Tread softly by Mark Peckett
I have been reading a book called “Barefoot Doctor’s Handbook for the Urban Warrior” by a man called Stephen Russell. In equal parts it’s a mix of ancient Taoist philosophy, chi kung and new age beliefs with affirmations and visualisation thrown in.
So you could say it’s like the curate’s egg: good in parts.
But one passage in it struck me particularly. It was called “four Ounces” and subtitled “In life, three ounces of pressure is too little, five ounces is too much; four ounces meanwhile, is just right.”
He goes on to say that a response to a thousand pound punch on the cheek is to turn, reducing the amount of pressure to four ounces.
This concept should be very familiar to us as aikidoka. Awase or blending is exactly the same idea, accepting the attack like a revolving door and turning with it to let it pass. In fact, it is so familiar that I really don’t want to address it in this particular blog.
I want to look at what he says further on in the passage, and it is the reverse side of blending which isn’t really talked about in aikido at all. After all, once we have turned and uke is off posture, we tend to take that as the point where we, as tori, perform the technique, and the more powerfully the better. Is there a better feeling than the sound of our training partner crashing onto the mat as we demonstrate the power of our technique?
Stephen Russell says:
… when you apply pressure in any situation, apply it in measures of no more or less than four ounces. When you wallop a child’s balloon with a ‘thousand pounds’, there’s less pressure exerted over a greater surface, causing the balloon to move only a short distance and stall. When you flick that balloon with your finger using only four ounces, you are applying more pressure pro rata over a smaller surface area, thereby enabling it to sail gracefully across the room …
When I started practising aikido there was a lot of talk about “leading” your partner, but no one ever really explained the underlying reason, which is to unbalance them. Consequently there was a lot of movement to no real purpose.
Kuzushi or breaking your opponent’s balance is fundamental to aikido as it is to all of the throwing arts. The nature of aikido is that a small person should be able to throw a big person, but you cannot do that if the big person has a solid, stable base and you are the small person. In fact, exactly the opposite is going to happen! But once the big person is off posture as a result of leading or a well-placed atemi, it should become easy to throw them.
And of course, breaking your opponent’s balance has the added advantage that he will probably be using his arms to keep his balance and is therefore less likely to punch you in the face!
So, once uke’s posture is broken and he is off-balance, even if he has attacked with a thousand pounds of pressure, it will only take four ounces to topple him.
The use of too much pressure shows up particularly in nikkyo. It is one of the hardest techniques for beginners to grasp (no pun intended) and when they start they always apply maximum force to get minimum effect.
In “Total Aikido” Gozo Shioda shihan has a number of “don’ts” in performing the technique (all of the italics are my emphasis):
• “It is not a matter of merely twisting uke’s wrist”;
• “Do not waste your power by merely turning uke’s wrist; it is important to understand the correct angle and line in order to unbalance uke”;
• “If at this time you relax your hold on uke’s hand, you will not be able to bend his wrist when the time comes to cut down”;
• “If you stand directly in front, you will not be able to bend the elbow sufficiently as you turn it over”;
• “ … make sure that you don’t change the distance between the hand that you are holding and your own body … make sure you don’t twist the wrist, otherwise the direction of the power will be wrong, and you will not be able to use the power that you develop by moving forwards”.
That’s quite a list of “what not to do’s” to bear in mind, and the first time that a beginner actually gets nikkyo right, they are still applying the same amount of force that they originally used and uke disappears through the mat in an effort to relieve the pain.
Little by little beginners learn to power back, until they can apply the technique with four ounces of pressure.
What makes Stephen Russell’s four ounce concept particularly interesting is that he extends it to the way we speak to people, the way we make physical contact with each other and even the way we touch the earth we walk on.
He recognises that this four ounce idea is a metaphor, but in encouraging us to be have lightness of touch he is also encouraging us to be more receptive.
After all, you are going to be far less aware of what is going on around you if you are striding down the street like an invading army.
He uses a tai chi image which I have often used in my class to encourage my students to maintain a vertical posture whilst practising:
“ … visualise a cup of tea in your tantien [one point]. Your challenge is to retain all the tea in the cup as you walk, without spilling a single drop.”
I tell them, imagine that your legs and pelvis form a table and your upper body is a vase filled with water. Try to perform your techniques without pouring the water away.
So what he is saying is maintain your open-ness and treat everything with care – not the kind of care with which you would treat a poisonous snake, but the care with which you would hold a baby or look after an old person. And this care works best when the recipient is unaware that they are receiving care at all. It is subtle and that to me is the nature of the best aikido techniques.