Defend by attacking

Not too long ago, friend and teacher Kyle Sloan dropped by one of our early morning judo classes. There was one thing he mentioned to me that has stuck with me, something that I think I was beginning to understand on some level, but when he said it out loud, a lot of things—in both judo and aikido—snapped into focus.

We were speaking specifically about grappling, and how, when you're being held down, or your partner is attempting to choke or arm bar you, one really shouldn't simply defend. Rather, defend by attacking back.

When we're first taught, say, kesa gatame, we're taught certain "escapes"—how to break the hold. But that's just the beginning, I realized. Don't just break the hold, but seek to get myself into a position from which I can choke or arm bar him, or at the very least, put him in a hold down.

It seems like a small difference, but really internalizing it has made a big difference.

The thing is, I think most judo players will eventually arrive at that mind set anyway. Something about the nature of judo that tends to foster an "attacking" mindset. Aikido, on the other hand, has always felt like a purely defensive endeavor: how do I survive this onslaught and get the hell out of Dodge.

For beginners, that's probably not a bad idea. If you don't have the skills and training to do something, don't try to do it. If I just started guitar lessons, I'm not going to go down to the crossroads and duel it out with the Devil. Simple enough.

But eventually, I think aikido ought to follow that simple mind-set: don't just defend (or "escape"), defend by attacking back.

I don't just get off the line of attack to avoid being hit; I move to a more advantageous position, a position that will give me the upper hand.

When grabbed, I'm not just looking to break his grip—"Get off me, you brute!"—I want to change the dynamics, the relationship between us, so that I, again, am in a more advantageous position, so that I'm driving the car now, not the other guy.

I don't want to simply deal with what his attacking hand is doing, and how to keep it off me. A very myopic approach. I want that hand; it's mine now. Then I want to progressively take away as many of uke's options as I can. I don't even want to "throw"— I want to systematically break down his posture to the point he can't stand up any longer, till he has nowhere else to go, but down.

Enter. Own him. Collapse him. Never let him off the hook.

Is that too aggressive to be "aikido"? Does that sound more like retribution and malice rather than the proposed spirit of aikido, of love, peace and harmony?

To me, no.

Rather than unleashing the hounds of hell and raining down pain and punishment on the poor fellow, I think of it as putting out a fire—of smothering the flames until they extinguish and the threat of the whole house burning down has been safely snuffed out.

But fire is dangerous, you can't be timid with it. It takes a fire hose, not a squirt gun. It takes buckets and buckets of sand being dumped on it until no oxygen remains to feed it. Waving at it just fans the flames. Hesitate, and the flames will engulf you.