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Right now I am in a part of the world where there is no aikido. My work is here (for a period of three months) and everybody in the aikido world is somewhere else. During my time here I have been fortunate enough to get some training minutes with some people with no prior martial arts training (family members and coworkers). They had no particular interest in starting to do aikido, but were rather curious about how it works and were kind enough to help me out in my great need. I think this is a quite different situation from somebody coming to the dojo for the first time to start practising aikido.

Alfred is my most frequent training partner here

What happens physically when they grab? In this situation the partner’s joints are usually locked, the system is blocked and it is extremely difficult to make any movement whatsoever. If I try moving the arm one way it would result in them trying to move it the other way and vice versa. Also, the grab very easily opens up so that the connection disappears and the signals does not reach the partner.

What happens mentally to the partner when he/she grabs? I can’t know for sure of course, but I have some theories. Initially I think the partner is curious, but also a bit wary. They know that it is a martial art and have probably seen some pretty nasty moves before (martial arts demonstrations, martial arts competitions, movies etc.). So they are a bit careful and might be worried that it might hurt. As they get the grab and the positions are settled with correct distance they feel more safe and the situation very easily become competitive. I believe this most likely is a result of curiosity, which I consider a positive thing in itself (very positive for both beginners and more advanced students of aikido indeed). The challenge would be for me to avoid getting caught in the competition. The partner is probably wondering how it works and tries to test it by resisting. It is only natural and I guess it comes from the culture we live in (we approach new things with some skepticism). In addition, since they are not actually attending an aikido class there are no restrictions regarding what they are allowed to do, and their mindset is usually not so much prepared for learning or helping.

What happens mentally to me when the partner grabs? It is very difficult to maintain in a neutral state and not have a too strong idea about what I should do in this training situation (especially when I am as hungry for some normal keiko as I am here). When I try something and I am unable to do it the fear grabs hold immediately. The partner is working against me and it feels awkward not being able to do what I wanted to do. If I proceed like that without changing something I would get absolutely nowhere.

One possibility could be to apply an atemi to the partner, constructing a martial arts logic and explain verbally, intellectually, how it works. Now this is what I have been doing for years as an instructor, but it is a very limited and low-level solution to the problem at hand. It requires almost no skill at all from me to explain an “excuse” why the partner need to change. Introducing atemi at such an early stage of the training does not exactly give a very welcoming feeling either. Also, it might cut both ways. The partner can probably also make some atemi and he/she does not yet understand the constraints or the agreement of the practice (to keep the grab and then try to strike, to not move fast if we practise everything slowly and so on), requiring more verbal “excuses”. So by introducing atemi I could in fact create ten problems where before there was only one.

There is a problem in the grab. I think it should primarily be solved in the grab, without doing too much around it. Another solution I have found useful many times is to reverse the roles. I show the movement to my partner with him/her as tori and me as uke. By letting the partner throw me first I take the competitive nature away from the exercise. Still, this only changes the original problem into a different one. The partner has changed. He/she has been tricked by my strategy into being easier on me when I will be tori. This development happens to all of us as we practise. We learn to cooperate and help each other out. It is not a bad thing though. On the contrary I strongly believe it is necessary to learn aikido in a good way. However, this development of the “old training partners” makes it extremely fascinating to try new people who didn’t do aikido before. For this particular case, I suspect that the less interested they are in actually starting to practise aikido themselves might be the better. They are “untainted” by ambition, previous experience or influence from me prior to the grab.

Then there of course is the some more dead-ends (in this case, for this study) consisting of changing what I try to accomplish, or trying to do something fast with a timing such that the partner is not ready. That would also change the initial problem, and once again merely feed my ego instead of working on the problem at hand. All of these, and many more are useful for changing the problem into something else. If we go deep enough maybe every solution ends up being changing the problem into something else in some way. However, I am quite sure that there are acceptable changes and less acceptable changes for every level.

A moment of deep study together with Martin Mlynár at the seminar with Endo sensei in Prague in December 2009. Photo by Pavel Novák.

If I try to force it the partner will either hold me or let go of the grab, depending on the partner. If I scare the partner or do something that feels uncomfortable for the partner he/she will protect himself/herself and back away. If I change the problem I will never solve the original problem, thus I will not improve. Only true aiki will suffice.

So if this person grab me katate dori, how do I feel? Why do I feel these emotions? An interesting sensation for me these past days has been the one I feel exactly the moment a goal is shattered. Like if I wish to do the beginning of tai no tenkan, but the grab is too strong and I end up starting to pull parts of or the entire grab. I have to change my field of study and go deeper into the grab to get some knowledge from it. How long do I try and how frustrated do I get before I change my idea? Here I am talking about be the idea of the field of study, not changing the partner, the attack or the movement I try to perform.

I am not aiming to be able to do kata with resisting partners. However, I do find it useful from time to time to be grabbed by someone completely new to aikido. I look at aikido as a nonverbal language. I do not know it well enough to speak to people outside of aikido, but I am constantly trying at least to make some kind of communications with “normal people”, “untainted people”, using this exciting language. I do not have any solutions for these problems I have discussed here, but I do at least have questions. So I am on the way.

Enjoy your practice! Aikido make people happy!