In economic theory there is a concept known as “The Zero-Sum Game”. It is a competitive concept in which if what is lost by one side is subtracted from what is won by the other, the result is zero.
You can probably already see where I’m going with this. Living in communities as we do, we measure a lot of our life with a “Zero-sum mentality”, assuming that everything is a game, and therefore there must always be a winner and a loser, a gain and a loss.
And even if we can’t win we can always try to minimise our opponent’s payoff. This is called “the punishing-the-opponent standard”.
The opposite of all this is referred to as non-zero-sum. For example, a country with an excess of bananas trades with another country for their excess of apples and both benefit from the transaction.
It’s no surprise that the concept of the zero-sum game is deeply rooted in economics. Industry engages in zero-sum competition – the competition to take customers away from each other, and it manifests itself on the high street and in adverts on television all the time.
But in the long run it is simply not sustainable: manufacturers are constantly trying to find ways to lower their costs and so force their suppliers, often located in developing countries, to lower their costs often at the expense of either the environment and/or society.
And it doesn’t have to apply at the macro-economic level. Each and every day we engage in little zero-sum games. Petty squabbles with the family over breakfast, aggressive drivers on the way to work who make us drive aggressively in turn, one-upmanship with colleagues at work.
Aikido teaches us that there is another way. Someone doesn’t have to lose so that we can win. Probably when we take it up, we may not be thinking like that; we want to learn to defend ourselves, we have a picture in our head of defending our family with some Bruce Lee moves, and then being interviewed by the local newspaper as a hero. But hopefully, over time, aikido changes us.
First of all aikido should give us some confidence so that we no longer have to rise to every perceived sleight or challenge in an effort to prove ourselves (usually to ourselves, not to someone else).
One of O’Sensei’s doka (teaching verses) says:
Seeing me before him,
The enemy attacks,
But by that time
I am already standing
Safely behind him.
Now it can be taken as a purely physical teaching on aikido technique. Blending with an attack allows you to place yourself behind your opponent. Interestingly, Terry Dobson the American aikido pioneer who studied directly under the Founder translated the Japanese word “Awase” not as “blending” but as “agreeing.” If you execute a tenkan or kaiten then you find yourself looking in the same direction as your opponent and often in exactly the same position. You could call this “seeing through someone else’s eyes” or “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
This, I think is one of the deeper teachings of the doka. By brushing the attack aside, the opponent must deal with the force he has generated himself. You are safe because you are no longer confronting the attack head-on, but because you also may have gained some understanding of the reason for your opponent’s assault and can act accordingly.
Koichi Tohei, founder of The Ki Society and awarded 10th dan by Morihei Ueshiba himself, said in his famous book Aikido in Daily Life, “All aikido techniques begin and end in the principle of non-dissension.” He went on to say that this did not mean being weak or not resisting:
The principle of non-dissension demands the strongest spirit and a complete supply of plus ki in body and spirit to help us avoid receiving even a little of our opponent’s mistaken ki … The way of non-dissension enables you to overcome any reversals without spiritual pain, to laugh off any slander, and to lead astray any attack, without yourself receiving the blow.
Non-dissent is not a zero-sum game.
Another analysis of living life as a game can be found in James Carse’s book “Finite and Infinite Games.” It lays out its stall completely its first three sentences:
There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
Essentially, a finite game plays to achieve an end when someone has won. It springs from a specific beginning: a football match, a world war, a family argument or a falling-out with a colleague a work. And it has specific rules which are known in advance – even that row with your spouse, if you stop to think about it.
And since every game has to be won, every move is played in order to win.
But the interesting thing is that no one is forced to take up the roles within the game (even footballer players don’t have to be footballers), but once we take up the role we are surrounded by rules which compel us to play to win.
The infinite game is harder to define because it doesn’t have anything of the things that define a finite game: rules, players, and a definite end with winners and losers. Carse says:
Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
Equally within the finite game predictability is a requirement but to players of the infinite game “Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.” The finite game is, like the zero-sum game, dualistic. The infinite game is, like Koichi Tohei’s aikido, one of non-dissent or non-duality. And as Zen monk Thich Naht Hanh says:
Harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking.
So at the very least, let us learn to not rush to the end of a technique and think we’re done, rather let us maintain the connection we have made with uke afterwards and then try and extend that connection out into the whole world.
Author Archives: aikidoacademy
In economic theory there is a concept known as “The Zero-Sum Game”. It is a competitive concept in which if what is lost by one side is subtracted from what is won by the other, the result is zero.
So we sat quietly, listened and watched this instructor. It’s always good to see a different angle or a different method of doing something. Nobody should limit themselves to one method but learn a variety of angles and views to understand the principles out there.
Questioning when learning is normal. My favourite students are those who question me and my technique.
A version of sankyo was being displayed and taught. I sat intently and listened and watched as this is one of my favourite techniques.
I normally watch the feet, watch the posture and watch the movement and placement of hands. The technique was demonstrated a few times so that we can mimic and try to understand it.
Something was playing on my mind while watching the technique. The elbow of Uke was awfully close to nage’s (in this case the instructor) chin while the technique was being applied. Having practised Muay Thai’ I’m always conscience of an elbow to the face. Having been at the end of one once, it’s not pretty and left me quite unbalanced and at the time quite unaware of what was happening. It was a very good strike and after receiving it, I wanted to learn it in the hope of avoiding it. (My first Jiu jitsu instructor Sensei Raymond Jewell used to say “pain is the best teacher”)
I raised my hand to ask about the elbow. I asked in front of the class in the hope that I could benefit and if anyone else saw it they would benefit from an explanation. My questioning wasn’t rude and in no way was I trying to undermine the instructor; I just wanted to learn. All this was fine; the instructor showed the technique again, and again I asked about the elbow. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe I didn’t understand the technique. The instructor suggested we talk about it while the others got on with the technique, to which I agreed. I was holding up the class.
We went together in a corner of the mat and I was asked to attack, so I did. The technique was applied on me and again I saw my elbow about an inch away from his jaw. I pointed at it and asked again. The response I got was “I’m taking it easy because we are demonstrating”. That sounded reasonable to me so I asked if he could apply a little more pressure and that I would try to move my elbow towards his face when the opportunity arose. This would satisfy my curiosity if worked and the issue would be fine.
The technique applied again but this time with a little more vigour. I don’t mind a little pain in the course of training so I was fine with receiving it when applied. My elbow again was close to his face and even though there was pain I found that if I moved my elbow towards his face I had a lot of leeway. I stopped just before his face but demonstrating that I could move it and in fact strike him with it.
Maybe I didn’t understand what he was doing so I asked again for him to explain. The response was something that I learned a lot from that day. “But I’m doing it with ki” came the statement. Now this really got to me because this wasn’t an explanation of the technique. In all honesty I saw it as a copout. If something cannot be explained then say ‘ki’. An apparent force that binds the universe together that can be manipulated and used to one’s advantage. Star Wars references aside, this is a belief that not all people adhere to. So when looking at technique I look at structure, position of the feet and the straightness of posture etc. All of these are measurable and once measured, they can be used, learned and applied. I think this is a topic in itself and will need great thought.
I responded to the instructor saying “but I don’t believe in ki, show me why and how it can work”. Maybe I was getting a little frustrated by now. I was being told just to believe in it and do it because it is a mystical force that he had the ability to use and I had yet to learn.
My persistence in asking him to actually show me how it can work culminated in him walking off and saying “I’m not arguing with a 1st Dan”. He was a 4th dan I think at the time. I do hope he thought about that particular technique after that, for his sake.
That version of sankyo would cause problems yourself. There were others in that organisation that were very proficient and showed on numerous occasions that their technique worked. One in particular was police officer that had used sankyo to great effect against an assailant. So I am not saying sankyo doesn’t work, but that particular view on it seemed flawed in my opinion.
To teach that to a student as an effective street application of the technique, as was the case that day, was giving a flawed sense of applicability of the technique. If it was stated that this was an exercise, I would have accepted that. The fact of it was that it seemed to be doing the students an injustice.
I learned that day to accept any questions that the students may ask and be open minded about the questions. Beginners don’t know the “script” in aikido.
“Oh sorry was I supposed to fall, do it again this time I will”
In the words from Monty Python
“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise; two chief weapons, fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency! Er, among our chief weapons are: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and near fanatical devotion to the Pope! Um, I’ll come in again…”
Your own technique should always be questioned especially by beginners. They may see things that you haven’t and they may have done other arts which you haven’t. Learn to be able to learn, always.
I learned that when asked about a technique I must be able to justify it with answers which are understandable, answers that are in the realm of reality and answers that allow the student and teacher to learn.
Many of my students have asked me questions that have made me think and change my views on certain things. We must always be honest with ourselves, leave any ego at the door and be willing to accept what is right no matter who it comes from.
I started with a Monty Python quote so I think it would be better to end with one that I have slightly changed.
“We are not the instructors who go ‘ki’”
Train well and train hard.
My son got married recently. I mention this because of how I felt that day. You’d be surprised if I didn’t say I was happy. But what surprised me was the fact that I went through the day knowing I was happy.
There have been plenty of happy events in my life: getting married, buying our first home, the births of my children, getting my first dan aikido to name but a few. What made this event different was the knowledge that I was happy in the moment.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about mindfulness. Many American companies are using it as a way to reduce stress and boost productivity – Ford, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of America and even the U.S. Marine Corps to name a few. There is even a “Mindfulness for Dummies” with chapters on “Using Mindfulness in Your Daily Life” and “Using Mindfulness to Combat Anxiety, Depression and Addiction.”
The basic idea behind mindfulness is by paying attention to the present moment. The most common method of achieving this is through meditation on the breath (anapana sati in Pali).
The theory behind this is that the mind is never still. It is always talking to itself and commenting on what it sees, reflecting on what has passed and anticipating what is to come. To reduce or even stop this mental chatter, you should try to keep your attention on the breath, either by counting each breath or following the movement of the breath in and out of the body.
As the mind becomes still, so the theory goes, you begin to dwell exclusively in the present moment.
I have to say that I tend to look at that theory in the same light as I regard Alcoholics Anonymous – or any of the other Anonymous organisations that have modelled their programme on AA’s Twelve Steps.
Step One requires that the addict acknowledges that he/she is powerless over alcohol and that their lives have become manageable. Newcomers are not asked to accept or follow all of the Twelve Steps, but they will are asked to keep an open mind, to attend meetings at which recovered alcoholics describe their personal experiences in achieving sobriety, and to read AA literature.
Although I am not saying there is anything wrong with, it seems to me it is substituting a harmful addiction for a good one: attending meetings, making amends, conducting an on-going moral inventory instead of drinking.
And to a certain extent, I think mindfulness of breathing is the same: it substitutes the harmful chatter of the mind with one-pointed attention. The same applies if the attention is focussed on an object such as a candle flame or a mantra (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation according to the Oxford dictionary). The object is to shut out things out rather than including then.
At a seminar I attended recently, zanshin was translated as “extended awareness” rather than the usual sense of being aware of one’s surroundings and enemies and being prepared to act. To me, this extended awareness would include what was going on inside my body and mind as well as the outside.
This is where I come back to the wedding. Throughout the day (and it started early and finished late) I felt engaged. From the arranging the place settings, putting up the decorations, sorting out the caterers to the ceremony itself and the meal and party afterwards, there didn’t seem to be a moment when I was “uninvolved”.
Of course there were moments when I was irritated, anxious and just plain grumpy but they came and went. The over-riding emotion throughout the day, and for at least a week afterwards was one of happiness.
But it wasn’t a state of being happy with something. To quote Stephen Russell who writes under the pseudonym “the Barefoot Doctor”:
… your heart is open, your mind is clear and your actions spontaneous, you cannot fail to treat yourself and other people with absolute care and respect to the best of your ability at the time.
The most interesting thing is that I didn’t feel a need to cling onto the feeling. It has certainly faded since and I exist in a much more mundane state now, but I can recapture it very easily by looking at the photos and video of the wedding. Obviously it doesn’t last as long, but I know the feeling is still there and accessible.
And finally to aikido. I have said before that there is a tendency when we are practising to live outside the present moment. Again to quote the Barefoot Doctor:
This has always been the only moment and always will be. This moment never changes. What changes is the scenery occurring around this moment … whatever the time on your clock or date on your calendar, this moment will never change.
When we are about to do a technique, we either project into the future worrying about what could go wrong (“I can never do this technique”, “I hate practising with this person, they always stop my technique”, and so on) which seems to fling us back into the past as we reflect on the number of times we’ve failed at this technique, or how much better we did it when we practised with someone else.
In fact, even before we do the technique we tend to move out of the present moment: “That’s not the way sensei taught the technique last time. Is he trying to confuse us?” “This time I am going to that technique so well that sensei’s going to look over at me and smile.”
Being absent from this present moment invariably makes us sad because we usually end up with an unsettling feeling of longing. To lose that feeling we need to enjoy the now a little more. It shouldn’t be a big effort and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we fail, but these words of the Vietnamese zen Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh sum it up pretty well:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
And let me tell you, it’s a great feeling when you’re aware you are part of a miracle.
Recently I watched a TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”. Her research is in body language, and one of the most important elements is the “power pose”.
Essentially one of the most common power poses is that of being “opened up”. We see it in people and animals naturally … Mick Jagger and any creature displaying to attract a mate come to mind. Another is the “pride” pose. You see it in any successful athlete after they have achieved something. Amy Cuddy illustrated her talk with a shot of Usain Bolt crossing the finishing line with his arms flung wide. Interestingly, even the congenitally blind will adopt the pride pose without ever having been taught it.
Politicians are taught to do it, and that’s why so often it looks unnatural ; compare George W. Bush and his chopped, little moves to the easy expansiveness of Barak Obama.
Alternatively, in low power positions, when people or animals are feeling helpless, they close up. They wrap their arms around themselves, cross their legs and close themselves off from others.
In a given interaction, one participant will adopt the high power pose and one the lower. One will be open, the other closed. One will be in charge. The other won’t.
Research has already shown that non-verbal communication affects how other people perceive you and feel about you.
What made Amy Cuddy’s talk so interesting is she proposed the alternative theory: that the pose we take can change how we feel about ourselves. She and her colleagues had subjects assume either high power or low power poses for two minutes. They found that the testosterone levels of the “high power” posers rose 20%. Testosterone levels for the “low power” group, meanwhile, fell 10%. Testosterone is one key chemical for “power.” The other is cortisol. When cortisol levels drop, people are better able to handle stressful situations. After the 2-minute poses, the cortisol levels of the “high power” group fell sharply. The cortisol levels of the “low-power” group, meanwhile, rose. This meant the high power posers were more likely to take risk than the low power posers.
Effectively, our bodies change our minds. So the question arises: can power posing for a few minutes change the way we feel about ourselves?
Further experiments by Amy Cuddy and her colleagues demonstrated that if interviewees power posed before a (mock) interview the interviewers felt more positive about them to the extent that what they actually said in the interviews was irrelevant. It was all about “presence.”
So, our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviour and our behaviour change outcomes for us.
I think that is a fairly accurate précis of Amy Cuddy’s theory, but I recommend you listen to the whole twenty-one minute talk, which can be found on TED talks and YouTube. It is an interesting reversal of our understanding of man’s psyche, which is how we feel inside is reflected in what we show outside. The whole of psychiatry is based on treating the inner man.
Amy Cuddy is saying that changing the outer man (or woman) will change the inner.
I got quite excited about how it reflects what we do in aikido.
Among of the first things we learn, and teach, are the basic postures of migi and hidari kamae (left and right stance). When you watch beginners, if you are a beginner or if you can remember being a beginner yourself, you will see how intimidating receiving that first attack is – the head drops, the feet shuffle, and the body tends to leap excessively to the left or right out of the line of attack.
As we become more confident in our aikido, the posture becomes better, deeper with no leaning forward. We find ourselves now not only ready for the attack, but almost inviting it, welcoming it.
So Migi and hidari kamae are power postures – the body is balanced and upright, but relaxed; the hips are forward facing; the shoulders are relaxed; the hands guarding our own centre line, but also threatening uke’s. From this still, relaxed posture our spirit projects forward. Adopting them when we are practising doesn’t only improve our technique, but also makes us feel better, stronger and more in control. And this in term feeds back into our technique, in a continuous circle.
It was said of Morihei Ueshiba that he could adopt a stance which presented no opening that allowed any form of attack.
Consequently, the stories of him getting ukes to attack him in the dojo when he was demonstrating without specifying the attack seem to be related to whatever opening he chose to reveal – a shoulder, his wrist, or his head. It was assumed to be his ability to control other people’s minds, but it was actually his ability to control his own body.
This is surely the ultimate power pose, and something we can all aspire to, even if we’re more likely to be showing all the openings most of the time!
O’Sensei himself said in his book “Budo” published in 1938 that the basic stance was to “open your feet to the six directions [north, south, east, west, up, down] … the complete kamae [posture] is what arises from where the gods lead you, depending on time, situation, the lie of the land, the spirit of the moment – kamae is what is in your heart.”
This seems to reflect what Amy Cuddy is saying. There is no difference between your mind and body. They are one. Which accords nicely with Koichi Tohei’s Four Principles:
- Keep the one-point (seika no tanden)
- Relax completely
- Keep the weight underside
- Extend Ki
Tohei sensei offers two concepts which are mental (keeping the one-point and extending Ki) and two which are physical (relax completely, keep the weight underside). Achieving any one of these will also achieve the other three.
So when people ask why you practise aikido, you now have another answer:
It helps me get jobs!
The atmosphere was a little tense when one issued a challenge to another asking him out for a fight. A kind of dual to decide which one of them was a better fighter.
The one who was challenged accepted it and stated “Okay I’ll bring the katanas”. Puzzled the challenger quizzed “What do you mean katana?” It wasn’t the kind of fight he had in mind. “So you want a sissy fist fight” was the answer to this question.
It got me thinking about different types of martial arts and their effectiveness and application.
A lot of people compare one art with another and say this is better, or that is better for whatever reason they may have. This may be due to personal experience or the fact that they practise that martial art.
Today none can deny MMA is in fashion. Previously to this it may have been boxing or jiu jitsu. Aikido made fashionable by late 80’s and 90’s movies of Steven Siegel. The same could be said of Bruce Lee’s influence on the world in the 60’s and 70’s.
Today people judge an art by it’s effectiveness in the octagon because as stated this is what is in fashion today. We hear all the time “Is it effective in the octagon?” Not taking anything away from MMA, I do think it is amazing. Anyone who downplays MMA, I would question their martial arts integrity and credibility. This doesn’t mean it is a measure for all martial arts.
Competitors who train for a match train for one purpose, one goal and one aim in mind. They will face their lone opponent within certain rules confined to certain restrictions regulated by a referee. Not all arts will be able to able to conform to that measure. Put someone who just knows boxing in the octagon and they will be out of their depth when faced with an opponent who holds them and takes them to the ground. In that situation boxing won’t be as effective. Again I think boxing as a skill is truly underrated.
Each art was developed for a reason and has it’s history and I do truly believe no art is superior to another. They all bring something to the table.
Aikido has it’s roots in Aikijujitsu, an art which was developed for combat on the battlefield. It’s movements and techniques are designed with that in mind, not 3 minute boxing rounds. Aikido doesn’t fit in an octagon and training for the octagon won’t fit when you have a naginata pointed at you. Each of them have their own history and practicality. To judge one based on the rules of the other I think is highly unreasonable. Even if you put a world class judo champion in the ring with Queensberry rules he wouldn’t even match up against an amateur boxer.
Every art will teach you something and it is up to the teacher to guide and the student to understand what is real and what is for the dojo. What is applicable on the street and what we do for the sake of the art may sometimes be totally different.
Aikido is well at home when in a situation of a mob fight. When outnumbered and no rules, your main objective is to limit damage to yourself and survive and not necessarily get your hand raised as the winner at the end. Your belt is you got to go home and not the hospital or worse. You go to the ground in that situation; you are likely to get kicked in the head by the person you didn’t see coming at you from behind.
Yes, we Aikidoka don’t like to always go to the ground that’s not what we train for.
As mentioned in my previous blog, it is also essential to train with that mentality too. Too often we see weak attacks in the dojo and we think we are really good when we throw around a compliant uke. This isn’t doing Aikido and us any favours.
As a final point, if you’re going to train in an art then pick one that suits you. Do it well and take your time learning it. Understand it, but don’t always limit yourself to one art. The Samurai trained in multiple arts to become effective on the battlefield because that was the objective in the end. That may not be our objective today.
So if you’re going to do MMA, then do MMA, if you are going to do Karate, then do Karate; if you are going to do Aikido, then do Aikido, If you’re going to do Krav Maga, then go do Jiu Jitsu. Whatever you do, do it well. Learn from it and if it isn’t for you then don’t do it. Learn it for the objective you have for it. All arts have their qualities learn to understand and appreciate them, even though their objective may not be what your aim is.
I am not going to apologise for my art and no i’m not going to judge it by standards it wasn’t designed for. Train well and train hard.
I was driving in my car and an interview came on the radio with Philip Glass, the American composer. Since I was driving, I couldn’t take notes, but I remembered one thing he said very clearly and as soon as I got home I wrote it down. He said:
I write music, not technique.
This statement resonated with me (how appropriate!) and my practise of aikido, and made me want to know more about his life and what had lead him to make this statement. He certainly wasn’t saying that he had abandoned technique, because from 1964 to 1966 he studied technique in Paris with the composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. He later said: “The composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most—Bach and Mozart,” and these were men who not only were geniuses but also technically expert. In fact, at the time Glass disliked the new music of composers like Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen.
It seems to me that he was saying once he’d learned technique he had to move on from it in order to write music. He has also said:
The point was that the world of music—its language, beauty, and mystery—was already urging itself on me. Some shift had already begun. Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The “out there” stuff was the metaphor and the real part was, and is to this day, the music.
But he couldn’t truly make that connection between “inner” and “outer” music until he had learned technique.
To me there is a clear parallel between Glass’s experience and the learning of aikido.
We move from being gotai (static – often referred to as kihon or basic) in our practice to jutai (flexible) to ryutai or ki-no-nagare(flowing), but a solid foundation must be established in gotai technique before moving on to ki-no-nagare, and then it is necessary to continue training gotai to prevent losing touch with the basics.
Or to put it another way, a person who is proficient in gotai can easily learn ki-no-nagare, but a person who has only trained in ki-no-nagare will often not be able to move at all if gripped strongly. Indeed, the founder of Aikido, O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, once said, “I am what I am today only because I did gotai training for 50 years.”
And this statement pretty matches up to what Glass says about himself. Although he has been described as a “minimalist composer”, he refers to himself as a “classicist”, pointing out that he trained in harmony and counterpoint and studied such composers as Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He continues to practise the basics.
Of course, this is one of the hardest things about aikido. There is nothing more confusing (and irritating) to a student than to see the instructor perform some elaborate flowing technique, and then be told “It’s all about the basics.” It’s difficult for the student see how his or her plodding steps are related to the sensei’s dynamic movement.
And it can also be difficult for the instructor to appreciate how to an observer his or her precise movements can get lost in the twirl of the hakama and the flight of the uke.
I have mentioned before the book “Outliers” in which the author Malcolm Gladwell calculates it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. Since publication other research has called that statement into question as it does overlook genetic factors and innate talent, but the principle still applies.
And the trouble is, after practising basics for 10,000 hours, so that you are able to create the inner music in the outside world, you may forget what it was like to be a beginner in the first place.
Terry Dobson, an American who studied under Ueshiba in the 1960s says O’Sensei never taught technique. He said “He [Ueshiba] was not a tennis pro. For him aikido was not a technical exercise at all. It was part of a play of spirit, a movement of the universe”, and so classes could involve long lectures. Terry Dobson again:
He would come in every morning and teach, but his teaching was largely talking … Sometimes he would pray and you would sit there.
This then is the problem for both teachers and students. How does the one teach and how does the other learn? I would say that the important thing is for the instructor never to forget how hard it was to get where they are now, the frustrations and humiliations, the feeling of one step forward and two steps back.
Of course, part of the problem in aikido is, as Terry Dobson said, the answer to any question is “Just keep practising and you’ll find out.” So the instructor has to help and encourage the student to keep practising, because ultimately he or she is trying to lead students to the moment where they discover they too can compose the music of aikido.
But not even all that support and encouragement will prevent the famous black belt slump. When starting out, the black belt represents the ultimate goal that is as it should be. It appears to be the highest mountain, but when you get there you discover it is merely one of the lower peaks at the edge of a vast, unseen mountain range. Some black belts never see the view and quit because they think they have climbed Everest, and others become dispirited with the thought of “just more practice”.
I’m sure that not everyone who studied alongside Philip Glass at Juilliard went on to be world-famous composers, but not everyone can be an Ueshiba, a Tohei, Saito or even Seagal!
But to finish with some more of Philip Glass’s words which clearly reflect some kind of universal truth:
You practise and you get better. It’s very simple.
Recently I went on a cruise. It was my first time so I paid special attention to the safety video (unlike on a plane, where I’m already immersed in a book when the emergency procedures are demonstrated).
Since this was a cruise along the coast of Norway there were detailed explanations on how to put on the hypothermia suit. The characters doing the demonstrating were CGI cartoon, moving in quite a human way, but there was something wrong about them; and since the video was shown every time the ship docked, which it did four or five times a day, I got an opportunity to study it closely.
What I realised at last was that they moved too well, too smoothly
Amazingly, the Japanese have an expression for this coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori: Bukimi no Tani Genshō, which is usually rendered into English as Uncanny Valley from the 1978 book “Robots: Fact, Fiction and Prediction” by Jasia Reichardt.
Mori’s theory states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human a point is reached beyond which the observer’s response becomes one of strong revulsion. It accounts for the flop of the Tom Hanks film “Polar Express”. And yet, as the New York Times review said, “ … none of the humans have the countless discrete fluctuations, the pulsing, swirling, twitching aliveness that can make the actor such a pleasure to watch on screen.”
Because human’s don’t move that way. Our humanity is represented in our frailties. Anyone watching me at the beginning of an aikido class would have no doubt of my humanity: I groan when I get up, have to used my hand to help push off the tatami, and then wait until the circulation comes back to my legs. After that I limp into the exercises.
What makes us human are our aches and pains, our failures and all our little quirks and foibles. We do not move smoothly through life. We stumble. We “suffer the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune … the Heartache and the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to.”
And then, because I couldn’t be distracted enough by Norwegian fjords, the Arctic Circle and the Northern Lights, I started to think about how all that applied to aikido.
Obviously, I started with myself. I have written before on the problem of teaching “old man’s aikido.” I’m sixty-one now and I physically can’t do some of the things I could thirty years ago. The knees don’t bend as well or as far as they used to (or rather, they certainly bend the same, but they don’t get up as well once they’re down!), and I definitely don’t have the same physical power or speed.
I acknowledge that since my teens, my hearing has got worse, by my forties I needed glasses for reading, and in my fifties my hair was gone and when I reached my fifties, my hair was vanishing and what was left was turning grey and my wrinkled skin had lost its snap. Arthritis means that I find shikko, hanmi handachi and sieza waza and kokyu dosa difficult to perform. In short, I’m slowly falling to bits.
But I like to think I replaced the things I have lost in my aikido with improved technical ability and greater sensitivity. It is a lesson learned from a man I used to practise with who had suffered a brain aneurism which had resulted in partial paralysis of his right side. It meant he could not easily tenkan on techniques like kotegaeshi. He had adapted this “weakness” and drew uke round his body and into the technique – you literally ran onto the wrist lock with all your impetus and body weight. Naturally, it was a variation of kotegaeshi which I have included in my own arsenal.
So my techniques are my own unique flavour, which favour my weaknesses, and it’s only when I see photos and videos of myself singularly failing to “maintain the vertical” when it is something I am constantly telling my students to do that I cringe.
Nevertheless, I should not deliberately pass on my little cheats to my students, unless I do it in a very conscious way, explaining what I’ve done and why.
And the same applies to them. I see young ones who want to rush around and slam-bang everywhere. Ones who have started at an older age tend to be more cautious, and then there are those who carry some specific injury or condition. They all have their own style and my job is to help them do the best possible technique they can within those boundaries.
Since I’ve made one Shakespeare reference already, I suppose it’s fair to say that most of us come to aikido in the fourth age of his Seven Ages of Man:
Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
And it’s that recklessness which gives us the wisdom of experience which makes us such a know-all in the fifth age, before our assertiveness becomes a joke in the sixth age and we end up in the seventh age:
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Shakespeare was probably being a little harsh, but we’re none of us perfect – in fact just the opposite. We are an agglomeration of imperfections, by and large, doing our best.
To return to “Uncanny Valley” and my original point for a moment, CGI characters in films like “Polar Express” and “TinTin” do not make eye contact with each other, they do not relate to each, they do not make a connection. They are what one reviewer called “soul dead”.
We, on the other hand, perceive and accept the imperfections in each other and accepting them is one of the things that makes us human, which makes us “soul alive”.
We should revel in our imperfections and build on our weaknesses. After all, we want to be human, not computer-generated perfections.
Apparently we like to move in time with each other. It’s called “synchrony”. At a concert we end up clapping in time with each other, walking with friends (or even enemies) we find ourselves falling into step with each other. A study at the University of California found that couples in romantic heterosexual relationships synchronised their heartbeats and their breathing; well, actually, the women in the relationship adjusted to their partners, not just physiologically but in everyday emotional experiences too, suggesting that women may have more empathy.
I learnt all this from Oliver Burkeman’s “This Column Will Change Your Life” in The Guardian. If you haven’t come across it in the newspaper or on-line I thoroughly recommend it. Several of the pieces I have written have been triggered by something I read in his columns. The title, by the way, is ironic, I assume – it won’t change your life, but it will make you think about it.
The second interesting thing about synchrony is that it makes us feel better. So apart from being irresistible, doing things in a group gives us good feelings, towards ourselves and others. The historian William McNeill argues that doing things together is what helped humans from the Stone Age onward to band together and survive.
And there are times when we enjoy it, singing and dancing at a concert, or kneeling in prayer, and there are times when the need for solidarity can be exploited, particularly in times when things seem out of synch and chaotic – people like Hitler encouraged group marching and group chanting to bind his followers together, and draw others in.
In fact, you see similar surrendering to the movement of the group in many present day cults, skilfully manipulated by a charismatic leader.
And now, in one mighty bound from Hitler to aikido!
One of the central tenets of aikido is to harmonise with one’s uke. We all know the experience of a bad technique which jars both our self and the person we are practising with. And we all should be familiar with those (rare) techniques when we blend so completely that it doesn’t feel as if we’ve done anything at all. It is usually followed by uke getting up and saying “What did you do then?” To which the reply is usually a puzzled shrug and “I have absolutely no idea.”
But we do know how good we feel after a technique like that, in comparison to how bad we feel when the technique causes a clash between tori and uke.
Further study into synchrony suggests that we might perform better by matching our movements with our partners, rather than trying to control them.
When Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay are competing against each other, even though Bolt is taller and with a longer stride, he and Gay often found themselves pounding along the track at exactly the same time.
The two scientists who noticed this, Manuel Varlet and Michael Richardson, concluded that rather than slowing both athletes down, syncing might have made the men faster. Previous studies had shown “that the stability and efficiency of gait behaviour can be enhanced when entrained to external rhythms.” This suggests that Bolt and Gay run side-by-side – each flanked by one of the few human beings capable of keeping pace with them – improved their already near perfect form.
So in aikido, mirroring uke’s movement, rather than trying to impose our own, might actually improve our technique.
This idea of “mirroring” also pops up in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where it is referred to as one of the most useful and easiest NLP techniques there is. Apparently if someone is very good at mimicking your body language and your speech patterns, your vocabulary style or specific choice of word and your pace, tempo, pitch, volume and tone it is very hard to dislike them.
Once again, isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to achieve in aikido? We want to learn to do techniques in which the person who has been on the receiving end doesn’t hate us. Otherwise they’ll want to get up and attack us again and again, until one or other of us is smashed into the ground. In aikido we’re trying to achieve a zero-sum game.
It seems to me that science is catching up with Morihei Ueshiba’s thinking. He had lived through war and seen the destruction that abuse of synchrony can bring about in the wrong hands, and he tried to set people on a different path. But it wasn’t necessarily a scientific path he was following, it’s simply that in the 21st century, science and O’Sensei’s paths have crossed.
The difference is, of course, in the underlying attitude. Science is interested in why things happen and the discovery often comes without a moral judgement. It is only later that the men and women behind the new invention may have qualms about what it is they have discovered. For example, many of the scientists who developed the atom bomb in the Manhattan Project opposed the dropping of the bomb on Japan and appealed unsuccessfully to President Truman. And Einstein said in the same year, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
Stage hypnotists understand the secrets of neuro-linguistic programming and can use it in entertaining or tawdry ways depending on their own code of ethics.
There is a moral imperative underlying aikido that goes beyond simply trying to do as little damage as possible. If that’s the case, all we are doing is following the fake credo of the old Kung Fu TV series: avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill
O’Sensei said, “Aiki means ‘to live together in harmony’, in a state of mutual accord. Aiki is the ultimate social virtue. It is the power of reconciliation, it is the power of love.”
And in the spirit of harmony, let me finish with two quotes from the celebrated cosmologist, Carl Sagan, just to show that science (and scientists) can hold the same moral imperatives as aikidokas:
Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
I don’t think O’Sensei could have said it better.
The title of this blog is a reference the title of Terry Dobson’s wonderful book on aikido and his life and it came about because of research I was doing for a previous piece. Somewhere I had heard the teaching that “head leads body, hips lead feet.” Search as I might I haven’t been able to find any reference to it, so either I imagined it, or one of my teachers made it up.
Nevertheless, the first part is really important. The head does lead the body. At the most basic level you can see the improvement in people you practise with when they start turning their head first when doing tenkan or tai sabaki; obviously you can’t see the improvement in yourself, but your friends will tell you.
And this act of turning the head first has a definite impact on technique too; it is particularly noticeable when doing irimi nage or kotegaeshi or indeed any tenkan or ura technique.
There is a further argument that as aikido always assumes multiple attack, you should always be turning your head to look around you as you perform technique rather than focusing your attention solely on your uke.
So I was telling one of my students to turn her head whilst doing a technique and she said, “Like dancing?” She had done ballet. And I got the chance to say, “Yes, it’s a lot like dancing!”
The fact that she had been a ballet dancer lead me to do a little research on the turning of the head in ballet. Obviously I’ve seen dancers spinning around on their points and not falling over and I had always assumed the head-turning was a technique in order to prevent dizziness. But then I came across the “Rules of Classical Dance.”
They were first set down definitively in 1723 by John Weaver and they are the principles essential for a dancer to learn about the age of 9 or 10. Here they are all seven (I’ve edited out some of the more specifically ballet-related comments):
1. Stand Correctly
• Tail down, spine up.
• Shoulders and hips face same direction.
• Weight balanced on the Triangle of Foot [this means the weight falls evenly through the outside of the heel and the little toe and big toe side of the foot with the arches lifted].
• Head erect and centred.
• Body centred over pelvis.
2. Turning Out
• Legs rotate from hip socket, feet follow.
• Knee remains in natural alignment with leg and foot, whether bent or straight.
3. Moving Correctly
• Each body part needs to be in the natural relationship to all others, and to the dancer’s centre of balance.
• Eyes and head lead the movements; arms and shoulders, body, legs and feet follow.
• Epaulement [literally means “shouldering in French and refers to the position of shoulders, head and neck]:
o Natural — the leg in front is matched by a slight forward movement of the same shoulder.
o Opposition — the opposite shoulder moves slightly forward.
• Opposition: the leg in front is balanced by the opposite arm coming forward.
• The weight is evenly distributed throughout the body, using the least amount of energy for the technique as possible.
5. Classical Technique
• The Head:
o Head moves independently, and leads movements of the body.
• Feet and Legs:
o Movements pass through the centre of the leg and the longitudinal centre of the foot.
• Principles for the Arms:
o A continuous flow of arm movements brings life and artistry to port de bras [basically, movement of the arms].
o Arms do not go behind the shoulders.
o Arms are rounded for the basic positions.
o Arms do not cross the centre line of the body, unless expression dictates otherwise.
o Arm movements should be sensed throughout and coordinated with the movements of the entire body.
• Principles for the Body:
o Shoulders and hips face the same direction and are level, except where use of correct muscles and body structure determines otherwise.
o The direction the hips face determines the direction the body is facing.
o Nothing must inhibit the breathing.
6. Transferring Weight
• The entire body weight must go to the new supporting leg, moving through the centre of balance.
• Dancer must be completely balanced against gravity all through the movement.
• Noverre [Jean-Georges, a French balletmaster] stated: “Accuracy in classical dance is what matters, and if there is to be accuracy then there must be unity and discipline. Only then will there be coordination.”
• Another author says that if all the other principles are present, coordination will not be a problem.
When I came across these rules I was at first astonished, because I could see so many parallels with the martial arts in general and aikido in particular. But then I started thinking about the samurai: they were expected to have interests in other arts such as dancing, the game of go and tea ceremony, literature and poetry. This balance of cultural and martial was considered the pinnacle of the samurai culture.
Takeda Shingen (1521-73), the greatest general of the Ashikaga shogunate wrote, “A man’s learning is like the leaves and branches to a tree; he cannot be without it. Learning, however, is not just in reading something but rather is something we integrate with our own various ways.”
This is not the same as “The Renaissance Man”, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as some who “is interested in and knows a lot about many things”, or even as embodied in Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance Man, who drew on his wide body of knowledge to solve specific problems.
The samurai seemed to view the arts as something that completes us, with one art informing another. This is not to say that everything should be viewed as a weapon, rather that swords have been beaten in ploughshares and ploughshares into swords.
To finish with a mundane example: a few years ago my wife and I took salsa classes. Now I would be the first to admit I have no sense of rhythm and two left feet, but once I started treating the dance steps as kata, I was surprised how easily it came to me. I probably wasn’t interpreting the music very well, but at least I didn’t look like a complete klutz (I hope!).
So now when I practise in the dojo, I will attempt to draw on John Weaver’s seven principles, and hopefully I can integrate some of the grace of a ballet dancer into my aikido.
We were in group training; the technique we were doing involved defence against a punch. In the group was the new person, a brown belt and myself. I took my turn first and the brown belt was up next.
The new guy took a very strong stance you could tell he had been training a little while and he looked like a fighter, strong and relaxed at the same time. He followed proper etiquette and signalled to his partner asking if he was ready. He threw a right cross at the chest of his training partner.
The plan was to move out of the way with a slight tenkan and to engage your training partners mind with an atemi before executing the technique. That was the plan anyway, but things don’t always go to plan. He caught the brown belt square in the chest before he had a chance to even move. It pushed him back taking him off balance. The look on the brown belts face said it all. He wasn’t prepared for that attack. In response he said out loud “I should be able to do that, I’m a brown belt”. He composed himself and started again. This time he got caught also. Frustrated, he started making more errors. He was out of his comfort zone.
It got me thinking that day about how could it be that a person who had been training a long time and had put the hours in. Even bled, sweated and consistently travelled every week to practise couldn’t in that instance do the simplest thing we learn in Aikido, tenkan.
I questioned myself thinking that maybe he was having an off day, so over the next few times I trained at that dojo I watched him and the others training.
I followed how everyone trained not just in this dojo but in others too. It seemed to me that most people training in aikido (not all) lacked the ability to defend against an attacker that had intent to actually hit their training partner. They lacked the combat intensity while training. I understand that at the beginning of your martial arts career you are learning the very basics and the attacks may be slowed or are from a very static position but if someone, as in this case the brown belt had been practising aikido since a very young age. Fourteen years of practise summed up in one technique of the brown belt had me questioning my own technique.
“You can only fight the way you practice” Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings
We who do the arts don’t actually like to fight and will avoid using what we have learned on others, as we understand most what devastation and harm it can cause. Saying that we are learning a martial art and in the dojo we must be honest to the martial and the arts aspect of whatever training discipline we follow.
As I practise today and in my teaching I hope I have learned a lesson from that day. We try to keep the combat intensity in training. It is at first scary for any student, going to edge of where there is a possibility of harm and taking control from that point.
There is a far cry from the dojo and real life, but in the dojo, I do believe we should keep the attack as real as possible where uke tries to actually attack nage so that he can achieve a better understanding of the art and himself.
We should also not delude our students and ourselves that we may be able to defend ourselves when (and I hope never) a person you can’t reason with may cross our paths. All we can do is prepare.
“One person practising the art is better than fifty people preaching it” – unknown source