Movable and Immovable Objects

The other day James and I were trying different techniques with horizontal strikes, the tsuki punch to the belly. We’d try one technique, then another, starting with that punch. We’d been moving with each other in fairly flowing motion when all of a sudden when I punched toward him he didn’t budge at all, except to put up a blocking arm in front of his center. Then he immediately stepped forward to mow me down. That first time I more or less banged into him, and had the distinct impression of encountering the proverbial immovable object.

When it was my turn to receive his thrust, I carried out the technique as I was accustomed to doing it–receiving the punch absorbently, moving aside a bit to allow the energy to express itself before I stepped forward to unbalance James. My moves seemed satisfying, even graceful, and they conformed to my image of a flexible, responsive aikido.

James looked at me quizzically. Nothing wrong with that, he implied. But for the moment he was interested in something different. This particular approach to tsuki kokyu ho, he said, was one of his favorites: he enjoyed playing the tough guy on that one, just standing there strong and virtually unmoving, with a blocking arm going up just before uke’s fist could reach its target. No outward movement of “absorption” or receptivity at all, just an “I’m here, deal with it.”

“You might like to try that,” he said.

So I did, and discovered (or perhaps re-discovered, but it had been a while) that it was fun to play the immovable object and good practice in timing, too. I was glad to be reminded about the variations available in aikido, some of them fairly extreme. Just standing there like the king of the mountain probably represents one extreme, while the fluid responsiveness that part of me prizes so much belongs near the other end of a continuum filled with endless possibilities—any one of which is not necessarily better than another.

Mary Stein practices aikido at Suginami Aikikai in San Francisco. Her book, The Gift of Danger, will be published by North Atlantic Books in August.


  1. Once upon a time I was at a Terry Dobson class. He was doing a simple projection throw and folks were flying all over the place. I didn’t get it and asked him why they were so acrobatic. He said he didn’t want to show me. Took me a long time to figure out that the “throw” was really and simply a punch to the short ribs. If uke wasn’t flexible and nage wasn’t kind there would be broken bones. It’s given me a lot to think about, not just about kindness and flexibility. Look carefully at O Sensei in the 1935 film and you’ll see several instances of people falling away from his atemi. Getting stiff in receiving kokyu ho is an invitation to getting a smashed face. This is not to say that receiving a hit isn’t instructive, but…

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