My old man used to tell me,
before he left this shitty world:
Never chase busses or women.
You’ll always get left behind.
Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
When I was a beginner I was taught that we use alignment of the body to build a structure which can withstand the greatest possible force, or produce the greatest possible force. Previously this idea has not been fitting in very well into my chosen path in aikido. It seemed to me as a totally different road, because (the last decade at least) I have been searching for ways to move with the partner without any force, at all, neither in pushing, pulling or twisting actions.
This summer two of my dear friends in aikido got me into thinking of this concept of alignment of the anatomical structure of the body in a new way. And since then it has been on my mind almost every class I have participated in. This time I am considering the alignment as a restriction, and not as a construction for getting strong.
The body is slightly asymmetrical. This happens due to the embryological development of the fetus (we are all a little bit naturally twisted). So the alignment might not be 100 % in the reference system of the room outside. The inside reference system, of the body itself, is the one that counts. Still, we have no real way of measuring this, so most of the time we will use the outer system to check if we are straight or not.
Alignment of the body naturally has other functions than to generate and absorb force. If everything moves, the signals to the partner becomes unclear, and the path we are presenting for our partner appears misty. In this situation the partner will either take his/her own path, or most likely, no path at all, because there is really no real need to go anywhere. We are really just pushing ourselves out of position, because we are trying to do something on our partner.
Also, even if I am not striving to achieve great force in my interaction with my partner, it is beneficial to make the movements in a economical way of using the body, to prevent strain injury over time. We are, after all, doing this every day, and hope to continue to do it every day for the rest of our lives. Any unnecessary strain on the body during the keiko should of course be avoided, and alignment of the posture is a great way to take care of this.
The thing is, we often think that we are straight, even if we are not, due to a combination of lack of awareness and traumas in the body (and in the mind). So we end up in disadvantageous positions because we are trying to do something, and our mind is on what we are trying to do. As I said, straight outside is not always straight inside, but if our road takes us close to an area where we feel fear, we will naturally try to avoid the area where we are uncomfortable, and we might end up in strange postures.
Cameras and mirrors are an invaluable resource when investigating these concepts. They do not lie, and the truth is sometimes painful to see if it has been long since we checked ourselves in this manner. Also, we will have to conquer our own fear when we reach the areas where we feel discomfort.
As an example, I have a tendency to bend my head to the right, when I am uke in tai no tenkan holding my partner with my left hand. Some muscles are slightly tensing, twisting my posture during the movement. So I try to check myself if I am straight, or not, during this movement. Straightening out my spine is scary in a way which is difficult to describe. I feel that I am way to close to the partner, and I might even be at this time, because of all this internal mess in my shoulders I might not fit into the “safe zone” yet. I am “too square” to stay within the martial area outside the partner’s reach. However, with some polishing, I believe these traumas will be healed and I will be able to melt into the shape I need to make a better tai no tenkan both as tori, as well as uke.
When our partner is holding us and we try to do something, our alignment will be broken, because we are pushing against something immovable. Something have to give, and if our partner is strong our own posture will collapse.
Sometimes I feel that when I manage to keep my alignment, and succeed in doing absolutely nothing, except perceiving what is going on inside my own, and my partner’s body, we will start to move together, in a flow. Like if there was some waterfalls inside our bodies feeding the movements. All interference is just standing in our way. Once I have gotten a taste of this it becomes the only way I accept to move with the partner. This is how I would like to make all the kata, always, and with every single partner in the world. Anything else seems like mere, (and uninteresting) mechanical pushing, pulling and twisting.
It seems to me as a big paradox. We are moving, yet we are doing nothing.
In karate dori tai no tenkan I believe that there are three main restrictions which seals the two partners into a specific area of study:
- The kata: tai no tenkan. It defines the movement which we should do individually as tori, and as uke. It gives a measure of distance and areas of reach for each partner. It makes the practice martial.
- The grab: Katate dori. We should hold on completely, without losing contact with any part of our palm. The force distribution in the grab should be balanced so that no points are burdened with more weight than others during any part of the movement. The grab should be constant from beginning to end.
- The alignment: By focusing on the center line and the posture of the body we economise the movement and clean away all unneccesary movements. The alignment is protecting our integrity and ensures that we are always in the best position we could possibly be in given the current situation.
We are squeezed between these restrictions, challenging ourselves to find ways to move within this chosen prison cell. I believe that by studying what is contained within, we are gaining freedom which we can use in the world outside the dojo. I believe that this freedom which we find here, will enrich both us and everybody we meet in our daily lives.
Of course, by keeping our physical alignment, we are keeping ourselves neutral, and in our own field of perception. However, for me, the greatest challenge lies in keeping our mental alignment. We want to do things. We have an intention of doing something. We wish to express something from within ourselves. This is what is causing us to lose our mental alignment of neutral perception of the situation. This is not only true for aikido. It happens all the time, everywhere, in the world outside.
Our expectations and ambitions is setting an image in our mind of how it will be. Sometimes unexpected things happen and we are in a completely different situation than what we expected. How do we deal with it? How does it affect us? Which consequences does this concept have for the world around us, both in a smaller scale, between people; and a in larger scale, between nations?
It could be as simple as expecting to sit relaxed and read during a train journey, and ending up sitting on your suitcase in the hallway because the train is totally overbooked and there are no seats at all. Or the toilet line before class happens to be much longer than you expected. Or we get rejected by someone we really wanted to know better. The list is endless. We have a discrepancy between what exists in our mind, and the real situation we have to deal with.
We have the opportunity to work on this every day on the tatami. We tried something, and it did not go as we expected, or wished, it would. Do we get frustrated and angry, or do we get curious? Do we blame the partner, and say that he/she did something wrong? Do we get angry at ourselves for “failing” in doing what we tried to do? Why did it go the way it did? Why would we define what we expected as a “good result” and what really happened as a “bad result”? It was the truth happening, was it not?
I am searching for a stillness where I can sense what is happening in a deeper way, and I believe that this mental alignment is a fundamental part of it. I try to rid myself of any preference and opinions of what is good and what is bad. To be completely non judgemental. To mentally be completely straight mentally, and never be tilted towards any wish to do something.
Of course, if we are doing nothing, and try to do nothing, and try to not try to do anything, including trying to do nothing, then what are we doing? What is the keiko? We have kata. We have forms we are practising with our buddies. This is what keeps it possible for us to not get lost. Still, at least lately, for me, the idea of doing nothing is the most important idea right now both as uke and as tori.
I believe the idea of doing nothing is very powerful, and this stillness we achieve by succeeding is very nurturing. It is an idea beyond the technical world of aikido. We are doing nothing, but only perceiving, from our heart, what is happening. Somehow, streams are flowing anyway, without our meddling, and all we have to do is get out of the way so that the flow can proceed. Then we can ride the tide in there, and surf the waves.
Our perception can reach so many levels, and we can use infinitely many images. There are no limits. As long as we keep our own alignment, both physically and mentally, we will be able to sense everything. We can feel waves in our partner’s body, streams, movements, emotions and of course, our own fear of failure.
It is very often hard to separate between what is us, and what is the partner. This is why I believe the alignment is so important, mentally as well as physically. Once we are still, we can sense the partner. If we do not have this stillness we can only see ourselves. Our own needs and ambitions. The partner appears as an obstacle instead of our study partner. With the stillness we can see, we can hear, we can feel and sense. We are alive!
Enjoy your keiko! Aikido makes people happy!