Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Letting Go

Invariably, first Aikido techniques begin with the simple, static wrist-grab.

Maybe someday that wrist-grab start will evolve to a more dynamic reaching-in-to-grab, and then maybe on to the lunge punch, or even on to a wrist-grab-then-punch combination?  Really, there are no limits, and over time you'll likely experience them all...

... but first, there is the simple, static wrist-grab.

It seems almost silly--or maybe "unrealistic"--to start like this--but in retrospect, the essence of Aikido is all in there.  Uke's intention is crystal clear: Don't let go.  Granted, there may be a touch of "Be strong and don't let him move" or "Be flexible but stay connected" added depending upon the Uke, but either way, Nage has this to work with.

Now, we've mentioned a favorite and key experiment here before:  Suppose in the above picture, Nage (the defender) strikes boldly at Uke's face.  We see that in almost every case, even though Uke may attempt to block with his free hand, invariably he will not let go of Nage's wrist.  Though he's dealing with what arises instinctually, Uke's original intention is not lost.

Lots of great Aikido--and even improbable Aikido, such as the sometimes controversial kokyunage "breath throws," "timing throws," or even the "touchless throws"--is rooted in this bit of "Applied Zen"...  Arguably, here is where Aikido separates a bit from the underlying purely physical jiujitsu techniques.

Now that aside, at sometime during the first week of a new Aikidoka's practice, the above attack will likely lead to this defense--the kotegaeshi, or wrist-turning-out throw.  What I would like you to notice for now is that, at some point, "Uke is grabbing Nage" has been transformed into "Nage is grabbing Uke."

Some people never get this point--even after studying kaeshi waza (reversals), so here it is:  At this point in the technique, the tables are turned--Nage is now performing a grabbing attack on Uke...

... and the rules from our first experiment about grabbing do apply.

The problem with grabbing, you see, is that we're not always cognizant enough to let go.  After all, as everything else going on is overwhelming us, we are not even necessarily cognizant of the fact that we are grabbing at all!

Interestingly enough, there are some Aikido schools which focus almost exclusively on this aspect of the art.  They are naturally considered "soft styles" and are sometimes criticized as being ineffective for defense.  And there is cause to agree:  If we begin so far away from the underlying physical jiujitsu with its focus upon balance, timing, leverage, and so forth, and work strictly with guiding Uke's intention, it may take a very (very) long time to develop defensive proficiency--assuming you care about that, of course.  Consider what we see to the right: Ikkyo--another "week one" technique achievable from that same wrist-grab--has Nage grabbing Uke's wrist and elbow in this picture.  With a bent to avoid "blocking Nage's ki," some schools will practice guiding Uke into this position without grabbing him at all.

One hand guiding the wrist, the other guiding the elbow, all subject to change with changing circumstances:  In some sense, this is the Gold Standard--what we all strive through diligent practice to accomplish---an end state.  Now, whether we start here and correct ourselves as we inadvertently drop down to raw jiujitsu to finish a technique, or whether we start with the raw jiujitsu and forcing and strive to separate from the forcing, is largely a matter of preference--neither here nor there.

However, there is a problem...  Do you see it?

If you practice diligently to not grab your opponent, do you suppose that in the heat of the moment that you will realize that you can?

Yes, the experiment actually does work both ways:  It is possible to inadvertently cling to not clinging.  Moreover, when overwhelmed, you will not realize it.

Now with that point made, we should be fair:  That Gold Standard is the same for either path, and it does include spontaneous and appropriate response to any circumstances.  Sometimes that means grab and sometimes it means do not grab--the circumstances will guide you.  The training, however, gives the practitioner the ability to remain cognizant throughout increasingly overwhelming circumstances and sensitive to changes, remaining free to alter course.

This is to say that, at an intermediate level for instance, you don't have to be married to forcing that ikkyo technique to work---you can change techniques (henka waza).  At a more advanced level, if you're grabbing someone's wrist and he throws a punch at your face, letting go will be an easy option.

And at an even higher level of practice, letting your face be hit would be an option as well if you felt that would serve your greater purpose.  That is, we can let go of "winning," "succeeding," or even living if that is what is ultimately required.

For practical purposes, however, we will accept an avoidance of the later as a sensible constraint, but strive to make it possible.  In the Zen aspects of our study, though, we prepare to take one final, decisive step through this wall:  After we let go of holding on, we let go of letting go.
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