“Dude! That is so smooth!”
My uke, Tim, makes this declaration while teetering on his toes, one arm so twisted his spine bevels. He looks like a factory-faulty scarecrow. Then, I complete the technique and the scarecrow buckles, ending up belly-down on the mat.
Tim laughs the whole way down.
We take turns practicing the sankyo technique on each other. Like all the other paired partners on the mat, we focus on the objective our Sensei outlined: connect to your attacker (uke) and then don’t “do” anything to move him or her. Instead, gather all your weight between your feet and move yourself. Move your arms, not his. Move your feet, your hips, and so on — not the uke’s.
The concept seems so obvious.
If attacked, of course I’ll move myself. Duh. What other option is there?
But another option there is and it pokes out of our primal instincts as thick as a green sprout, spring-fed and summer-strong. When attacked — even mock-attacked in a class setting — our natural, martial tendency is to retaliate. Inflict. Do something to the other person.
You grab me, I grab you.
You push me, I push you.
We naturally return the favor.
However, Aikido always aims for the counter-intuitive option. It trains in us the counter-instinctual.
In the absence of retaliation, harmony prevails.
This is why Tim describes the sankyo technique as smooth. This is why he laughs as his scarecrow posture crumbles.
Sankyo utilizes the arm’s linked network of joints and ligaments. By twisting the uke’s hand, I also twist the wrist which twists the elbow which twists the shoulder which bends the spine which unbalances the hips and gets the uke up on tippy-toes.
When I first started Aikido over 12 years ago, I dreaded sankyo. I didn’t like people applying it to me and I really didn’t like applying it to others. So much of its integral twist, that fundamental arm rotation, piles on the wrist, that delicate jewelry box of small bone gems and thin muscle necklaces.
I usually sensed 95% of the technique’s torque and energy coagulated on that one, vulnerable joint.
After a night of dedicated sankyo practice, I’d go home with limp and aching arms; my wrists as sad as a hound dog’s face. No doubt, my practice partners experienced similar discomfort. I remember cringing everytime I applied sankyo to an uke. “I’m so sorry,” I’d say afterwards, with my eyebrows knotted with guilt.
“It’s fine,” they’d shrug, without any polite placation.
It was fine. No, it didn’t feel like the sankyo applied by the most veteran practitioners who had 40 training years stashed in their black belts, but it was the best we could do with the technique at that time. And we were all abiding by the solemn rules central to Aikido training: harm no one and let no one harm you.
Protected thus, we freely offered our wrists — indeed, our whole bodies — as practice tools. As blank canvases where either art or ink blots might occur.
I have never forgotten how awkward I felt as a beginner in my stiff white gi. Intimidated by the glowing dojo atmosphere, overwhelmed by new people who were so kind and so willing to let me try techniques on them, despite the clumsy way I moved, as if my feet were made of boxes. Despite the feral weasels I had for hands — all instinctual grab and wrangle.
And oh! The gut-plummet I experienced when the sensei launched into teaching any of the techniques involving joint locks. Techniques like sankyo or nikyo, yonkyo or ikkyo. Couldn’t we just stick to the pretty, flowing, dance-like kokyu nages?
The times I most seriously thought about quitting were the times I had to work on sankyo.
Over a decade later, I practice a sankyo that relaxes my uke. It softens him until he is like a ribbon I can twirl. More accurately, according to Sensei’s brief, I relax and soften myself. As a result, neither of us cringes. When it’s Tim’s turn, I feel the sankyo bend my hand and wrist, but I feel no pain. The rotation continues through my arm all the way to my toes. I perceive a giddy floating sensation. All my bones and ligaments are…activated. Rather than torqued, they are energetically connected. I am so off balance that Tim barely shifts his stance before I swan-dive to the mat.
I laugh all the way.
Tonight, I am so glad I stayed.
Durango Shin-Budo Kai will host a 4-week beginner Aikido class July 8th–August 1.
The $50 registration includes 8 Monday & Thursday intro classes from 5:30-6:30pm, plus any of the regular classes on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Curious? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit our website for location and regular schedule information.
(Image of Tim and Scott by Jennifer Mason. All other images by Cheryl Birchard. Used here with with permission.)