Friday, July 10, 2009


My home dojo was closed this week for summer vacation. I took the opportunity to visit a friend who teaches a very small Aikido class. When I say small, I mean even with me visiting you could count all the attendees on one hand and still have fingers left over.

I did about a year of Aikido with a different instructor in the late 1990's. It was also a small class and it was cheap. I didn't bother to grade at this, partly because I was only semi-regular and partly because I was stupid. Although training is never about rank per se, it is generally a pretty good idea to rank if you can in order to prove to the skeptical that you have legitimate experience (if not skill) with an art. Anyway, a year of Aikido is hardly enough to say I "know" Aikido, but I got a pretty good taste of it.

Aikido gets a bad rap these days because the emphasis is on "effectiveness" which usually means "ring competitive effectiveness." Aikido is a pretty passive system in the sense that someone has to be looking to invade your space before an Aikido technique can be executed. It's often said there are "no offensive" moves in Aikido. I'll let you find an effective Aikido teacher and train so you can decide if any of the moves offend you.

Something else that's said about Aikido is that it shines best as a graduate program for experienced martial artists. Aikido is all about distance, timing, and angling. (These are, or should be, all concepts familiar to Bujies.) It also requires a certain focus and mindfulness to execute the techniques. In other words, it emphasizes concepts that most martial artists don't start to internalize until they hit black belt in whatever art they are studying. It also emphasizes the "art" in martial art. You can throw sloppy blocks all day and be relatively effective, but sloppy Aikido not only looks terrible, it is completely ineffective -- even within a safe, compliant dojo setting.

Given the informal nature of the class, I asked what to wear. I like to blend in when I visit. I was told a white gi would be appropriate, and I was also welcome to wear a hakama. A hakama is, of course, the set of funny, baggy trousers traditionally worn by the samurai. People wearing them get teased about wearing "the magic pants," or "culottes," or a "skirt." In Aikido wearing hakama is usually reserved for yudansha. I would not have considered wearing them (I had already dusted off a white belt to keep my gi closed) had I not received the invitation. I did second guess myself, but in the end decided I don't often have a chance to wear my hakama and it was an opportunity to practice moving in them. On the hakama went.

I managed to trip on my own hem only twice; and frankly, I think that showed more grace than I expected to have. We moved a lot in the class. We opened with Aiki Taiso, including the rowing exercise to awaken the hips and a pivoting exercise that reminded my daughter (who came to watch) of ballet. Then we practiced kote gaeshi and irimi nage, two of the basic Aikido techniques.

The purpose of cross-training is to go outside your comfort zone and see how you perform. You have to let go of the ego and expect to laugh at yourself. Kote gaeshi is generally described as a wrist throw, so it is broadly similar to omote gyaku. But only in the sense that you finish with an outside wrist throw movement. Omote gyaku can be made to work on a non-compliant opponent. (Yes, this is true; you just have to know the tricks, what to add in, and understand when to use it.) Kote gaeshi utilizes the uke's own momentum by turning with the attack and then abruptly reversing the direction of the hand and projecting the uke away.

I got completely caught up in trying to execute the flowing turn around the attack and found myself clutching wildly for my uke's wrist. I was so focused on the part of the technique that was different, I couldn't perform the part that was familiar to me.

Later, and one of my regular readers will appreciate this, I heard the instructor reminding me to relax and breathe.

Near the end of the class, the instructor invited me to perform irimi nage using him as uke. Irimi nage ("entering throw") is a technique with very few moving parts. It relies mostly on timing and angling, with a smidgen of deception. I was also a little more confident that the instructor could take ukemi properly. The first couple of passes were tentative, but I managed to find the flow (nagare) and fit into the technique rather then execute the technique. After that, I felt real success. I won't say I had picture perfect Aikido, but it felt better and probably looked better.

This is where the "effective" crowd start to chide Aikido about compliant partners and empty drills. My Irimi Nage started working because I found the flow with my partner. We weren't working at cross-purposes. They have a point if the only point of martial arts is to overcome an adversary. But for a few moments on that mat two people trusted each other's skill, found common purpose, and sought to make something beautiful together. Working in concert is probably a far more useful skill in everyday life, and may be one of the hardest to achieve.

I'm eager to return, but class starts up again at my home dojo next week...

No comments: