Suppleness

Suppleness

Conrad Edwards, Nidan Roban, 5th December 2009

My dojo cho Matt Tebbs asked me to write my nidan roban on suppleness. This, no doubt, as I am far from the most supple aikidoka around, and as you that I’m reading this roban to know well, closer to the other end of the spectrum.
If one does a web search on aikido and suppleness, the top returns include such statements as:
Aikido emphasizes suppleness, finesse and harmonizing with aggression rather than attempting to overwhelm it with brute strength;
Aikido develops suppleness, resiliance and quick reflexes rather than ‘static’ strength and can be quite strenuous;
Aikido promotes suppleness, flexibility and concentration as well as a confident, balanced personality;
Aikido is excellent for improving the body’s suppleness through gentle movement incorporated into the general techniques and exercises that are practised.
As in this small sample, some hits are about the benefits of suppleness to practicing aikido, but most are about the benefits of practicing aikido to suppleness.
In this roban, I’d like to explore this issue. I will explore it from my own perspective of course. As I will explain, the link between aikido and suppleness is at the heart of why I am here today, and why I have been here for some sixteen years.
As a training day I’d be here anyway, but as it happens (if I’m reading this out to you), I’ve just survived a nidan grading. Steve Seymour sensei, at our annual camp just gone, talked a little about what gradings are. He mentioned that he had asked his sensei, Takeda shihan, what he was looking for in progressive dan gradings. Takeda said, simply, “change”. Steve went on to explain his view that aikido was all about change, about self-improvement, about being a journey.
In my 30s I was becoming supremely fit through hill running and marathon kayaking, but realized that all this one-directional exercise was making my natural tenseness ever worse. I resolved to take up some activity for greater flexibility. I considered and tried innumerable options, from dancing to gymnastics, rock-climbing to yoga, and a wide range of martial arts, before being captivated by a demonstration of Riai Aikido.
Put another way, I took up aikido because I’m so unnatural at it. At the other sports I did and do – running, kayaking, skiing, climbing – I’m a natural. I quickly mastered them, was successful competitively, and made a name for myself in their accomplishment.
For me, aikido is quite different. In my aikido jouney, sensei after sensei have told me “relax, relax” as I muscled through the innumerable techniques as nage, and charged in shoulders-first as uke. My aikido is changing. I believe that I have been softening over the last few years as I gradually discovered the power of suppleness in aikido. My sensei’s calls of “relax, relax” are becoming less common, but by no means extinct.
In fact, my private goal for my grading just gone was to minimise the calls by the grading panel for me to relax. My target: zero. My actual, by my count: zero, yeah!
Until a year ago I had been of the view that the best thing I could do to improve my suppleness and flexibility was more aikido. And then more aikido.
This year however I’ve radically changed that view. I had a shoulder pain after kayaking and after a year of two of useless physio tried an osteopath (one who had rebuilt a friend of mine after an Australian dropped him off a climbing wall). The fundamental problem I soon realized was an imbalance in my posture, that amongst other things caused me to raise my right shoulder. The osteopathy has been interesting, but the real benefit was him putting me on to Feldenkrais, Pilates and deep-tissue massage.
I’ve been doing all these in expensive quantities through 2009. It’s remarkable how many layers of imbalances and anomalies I’ve discovered in my posture and movement, some now fixed, others still on the to do list. It’s been a fascinating journey in its own right, as I’ve noticed week by week subtle improvements in my posture and movement and yes, even my suppleness. So impressed have I been with Feldenkrais that I’ve started a four year practitioners’ course. And I have every intention of carrying on with the Pilates and massages too.
My aikido journey, supplemented by this recent focus on posture and movement techniques, is changing me. Whether it’s changing me for the better in an aikido sense, is the subject of deliberation by our senseis right now.
So, what can an unsupple but slowly improving aikidoka usefully say on the subject of suppleness?
If I were more supple, would my aikido improve? Yes, I am sure that it would.
Should I be doing more to make myself more supple? Well, one can always do more, but with my focus during training and my huge emphasis this year on non-aikido posture and movement techniques, I am not sure that realistically I could be doing much more than I am. It simply takes time to changed engrained habits.
Should I give up activities that make me less supple in order to increase my suppleness on the mat? In particular, should I give up my muscle-building, one-directional kayaking? Absolutely not. I am a kayaker. Or, as a friend once described me, I am half kayak. I just have to try to do my aikido with the other half.
Finally, should people who are not naturally supple take up aikido in the first place? Absolutely. So should the uncoordinated, the unconfident, and the imbalanced, because aikido develops, promotes and improves all these qualities.
I recall being told some years ago about a discussion amongst my fellow Riai aikidoka. I was not around, but heard about it. The topic was: “Who do you admire most in the club?” The consensus agreement was not any of the many who are naturally good at aikido. And it certainly wasn’t me, who fails in that department but does pretend to be athletic. Rather, all agreed that the most admired aikidoka was an individual who was neither natural nor athletic, but who trained hard, and who therefore for those very reasons challenged themselves most, and improved themselves most. I shall name no names, but I agree.
So the moral of the story is, train hard and forever keep improving yourself. And if someone better at aikido than you keeps saying “relax, relax”, then heed that sound advice, but also take pity on them, for you are improving yourself more than they.
You can travel furthest by taking an easy path, but your travels are most interesting and rewarding when you choose the difficult path.