“Into the Gap” by Mary Stein

Working at jo practice with Travis the other day, I met his attack by pressing down on his staff, then releasing it for him to re-attack. Travis remarked that I was releasing far too much, leaving him more or less free to do whatever he pleased with his own jo. What is needed here, he indicated, was a very small side movement of my jo, just enough to free him to begin to raise his jo upward for a new attack, but not enough to allow him to move his jo easily in another direction.

At that moment I realized that the mechanical choreographer in me had taken over. This character appears when I’ve learned the outlines of a technique, which go something like “Click his jo with your jo, then raise up your jo so he can strike again, then zero in on his temple. One, two, three .” There are lots of gaps between one, two and three in that scenario. The choreographer settles for knowing enough to go through the motions, with an end-game in mind (the jo to his temple) and nothing especially clear in between. In the more primitive manifestations of this script, my partner more or less disappears and I’m just hitting at the jo, not at his or her body. Slowly, as I return to weapons practice over the years, I “come to” a little more at these moments, but there’s a long way to go.

To face up to that the other day felt liberating, especially when I tried that much smaller motion of release that Travis had suggested. Then, as he raised his jo, my own jo still felt connected to his, staying with his jo so that they were both rising together. I was actually supporting and guiding his jo as he raised it for the next attack; I was there for the instant of blending that can go by so fast as to be unnoticed. By the same token, things were working better martially. Above all, I was present, with my partner, in the “gap” that now felt brimming with clarity and life, filled with the myriad details of our bodies’ movements.

On the sidelines, the mechanical choreographer (who maintains that he has his uses) could take a bow too, for his willingness to step aside at that moment. He’ll be back.

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. bruce baker says:

    Funny thing about weapons … we are doing a slow motion practice that is designed to ingrain the movements into both our muscle memory and provide guidelines for actual martial application later.

    Yeah, there are gaps, and a rap on the knuckles is not polite, neither is a poke to the ribs, or being completely disarmed, but at some point you have to let go thinking and let the practice turn into a martial application. No more Choreography. NO more following the directions of your teacher in class .. because there will come a time when the application is not the simple pretty flowing movements of class practice. There will come a time when your are fighting for your life or fighting to keep someone from hurting you, and when that mindset of no thinking integrates itself with action on a level beyond what an observer can follow or predict .. then you are applying your lessons properly.

    Damn Choreography … think of it as falling in middle of a dance number then getting up as if you didn’t fall and making the number seem as if you didn’t fall at all. Adapt .. overcome … improvise. Some of the most interesting finds are in the mistakes we make .. not the set choreography we robotically/ mechanically follow.

    My favorite times on stage as when we fail to meet the script and then have to improvise to get the play back on track. Some pretty funny gags develope from mistakes, and some pretty interesting finds develop when we see things in our practice also.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pan the comment of Mary Stein, but merely expand upon it to include a wider view.

  2. When I was first practicing weapons, we all used to like to bang sticks together. Doing that inevitably leads to gaps as the excessive force carries your stick off centerline. Somebody mentioned the “sword of no sound” (otanoshi no ken?). Perhaps banging is square practice. Maybe taking some of the gaps out is more circular. Continuously riding the other stick might be a spiral and maybe closer to being actually useful.

    Wouldn’t hurt any aikidoka to take a few months of European fencing.

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