Aikido and the Way of Study – An article about the path I took to study some Aikido principles – by Gadi Shorr, 6th Dan Yoshinkan Aikido. Israel July 1994

The literature on Aikido has introduced the art and techniques to people who learn it firsthand and practitioners who want a review of the techniques. These passages are aimed at those who are already practicing Aikido with the idea of focusing on the ways of clearer study.

As Aikido is considered by many a mystical or spiritual art, no real system has been put into writing for the analytical part of understanding and studying the art. These passages concentrate on this section of studying. To learn or approach, in this way, concepts so far being presented to us as a goal that can only be reached by the amount of time spent practicing the Aikido techniques.

First let us review the basic concepts of study.

  1. Like a child who is exploring the world for the first time, copying movements and approaches is the first step of studying.
  2. Practicing by repetition the same movements and concepts creates better performance.

As these two rules are the basis of human study, the teacher and student should always bear in mind that whether by hours of practical or theoretical study progress will occur.

The practical side of Aikido is well emphasized. Therefore, other parts of our study should be reviewed.

A few of the major points necessary for practice:

  1. Adequate muscle strength. To attain the best results in Aikido, skilful practice is needed and should result in the performance of a stronger technique with less energy used. However, proper muscular strength is one of the basic concepts to support skilful technique.2. Physical training is necessary on the basic principal of the "centre line" of the body as well as on the "line of power" and reviewing the idea of the "body axis". As Ueshiba Sensei once said, "If I am not a centre, I cannot make a circle."3. Exploring all aspects of the usage of the body's gravity, as it teaches us the strength of balance and imbalance for better technical performance.4. Physical training of the senses. The use of the eyes in tactics, such as a larger field vision. The sense of touch, when applying it to our own body's reaction and others.
  2. Flexibility and a better range of joint movements for the expansion of our physical performance.All these points can be studied and practiced in various ways. However, studying these principles in their own right will make it easier for learning and applying them later on in the techniques. A variety of exercises focusing on these points will create more stimulation and give quicker results so imagination and inspiration is the best approach for applying the idea. Humans are analytical creatures and thoughts are part of our being. Rather than ignoring this, creation of a variety of exercises will end in better results. Examples of exercises can be found further on in the article.The Great ParadoxAikido is a martial art presented as the way of harmony. However, the concept of martial arts deals with violence and conflict that contradict harmony by all means.

    The paradox of these issues can be explained by aiming, in Aikido, to change conflict into something less harmful. Avoiding conflict is the ultimate side of this philosophy.

    However, a conflict cannot always be dealt with by reason. There are conflicts that cannot be avoided. Aikido presents the paradox and is often being studied in a philosophical way, around the issue of conflict. It is vital for us to understand the concept of fighting and deal with it to its limits. Avoiding the source of the art can create many problems in initiating the techniques and the confidence to perform them.

    It is quite understandable that we often see a student approach Aikido from the very reason of fear of conflict. The way we practice allows confidence to be built in a gentle way. In observing the masters we may acquire the dangerous illusion of benefit through technical practice, of being able to deal with a conflict by merely practicing as hard as we can and achieving the same degree of level of the masters. However, most of the masters dealt with real life conflicts either mentally or physically and from this they were able to conquer the problem. We, as students, should do the same. To teach our minds the awareness of conflict and to be able to realize how to deal with it.

    Within the subject of conflict, the approach to the techniques can be enormously important. In fact, sometimes the approach alone determines the result of our performance even before it has started. This concept does not always refer to power. An individual may be bigger or stronger than us and physically we may face many problems trying to control them through this approach. On the other hand, the special element of Aikido is the fact that hurting a person weaker than yourself can affect your technique to the point of creating communication problems and creates an atmosphere which is completely opposite to the techniques.

    Aikido is an art. When we perform techniques we are dealing with communication, usually physical. We can practise all our lives, working hard on our techniques without much progress if we want to work and train our minds specifically on that subject. The way to study this concept starts with awareness. The first rule concerns our own attitude. Study the devil inside you and your Aikido will improve enormously. Awareness in daily life of how to avoid conflict or achieve the results we want is a valuable start. Recognising our devils can be explored by taking ourselves through a physical or mental challenge. Usually where the situation is hard to deal with our "dark side" will appear. In performing Aikido techniques, we must understand the roles we play. The Shite / Uke relationship presents us with a great challenge.

    Points to Bear in Mind

  3. We want Uke to trust us. Then, Uke will, in a way, help us perform the techniques. For this we have to understand the situation of performing a specific technique. Usually, Uke's attack is the same. We know what he will do and therefore we must respect his body and not take advantage of the situation.2. Observe Uke's strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes a technique needs to be changed accordingly. Trying to perform at the same speed and/or strength on each and every Uke disturbs the natural flow of the encounter. We need to be flexible in our minds and learn how to adapt.3. Embarrassment is an enemy. Sometimes the fear of a street fight can be the very fear of embarrassment. For this reason we must learn, understand and accept this concept. It might happen. Being aware of the possibility of embarrassment builds our confidence. The strange thing about our weaknesses is that they will never go away. The way to deal with them, rather than trying to fight them is to learn from them, accept them and give them the right proportions in our lives.As we have already seen, most of these passages deal with sensitivity, including the way to accept our own and other's weaknesses. Our ego is not an enemy, rather it is part of our being human. Losing your ego might basically mean death. Remember that in order to give our best performance, we want Uke to be able to do the same.

    Experimenting

    Once we are able to perform the techniques of Aikido in a skilful way experimentation is needed to take place in order to achieve a higher understanding of the techniques.

    The very first part of our experiment starts with our own technique. For example, in order to perform a technique completely, looking at it in an entirely opposite way can give us a different view. We can ask our Uke to trick us by trying to take us off balance or to lead us in a different direction. This teaches us how to react in a variety of situations.

    Another great way to experiment is to perform in front of an audience. Aikido is an art and by experimenting with the pressure of such a situation we can judge our own ability to perform. It faces us with a challenge that requires a greater performance. This will improve our Aikido.

    The better our Aikido becomes we must bring it still to a higher level. For example, training with a new partner or with someone who has no previous knowledge of Aikido will show us our own ability in Aikido.

    As we desire to reach a higher level of Aikido we should consider trying other types of Aikido. There are many differences in the systems between the schools and being humble enough to listen to other instructors or trying their way can give us a lot. Studying or tasting other types of martial arts can teach us different approaches to fighting and expand our knowledge. After all, we want to progress and whatever the differences may be, it is still Aikido.

    There is no ultimate level. The only way we can stop studying is through death. A person who stops studying or who thinks that knowledge will come with the passing of time is a traitor to knowledge. Indeed, the greater our technique becomes and the more respect we gain, the larger the chance of disruption in our Aikido. For example, Uke might at some point fall, just out of respect for us, rather than from the performance of our techniques. So, we must always be aware of this and learn how to experiment and to challenge ourselves over and over again.

    The most important concept of studying (as in fact exists in any form of art) is experience. Experience's most fundamental element is time. And time is an element we cannot control.

    As human beings, time affects us in the form of aging. This means that as we get older our so called "physical machine" (or body) slowly weakens until reaching it's final stage – death. However, as time is inevitably moving we can still control our development of mind and in relation to Aikido we can develop our technique, bringing it to a higher level.

    As much control as we have on our lives, we can direct our experiences to development and to a higher form of study.

    Control in life means many things. One of these is being prepared for changes in the reality of our environment. It also means that awareness of our lives enables us to grasp opportunities that always arise and if we are quick and sharp enough we can use them for our own development.

    Always having a goal, something we want to achieve, something we feel necessary in our lives in order to perform better in our techniques will help us grasp whatever opportunities appear.

    The great masters paved the way. They taught and introduced us to the art. Each and every one of them, through their own experiences in life developed and gave his own taste to the art.

    Our part in that sense is to preserve the art and through our own experiences we can influence Aikido, develop it and put our own mark in the history of the art.

    The Centre Line

    In the discussion of our centre line we refer to its physical aspect as well as the sensual aspect. A good understanding of our centre line provides us with the ability to have greater balance and power and to relate it to our actions.

    Physically speaking, our centre line runs from the top of the head, through the centre of the chest, hips and between our legs down to the ground. It is easier to observe another person's centre line. However, understanding our own line provides us with the necessary feeling which is important for better performance.

    The most basic exercise is as follows:

    While standing erect with our heels together, squeeze the legs together using the adductor muscles of the thighs. Squeezing the legs provides a physical sense to our centre line, using the image of squeezing the line itself with the legs.

    The spine runs all the way from the head to the centre of the buttocks. By squeezing the buttocks and stretching the spine upwards a sensual feeling of the centre is created. Using a flat object such as a book, placed on top of the head will centre us and complete the picture. Since we are trained to judge with our eyes, observing ourselves in a mirror is an excellent way to check our posture. The best way to do so is to choose a fixed point at eye level, centred in front.

    When we talk about our centre it is necessary to imagine the physical centre (that runs from the head to the ground) and a plane of the same line extending forwards and backwards from the body. This gives the centre another meaning – a two dimensional one.

    To grasp this idea we can use another exercise during which our eyes serve as a good judge. Basically, it all depends on the amount of time we are willing to give ourselves in order to study it.

    Once we feel our centre line we must concentrate on this plane, running from our centre forwards and backwards. So, as we walk, stand or carry out a variety of natural activities (which do not demand any special concentration) we can use our minds to concentrate and create an imaginary picture of the centre plane.

    In relating these centering exercises to Aikido we use the basic stance – Kamai. In Kamai the legs are placed one in front of the other, keeping the heels on the same plane and at the same time squeezing the legs together, stretching the spine upward while holding the head straight.

    The best way to feel the hands in our centre is to push the shoulders down and to squeeze the elbows into the centre plane. Again, using a mirror is extremely useful.

    In applying these ideas to Aikido we divide the discussion into two aspects; straight movement and turning.

    When carrying out a straight movement we must focus our attention on the two-dimensional "centre line". While backwards and forwards we should stay on this plane.

    When carrying out a turning movement, the key to the best performance is a good axis. As in ballet, shifting our centre to one point provides us with the best axis. We should concentrate on the feet. The big toe is an excellent point of axis (usually referring to the front leg). Ideally, shifting all our body weight to this point gives us the best axis. However, as Aikido is a martial art, the element of power that might come from the other direction would greatly endanger our balance. Therefore, it is advisable to keep the back leg on the ground, on the same central plane, while moving most of our weight onto the big toe of the front leg.

    Another turning point is the heel, as in a movement backwards. Shift the weight onto the back leg and move the front leg on the central plane until the axis point is passed, then place the front leg at 180 degrees from its starting position.

    It is important to mention that while moving into the axis position, we must stretch the spine in order to achieve balance in relation to gravity.

    Now let us try to relate this to motion – turning and straight.

    It is obvious that while moving on the central plane in order to create an axis, we are already transforming a straight movement into a turning motion. We can relate this to other aspects, for example, movement to the side. To move to the side we use the heel of the back leg as the axis. We can, by turning on this axis, position the body at a different angle from our starting position. From here a straight motion can be carried out.

    So far we have discussed the matter of the centre in terms of one and two dimensions. We can bring a third dimension into the discussion – the arms.

    If the hands are not positioned in the centre plane we can use the angle created between the arms. The centre plane increases as we expand the distance between the arms and decreases as we move the arms toward the centre. It is vital to understand this aspect as it relates greatly to the direction of power we want to apply or receive while performing a technique.

    While in Kamai, the smaller the angle between our arms (in relation to our central plane), the more balance we have and the more power we can assert. This can be explained in relation to the back leg, which is our base of support. An angle (of the arms) that is 45 degrees or less in relation to our central plane is well supported, as it can easily be supported by the back leg. However, as the angle becomes larger than 45 degrees, support weakens, as the line running from the arm cannot be received by the back leg.

    Further explanation is given in the passage on gravity.

    As the discussion of balance refers directly to gravity I quote the following points, (Manual of Structural Kinesiology ~ Thompson/Floyd):

    1. A person has balance when the centre of gravity falls with the base of support.

  4. A person has balance in the direct proportion to the size of the base. The larger the base of support, the more balance.
  5. A person has balance depending on the weight (mass). The greater the weight, the more balance.
  6. A person has balance, depending on the height of the centre of gravity. The lower the centre of gravity, the more balance.
  7. A person has balance, depending on where the centre of gravity is in relation to the base of support. The balance is less if the centre of gravity is near the edge of the base. However, when anticipating an oncoming force, stability may be improved by placing the centre of gravity nearer the side of the base of support expected to receive the force.
  8. In anticipation of an oncoming force, the stability may be increased by enlarging the size of the base of support in the direction of the anticipated force.
  9. Equilibrium may be enhanced by increasing the friction between the body and the surfaces it contacts.
  10. Rotation about an axis aids balance. A moving bike is easier to balance than a stationary bike.
  11. Kinesthetic physiological functions contribute to balance. The semicircular canals of the inner ear, vision, touch (pressure), and Kinesthetic sense all provide balance information to the performer. Balance and its components of equilibrium and stability are essential in all movements. They are all affected by the constant force of gravity as well as by inertia. Walking has been described as an activity in which a person throws the body in and out of balance with each step. In rapid running movements in which moving inertia is high, the individual has to lower the centre of gravity to maintain balance when stopping or changing direction. On the other hand, jumping activities attempt to raise the centre of gravity as high as possible.

To clearly understand these points we can take the example of the one-legged man. Assuming that the body weight runs through the centre of the body, we can gather that the best support is the centre of the foot. Placing body weight on any side of the foot (unless in the case of receiving or applying force) results in weak balance. The main reason for this is that the base of the sides of the feet are smaller and so stability is weaker. In addition, balance grows weaker as the angle between the ground (for this discussion referring to flat ground) and the body's centre line becomes less than 90 degrees.

This is due to the fact that while the location of the base remains the same, the pressure of relative weight on it increases as the angle decreases.

As the human body is made up of a system of joints, the body trunk can bend in several ways, starting from the head, back, hips and knees. However, the same rule applies to these joints as the angle between them and the bases of their axes decrease. If the pressure on the joint increases weaker stability and in many cases pain occurs.

The picture becomes more complicated when we talk about the two-legged man. Two legs means two bases of support and a larger variety of possibilities. We shall discuss two kinds of planes – the lateral plane and the sagital plane. For both we assume that the body is erect and centred.

On the lateral plane the centre of gravity runs between the legs. Greater balance occurs as the distance between the legs increases, as well as by lowering the centre of gravity such as bending the knees. Receiving or applying power is strongest on the lateral plane. At the same time, the weakest point of support is on the sagital plane.

When referring to the sagital plane stance (as in Kamai) extending the distance of gravity increases balance. Weakness usually occurs on the lateral plane.

At this point let us relate all of the above to Aikido. In Aikido we use a variety of techniques. With most of them, whether we apply or receive power, our goal is to maintain balance while affecting our opponent to a point of imbalance, by directing his body to a weak position of bodily support. This is accomplished by using our own bodily power to maintain him at this point and at the same time using gravity as the power that keeps his balance weak. For this reason Aikido is recognized as a martial art. Great physical strength is not necessary for applying the techniques.

Usually we aim our physical power, while applying the techniques, directly to Uke's trunk in the direction of down to up. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Using the ground as a "shooting point" (as in an Olympic runner who pushes off from the ground when starting a race) allows us to use the most of our body muscle and mass and to accelerate. The faster the speed and the larger the mass we use, the more power we have.
  2. Applying our power in this direction will push Uke "off his ground". Meaning that he will lose most of his balance and therefore most of his power.

The best position we want Uke to reach is that so his balance is totally dependent on us. In this position the minimum power we apply affects him greatly.

To best learn this principle I will present some exercises that can help obtain the physical and mental feel of the subject:

  1. This exercise uses the most basic push from down to up, as can be seen in Sumo wrestling training. Stand with the legs apart on the lateral plane, knees bent and elbows placed in the centre. The elbows are supported by the body and when we push the whole body we direct it upwards while the hands stay in the same position.
  2. Sit in Seiza with a curved trunk and slowly stretch the trunk to a completely extended position. While doing so, keep yourself centred. Make sure that all through the motion you move from down to up. Meaning, first hips, then stomach upwards to the chest and neck.
  3. The same exercise as before, but this time adding breathing to the motion. Moving up from the curved position breathe in and keep inhaling until reaching the fully extended position. Moving back to the curved position exhale, first from the stomach as the hips and lower back curve and slowly until we reach the fully curved position.
  4. In order to obtain a good sense of support in the lower part of the body, try sticking out the stomach when standing erect. Keeping the stomach in, pull the centre of gravity upwards, and so dividing the upper body from the lower. A coordinated movement from down to up is, therefore, impossible.
  5. Stomach and chest breathing. In this exercise the breathing concentrates on stretching the area between the stomach and the chest. Breathe to the stomach and chest simultaneously, while at the same time extending the spine. Pushing the stomach out serves the purpose of lowering our centre of gravity and transforming our breathing into a movement.
  6. Use the same action as in the previous exercise, this time relating the hands and arms to it. As the stomach pushes out and the rib cage and chest rotate upward, raise the arms while keeping the shoulders and the elbows down. All of the movement should be carried out simultaneously in perfect coordination.

As we can see, breathing is used in most of these exercises. The reason for this mainly concerns the part of the trunk that usually tends to be rigid. Breathing has great value to the exercises because it gives a good sense of dynamic motion to the trunk. Most of the people who have difficulty with breathing will have problems with creating motion, especially at the location of the breathing problem. Most of the muscles we use for breathing are the same ones we use for moving. For example, difficulty in breathing to the rib cage results in difficulty to perform movements in that area and problems with the natural flow of the motion from the stomach upwards (flexion and extension). It may feel unnatural, at first, to relate breathing to the muscular motion. Here are a few more tips to help.

1. In the case of difficulty in a certain area, the best exercise is to place a hand on the location of the breathing difficulty and at the same time breathe. The inner pressure of the breathing and the outer pressure of the hand will create the necessary feeling and motion.

  1. Keeping yourself centred, sit in Seiza and breathe from down to up first concentrating on one side of the body and then the other.

The next step in studying the concept of motion is to relate all the principles to our techniques:

For example, in order to direct our bodily power from the trunk upwards we do so by keeping the elbows down, the trunk dynamic and the arms fixed. And therefore, when we apply force the power comes from the body rather than from only the hands. Keeping the shoulders resting down completes the picture. As we usually use Suri Ashi in Aikido our base of support is relatively strong. There may seem to be too many details to grasp, however, concentrating step by step on one concept at a time until there is good feedback will prove to be the right process. As long as you know what to look for or what is missing there is the capability for positive study. All it takes is concentration and practise time.

A valuable exercise that gathers all of this data is to stand in Kamai with a partner who pushes our hands while we try to direct the force he is applying into the ground. The pressure of his power should be felt in our back leg, rather than in any other part of the body.

Again, using the same exercise as when previously studying the centre. Learn how to direct power from different angles by moving the hands away from the sagital (frontal) plane until the angle is of 45 degrees and still remain balanced.

Another good exercise is to move in various directions from the basic Kamai stance while your partner applies a reasonable resistance. As we move, we keep constant power all through the motion, using all of the body and the sense of direction and centre.

To explain the concept of balance more sufficiently we will discuss turning, as it is so practical in Aikido. Earlier in the discussion of the centre we examined the idea of the axis and the centre. So, we will now deal with Uke's part of the turning. For this I quote the laws of acceleration and inertia, (Manual of Structural Kinesiology – Thompson / Floyd):

Law of Acceleration

A change in the acceleration of a body occurs in the same direction as the force that caused it. The change in acceleration is directly proportional to the force causing it and inversely proportional to the mass of the body.

Law of Inertia

A body in motion tends to remain in motion at the same speed in straight line; a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted on by a force.

The reason for mentioning these laws is that many of the turning techniques deal with a situation where Shite acts as the axis of a centre, in which by using his / her hands moves Uke in a circle. By doing so, we prove again, the fact that in order to initiate an Aikido technique no excessive force is needed.

Being the centre of a motion means that for each movement we create in the centre (providing we keep a strong axis) Uke will move a great distance around us. Another fact is that while Uke is in motion the slightest power can completely change the direction of his/her movement. To understand and act upon this idea we must control the distance between Uke and our centre, providing the most comfortable and ideal situation for us in order to operate in the best way.

Here ends some of the main points I feel are necessary in order to understand the approach for acquiring a skillful technique. However, as mental understanding is a rather quick process controlled by the brain's electrical and analytical processes, it is a very different matter when the whole body is involved physically. When this is the case, it presents the need to master proper muscular coordination, which is a mechanical activity that takes longer to master.

It takes time, but knowing the basic principals of Aikido techniques reflects a better performance in the techniques themselves. I hope that these passages will prove useful.

Gadi Shorr

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