Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Where is you mind?

It wasn't long ago that a critical aspect of different sections of junana hon kata, or randori no kata, finally dawned on me. I realized that, with the second section, or hiji waza, I was focusing on what I was doing to the arm or elbow, and with the third section, tekubi waza, I was focusing on what I was doing to the wrist.

Which would seem natural since that's what their names mean: "elbow techniques" and "wrist techniques". The epiphany, however, came when I finally realized that I'm not doing something to the arm or the wrist, but rather I'm using the arm and wrist as a means of affecting uke's center line. The first section, or atemi waza, deals with going after the center line directly. From there, we move outward to using the arm to affect the center line, and then move even further out to using the wrist the same way.

This realization has, in turn, affected my perspective of the rest of not only aikido, but judo as well. Now, I'm much more focused, not on throwing uke, but on continually, progressively crumpling his posture, breaking him down bit by bit.

For example, I would approach each technique this way:

1) Step in the right place, with my support foot pointed in the right direction, with my hands in the right position. It was a bit like posing an action figure, as if all I had to do was do was these specific things, and everything will go smoothly.

2) If judo, then suck up the distance between us.

3) Pull the trigger. Do some sort of action or another that would launch uke into the air or send him hurtling to the ground, be it a wrist crank, a definitive step, a reap, a hip action, etc.

While it's important to step here and move your hands there, I never thought much about why. "It's about kuzushi—off balance," you say. And you're right. But what did the kuzushi look like? I began to wonder. What did it feel like—for tori as well as uke—when it was really happening?

In other words, I stopped thinking about kuzushi from the perspective or what I was doing, hoping uke would just magically fall down. I began to think more along the lines of what was happening to uke. Not just his elbow or wrist or leg or whatever—his whole body. I took my mind out of my own Self and put it in uke. In him, around him, around us both.

So, back to aikido's elbow techniques. Oshi taoshi (or ikkyo) is a good example. I noticed myself and others primarily focused on pushing on the elbow. When that didn't get uke to magically jump to the ground, it naturally became a game of pushing harder. As a result, we tended to push on uke's elbow out in space, somewhere to the side of his head.

But it wasn't working, or at least we could make it work as long as we were stronger than uke, or uke was just cooperating. The funny thing is, I'd been originally taught, years ago, to imagine I'm trying to put uke's elbow through his own ear. But I suppose I got lost in what I thought oshi taoshi or ikkyo was supposed to look like, and I never understood the meaning of that instruction: use the elbow to affect his center line.

The wrist techniques were no longer about uke jumping because I stepped in some specific place, or he was simply responding to pain, but rather, is the turning or twisting (which does not involve being strong or cranking, by the way) doing something to his posture?

I also found that focusing on a thing like the wrist or the elbow often caused me to stop. "Okay, I'm holding a proper kote gaeshi now. Your turn to do a flippy fall." But while we were always taught to keep our center moving, it never occurred to me that my hands and arms should often continue moving in their respective arc as well (I think I interpreted the "unbendable arm" principle to mean I keep them stuck out in front of me like two planks nailed to a tree). Again, not in a way that cranks on uke (that would be force against force, now wouldn't it?), but that moves smoothly with how uke's body is naturally built.

Ah ha! This is what is meant by all those words and phrases like "blending, joining, be light, be in harmony with uke," etc. Now, I'm discovering all sorts of little nuances here and there that have a seemingly magic affect on uke's posture without strength or cranking.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Building a Better Uke: Grips

Over the years, I've seen countless students, both senior and junior, become frustrated with a technique failing to work. The vast majority of the time, the problem lies with uke.

Most of the time, uke is not truly committed and is just walking through the motions, in which case, tori rarely gets the off balance or throw he's looking for—which in turn lead tori to think he's not doing something, and uke (particularly new students) think, "Well, this stuff doesn't work."

Not to be hard on uke—it's a tough job.

I first talked about "commitment" in an earlier post. But commitment is, admittedly, a fairly broad topic. So I started with a simple drill to help students practice the initial shomen ate attack with genuine commitment to the point where we actually knock the other guy down.

That is, of course, only one way of attacking. Uke can also begin his attack with a grip.

I tend to see two basic sources of frustration when it comes to grips. The first, and by far most common, is  a grip that's

Too weak
We have to think back and remember what it was like to be the new guy. You don't know anyone, you have no idea what to expect, what you're in for; you're just following along as best you can. And it can be very intimidating to be asked to grab (to touch, in other words) a relative stranger.

We all have certain built-in "rules" when it comes to social interaction, especially with personal boundaries. Think about how many people you've know for a long time, co-workers, professors or students, etc. How often do they get to touch you? Rarely if ever, certainly among men. For guys, you'd have to be either our mother, our wife or girlfriend, or our kids (young ones) to be allowed that kind of closeness.

I wonder sometimes sensitive enough of that. We've been doing this a while now, so we don't think anything of just reaching out and grabbing a guy, such as with judo grips which are even further inside the new guy's personal space.

Consequently, the new guy's grip in the role of uke in aikido is probably going to light and tentative. And that means you probably won't get quite the right reaction you're looking for, the kuzushi you know should be there. Be patient and understanding. Know that his comfort level with gripping and this kind of unconventional contact will come in time.

And if he seems skeptical of the efficacy of what you're practicing, kindly explain that for now, you're just concerned with learning the proper movements, of introducing the principles, and not with "making it work."

I've known senior ranks to remain frustrated by that idea. I guess they just really want to do a successful technique, that they've assumed there is one singular outcome and purpose for what they're doing and when they don't get it, they feel they've somehow failed, or at least aren't doing "proper aikido." Or maybe they've fallen in love with the seemingly "magical" ability they have of making someone fall down, and it's become something of an ego trip.

Please don't be deluded into believing either.

As the senior student, now is the time to think about your movements, about your principles, and let go of the big, spectacular "finish." Maintain ma'ai, keep moving, notice what you're spare hand is doing, are you feeling uke with your hands or are you relying solely on what you see with your eyes? There's plenty for you to learn, even if what you practice won't exactly make the "highlight reel."

All that being said, the flip side of the gripping coin can also cause it's fair share of consternation, a grip that's

Too strong
Occasionally, I'll see a student come in whose grasp is startlingly strong. Big guys, guys that work with their hands all day, tough-as-nails military guys, whatever. Oddly enough, they have no qualms about touching a total stranger. They'll reach out and snatch your wrist in their iron grasp without hesitation.

Now, aikido still works when that happens. But it still takes many folks by surprise, even higher ranking guys. Why? I suspect because we've become used to grips that are too weak, even among higher ranks.

Even after we've been practicing aikido for a while and we're no longer the new guy, we continue to work with a grip that's actually too weak, largely I think because we've been told over and over and over again to "be light." While I understand the intention in saying so, I'm afraid there are occasional downsides. One being the idea that I should barely touch tori when I grip him (or when gripping as tori).

But that's not helping anyone. Uke's not truly able to deliver energy that way, and tori is practicing a technique under false pretenses. So when someone really grabs him, suddenly his release won't work.

All of that being said, what grip is "just right"?

To answer that, I'll direct you to the following video, which explains what we're after better than I could here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Building a Better Uke: Commitment

More often than not, if a technique isn't working quite right, the first place you should check is not necessarily yourself—but rather your uke.

Why? Well, with much of what we do, particularly aikido, the efficacy of a given technique often depends on an uke who is doing his job properly. Which begs the question: what is uke's job, exactly?

To just attack? To simply take the fall for tori?

Yes. No. Sort of. It's a broad subject, really. One I hope to explore over the next few posts.

There are a number of factors that make a good, effective uke. And the first, and perhaps the most obvious, is "commitment."

True, honest commitment is probably the most common fault on uke's part, even among senior practitioners. For one thing, within the confines of the dojo, we're really only pretending to attack; we don't really want to inflict any harm on our partner, not like the proverbial thug "on the street." We're friends, we're just practicing. It takes a certain amount of skill to truly act like you want to knock the other guy's block off, even though he or she is actually an innocent stranger at the least, or at the most, a close personal friend.

For another thing, we often get stuck in a rut. Especially after a number of repetitions. We "go through the motions," knowing full well what's coming next. But really, that's cheating. And it's certainly not doing tori any favors.

So considering all that, how can we keep ourselves focused and honest?

I have, over time, come up with a few drills or exercises to help with this particular issue, but please, by all means, feel free to share your own insights.

I'll start with just one for now.

Shomen ate / ukemi practice
Every once in a while, I think it's a good idea to drag out the crash pad during the opening ukemi practice, and do a little uke practice along with our falling practice.

Have everyone form a line (or two or three if you have a big class). Have one student stand at the edge of the crash pad, with his back to it. Have everyone in line take turns doing a shomen ate attack, pushing uke back onto the crash pad. When everyone has had a turn knocking the guy down, it's the next guy's turn.

This little exercise helps in two respects, actually. One, it helps each student learn to absorb an attack, and fall with it, rather than resist being thrown. Which not only helps prevent injury, but flowing with an attack is as much a part of learning and internalizing the precepts of "aikido" as anything you might do as tori.

And two, it gives each student a real feel for what they're actually trying to do when they attack tori during kata practice.

Stay tuned for a few more tips and exercises!