Technical vs philosophical
Over the years, one of the main differences I saw between our aikido dojo and other examples I saw here and there (mostly online) was the method of conveying information, or teaching the technique.
We always seemed to approach things from a strictly technical viewpoint. We described what was happening in very concrete terms: put your foot here, turn it like this, put your hand there, move in this direction, and do it all to with this timing, etc.
Other aikido schools (Ueshiba styles, at least) tended to demonstrate a given technique several times, over and over, while the class watched. If there was any discussion (there tended to be more during special clinics with high ranking sensei than there was during regular class), it tended to veer toward the more abstract, philosophical, esoteric sort of description: get in harmony with the energy flow, yin and yang, extend your ki, etc. Then you paired up and tried to replicate what you just saw.
Frankly, I just never understood the poetic, abstract stuff. Most of us seemed to like our plain, physical descriptions just fine. We liked understand the mechanics of the thing as related in terms of geometry, anatomy and physics. That, we could wrap our minds around.
Suddenly, though, I find my mind drifting toward these more esoteric teachings. Not that they make sense to me now, but I think I'm beginning to catch a glimmer of it. I think most would agree that all our teachers were talking about the same thing, but using different ways of describing the same phenomenon.
Even still, I think there's something more. The best analogy I can think of is a student musician learning music, or an actor performing his lines. You can learn everything about eighth notes and quarter notes, key signatures, tempo, chords progressions, etc. You could play the music exactly as it's written, with exacting detail. But where is the emotion, the feeling, the fluidity, the ability to improvise, to infuse the music with meaning?
Or take the lines of a play. Anyone could stand there and read the words. No matter how beautiful the writing, you can kill it all without following the flow of the emotion behind the words, without the body language, the inflection of your voice, the way a professional actor would.
These things are harder to describe or quantify or measure. Plus, two different musicians and two different actors while perform the same piece differently, though equal well.
In my own teaching, I've always shied away from the more poetic way of describing things, and stuck to the more concrete descriptions, and while I think I'll keep that as my foundation, I think I may venture into the more abstract just a tiny bit, from time to time. Maybe it won't make sense to anyone. Maybe it will years down the road.
But I'm discovering that there's beginning to be a difference between how I perform a give technique (or move in general) and the way a shodan, nidan, sandan might. Nothing against what they're doing, mind you. But while the notes might be played back to me in the right order, the music doesn't move me to tears yet.
Have you ever watched a really high ranking aikido sensei perform technique in such a way that it literally took your breath away, just amazed you, and seemed like utter magic, effortless and beautiful? And then we think, Why can't I do it that way?
Perhaps that is one aspect of the yin and yang analogy (or "in yo" in Japanese): the technical, concrete blended with the abstract and emotional. And as the yin and yang concept suggests, I suspect we might need to embrace both to make really, truly beautiful budo.