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Cross-pollination back at Vassar

by on November 2, 2012

I don’t have time to put together a video just now, but some interesting things have been going on that are worth mentioning while they are fresh in my mind. (This one’s for you Shane).

By happy coincidence, the two clubs I was a part of as a student, the ultimate frisbee team and the aikido club, scheduled events on consecutive weekends. The alums put together a team for Vassar Ultimate’s Huck For Red October on the 27th and 28th, and the Vassar Aikido Festival will be held this coming weekend. One of the main benefits of freelance/funemployment is a flexible schedule, so I decided to take full advantage and spend the week here. (Many thanks to Judy and Laura for putting me up!) I haven’t managed to get as much work done as I had hoped (should I really be surprised?) but I’ve had a lot of fun attending frisbee and aikido practices. The aikido practices in particular got me to do some thinking.

The first practice I attended on Sunday was the “advanced practice” Jun’s chance to work on more challenging material with some of the senior students. Jun was interested in seeing some of the things that we have been working on in Maine, and to me, the obvious place to start was with the Henry Kono sensei stuff we’ve been playing with.

It soon became clear that this was going to be trickier than I had anticipated.

As simple as they might look, it is not easy to do techniques Henry’s way. I feel that I have made some progress, but I have a long long way to go. Above and beyond my own limitations was the lack of an experienced partner. Henry’s techniques require a specific approach from both tori/nage and uke. Tori’s role may be difficult, but uke’s role is crucial, and perhaps even more challenging. And, unfortunately, I could not play both roles at once.

After some struggle in trying to show some of Henry’s ideas, Jun got right to the crux of it – it may be neat, but what is the point? Obviously no one is going to attack you on the street in this way, so what is the purpose of this method of practice? I had thought along these lines myself before, but sometimes you need a fresh set of skeptical ears to really help crystallize your views on a subject.

Taking into account for a moment only martial preparedness (though there are many other reasons one might practice aikido) I would say that the main benefit I have seen (to this point) in Henry’s type of practice is to familiarize you with a moment, sensation, and concept that Jun described as “emptiness.” The center is emptiness.

The fundamental concept in aikido is to allow the movement and intent behind uke’s attack to undo him. This presupposes an assult with malicious intent. Since these should not occur in the dojo with our friends and training partners, people have come up with various ways of simulating this fundamental condition. The methods differ, but they are all simulations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

The two methods of attack simulation most commonly used in Tomiki aikido are kata and randori. A kata, when properly constructed, encodes all of the actions and intents of a malicious opponent. In practicing the kata uke attempts to mimic these actions. This is the strategy I have seen most commonly employed in various aikido schools, though Tomiki schools tend to take an especially formal approach. In theory it should work well, the problem is that it requires extensive knowledge of the kata. The only way to be more realistic in a kata is to memorize and internalize more and more details about the kata. Unfortunately, the details for uke are often overshadowed by the details of what tori needs to DO. As we all know, performing a kata well is very difficult, both for tori and for uke.

The method of attack simulation that sets tomiki aikido apart is our competitive randori. By creating a game with a set of rules we set up the conditions that allow uke to act with a competitive, though not malicious, intent. Uke doesn’t have to memorize anything, the construct of the game and his or her own competitive instinct will ensure a concerted attack. One of the advantages to Tomiki-style randori is that we quickly learn how difficult it is to perform under pressure, and usually have fewer illusions about the efficacy of the art. This may also be the greatest downside of randori as well, but I’ll get to that later.

I have outlined the two methods above because I want to make the point that there is no true, natural attack in aikido practice. We may be more familiar with the methods employed within our own schools, but if we are to examine them closely it becomes clear that they are approximations at best. With that in mind, I want to introduce a third unnatural approach.

In every aikido technique there is a moment when the tables are turned, when uke goes from attacker to receiver, when tori goes from yin to yang. Over the past couple of years I have begun to become more familiar with this moment. There is a feeling that goes along with this moment, and a state of mind that is required to really reach it. The problem with kata practice is that, in our focus on our prescribed roles, we may fool ourselves into undervaluing the importance of the moment, the center, the emptiness, thinking instead that it is somehow the script that throws uke.

The problem with randori practice meanwhile, is that, because of its competitive (and therefore fast-paced) nature, the potential for the moment to occur will probably pass before we even recognize it.

This is where Henry Kono’s style of practice comes in. This method focuses solely on the center, on the moment of emptiness. Henry’s method slows this moment down to a crawl, so that we can examine it. In a way, the center, the moment of emptiness, is unknowable, but we can recognize it by discovering its boundaries. When uke is touching the center, and tori is touching the center there is emptiness. When the two bump into each other they have run across the boundary of the center, the emptiness disappears, and they are back to doing “aikido” as it is most commonly practiced.

When trying to introduce Henry’s method to people for the first time, a common occurence is for the technique to peter out and for uke to look up as if to say “now what?” The answer is: nothing.

Henry’s method of practicing is an approximation of an attack, usually slowed down and expanded so that it can be observed. In order for the technique to happen, uke’s slow-motion attack, and more importantly, intent, must be maintained. Tori does not “do” the technique to uke, so if uke loses intent the technique will not happen. In Henry’s method, a technique begins with aggression from uke. From there it is the responsibility of both uke and tori to be “out” to the “center” but no farther. When the empty moment is reached yin and yang reverse and the disharmony that was introduced with uke’s aggression is resolved as the technique happens. If uke’s intent peters out too soon however, the technique will not occur.

The other difficulty with an inexperienced uke is the problem of finding the center. In order for yin to become yang the center must be reached. On the street, this responsibility will rest solely on the shoulders of tori. There is no reason for an attacker to help you out. On the other extreme, in the dojo a sufficiently skilled uke can take this responsibility on himself entirely, as in the story Henry tells of Ueshiba sensei, or Tyler discussed in his class on ukemi. (Though this is likely to completely confuse an uninitiated partner.) Absent an extraordinarily skilled uke or tori however, the center is best reached in a collaborative effort between uke and tori. Each will try to extend their energy up to, and not past the center; when they do so properly the center should be reached and the technique should occur as if by magic.

I want to be absolutely clear that, though uke and tori are collaborating, uke is not throwing himself. Rather, uke is touching the center and tori is touching the center. Uke helps insofar as he tries to touch the center, but if tori fails to touch the center, there is no reason for the technique to occur, and uke will not go down.

As I became familiar with the center and the feeling of emptiness I began to recognize it all throughout the tomiki curriculum that I thought I already knew. I never had any doubt about Tomiki sensei’s insight, but there were literally whole other dimensions contained in the curriculum of which I was completely unawares (though the explanation might have been in front of me the whole time).

Henry’s method of practice, is, like all of the others, artificial, and therefore requires an uke with experience. However, there are a number of benefits that make acquiring these ukemi skills worthwhile. While tomiki-style randori engenders a healthy respect for the difficulty in executing a proper technique, Henry’s style of practice familiarizes both uke and tori with the element that makes techniques sublimely simple. I think an understanding and appreciation of both are essential in a well-rounded aikidoka.

Well, I just wrote a lot more than I had planned. I’m going to try to keep this next bit shorter, if only for my own sanity.

While I had trouble introducing Henry’s style of practice, Jun was very quick to grasp the idea of emptiness. (In fact, emptiness was his word!) The concept was familiar to Jun because of some thinking he has been doing about tai chi recently.

Jun joined the Vassar aikido club in the first year, a few weeks after I did. In that regard we began in much the same place. However, long before Jun studied aikido he leaned tai-chi from his father. As I understand it, Jun did not learn the more martial aspects of tai chi initially. I’m sure it influenced his movements, but not as directly as it does now.

Recently Jun has been watching a bunch of martial tai chi videos on youtube and connecting the dots with what he already knew. We met together for a couple of hours on Wednesday and Jun shared some of his insights. I’ll try to outline what I understood.

The two main things I took away from our practice was the importance of mobility in the hips and core, and the concept of an imaginary ball at the contact point between uke and tori. Jun showed me several methods for achieving “emptiness” in a tai chi way. The main concept was to take the pressure from uke’s push and translate it through your body, letting it compress in your hips and core rather than your arms or chest. Once the emptiness is achieved your hips and core can rebound.

(There is a specific Chinese name for this type of rebounding energy, which escapes me. Jun’s image for it was a rubber ball that has been compressed – it bounces back to its former dimensions but not further. If you know the word please let me know in the comments.)

This hip mobility can go in a number of ways. Your hips can sink, but they can also turn to one side or the other, or even rise up (assuming you have room to go upwards). The sinking form of hip mobility seemed most familiar to me because it relates very directly to the dip that Henry talks about. If fact it seems to me that Henry’s dip is a subset (perhaps the most effective subset?) of this larger group of movements. Thinking about Henry’s dip in terms of hip mobility was an inspiration because it gives me another way to approach and understand this crucial concept.

Now it seems obvious. Loosen your hips!

Jun and I also had a revelation about the other form of shote awase that Sato sensei had described to both me and Jeff. In the standard form tori needs to find a way to vector around uke’s resistance, pushing in a way that uke cannot resist. In this other form of shote awase that Sato sensei described, tori allows uke to resist too hard then sinks back, bringing uke off-balance, before rebounding through. This hip mobility concept is the missing link that explains how the drill should be performed.

Another interesting concept that Jun showed me was the concept of an imaginary ball between uke and tori’s hands. If uke and tori put their hands together as in shote awase the imaginary ball exists between their hands. When uke pushes in, tori can manipulate this imaginary ball which will then cause uke to move.

This is obviously related to Henry’s idea about both partners touching the center but not extending beyond. It also relates to the feeling of connection that is developed in Eric’s connection drill. Imagining the contact point as a ball encourages tori to manipulate the whole interface evenly, rather than focusing on one particular point or another, which would cause a ball to fly out or the “connection” to be broken. (Yet another thing to imagine when trying to maintain connection).

An interesting factor is the size of the ball between uke and tori. There seems to be a dynamic balance that must be reached. If the ball is too big uke will disconnect. If the ball is too small nothing works. After some discussion our best guess was that you should aim to have the ball be as small as possible while still having the technique work. My guess is, the better and more sensitive you are, the smaller the ball can be, until it reduces down to a point.

Something to work towards…

Well, I may not have gotten much productive work done this week, but at least I got one long blog post in. I hope you’re happy Shane. : )

Vassar Aikido Festival starts tomorrow!


From → Quick hit, Update

  1. Jun permalink

    Thank you, Charli. Good writing.  You are so articulate it almost makes me jealous.   I have been thinking of writing something about what I have been working on, the ’emptiness’, the big and small balls, the hip movement, etc. but I’m struggling to find words to express my thoughts eloquently. I’m working on it.  BTW,  The taiji term for the rebounding energy is 棚(peng)劲,some other Chinese may also call it 崩劲. It’s somewhat like expansion.

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