The bees and the flowers
“How do I move my feet?”, “Which arm am I grabbing?”, “Which foot is in the front?”, “Do I step or do I Irimi?”. I often hear these questions on the mat; I sometimes make them myself, particularly after watching Senseis demonstrating the proper form of certain techniques.
Progressing through the ranks, I feel that learning Aikido is becoming more than just watching and memorising the mechanical steps shown in the class. Over the course of time, I feel that we must also develop awareness to recognise a set of non-tangible elements that combine every time techniques are performed. We often hear these elements mentioned in the class or seminars by names such as energy, centre, ki, chakra and so forth. I often find it challenging to visualise them when nage is applying techniques on me. I’ve discovered the best way that works for me is to sense them when the contact happens between me and my training partner.
This roban is a bid to share my personal findings that as uke, we can tap into these non tangible elements to improve our Aikido practice. In turn, we can apply what we learn from doing this into our technique as nage. From my findings, the way I learn is to be more receptive when receiving techniques on the mat. We may interpret the word “receptive” as being passive. However, I feel it is quite the opposite. Conventional aikido techniques take place through collaboration between attacker and defender. Both parties are equally responsible to make sure techniques are performed effectively. A slight disconnection between the two will greatly impact the outcome and often cause the technique to fail. There are variables that both sides need to learn to sense throughout the entire process. Given this context, ukes who choose to be inattentive, passive, or resistant will often gain nothing towards their development.
I believe to be a receptive uke, we must first clear our mind from personal agendas. Any preconceived thought can stimulate negative body reactions that in turn send the wrong signals to the person who is performing the technique. When this happens, nage then has to force the technique, which is not ideal in Aikido. A typical example is when ukes are resisting out of feelings of fear, distrust, or even rivalry. Their body will subconsciously harden, causing the technique to look clunky and forceful. If uke has any injuries or conditions that restrain the full application, then they should communicate this clearly at the start so both parties can either adjust or abandon the practice.
Our techniques vary in quality and style, depending on our level and experience. I find being a more receptive uke, heightens my awareness towards my training partners’ reactions after I attack them. I am able to sense more effectively how they move their arms and feet to take out my body balance at the beginning of their technique. This exercise gives me the opportunity to observe and evaluate various tai sabaki movements that they do, and identify the most effective sequences when performing the technique. This exercise also helps me better locate my own third point while receiving techniques in various stances. It is very useful when I am performing techniques as I better understand how to take my training partners’ body balance more effectively allowing for their natural stance.
After nage has taken my body balance, I can learn to sense whether the person is using either pure centre or brute strength to initiate the move. Aikido is a defensive art that uses attackers’ strength; therefore techniques should be executed with minimum effort. Our Senseis constantly emphasise the concept that when techniques are performed correctly, uke should feel that their body is being shaped rather than forced. I have discovered that when I use strength it narrows my focus limiting it to the area where my partner makes contact with me. As a result, it produces a very small connection between us. I feel that I can engage myself better with uke if I put body centre behind my technique. It gives me the sense that their entire body is much more responsive towards any movements that I do. At this point, I feel that eventually they would have no choice but to embrace the whole technique. I can best illustrate this scenario by using iriminage as an example where nage is likely to ‘clothes line’ uke’s neck if using strength to throw them. I’ve learned that the aim of iriminage is to control uke’s body by connecting their head to our centre so we can shape them to the point where they’re off balance and tip backward themselves. I realise this is not an easy thing to practice, but it is the whole point of Aikido. Therefore I believe it is crucial for us to learn to differentiate between strength and centre in the early stages of our practice, so that later on our techniques can become more effortless.
By sensing my training partners, I can also learn to feel how much control they have on me right from the start to the end. Ideally we should feel that nage is displaying a consistent flow of control throughout the technique, particularly at the stage where the throw, lock or pin is applied. This exercise enables me to learn how much control I need to neutralise my uke effectively without putting on too much pressure that could cause pain or injuries. I’ve also discovered that this exercise is good for developing my awareness to find any slack in my partners’ technique that in turn opens up opportunities to practice my countering techniques or kaeshi waza.
These are just a few of the learnings I have picked up so far from my training. I am certain that there are more potential benefits that I will discover from the nage-uke relationship by simply being more attentive and receptive on the mat. It is so unique that I feel it resembles the mutual relationship between the bees and the flowering plants that I grow on my patio. Both are truly dependent and benefit from the interaction they have with each other in order for them to flourish and survive.
To conclude my roban, I would like to take the opportunity to pass on my gratitude to all my Senseis for their continued guidance and support throughout my Aikido journey. I would also like to thank my fellow practitioners for being patient with me when they are my nage. No doubt I will endeavour to continue my exploration to become a better uke every time we train together on the mat.
Domo arigatou gozaimashu
Roban for nidan, December 2017