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Random tidbits: videos and what to do as uke

by on September 7, 2016

A few tidbits and musings from recent-ish aikido wanderings:

Shibata sensei videos

For some reason the first week of August was very popular in a number of my orbits and I was quadruple-booked: a wedding, a salsa performance, and two workshops. Somehow I managed to get in good moments at all four, including the Saturday session of Shibata sensei’s seminar at Portsmouth Aikido, which was just as good as I had hoped. Aaron posted some after-class highlights:

Different practice methodologies and uke’s role in them

Recently someone asked me where I practiced ‘regular aikido’. I have bounced around enough that it’s a perfectly sensible (if semantically loaded) question to ask.

I know a number of people doing very different things who all believe that the aikido they are seeking is the only ‘real’ aikido. People playing the sport, as well as those who encourage various types of non-cooperation can consider their aikido real because they have tested it against different forms of resistance. “One circle” practitioners can consider their aikido real because they are reaching down to the deepest roots in the mind. And, of course, practitioners in Aikikai affiliated dojos can consider their aikido ‘real’ because of the orthodox transmission. Personally I try to avoid generalized statements about what aikido is and isn’t (although there are a shrinking number of skills which still interest me).

I once dated a woman who stated matter-of-factly that mormons weren’t christians. Having once read the illustrated Book of Mormon synopsis for kids (hilarious and terrifying!) this puzzled me because Jesus played a significant role.

What makes a christian? It doesn’t much matter to me. If someone says they are christian I’m happy to take their word for it. On the other hand, my then girlfriend was raised lutheran, and she defined other people’s faiths from the perspective of her own upbringing. If your personal christian identity depends on strict adherence to prescribed modes of behavior and thought then you will be loath to permit lax use of the term.

At the end of August I attended the first two sessions of David Halprin’s seminar at Portland Aikido. One of the topics that came up was uke’s role, which is of central importance.

I don’t remember the specific technique we were working on at the time, but Halprin sensei made the point that uke’s role in that moment was a specific attack. It was one thing for uke and nage (I’m going to bounce between nage and tori depending on the context) to mutually agree to go hard, but uke’s choreography was quite specific.

Then Halprin sensei said something which made me secretly smile.

Uke’s role was to come as shown (direct and undisguised). If uke approached in another way (with timing and direction obscured by feints) then he was “no longer practicing aikido,” it had become a free-for-all,  and you were now free to do “whatever you want to him, or whatever you can bring yourself to do to him.”

No longer practicing aikido!

I could only smile, because I’ve had people come at me in that very manner countless times, and always in contexts which I understood to be aikido.

Just as there are different types of aikido practice with different end goals, so there are different roles for uke and tori. It is always important for uke’s behavior to match the training method, so it’s critical for both partners to understand each other’s goals and their current training context.

So what are some of the roles that uke might be asked to play? On the drive home I started listing and categorizing methods in my head.

In the JAA/Shodokan branch of the Tomiki world we have kakari geiko, hikitate geiko, and randori. Akikai randori is something else, so that could be a fourth. There is a type of internal practice that requires uke to be strong, while Henry Kono admonished us to be as light as possible.

In my mind all of these forms of practice can be valuable. Can they be categorized?

Tomiki folks split the execution of a technique into phases: tai sabaki, kuzushi, tsukuri, and kake. Eric Pearson has suggested a different phasing structure for aiki techniques: awase, musubi, kuzushi, hanasu. If memory serves, Halprin sensei divided throws into blending, leading/following, and giving/receiving power.

Halprin sensei’s categories line up pretty well with the Tomiki categories, so, as I think the use of different words can lead to new insights, I’ll go with his categories.

Each of the training methods I listed balances the importance of these phases differently, and gives uke correspondingly different responsibilities.

Kakari geiko is our beginner level of randori which emphasizes the blending phase. Depending on tori’s level, uke may in fact advance with feints, but it could not be farther from Halprin sensei’s free-for-all. As soon as tori has evaded the attack, uke’s roll is to succumb to whatever tori does. The purpose of the practice is to become comfortable with techniques in a safe but unstructured setting, to encourage the springing-to-mind of techniques with greater and greater ease.

The method of practice typical at Henry Kono’s seminars was even more cooperative, but I think it is more focused  on the leading/following phase, and the experience is quite different from kakari geiko. In Kono sensei’s style of practice, uke’s role is to attack in such a way as to make the specified technique as inevitable as possible by remaining at the mutual center, being as light as possible, and then gently leading nage into the best possible execution of the throw. As I wrote earlier, this method allows both partners to become intimately familiar with the moment when yin becomes yang. This is a truly exceptional way to learn to lead and follow.

On the other hand, having been dancing for a couple of years now, I can say that sometimes experience with resistant aikido training partners can give your lead a much more solid foundation, which helps when dancing with an unfamiliar partner. Dancing isn’t fighting, but body mechanics are body mechanics.

Those internal strength instructors who ask uke to be strong I think are also focusing on the leading/following phase, but their focus is on teaching nage the most effective body mechanics. Uke’s resistance is thus like plates loaded onto a barbell – enough to challenge nage, but not so much that his form deteriorates. This resistance is not non-cooperative, rather, like electrical resistance in an incandescent bulb, properly tuned resistance is actually key to generating the desired outcome.

Hikitate geiko, our second level of randori, works by the same principal of intentional resistance, but it can apply to any of the three phases, though mostly the first and second. Furthermore, uke can choose to be any combination of heavy, slippery, strong, fast, or light. In hikitate geiko, uke’s role is to essentially coach the best possible aikido out of tori by being a little bit of a dick where necessary.

Meanwhile, sport randori puts its emphasis on the most important phase of aikido – that is, whatever phase which results in a throw. It is certainly a struggle, but it is not a fight or even a free-for-all.

In sports randori we get away with opening up tanto/toshu’s options (now no longer uke and tori) by strictly limiting those options. My opponent may come at me sneaky, fast, slippery, or strong, but it doesn’t devolve because we trust each other to follow prearranged rules. There are different games with rules, but the principal remains the same – freedom of action within strictly limited bounds.

The game of nan demo ari is the exception that proves the rule. As the name implies, any kind of grappling goes, but it is always played with at least a small degree of cooperation. As soon as you feel yourself going you MUST take the fall.

The randori practiced in most Aikikai dojos is a different kind of randori all together. At least in the Omi-Aikikan (the bulk of my exposure), randori emphasized nage’s posture, and freedom and clarity of movement. With very clear attacks and ukes who nearly always fell, it had some resemblance to kakari geiko, but with a bit more emphasis on lead/follow.

The transfer-of-power stage is less often the focus of training methods, but it seems to be common with those Aikikai practitioners who focus on low-percentage/high-reward “big circle” throws.

On the one hand, it may be more efficacious to follow Bob Jones’s advice to focus on the little off-balances and let the big stuff come (certainly I would recommend that strategy in competitive randori), but on the other hand, the more you practice low-percentage throws the higher percentage they become. Further, as Tanaka sensei has pointed out, the large includes the small, while the small does not always include the large. I doubt you would ever see most of these techniques outside of a dojo, but, on the other hand, if you don’t have the coordination and control to perform them in a dojo setting, you probably have not yet developed to your full potential.

Two last practice formats come to mind which seem to be distributed pretty evenly across all of the varied groups I’ve trained with, though they look slightly different in each dojo. Leaving aside whether or not the qualify as aikido, in my mind, one is always right, the other is always wrong.

As I drove home from the seminar, listing practice methods in my head, I tried to define one method I’ve seen almost everywhere. We did it at Vassar and we did it in Omihachiman. I’ve seen it in Ireland, Australia, England, and all over the U.S. It might be described as “sloppy class-time reps.”

In every context looks a bit different, but they are all united in their incorrectness. Generally, tori/nage hasn’t quite figured the technique out yet, and uke stands there, waiting for something to be done. Perhaps they will start a discussion about why nothing is happening.  This is wrong, and it can’t be aikido because there is no ki to ai.

Attack with some intention, keep the flow going, lighten up, get heavy, be a little bit of a jerk if it’s appropriate. If you are visiting somewhere or practicing with someone new be sure to suss out your training context (I failed to do this once recently to my great embarrassment) and then act accordingly. As uke you are responsible for at least 50% of what goes on. When ukes do their job (whatever that may be) better aikido will result.

Finally, there is training method which, at least in my book, is always right. You will see it off in the corner before a seminar starts or after it finishes. Two or more people in what seems to be a completely arbitrary exchange of techniques. Perhaps there are conventions, but these are likely to be broken, usually with a smile and laughter. This is the key.

For all of the organization and rules, at the end of the day we are social primates who already instinctively know how to play fight. Smiling and laughter is how we signal to each other that we are still playing. Complex rules are sometimes overkill when our factory defaults are so powerful.

So take your role as uke seriously, but also, when you get a chance, go play.

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