I felt dismayed. In the midst of preparing for my first aikido test—consisting of 10 techniques—I made the mistake of asking one of the black belts what you had to do for the shodan (1st degree black belt) test. Before the next class, he approached me with a sly grin and handed me a ream of papers. As I scanned them, my heart sank. 292 techniques, around 10 solo and paired jo and a dozen bokkenkata (choreographed forms done with wooden staff and sword). And after all that, in a rite of passage called randori, a mob is sent rushing at you and you’re expected to somehow survive.
In my last post I discussed two Japanese words–awase and musubi— are slightly different concepts of connecting with a partner’s energy. I focused on musubi, which means “knot.” As uke (attacker, receiver of the technique), I can feel when my attack gets tied to what nage (thrower) is doing, either by a slight loss of balance that causes a bit of a lean onto nage or by joint locks.
In my early years of aikido, connection was not emphasized. I first conceived of connection as something to break away from. Someone grabs your wrist, and well, you’re trying to escape, right? Make them let go!
It was a long time before it occurred to me that one of the principle things we are practicing is connection.
When I first began to experiment with connection, I understood it on a purely tactical level. When someone grabs me, I want him to hold on. I’ve got him right where I want him! He has committed to an attack, and I encourage him not to let go so I can guide him to a peaceful resolution (face down on the mat, safely entangled in an air-tight pin).
Soon I began to sense a deeper purpose for connection. I started to notice that when uke grabs my wrist, I can learn a lot. Through the grip I can feel the direction and intensity of the attack, the attacker’s intention, where the tenseness resides in his body, and where he is out of balance. If I’m sensitive enough, I can feel all the way down to the soles of his feet. It’s rather mysterious, but it’s not that hard to do.
But there is another level of connection that can happen even before physical contact. Lately I have been practicing extending a form of awareness that connects to uke from across the room. It’s a non-verbal observation. I liken it to listening to instrumental music with full attention. The analytical mind is disengaged and a different kind of perception is employed. If I imagine that my center is connecting to uke’s, as she approaches I gather a great deal of subtle information. I see her posture and sense her balance, her intent, the direction and speed of her attack. I begin to sense intuitively how to move in order to unbalance and lead her.
Mark Sensei sometimes talks about the difference between timing and connection. Timing your reaction to a quick attack such as mune tsuki (a stomach punch) is impossible—or, at best, unreliable. If, instead of timing, you use connection with uke, you will find that you have plenty of time. When I first heard this, it sounded a little woo-woo to me.
But it’s true. If I’m not trying to time someone’s attack, but I’m practicing connection, then we move as one, and it no longer feels like a reaction relying on pinpoint accuracy in timing. Perhaps it can be explained by noting that when we’re connected, I’m observing uke’s whole body while focusing on their center, and not having my attention trapped by that quickly approaching fist.
Recently in Steve Sensei’s ki class, only aikido students—those of us who train in the “falling down and getting up” portion of the art—showed up. We took the opportunity to practice some initial aikido moves, such as ryote mochi tenkan, where uke’s two hands grab nage’s forearm, and nage pivots on his front foot while raising his held arm. It’s edifying to practice slowly with an uke who is neither “locking down” with tension to prevent your moving nor just going along with you, but is instead practicing the same principles that you, the nage, is practicing. When uke is centered and extending ki, he provides an immediate feedback loop to nage.
Ryote mochi can be a difficult hold to deal with. Uke has the advantage of two hands gripping your arm, and he can apply a lot of leverage. There are helpful ways to think about executing this move, such as “not encountering uke’s strength,” or “pivoting around the space between uke’s hands,” or “moving where uke isn’t.” Some aikidoka will advise, “Just scratch your head,” revealing that all that’s keeping you from moving is having your mind stuck on the place where your arm is being held, and once you move your attention away from the point of struggle, it’s easy to move.
In this ki class we threw away those “tricks” and worked on connection. An uke held my arm in a ryote mochi grip, and I practiced responding with connection. This begins with a certain increase in pressure, moving in to make maximum contact with all the places where uke’s hands hold me, and through that connection trying to feel all the way to uke’s center. As I searched for real connection, I would try this and that, attempting to feel my way into that mysterious place. Then something almost magical would happen. When I was almost but not quite fully connected with uke, she could keep me from moving, but then I would make some very subtle change—in angle, or pressure, or just intention—and suddenly I could move uke without effort. And what had changed was something in uke’s neurology. Suddenly she no longer wanted to resist.
Taking uke’s role, I felt it from the other side. I held my partner’s arm, giving feedback to what I was feeling. It was—no, no, not quite… and then, Oh! Some slight but extraordinary change happened and suddenly I wanted to move with her. Even though we both were aware of what nage was attempting to do, and I was doing my best to resist her movement, there was a moment when she slipped into real connection and my resistance turned into compliance. Despite what I had been trying to do, I suddenly found myself wanting to move together with her.
When I feel true connection, I am always surprised. It’s always different from what I thought it would be. I can’t get to connection without trying to, but when I connect it’s always different from what I was trying.
Anyone who has practiced aikido for awhile has had the experience of unexpectedly doing a very powerful throw when it seemed that you were doing almost nothing. I remember when it first happened to me. A dojo mate came running at me in a katate kosa tori (crosshand) grab, and I began an ikkyo irimi throw and effortlessly sent him airborne across the room. “Oh!” I realized, “It’s much less than I thought it was.” I had stumbled upon a moment of true relaxation—and connection.
And some of us have had an experience that always seems to happen at a seminar practicing with a senpai of much higher rank who has not yet learned to abandon his ego. You happen to execute a move in which you toss him around like a rag doll, and he gets up saying. “I could have resisted that.” You just smile and nod, thinking, “Why didn’t you?”
And the answer is the crux of the biscuit. Your senpai began by trying to test you and resist the throw, but at some point he stopped wanting to resist, and what had caused this change of heart?