, and it was also clear seeing the frustrated responses that at least once ended with a scream, "Knock it off!"

It all led to an interesting discussion before bowing out at the end of class.

An Appropriate Response

Aikido and Zen both seek the spontaneous and appropriate response to deal with immediate circumstances.  "Appropriate" may take any number of meanings, but it is often misunderstood in the context of popular Aikido notions of love and harmony and peaceful conflict resolution.  In the future we will discuss in more detail what we mean by an "appropriate response," but for now it is sufficient to say that an appropriate response in either practice is one that simply comes from your "center."  What does thiis mean? It is not burdened, conditioned, limited, or driven by thoughts, concepts, culture, assumptions, or anything else; rather, it is an immediate and pure response to what you are given.  Moreover, in order to achieve this, you must first have seen clearly what you are given, not superimposing thoughts, concepts, culture, assumptions, or anything else over what you experienced directly.

So, who was right and who was wrong?  In fact, it was the student who yelled "Knock it off!" who received the brunt of today's lecture.

It was already understood that the students who were acting up had lost their bearing---they were not centered, but rather were acting from positions of escalating antics, feeding on each other's enjoyment as well as the others' frustration.  What was not immediately clear was how the angry student's response was equally not clear.  While his response may have seemed justified or deemed allowable, in fact it was not a clean response; he was acting not from his center, but from a position of anger and frustration.  He had lost his bearing just as much as the others.

Is this distinction important?  Yes, it is very important, both in martial arts and in everyday life.  Consider this:  If you can be baited, your actions can be manipulated.

So, Who is in Control?

So, in any given situation, however pleasant or unpleasant and however extreme or mundane, is it you who is in control of yourself, or is it the situation that is in control of you?  Does your anger get the better of you, or can you realize that you are angry and choose an alternative course of action in response?

In Aikido, we drill different jujitsu techniques again and again and again until we internalize them, until we are able to perform them without thought.  But this in itself is not our Aikido practice.  Applying these learned techniques under extreme stress is also not our complete practice.  Rather, practicing to remain cognizant and in control of ourselves before, during, and after such a physically threatening encounter, fluidly applying and adapting those techniques and principles that we have already internalized in order to resolve the situation: this is our higher practice.

Then, if we lose ourselves in the moment, we are at least trained to defend ourselves.  In the best case, however, we are doing all of that and more: we are practicing a highly physical and engaged form of Zen practice.  We are looking to see who is in control.  This is our goal of our integrated practice.