I still remember my first session of aikido. I was sharing the experience with more than seventy other beginners packed together on a small tatami. I even remember the very first feedback I got. It was during tai no tenkan: “Relax your shoulders”. It is almost funny how this feedback still is strikingly relevant now.
Gaining freedom and removing blocks in my shoulders has been my entertainment for the past decade and it seems I will still have the pleasure of working on this endeavor for several decades to come. Whenever there is a problem, it very, very often is stiffness in the shoulders causing it.
I believe there is a strong connection between the state of our fingers and the state of our shoulders. One aspect of this is that I feel that the “middle joint” of my thumb is cutting into my partner’s wrist. This can in fact cause discomfort for a partner, especially if it is a person with small wrists, so it became a priority for me to “file away” this particular stiffness at every opportunity that would arise.
In aikido it is never one person’s problem or the other person’s problem. When we are with our partner it is our common problem. It is the stiffness of both that are being reflected in the grab. It is good to work together to solve the problem. However, it is also an individual study, especially at big seminars where we will meet all kinds of partners. The more stiff our partner is the softer we have to be to not have a problem.
One of the powerful tools to work on the blocks in the shoulders is the bokken. Grabbing on tightly with the three lower fingers and cutting will make you move in new ways because the bokken will not bend. This wooden stick constructs a set of restrictions forcing us to find new freedom to move the way we wish to move. I find especially kesa giri and kiri gaeshi interesting as it is very tempting to release part of the grab at some areas to keep the form of the cut. If the arms stay extended while the fingers and palms are glued to the wood throughout the cut the shoulders will have to move in ways they don’t normally move in everyday life. I have never been a big fan of weapon practice. I do not do it to learn how to use the weapons, but rather to learn how to be tori and uke in a better way in the ordinary practice.
A thing I started working on just a few weeks ago is how to get a proper sound from my slap on the tatami during ukemi. On the right side it sounds “better”. The sound is deeper and more unison. You can actually hear the disharmony caused by the blocks in my left part of my neck and shoulder as they are separating the parts of the slap. For a long time I have been working on falling completely silently. I feel my focus should now be to also use this tool to find new roads to relaxing my shoulders more.
The first time I heard “relax your shoulders” I thought I just have to relax a bit more and make another try. I am very happy that it is not that simple.
Enjoy your keiko. Aikido make people happy!