Big, strong, fast, light

I've been aware of the existence of different "levels" shall we say, for lack of a better word, to our training, or at least some of them, for a while now. For example, I knew that we started learning "big" and then progressed to... well, something else, lightness being part of it. But it was this video from Lowry Sensei that clued me in on the whole framework and how they start to relate to each other.

The concept applies, of course, not just to jodo, but to aikido and judo, too (as well as other arts, I suppose). Having contemplated it for a little bit now, I'm beginning to recognize how it relates to an issue I've noticed in our practice over the years (to varying degrees, and myself included).

We all started out big. No problems there. Doing things big helps teach us the choreography, help us to practice principles, etc., etc. Often that means slow, as well. A lot of skills are taught that way. For me, art and music were taught similarly, big and slow.

Funny thing is, I remember as I went through the ranks hearing a lot of talk about being "light" almost simultaneously. So, when I watched the video the first time, I thought it odd that lightness was the last level mentioned. How could my teachers be telling me to be big and slow and "light" (fast and small) at the same time?

I think, however, that there's a difference in definition, and we're talking about two slightly different things. The lightness my teachers asked of us from the beginning I believe primarily had to do with not using our arm muscles independently to do a technique (ikioi) and to do everything with the movement of our center (hazumi). You remember being a white belt, right? Or the last time you worked with one? Arm muscle all over the place.

I'm not so sure everyone understood or understands the difference, though. I wonder if many of us see the "lightness" of the really advanced guys and are shooting directly for that. Which is not a bad goal, in and of itself, but I worry that we overlook the middle two stages, particularly "strong".

Remember, of course, that we're not talking about "strong" in the sense of muscle (again, maybe a confusing choice of words), but structural integrity and the efficient delivery of true power (center-based).

In aikido, I've been seeing a lot of what eminent blogger, prestidigitator, and fellow budoka Sensei Strange once described as "soggy" technique. It cracks me up ever time I think about, and I have to shake my head because he's absolutely right. It's just part of something that I hadn't been able to put a finger on it until all of these odds and ends sort of coalesced in my mind. In the pursuit of lightness, by either definition, we had started to overlook strong, or structural integrity and the efficient delivery of true power.

Consequently, I've been focusing on fine tuning everyone's junana hon kata and owaza ju pon this month to make sure everything is solid (myself included). My point on shiho nage the other day was one such example. Ude gaeshi (#7) was another one. People would get uke's arm all tangled up, but his posture wasn't truly broken and while he wasn't in a great position, he wasn't falling either. He was close to the edge of the cliff, but not on the edge.

The main adjustment we made was with tori's left arm (if we're doing it to uke's right arm). More often than not, tori's arm was threaded through and in the right place, but it wasn't fully engaged. Soggy, in other words, a bit limp.

The moment you engaged all the muscle groups—shoulder, triceps, wrist, cocked the hand (you know, this whole "unbendable arm" we always talk about?)—just as with shiho nage, the coil tightened up, uke's eyes got big and he dropped like a stone.

Now, have we always been like that? I'm not so sure. When I first started, our method of practicing junana hon kata was fairly rigid by comparison to what we do now, a lot of stops and starts, sharp angles, etc. But by golly, it was strong, solid stuff. A lot of what I see from the Tomiki world looks like this.

But a few years back, our former organization started focusing on a constantly moving center, and on learning to flow from one technique to the next. Which, mind you, did miraculous things for our art, and the chasm from kata to randori became a whole heckuva lot smaller. The downside, it seems, was a process that glazed over the finer points of structure. Understanding how to go from one technique to the next overshadowed what made each individual technique work on its own in the first place.

And then there's the other side of the coin: uke. In fact, if I remember correctly, the soggy remark actually came about in relation to the quality of uke's attacks. A big part of what makes aikido work in the first place is an uke who delivers energy that we can do something with, right?

And that, I think, will be my next focus...