The most important point in the execution of an aikido technique, is the starting point. Today I am going to talk about this point in time and space.
Many aikidoists think the starting point is the moment the attacker (uke) connects with the practitioner (nage). They think it because that is how they have been trained to respond right from the beginning. They learn from static holds, and start doing their technique from the hold. When they do moving attacks, they continue to respond as if it is a static hold.
When you wait until the attack is almost completed, you are too late. If uke attacks with full power and commitment, you will be overwhelmed. Then the rest of the technique will be about how to recover from the attack, if you can.
Starting your technique just as the attack lands, leads to a false idea of the effectiveness of our techniques, especially if we have been practising with “considerate” ukes who attack with only moderate commitment so as to make it comfortable and non-threatening for everyone. This has become, in the last few decades, a common way of practising aikido.
The aikido will work in general situations, such as having to deal with drunken louts. But it might not work with a skilled attacker who is coming in at speed. Usually, aikido practitioners can be caught out, not because aikido is ineffective, but because they lost control of the initiative, the starting point.
Going back to the roots
The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, was a formidable martial artist, who pretty much remained unbeaten by any other martial artists, regardless of their art.
He was invulnerable, not because of the superiority of aikido technique. More importantly, he controlled the situation right from the start, and the adversary never got a look-in.
Most people attribute his invulnerability to mystical qualities and make Ueshiba a demi-god, whose feats are unnattainable by us “mere mortals.” This is a big mistake. We are all capable, if we know where to look and what to do.
Look at the old movies of Ueshiba. You will see that he responds not on the physical attack of the adversary, but before. How does he do that?
“Always already present”
The goal of martial arts is not really technique—although technique is a good practice opportunity. The goal, from my perspective, is to be “always already present.” I have borrowed this expression from the 20th century philosopher, Heidegger, because, to me, it totally captures the meaning. Heidegger says that entities that are “always already present” are there from the start. They didn’t build up, or slowly appear, they were just there.
Similarly, in aikido, we need to create the mood of always being present, always ready and alert. We learn the mood of the martial artist, who is constantly alert, even in his sleep—just as Ueshiba was. His assistants recounted how it was impossible to surprise him in his sleep, leading them to believe that he never slept!
We create this mood from the moment we walk into the dojo. We maintain it going onto the mat, and bowing into the class.
We maintain it as we go into practice, as the uke lines up to attack the nage. We maintain it as we throw uke, and we have control and awareness as they get up again.
Then you learn to maintain it in daily life. A person who is “always already present” cannot be surprised, and they deal with challenges smoothly, no matter how quickly they evolve.
It used to be said that a supreme martial artist had “no opening”—the would-be assailant could find no weakness of energy to attack. Many people commented that Ueshiba similarly had “no opening.” However, this was not a tense state of paranoid “attack-readiness,” it was more a state of complete relaxation and wholeness.
The best place to learn this state is in your regular aikido practice.
How to become “always already present”
Coming back to my opening statement, the starting point of an aikido technique is the readiness position (hanmi). Relax completely, but with a feeling of expansion (see previous post about live relaxation). Stand in a natural posture, slightly oblique so you present a smaller target.
Energetically, though, feel large and expansive, surrounding the uke with a bubble of energy. Have your hands down but slightly forwards, feeling the energy pouring out through the fingers.
As you feel into your relaxation, also feel into your uke. What is their energy like? Is it agitated, is it calm?
Depending on how sensitive you get, you might feel an interplay of energy between you and the uke. In fact, the uke might feel “no opening” and be disinclined to attack! Sometimes you need to create an opening, to “invite” them to attack, say by exposing your belly, chest, or neck.
This interplay of energy is always there, and is usually unconscious, but if you become conscious of it, you gain the ability to control the situation more effectively.
This subtle energy is called Ki, and was often mentioned by Ueshiba. By definition, any feeling is subtle energy or ki. You always have feelings, it is just a matter of becoming aware of them. Ki is not mystical or supernatural; it is natural—but it is subtle and takes time to become aware of.
Therefore alert live relaxation is the key.
Being “always already present” in space
The right space between uke and nage is called ma-ai. It is the distance where the attacker needs to make a substantial move to reach you. They have to step forward to punch or grab, or they have to shift weight to one leg to kick with the other.
At first you will need to consciously practise maintaining this space. As you familiarise with the feeling of “always already present,” you will naturally and intuitively sense the ma-ai space, just as we have intuitive cultural and social spaces.
Skilled martial artists practise how to surreptitiously close that space, using distractions and dummy strikes, in order to make the committed strike. This is where live relaxation will keep you aware of what is happening, reading their intentions and staying calm.
If you always pour forth your Ki, you will understand naturally how to take Ma-ai according to the height of the body. If you pull your Ki inward, you will lose the Ma-ai. It is by forgetting to take Ma-ai that some one will stick his neck out, so to speak, and get his block knocked off. Tohei, Aikido, 1961
Being “always already present” in time
Practise feeling when the partner commits to their attack. As you relax more, your response time will get shorter and shorter.
You are aiming not to respond after the attack is initiated, but with the attack. The moment the attack starts, your response needs to be underway. You don’t have time to “wind up” before going forwards, like a Walt Disney cartoon (the wind-up or “Anticipation” is one of Disney’s 12 principles of animation).
Responding with the attack will not only give you control of the situation, it will open up a range of options, to either deal with it gently or severely. That is the beauty and sophistication of aikido.
When you respond with the attack, you will find performing a technique almost effortless, yet you can unleash as much power as you wish to deal with the situation.
The most direct response is called Irimi, which is an explosive forward movement. Irimi takes control instantly and devastatingly. The alternative response is called Tenkan, which consists of moving out of the way, positioning yourself in the same direction as the uke. This enables you, the nage, to easily lead uke.
I will talk about Irimi and Tenkan separately later.
Being “always already present” in daily life
I mentioned earlier how being “always already present” can make for a formidable martial artist. Most of us, however, no longer live in times where we could be attacked from any quarter, at any moment. Nowadays, “attacks” come from the daily challenges and relationships we have.
The relaxed alertness of being “always already present” changes the tone and energy of transactions with people. People will feel boosted and energised by your energy, and will be more inclined to agree with you. They will feel more respected and listened-to, just because you are more present to them.
You will instantly feel when boundaries are being crossed, and will feel more resourceful dealing with it. You may find that you manage and navigate conflicts and negotiations much more easily.
As you move around in crowded places, you will feel a bubble of awareness around you, and space effortlessly opens for your smooth passage.
While driving, erratic movements of other drivers will not surprise you, and you will understandingly make way for them, without fuss. Other drivers will sense your clear intentions, and courteously make way for you.
I could give you countless examples and stories of how a state of “always already present” makes life easier and avoids disasters. But I think you should try it for yourself and see what happens. I believe the best way to learn this principle in an embodied way is through the practice of aikido.
- Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927.
- Koichi Tohei, Aikido: The co-ordination of mind and body for self-defense, 1961