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The secret of Aikido is not how you move your feet,
it is how you move your mind.
I’m not teaching you martial techniques.
I’m teaching you nonviolence

Morihei Ueshiba

What are the basics? During all my periods of practicing I have heard about this mysterious consept of basics. Nobody really agrees on exactly what it is, but everybody seems to be absolutely certain that what they are considering as basic is the thing everybody should be practising as bread and butter practice.

I remember being told to teach basics when I first started teaching. Everybody up to that point had been teaching me a myriad of different variations of the different kata forms in aikido. I asked what is it you mean by basic, as we have been practicing so many different variations and all of them about as much, and I was referred to a book by a teacher I had never met at the time. So even though I had spent hundreds of hours on each of the forms we do in the keiko, I was asked to teach from a book, because that was where the basic is. That is when I gave up the idea of having a kata as basic.

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Seigo Okamoto sensei from Daito Ryu Aiki Jiu Jitsu Roppokai. The picture was taken from Kaizentao.com

From my earliest years I remember endless discussions on the tatami after the keiko, during what I felt should have been the keiko (talking is talking, and practising is practising), in the sauna, at the cafe, in the bar, on the way to and from practice, about which way is the basic way. An example we spent countless hours discussing back and forth over the decades, even before I started, in my “aikido childhood club” was which leg to step forward with in ikkyo. Of course we never reached any conclusion because there are advantages and disadvantages of both ideas, and I were doing both wrong (to the extent that I will call anything wrong, it was a part of the journey for me) in any case. What a waste of time and energy… We could just have been doing them both a couple of thousand times and figured it out much easier than argumenting for one or the other.

Now we are nearing on Christmas and most clubs have examinations. Which means that these discussions comes back and keeps tormenting my mind. I try to stay out of this kind of situations, and mostly I succeed. Still sometimes that is the only practice available. Everybody else goes home after the end of the ordinary keiko. So the discussions and questions comes. I keep thinking, well, how about we just practice a bit, instead of this endless picking on meaningless details which in my mind takes our focus away from the important parts: The keiko itself.

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Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei. Picture taken from aikidojournal.com

Of course, when we are teaching somebody, we have to make a decision what to actually do. However, what we are doing is not the only way. We can help others by giving hints about what we found useful ourselves, but it might not work for everybody. There might always be a different idea that gives the big revelation for this person. We are all a little bit different both in body and in mind. I do not believe that there is one ultimate basic form. Any difficulty which presents itself as a result of any form is an opportunity to learn how to deal with that problem, without changing the form so that the difficulty disappears. In my mind that is evading the problem.

So what are the basics? Well, don’t ask me. I have no clue. However, as I mentioned above, the concept of keiko is very basic for me. The endless repeating of any exercise, finding new and exciting concepts and ideas by ourselves within the form we are performing. We are tori  four times, and uke four times, no matter the experience level of ourselves with respect to the partner. Any form is good really, as long as there are restictions leading us through some difficult passages, and they all do. New partners give us new challenges, and it changes all the time, even if we are continuing doing the same physical form all the time. The more we practice, the further we can see. The more experience we have the more details emerge in front of us. To the outside observer it looks as we are continuing to repeat the same thing forever, but in our mind we are traveling on a journey finding new and exciting places on our way.

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Yukiyoshi Sagawa sensei from Daito Ryu Aiki Jiu Jitsu. Picture taken from Budoshugyosha.com

Well, that is a pretty useless idea of what basic is, isn’t it? So what is there to teach and learn about basics? If I force myself to make any answer to what I normally avoid speaking about (because of some past frustration and traumas in my mind), there are more concepts which I consider basic. They are countless, and it is hard to put words to exactly what they are. For me another basic concept is to be able to move with the partner without pushing or pulling. Without this basic idea there is no way to move with the partner, and we are stuck at pushing and pulling each other around relying on leverage and strenght to be able to move at all. Also, it is nice to have as a basic idea to always have a good structure in every movement we make, and to have a nice posture and base at all times.

For me the concept of basic has nothing to do with history and forms based sword warfare, and on the weak points of a the samurai’s armour, and it definitely has nothing to with what “works” and “not works”. If we do a million ikkyo, we will find our own, and it will be a little bit different from all the basic ikkyos we were thaught by our teachers.

If we take it one step further, beyond the base, posture and structure, which are rather simple concepts (allthough still difficult enough in reality though). How does the thing with moving together with the partner, in any situation, work in the keiko? What is the basic of that skill? What exactly are the requirements of that? When the partne is holding us, how do we lift the arm without coming in conflict with the partner’s body and mind. That is the basis of the movement. The basic idea we are searching for. This is the kind of questioning I make for myself to search for what a basic concept is.

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Seigo Yamaguchi sensei. Picture taken from Aikidojournal.com

So, first of all, our partner must be fearless in the ukemi required by the movement we are planning to make. This actually makes the fall a basic requirement for the keiko. The flip side is that tori needs to be fearless in his/her part as well. If there is any fear, it is very difficult, or in my mind almost impossible to move with our partner. There are technical details, of course, but they only give us a way to search for the solution with the partner.

The real revelation for me lies with my relationship with my partners. We need to consider each other’s needs, and feelings and never wish any harm to our partner. We need to be able to move our partner’s body as naturally as moving our own. I would actually go so far as to say that we need to love our partner in order to make aiki with him/her. If we don’t like our partner we will not move with each other in the same way. There will always be some disturbance. So in other words, I think that love, in fact, is a basic of aiki.

Now I am headed into abstraction here, so what about the forms? Well, naturally we need something to repeat to travel on our journey. We can’t just dance around each other jolly and happy, because there are no restrictions to give us the directions we need on our trip. The form gives us boarders of what is possible and not possible, because we are two bodies, and two minds, having to go through these movements together. Alone it is easy (or actually it is not, but nothing will stop us), but when the partner holds on it becomes interesting.

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Seishiro Endo sensei. The picture was taken by Tomas Svec at Saku Dojo in May 2012.

I also think that it is an interesting thought to question wether or not we can change our feelings for somebody by will. I am not sure that is a skill which are possible to learn. If we do not like our partner we can behave nicely still, but our feelings will be the same, I think. To find a way to love somebody we dislike could be a tough challenge. Still, that is the basic of being able to move with the partner, and the basic of all katas which require movement.

So the history brings us the forms. Many forms, with many variations. I will not say that some are good and others are bad, but I really dislike any which damages our body over time. We are going to be doing this every day for maybe fifty years or more, so we need to have forms of practice which does not damage the body we need to do it.

I also have preferences like that we should not move more than what is necessary to direct the partner clearly where he/she should be going, and all related kata should form a neat system where everything related looks as similar to the corresponding counterparts as possible. I prefer the kata to be peaceful. Both tori and uke should be safe from the partner and at the same time not violate the areas of the partner. There is peace.

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Seigo Okamoto sensei. The picture was taken from Aikidojournal.com

However, even though these preferences dictates how the kata will appear, for me, this is not basics. This is just my personal preference. It will be different for everybody, I guess These katas are froms wich are a very advanced and highly complicated application of the basics. They are not something which I would expect a practicioner of a few years to be able to perform without difficulties, because many of these forms are extremely complex in their own rights. It is difficult enough to remember which arm and leg goes where to have time to consider the partner’s body and mind. Thus I feel that it is insane to call something so complicated a basic.

The forms builds on the basic, which for me, among hundreds of other things is to be able to move when the partner holds on, being in base, having a good structure and posture. I think that the basic should be a foundation to build on. For me if feels like building a castle in the clouds if we try to base anything on a dead form. A basic needs to be fundamental enough for somebody to conceive even if they never did it before. Everybody can feel. Everybody can fall (in one way or another). Exploration with one’s partner will reveal the basics, but it takes time, and it will take even more time to be able to put words into what exactly basic is for exactly us as a person.

For me the basics are the feelings me and my partners are having during the keiko. And how would we know if what we are doing is right or not? Well, we can always observe what happens when we meet a new partner on the tatami. Do they move, or do they not? Do the smile or do they frown? Do we like them or do we dislike them? The new ones, which do not know who we are ,will be our test. They do not lie, and if we do not cheat at our test, by speaking to them during the keiko, we will know if we are on the right path or not.

So in the end, what is basics? We have to teach the beginners basics! Well, I have still no idea what that really means.

Enjoy your keikoAikido makes people happy!