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Out for my own, out to be free
One with my mind, they just can’t see
No need to hear things that they say
Life’s for my own, to live my own way

James HetfieldEscape

Yesterday at work I met a pack of sparrows. They were hanging out in a small bush exactly in my path. As I was approaching the bush slowly I was curious to see how close I could get before they would fly. At about two meters all of them took to the wings simultaneously. The minimum safe distance was reached and they felt it was time to adjust the distance to something they considered to be a danger.

This reminded me of my first idea of a blog post discussing the restrictions we implement in the keiko in order to achieve more freedom. I think maybe it is about time to actually write the post.

I believe timing and distance are to aikido what the scales (the intervals between the different tones) are to music. If we don’t know how to use them we will be unable to create something original of our own and are limited to merely reproduce what others have been teaching us. If we try to do something on our own we would be lost and the result would probably not be something most would consider to be music at all. If I am not mistaken, music must follow certain principles to sound good and feel good. I think it is the same with aikido.

If we start to understand the principles for distance and timing we might be able to, in the moment of truth, construct a new movement, a new form, which we would invent spontaneously right at the instant when it is necessary.

The result of timing and adjustment of distance. From the seminar with Endo sensei in Púchov July 2012. Photo by Tomas Svec.

The study of the principles of timing and distance is a very complicated and intricate study. We probably need to decide to set some restrictions in order to study it more effectively. There are many possible examples, but I think I will restrict myself to mainly focus on shomen uchi in this post. How should we study the timing and distance in shomen uchi in a good way?

The first restriction is to decide how to attack. If we do not move, the partner will approach to the distance where he/she can reach us with one step, then move to strike and end up reaching us from the maximum distance away. We decide exactly how the partner should attack, simplifying our study and making the practice more precise.

Next, if we were to move a small step back after the partner has reached the limit of no return in the attack he/she would not be able reach us. If we were to enter into the “kill zone” and pass through safely to the other side he/she would not hit us either. The timing of the movement, in both cases, needs to be exactly at the point of no return for the partner. These exercises consist only of very simple movements. However, I feel that they are a very effective way of getting a feel for the distance and the timing. We are not doing any complex kata. Merely adjusting the distance. For the last couple of years we have been doing this kind of exercises at the beginning of almost every session I have attended with Endo sensei.

The next step could perhaps be to study the meeting with the partner. The position and the timing of where and when our hands needs to meet the partner’s hands needs to be exactly correct to make the meeting feel good. If we were to move freely around, this study becomes very chaotic. Thus it would become very difficult to understand the causality of the timing and distance with relation to the feeling of the meeting. So it would be a sensible restriction to decide to move only on the line of the attack, or to decide not to move at all. One additional restriction that would be good for our structure is to decide to keep the arms extended in the meeting.

By studying the meeting in this way, there is no way to escape the full impact of the partner’s attack, hence we would need to work on the meeting itself to make it feel good. So the restriction are giving us a tough assignment and we need to solve it together with our partner. Every attempt becomes a research situation, adjusting the variables using the results from the previous attempt to improve beyond what we were able to earlier. Still, we are not doing any kata.

The distance is adjusted so there will be room for the next movement of nikyo. From the seminar with Endo sensei in Púchov in July 2012. Photo by Tomas Svec.

When we are doing the kata these matters will become very complex. There are many movements which needs to happen in the correct timing and we need the correct distance to make the movement possible to perform. I think the study of the very restricted situations described above are very helpful to get a feel for further development in the kata.

Another way to study the principles for distance and timing could be when we are lining up at the beginning and at the end of the practice. Did we sit down at a distance to our partners, to our left, to our right, in front and behind, such that we will be able to complete our next step? When everybody has lined up and it is time for the rei it would be extremely unpractical for the whole line to expand and the lines increasing the distance between each other so that everybody would have room for the bow. That timing would be wrong. Nor would it be a good solution if we would have to creep together and shrink ourselves to make the bow.

We need the space on our sides for our elbows, and in front for our head. When we sit down we should perhaps already know, by experience, what we intend to do next. So we make sure we have enough room for doing what we plan to do by adjusting the distance to the people adjacent to us. Only then will we have the prerequisite conditions to be able to achieve a rei that feels good. I believe that in the kata during keiko this timing and adjustment of distance is more complicated, but it follows the same principles as when lining up for the bow.

The end of the training at Aikido Karlín. From the seminar with Endo sensei in Prague December 2009. Photo by Pavel Novak.

So by getting a feel for the distance and timing I believe we have an ability to do aikido outside the regular forms we learn from our instructors at practice. If we do a different martial art these principles will be the same. I am doing Gracie jiu jitsu now. That is what my only present training partner wish to do so that is what I am restricted to practise, at this point of time. The physical changes of the forms from those that we do in aikido are huge. However, even when both me and my partner are lying on the floor the timing and distance are a very essential part of the practice. The question is only if I have been able to pick up any universal principles from the aikido keiko, or if I am imprisoned by the forms I usually practice?

I am really fascinated by the idea that by restricting ourselves and being conscious about these restrictions we are getting rid of involuntary restrictions. By entering a constructed “prison” learning how to achieve freedom within those walls, we are developing skills to achieve real freedom which does not only apply in the dojo, but also in life in general.

Enjoy your keiko! Aikido make people happy!