So, I went for a run at lunch today. I'm running one of my usual 5K routes, but because it's the warmest day of the year so far and I'm a little low on sleep, I struggle a bit. I'm at the end of the run, and my legs are rubbery. I have about 10 yards to go to my "end" marker, and I stumble.
I'm on really rough, unfinished sidewalk concrete. Not smooth -- bumpy.
I start my impending nasty face plant with my left hand leading the way to the earth. In the split second that seemed like forever on the way down, I see myself pulling my hand in to gently touch the concrete, and I roll to my left. Not a pretty roll. Pretty awkward, in fact. But I end up on safely my side/back, shaking my head.
There is no doubt in my mind that if I hadn't been been falling to the mat hundreds of times a week for the past 20 years, I would have certainly bloodied up my left hand really badly, and very probably broken or at least sprained my wrist.
As it is, I sustained a tiny bruise on my left hip, a little strawberry on my left elbow, and a minor abrasion on my right hand. My left hand -- that's the one that frets the strings of my guitar -- is unscathed.
My Taiji teacher said something this weekend that I thought I'd relate to you... somethign that should sound familiar to any Aikidoka, but this time the simple way it was put, sort of drove it home for me (again)....
He said: "Whenever you're out of balance, the answer is always less tension -- not more."
And yet, often when we're out of balance (leaning too far one way or the other, for instance), our first reaction is to apply a correction with additional effort -- push this way or that, for instance.
In Aikido, we operate on the principle that if we're in balance with Uke, then the technique will flow more or less effortlessly. It's what we put our faith in, as practitioners. So, if a technique in Aikido is not working, it means it's out of balance. If it's out of balance, it means that we need to apply less tension -- not more.
At my job, I'm often in the position of pitching an agenda to a sometimes reluctant audience. I'm a Project Manager in a high-tech company, and my presentations often determine whether we're going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on all kinds of stuff. I can sometimes get a lot of "push-back," especially when the situation is complicated or difficult for a whole host of possible reasons.
So, the for the past couple of days, we've done Ikkyo in Aikido class. First technique. O'Sensei called it the "twenty-year" technique. I, personally, have had lots of difficulty with this technique. In particular, the timing is very tricky -- especially from a Shomen-uchi attack, and especially the way we do it in our Dojo, which is very, very direct and linear. Even if I get the timing right, I often over-extend myself (I lean forward), which makes the technique hard to finish.
So, during my last presentation at work, I'm anticipating an attack from some "Uke" in the room, and, sure enough, there it is (Shomen-uchi -- a strike right to the top of my head). It occurs to me that the visual presentation on the screen (the PowerPoint presentation) is like the hand/arm technique, and the technical, commercial, and political "posture" I'm taking, manifested in my physical and verbal delivery, is my "center."
So, I focused on not letting what was on the screen get too far ahead of the attack, nor did I minimize it (a la "T-Rex arms"). I focused on my own posture, my own center, and how it related to Uke's. I met the attack before it had built up any real power, and moved through it -- from my center.
The fight was over before it began, and nobody got hurt. I even got comments after the meeting like "I don't know what you did, but it worked."
While Aikido, in general is not conducive to a "cookbook" approach, it can be useful -- especially for new students -- to have some "rules" to apply during practice. Beyond the things we hear all the time like "breathe," "relax," "move," etc, I think there's a general pattern to our training that I'd like to suggest..
So, I'm still working on the snappy mnemonic that will be the cover of my best-selling book on Aikido (ha), but set that aside for a moment. check this out:
S - See
A - Adjust (or Adapt)
B - Blend
L - Lead
E - End
(note that "Sable" means "very dark in color" -- like a black belt, if that helps)
Let's break this down.
To "see" the attack is take it all in, while not getting fooled, frightened, or distracted into focusing on it. We talk about having a "soft focus" -- meaning that you don't physically focus your eyes on any particular spot, but rather you take in the whole scene. Eventually this includes the whole room. Sorentino Sensei teaches: Aikido evolved out of an environment that included "multiple attackers, weapons everywhere."
I even thought about using the word "Forecast," to indicate that we work towards seeing the attach before it even happens. Not nearly as cool a mnemonic, IMHO (Fable), and really doesn't stress the "whole scene" aspect. But we do try to work towards being ahead of the attack; responding, rather than reacting to it (but not having an agenda!).
Adjust, or Adapt
Once we see the attack, our first objective is to "not get hit" (or grabbed, or whatever). To do that, we almost always talk about getting "off the line of attack." Sometimes this looks like we turn (tenkan) to face the same direction as the attacker (Uke). Sometimes we simply step aside to the "safe side" of the attack (shikakku). There are also techniques, and individual styles, which stress a more aggressive line that seem more to own, or take over the line of attack, rather than adjusting to it. Often, these are more "entering" (irimi) techniques. Still, I think it's safe to say that getting off the line is a general principle of most Aikido techniques and philosophy.
Ah, yes, blending. This is probably the thing that most students (at any level) find the most difficult. New students especially find it counter-intuitive to blend with an attack rather than what is more natural, which is to oppose, block, or resist the attack. It never ceases to amaze me how we seem to be hard-wired to go right into the attack when we, rather than go around it, and how we seem to retreat from attack in real life.
In Aikido, there are plenty of times when we project power directly into the attacker's center (he says as he rubs his wrist, recalling last night's Nikkyo demonstration), but always there's a way "in" to that point that does not involve directly opposing the attack. It may not look like that at speed, or to a new student, it may be very small circles... but it's true.
Leading the attack is the next phase, after we've blended with it and broken the attacker's center (shizuki). Depending on the style of the practitioner, the body types involved, and the technique itself, this bit can be anywhere from big and round and flowing, to direct and linear and almost invisible. But this is the phase in an Aikido interaction where we (as Nage) say to the attacker (Uke) "I've heard what you have to say, I'm not taking it personally, I have a better idea, and here it is."
I remember Frank Doran Sensei once saying "Aikido is about ending the fight (not winning it)." In Aikdio, the "end" of a technique can be anything from disposing of the attacker and moving on to the next one, to pinning the attacker to the mat (gently and with love, of course).
So there you have it. SABLE. Chew on that for a while.
My Taiji teacher, Matthew Komelski, said something this weekend that stuck with me. He was talking about how we "scan" our bodies to find various mis-alignments, sticking points, and other weaknesses during a movement or posture.
In Aikido, we do this too, of course. Perhaps we don't usually do it as "internally" as is typical in Taiji and Qigong, but we do it nonetheless.
Matthew was pointing out that sometimes our instinct when we find these sticking points is to treat them negatively -- as something to be eradicated. In a sense that's true, perhaps. But that mind set isn't usually helpful.
Instead, Matthew suggests treating them like the little gold flecks you would find whilst panning for gold. Panning for gold is a somewhat of delicate process. You need to stay calm, and aware, so that as you wash the mud and silt and sand out of the pan, you don't throw away the flecks of gold at the same time. You have to wash the sand repeatedly, calmly, rhythmically, to give the gold time to settle, so that you can see it and differentiate it from everything else.
How? By slowing down and being mindful. Matthew says that 70-80% of your training should be slow and smooth (Gee -- never heard that before).
Everybody that trains with me knows that I love Ukeme. I love to watch it, I love to train with great Ukes, and I strive to be a great Uke. As it happens, I have a lot of opinions on the subject, and I'd like to share one that might be somewhat controversial.
Question: Are "big," flashy high falls necessary, or not? Answer: Well, no.
The reason big high falls are not necessary in the Dojo is because we trust Nage to always train within Uke's limits. We all know that if you attack hard, you risk falling hard. But the fact is that if you attack with great vigor, and your skill as an Uke isn't up to that fall, Nage should back off and bring the confrontation to closure without hurting you! The greater Nage's skill and experience, the more the technique will work no matter how gently it's done (often more so). This is good training for Nage too.
But it does change the training. If we always depend on Nage to "train down" to Uke in this sense, then Nage never gets to practice or experience doing technique at full speed and power. In some ways, Uke's ability limits Nage's training.
...and let's not forget Uke's training! If Uke limits his own training to only slow, soft, and gentle, then Uke then never gets to experience the technique at full speed and power. I believe I learn 80% of what (little) I know by being on the receiving end of it. So this is important to me. I once had a teacher say that one of the (many) goals of a good Uke is to be able to operate on "Nage time." That is, be able to attack at full speed, and accept whatever Nage returns on Nage's terms.
My opinion on this subject is even stronger in my current Dojo, where our Dojo-Cho tends, by his own assessment, to favor O'Sensei's earlier Aikido, which is harder and more direct than the softer, rounder style he shows in his later years. O'Sensei's pre-war Aikido is much closer to his Aikijutsu roots.
Gaston Sensei has also stated that it's better to "train for the mugger in the alley, because you can always back off your technique to use it on the drunken uncle at the party."
With a teacher like that, I feel that it's even more important to be able to take that fall on Sensei's terms. How else will you ever come close to feeling the full effect of it? I've lately had a lot of opportunity to take falls for Gaston Sensei (where you're either flyin' or cryin'), and I've learned a lot from it.
So. The first priority is always to be able to train the next day. So if you're not yet capable of taking a fall, don't! Nage will respect that.
And, while taking "gratuitous" break falls can be fun and even instructive, that's not the point of them.
But... if you are avoiding break falls just because you think they're showy, then I think you're the one with "showoff" issues <smile>, and you're limiting yourself and others. They're not the most important part of being a "good Uke," but they are a piece of the package.
Ultimately, I think that if the break fall is there, you should take it if you're able. It's just another part of the art, the learning, the fun.