The need for speed
– Some reflections on my Aikido practice
My relationship with ‘speed’ and ‘softness’ is probably one that stands out for me the most in terms of challenge, and how far I have moved from one end of the continuum to the other during my 9.5 years of aikido training – That is, my ability to practice in a slower, softer, more controlled manner, rather than a ‘fast and furious’ one.
Three years ago when I wrote my shodan roban, I expressed this challenge;
. . .In my mind I know that there is a new experience waiting for me in ‘slowing down’ and ‘softening’ my Aikido, possibly a whole new world of experience, but translating that from mind to body consistently is a very different thing, particularly when you have a body that loves speed! As I practice, my awareness of my resistance to uke provides me with a platform to engage with my own internal resistance. This is most often related to fear of allowing particular energies to have expression through me. While the image I get of ‘soft’ energy or allowing a ‘softer way of being,’ is not a particularly frightening one, it is an energy, and way of being, that my body doesn’t feel familiar with or trust, so it is something that I naturally resist. I am finding it is a continual process of letting go of my resistance, and having patience with myself, reminding myself to allow the ‘slowness’ & ‘softness’ and the possibilities that these ways of being may bring.
Three years on, I sit down to prepare my nidan roban reflecting on the distance I have come, and the learnings I have made on the principle of ‘speed’ – I have moved from a place where my body resisted allowing ‘slowness’ and ‘softness,’ as energies and ways of being, to increasingly integrating these aspects into my practice.
During summer camp in San Francisco last year Shihan Bob Nadeau worked with me on a process; He took me through some personal levels of conscious and unconscious resistance related to ‘slowing down, and allowing ‘softness’ in my practice. This process enabled me to experience the energies that I perceived as ‘soft,’ and the associated ‘softer ways of being’ that I was not familiar with, or trusting in my technique. In perceiving them and having dialogue with them, I was able to relax, open and allow them, and take myself to a new level through my own self-awareness, body awareness, and ultimately my aikido practice. This last eighteen months has been a gradual process of applying this experience; opening up and allowing these softer finer energies in my body and my training. To do this has required me to consciously slow down. It has enabled my training to a very different level; one where I am more open to connection at a deeper level, and able to be more receptive through my body, by trusting a softer slower way of being in training.
“In Aikido, as in most sports, speed is a vital element. Essentially there are two uses of speed: the first is to keep up with the opponent’s movement, the second is to be able to avoid an initial attack.” Dynamic Aikido by Gozo Shioda
In reflection I realised that ‘speed’ in my practice was also often about ‘getting results’ – I had an attachment to a technique ‘working,’ and speed was sometimes a way of achieving this – The momentum could support the desired result. It also often caused a disconnect with uke, and hence my learning that failure to match the speed of uke affects timing and connection. This could be compared with being in a conversation, and instead of fully listening and receiving what the other person is saying, your mind has sped off on a tangent sparked by a comment they’ve made, and you’re already formulating your next comment in the conversation. This compares with a successful blend through appropriate use of speed, and in the example of conversation, fully receiving your partner’s message and needs in the conversation; both spoken and unspoken, and responding accordingly. In slowing down my practice and technique, my focus has shifted from getting ‘results,’ to staying with the process. This means my conscious connection with uke is much stronger, and I have become much better at self-correcting while performing technique.
Rather that part of a timed response, speed for me was also part of my ‘automatic reaction.’ I used speed to ‘escape’ an attack rather than holding the intention of blending. It was my response to stress, particularly in randori, or when faced with physical strength in my uke. The internal ‘panic’ switch would go off during a randori, and the speed would step up as an escape from the oncoming attack. I remember continually being told by both Senseis Henry and Danny to “sloooooooowww down.” This doesn’t happen so much now which is a good sign. In learning to slow down I’ve learnt to trust my response within the moment. Slowing down enables me to ‘feel’ more consciously and ‘be’ with my uke in a more real way, thereby having a clearer picture of the different options available to me in response.
Old habits die hard, and there are still times when feeling under pressure, most often during a hefty randori, I tense up in body and technique and resort to speed reactions – When this does happen I now often have the self awareness of choice; I can refocus to centre, drop my energy to ground, and affect a different response.
A corollary of allowing a slower softer way of being in my training is a more conscious intention to protect uke – By being able to receive attack and respond from a place of consciously trying to protect, or be gentle yet firm with uke, I find new ways of working with energy. An example would be in executing iriminage with a protective intention to draw uke in, and release uke through expansion of energy, rather than simply using the power and energy of the body’s hip and arm motion.
I also find a new level of self-confidence in my Aikido practice; The ‘slowness’ and ‘softness’ that I have accessed has enabled me to connect with my centre in a far more powerful way, and enjoy a more grounded experience of Aikido. For me this is evident in a number of ways;
- As I execute a technique I enjoy extending into the energy of my connection with uke and experiencing the ‘ground’ of the encounter.
- By allowing ‘softness’, I am also able to experience the ‘lightness’ of an encounter – This enables me to move far more fluidly with uke’s energy.
- Softening has similarly allowed the pattern of rigidity to break away from execution of a lot of my techniques and ways of responding in my practice – Again this allows for more fluid responses, more of a lightness to my techniques & ukemi, and more joy to my practice.
In daily life, I find myself letting go of a lot of things that would usually be sources of concern or stress – I am able to let a lot of life’s ‘static’ flow over me without hooking me up, and I find I have more patience where I would normally be impatient, and more tolerance where I would normally be intolerant.
Slowing down and softening is ultimately about trusting myself to deal successfully with situations I may find myself in – as Richard Moon puts it; “through the physical and mental discipline of Aikido, I learn to develop my intuitive judgement and to adapt safely to outside stimuli. This trust is playing life by ear, being willing to follow the uncertain path. Such paths are habits of spirit, turns of mind and directions of heart.” (Aikido and healing – Does this stuff really work? By Richard Moon, from Aikido and the New Warrior: Essays edited by Richard Strozzi-Heckler)
For me it is slowing down, softening, letting go of my reliance on speed, and receiving the energies of an attack in a fuller more conscious way that supports this trust in “playing life by ear.”
Aikido embodies the principle of non-resistance. In slowing down and softening, I have found my still centre; a place where balance and control reside. It is from this place that I can better allow softness, and express non-resistance. When you embrace softness within your being, there is no place for your attacker to resist you – Softness, like water, reveals a receptive energy, enabling attack to be neutralised. On the eve of my nidan exam, it is this discovery that is cause for celebration.
10th December 2013
Roban for nidan