Naive understanding from before training
Before I started Aikido, my understanding of the strategy used came
from conflict resolution experts that claimed to be using the Aikido
strategy applied to interpersonal relations. This model followed a
three step approach:
- Observe the energy of the attack.
- Blend with the energy of the attack.
- Redirect the energy of the attack.
I have a very clear memory of reading this in the years before I
started training. While model may work for conflict resolution in the
workplace, I don’t think that it is very useful for physical combat.
Naturally, if you don’t see the attack at all you can’t defend
yourself, but this model suggests a very passive defender that is in
the wash of violence before taking control.
During my earlier years of training, I saw the strategy as the way of
not fighting or the way of non-resistance. Some of my instructors
would describe this as letting uke do what they want to do to take
control. This strategy describes well the experience of learning
basic Aikido techniques; if you are meeting the force of your partner
you are making a mistake. This is the main lesson of what some people
call “solid training”, where your partner grabs strongly in a static
position and you find a way to move avoiding their strength. In tai
no henko training, this entails letting uke establish a firm grip
before attempting to turn. This is important training to understand
kokyu, but it doesn’t represent a complete strategy for combat. As
Sugano Sensei once said, static training teaches you what to do, but
not when to do it. Another problem with solid training as a model
for Aikido strategy is that it doesn’t represent a resisting opponent
who would change the attack as soon as they felt you move, but a
training partner helping you learn correct technique.
Sen sen no sen
When I began training directly with Yamada Sensei and Sugano Sensei, I
began to understand the importance of timing in their technique. They
didn’t stand passively waiting for an attack, but instead controlled
the attack before the first contact. I had read before where
shomenuchi ikkyo was described with nage starting the technique
with a strike to the face, eliciting a response from uke that
allowed the technique to continue. I understood the timing of many
techniques as the defender starting the movement to control the
attacker from the beginning so that they are responding to the
defender. Some might see this as a break from their ethical
understanding of Aikido, but I don’t think it changes anything; the
technique still requires violent intent from the uke and most
techniques emphasize control instead of damage. I have heard some
karate students describe this as sen sen no sen, early timing or
preemptive attack. To train for this, I try to practice as I have
witnessed my seniors; starting to move so that I lead the attack
instead of waiting for it to happen. This is particularly important
in multiple attacker situations where if you wait on your partners,
they could all reach you at the same time. The only way to control
this is to move first forcing an attack from the uke of your choice.
This past Winter Seminar, Sugano Sensei was describing very basic
technique. Describing tai no henko training, he said that it
represented control over the contact with your partner. In this
description, he used the term ki musubi. I am most familiar with
this term from ki musubi no tachi, a paired form with bokken. I
understand it to mean tying ki, where musubi means a knot. So the
connection of the grip like a knot tying your ki to your partners.
But he further explained that there are two ways to understand
musubi, a knot or to create. I don’t know enough Japanese to know
whether these are two meanings of the same kanji or if they are
homonyms, but his explanation of the creation meaning was that by
setting the combative distance and presenting your wrist, nage is
creating a situation that ties uke‘s and nage‘s energy and
movement together before contact is made.
So now my understanding of the strategy of Aikido is summarized by ki
musubi. It isn’t allowing the attacker to decide the timing of the
attack so that the defender is only responding. It isn’t attacking
first to elicit an attack. It is instead creating and controlling a
connection between combatants. This model for understanding how the
techniques work builds on the previous ideas and unifies them.
For some time now, I have been starting the classes I teach with tai
no henko practice. For this practice, I have beginners start with a
static position to learn how to move but I have intermediate and
advanced students start at a distance to work on timing. I don’t yet
know how to demonstrate the idea of ki musubi as part of this
practice, which simply means that I don’t have a deep enough grasp of
the concept. I can only see the surface of it and I don’t know yet
how to integrate into my practice, but I also know that you first have
to see where to go before you can go there.
Which only leaves one question: Does it work in combat? or Is it
practical? I don’t know the answer because I have never had to find
out, but really that’s a different discussion.