Aikido and the Art of Motorcycle Handling

Aikido and the Art of Motorcycle Handling

Matt Tebbs, Sandan Roban, 15th December 2007

The physics behind motorcycle stability and steering are not all that straightforward, and until you gain hands on experience on a bike not all that intuitive either. Take these two unlikely maxims, for example:

  1. The faster you go (within reason), the more stable the bike is
  2.  To initiate a turn left, push the left handle bar away from you

Without going into too much detail, a combination of forward inertia, steering geometry and gyroscopic forces all conspire to make a motorcycle that is upright and moving forward want to stay that way. Fortunately any novice rider quickly discovers the truth in the maxim that a motorcycle is more stable at speed – I’ve dropped a bike on two occasions, once while completely stationary (highly embarrassing) & the other time negotiating a corner at very low speed – never (fortunately) while moving at any reasonable pace.
The second maxim is much more difficult to take on faith, “to turn left, I turn the handle bars to the right???”. The success of this technique, known as counter-steering, is due to the fact that pushing the left bar away from the rider in an upright position causes the front wheel to track to the right. The bike’s centre of gravity is now to the left of it’s support on the ground, and it begins to fall to the left. As the rider releases the pressure on the bars, the same factors that make the bike stable in a forward direction, now cause the front wheel to track back to the left and stabilise the bike in the turn. This method is much more effective than any other for initiating a turn at speed.
Fortunately you don’t need to understand the mechanics behind counter-steering to handle a motorcycle. I’ve met seasoned riders who deny all knowledge of counter steering, yet subsequently discover they’re using it at every turn. However if a novice rider is shown the technique, and they are prepared to take it on faith and give it a go, they’ll typically develop the skill much faster than by untutored experience alone.
Once a rider has gained practical experience of the dynamic stability and handling characteristics of a motorbike, all they really need is maxim number three:
3. Look where you want to go
Ultimately you steer a motorcycle, not by real-time calculation of the subtleties of steering geometry, or by careful repetition of learned behaviors, but by simply looking where you want the bike to go. Unfortunately many negative examples exist to illustrate this point, where riders have ridden straight into the object they were trying to avoid, because they kept looking at the hazard, rather than the exit route. The seasoned rider concentrates their mind on the road ahead and allows their subconscious, learned body behaviors to control the bike.
Aikido has it’s share of non-intuitive maxims also, for example we are taught from early on that we must relax and avoid using muscular strength in order to ultimately become more powerful in our techniques. Unfortunately the rationale for such maxims in Aikido is not always readily explainable to the novice. The language of Aikido is not as concise as the language of physics.
Our teachers are guides who have walked the path a while longer than us, encountered many of the challenges and lessons we will encounter, and have had the opportunity to learn and internalise various aspects of the Art. Whether they are explaining the rationale behind a technique or approach in detail or simply asking us to take something on faith, like the novice rider, we accelerate our own learning by accepting what is offered with an open mind and applying it as diligently as we are able.
At first the requests of teachers may seem strange or counter-intuitive; they may even appear to hinder our technique developing as we think it should. Over time, through regular training, our Aikido practice should become more fluid, our responses more integrated and natural. Like the novice rider who can only have a theoretical knowledge of counter-steering technique before they are able to experience the dynamic stability of a bike at speed, we can only gain a deeper appreciation of the lessons we have been taught as the combined effect of our training begins to make our Aikido more integrated and dynamic.
While careful application of the lessons our teachers present is the starting point of our Aikido training, this learning process inevitably involves significant direction of the body by the mind. In the same way a rider can’t control a motorbike by constantly working out the steering geometry of the bike from first principles, this mental direction of the body is too cumbersome and inflexible for dynamic Aikido technique. As we progress we seek to internalise what we have learnt. We need to divert our mind from influencing our Aikido technique directly to allow our body to freely express the form and flow of the techniques. In martial arts we refer to the concept of mushin or ‘no mind’ to describe this idea.
Interpreting mushin too literally can be counter-productive. Trying to literally not think is an exercise in frustration and often results in idle speculation about some irrelevancy which is seldom conducive to good Aikido. We can take a lesson from the experienced rider here, they would tell us to just look where we want to go. In Aikido by occupying our mind in envisaging a calm self, a solid stance, a good posture, and by simply desiring a return to this state, we are able to influence the qualities we wish to express in our Aikido, without directly interfering with our physical body’s expression of the Art we have begun to internalise, and in doing so perhaps move a little closer to becoming one with the road.