Nothing is safe.
Everybody seems to be obsessed with safety, you know.
Well, you know, nothing is safe, OK? Nothing.
We live in a world filled with hate, violence and power games. How do we deal with this world, in the dojo? Do we even concern ourselves with thinking how our actions on the tatami reflects what is going on in the world? The dojo is like a miniature world where all of the same things as in the world outside, is happening, to a much smaller scale of course. And the problems are much easier to overcome with our partner, than with somebody outside, since we are usually in agreement that we are there together to study.
When we are beginners we learn how to make our katas as “safe” as possible. The idea is that there should be no openings for the partner to take over and reverse the roles. Of course this is necessary in the beginning to actually have some kind of foundation to build on; to learn how to recognise the tools we are using to develop our aikido. However, the rules we learn are the outline of a greater picture. After a while it becomes apparent to us that the more we are trying to control our partner the less “safe” we are. Everything can go wrong at any point of time, and there is nothing we can do about it. No matter how many safety rules we have and how many carefully considered precautions we are taking, we can still end up failing. The consequence of our failure, wether it is a complete failure, or just a partial failure, depends on how we have chosen to practise, or how we live our life.
The more we close the openings to the partner, for taking over, the less communication we will have with him/her. We need a common ground between us where we are both welcome to enter, so that we can meet the partner there. Building a tall electric fence with razor wire on top does not make us more safe. There will always be a way to cut the power and there will always be people with wire cutters. In the situation which we at first learn is “safe” we are actually merely pushing and pulling each other around on the tatami.
I have been thinking very much this summer about opening and closing movements in the keiko. Closing movements are more natural for us to protect ourselves. If we are scared we shrink together like a fetus with curled spine the hands covering the head. Arching the body in the other direction and opening the arms outwards is somewhat unnatural for us.
Janne and Marie in Lillsved in July 2016. Photo by David Ellard.
When we are beginners we don’t have a program for how to come down on the tatami in a comfortable manner so we tend to stick with the “butt out -solution” for every situation. We let go, bend forward and face in the direction we are going as to prepare for the fall. This is what all our prior experience from before we started practising martial arts has been teaching us to avoid cracking our skull open when falling. However, the priorities have changed. We have a safe way to come down to the tatami. One that most of us find extremely pleasurable, comfortable and exhilarating: falling. So, instead of sticking our nose forward and our butt out, like an infant falling butt down on it’s diapers, we should maybe have a different solution for the martial situation we are in.
In many situations in aikido I have found that by closing, we are actually opening up so that our partner can strike us (if we had a naughty partner that is). Ironic isn’t it? By closing to protect ourselves we are doing the exact opposite. This depends of course on what tori is doing. Uke and tori should always reflect each other, I think. If one opens the other must open as well, or there will be something illogical in the situation. One can touch the other, or even both can touch each other. In my mind, the kata should be peaceful. Nobody should be able to touch each other from the beginning to end. If both opens everything will be OK for both.
Still, even here, when I am talking of opening and closing, both are referring to closing the opening to the partner so that we cannot be struck in our heads during the movement. So this is merely a first step. If we can at first get used to the idea of opening our posture, and find comfort in that kind of way of moving, we might dare to go even further later. In addition it creates a very lively interaction with the partner to open and close the body together in unison. The most basic idea is to avoid the partner from reaching our face, but I think there is much to learn from this kind of practice.
This is really scary though. It feels vulnerable. There is some deep animalistic fear against doing these things. One example is to look down towards the tatami when we are taking falls. By looking at the tatami our focus will be taken off our partner and we are twisting ourselves in a way that makes it impossible to keep the connection to the partner (the grab opens). We can’t see the partner, and we can’t feel the partner. We are only concerned about the fall. Of course we need to learn how to do the fall first, so that we don’t get injured in the process of transferring from standing position to the lying down position at the end of the kata, but I think our priority should be the partner in this situation.
Jorma and Antony in Lillsved July 2016. Photo by David Ellard.
So I have been mostly talking about the uke role until now. How about tori? Yes, how do we even move the partner when they are holding us? Pushing and pulling only works if we have leverage or if we are stronger than the partner, and pushing and pulling is not aikido, in my mind, no matter how aikido-like the katas are.
Our generation of aikidokas are standing on the shoulders of some real giants. Countless people, both from aikido and actually from the world outside, have helped build the environment we have today to practise our art. First of all, our daily life needs to be so easy for us that there will be time for recreational activity. If all our time would be spent getting money for food, none of this would have been possible.
At first everybody was sceptical if aikido really was something to be taken serious. To get training partners and students the teachers of old had to prove themselves against tough guys from other martial arts coming to test “if it works”. This is still happening, probably, in many places in the world. However, where I am practising we have been allowed peace and time to study subtle things which was impossible to study earlier, when everything was tested during the first stages of development. Aikido has found its place in the world and is here to stay. Now we can study the next level of things. Earlier too far out to reach. The priority was always to keep the katas “safe”.
We are very privileged in our generation. We are practising the art of peace, according to the Founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. I have been pondering what he meant by it? Most of his teachings were too far out to be understood by anybody. I mean, he was speaking of flowers when the students were there for learning how to become the strongest fighter. He could see the potential of aikido, far beyond anybody else. He was speaking of a way to heal the world. He was doing all these things which we are merely experimenting on now, five and a half decade after his passing. And he did it in a world that was not yet prepared for this kind of thinking. Let’s admit it: He was a genius!
Kaare and Alissa in Lillsved 2016. Photo by David Ellard.
However, how should we practice this idea of opening when we are tori in the keiko? Well, I challenge more and more of the “rules” I was thought as a beginner. I am always leaving an opening for the partner to grab on to, and to get into me. It is a risk that my partner will take me. However, I have found that the more I do it, the less risk there is, because if the partner wants to take over, there is nothing to take. I am somewhere else somehow. I am not safe, but I am taking the risk, over and over, with new partners every day, and I am learning more and more where I can develop more freedom.
A concrete example I am working on right now is ushiro ryote dori. The “safe way” the powerful way, is to rotate the arms inwards, curving the spine forwards. This is a powerful movement which the partner cannot stop. However, we are asking the partner to hold on in a situation where it might not always be natural to hold on. The opposite is where I am trying to focus my practice now, whenever I have the opportunity. I try to rotate my arms outwards, and arching my spine backwards. The partner will have a very good grab on our wrists, because the part he/she is holding is always facing towards them, perfectly fitting into that position, exactly at our wrists. However, there is a very high risk that we will be overextending our arms to a position where the partner naturally will take over. We are doing the very thing we learn at our first class of ushiro waza not to do. Keeping our arms completely in front of ourselves is powerful, but sometimes we need something else than power. I don’t really believe the main purpose of ushiro waza is to defend against an attacker who grabs our wrists from behind.
Through developing more and more sensitivity and freedom I find that this new ideas becomes more and more easy with more and more difficult partners. I just can’t wait to get my hands on more and more powerful partners to hold on to me so I can try it out. This opening of the body also comes to the partner holding on to us. When tori is closing the body uke is naturally also closing the body, because he/she is holding on. When we are opening, the partner will also be opening. It becomes a very lovely feeling of deep connection, which is exactly what I need for my problems in my shoulders. That is of course my main purpose at the moment, but on top of that, the martial application of this idea of opening is very intriguing for me.
So back to the role of uke. I have been thinking of how to practise in an open way when our partner is practising hard by twisting, pushing and pulling. I absolutely refuse not resist the partner’s power. It goes against my views in aikido. However, we can’t just let our partners push us around like mindless puppets. They would hurt us and maim us with their ways. Whenever I feel that my partner is pushing (or pulling) I imagine that my body is filled with little windmills. There is one in every cell of my body. In order for me to move, these windmills will have to get up to speed first. So I distribute the partner’s push into each of these spinning wheels, and it takes quite a momentum to get them all going. I am moving, but at my speed. The partner end up getting tired, and I feel only refreshed as the keiko proceeds.
I am open. Everything the partner gives me comes to me in a deep way, but somehow I am protected still. There is nowhere the force of the partner can catch. It is distributed throughout the body and I am getting energy instead of feeling beaten up by the aggressive partner. Of course this kind of thing takes some practice to develop, but I think it is the only way to be able to keep practising with everybody, without getting injured all the time. However, nothing is safe.
Julia, Ion, Timofej and myself in Lillsved in July 2016. Photo by Alexander Minidis.
Like I mentioned before, the dojo is like a world scaled down to a smaller size. Everything is more clean and simplified. Still, the principles we learn are valid in our daily interaction with others every day. If we approach a person with openness, I believe that they will open as well. There is a risk of course, in opening. However closing does not guarantee safety either. We are always vulnerable in one way or the other.
However, if we do not represent a threat for the people we meet. If we are opening in such a way that there is an honest opening, like in ushiro ryote dori, when there is somebody who is really out to hurt us. Such an opening has to be clean of any evil intent, no trick or trap, or it will be revealed, and we die. Sometimes we know that we are right and the other is wrong, and we are sure about it. This happens without words in the keiko. It also happens in the world. Do we have the courage to let the partner feel that he/she has the freedom to follow his/her heart, or do we put them against the wall and crush them? It is not as easy as we might think to avoid becoming the one intruding on the other’s private zone.
If we are being pushed around, we are opening, but anchoring ourselves on something unavailable for the partner. We are not trying to conceal it, but it is something the partner does not value; something the partner does not care about. The partner is open to take what he/she wants, but there is in truth nothing to take. Any crime committed is a crime against oneself.
I think we all find ourselves in aikido. There is nowhere to hide in the end. We can escape for a while, but in the end we come down to it: This is who I am. I might not like it, but this is me. Either we quit aikido, or we are in for life. And what a ride it is!
I don’t know. This is just some crazy rambling. I have many questions but not really any real answers, at least not for the world outside the dojo. I feel that I can’t do anything about the big evil happening all the time. I just have to start with myself. How do I choose to live and practice? What are the consequences of my actions on a larger scale? Anyway, I will just keep practising, and see where it takes me.
Enjoy your keiko! Aikido makes people happy!