On October 20th after a week of training and merrymaking in the Netherlands, a small group gathered around Katsuyuki Shimamoto Shihan and his wife ‘Mama-san’ boards KLM flight KL1365 from Amsterdam Schipol to Warsaw F. Chopin Airport.
A happy welcome committee of Polish hosts picks us up at the airport. Warm hearts in cold Warsaw. While Shihan & Co are taken to Ibis Hotel, their domicile for the duration of our stay, I feel privileged to get in the car with Paweɫ and Ewa P., and their second son (who will be born in a few weeks), the sweet family that has agreed to bless me with their hospitality for the next week.
Soon upon my arrival in Warsaw I notice that in spite of a turbulent history between our two countries that should continue to teach us (yes especially us) a lesson about the importance of peace, Germany and Poland share the linguistic feature ‘super’ not only with each other, but also with a bunch of posh Englishmen, so as a symbol of unity and harmony, let me use this term to describe Paweɫ, Ewa, and their whole family – including their outstanding hospitality: SUPER!
Over the next two days we get a chance to explore parts of Warsaw, where it is colder still than in Breda and Amsterdam (we left Osaka at 25 degrees Celsius). We walk through the ancient red brick town wall, arrive at the colorful Rynek (central square of the old town), where some are tempted to flirt with a dark figure clad in medieval robes to advertise the Irish pub’s happy hour, and finally, as the ice-cold wind hits our bones, land at ‘Coffee Heaven’, a local variety of Starbucks. The seasonal drink involves hot coffee, coconut, white chocolate, and a generous cusp of whipped cream.
Shihan suggests we visit the Museum of the Polish Army – for him, this is the second time. It has left an impression on him. I can see why when I come face to face with huge, winged husaria wearing 30 kg armor and leopard skins slung round their necks, metal-clad horses, giant spears, saw-shaped swords and real military planes braving the late October wind outside.
We are privileged to get into the recently completed Chopin Museum that has been booked out for months and only become available to us by last-minute luck, thanks to our host Paweɫ Z.’s persistent efforts. Drawers marked with hand-written scores let me listen to different waltzes, mazurkas, and nocturnes as I pull them out. Headphones tell me about Chopin’s years with George Sand at her residence in Nohant – in Polish to screen shots with English subtitles – a complicated love story that captivates me until I realize it is high time to meet the others downstairs at the exit. On my way, grand pianos weave a dream-like atmosphere, adding realism to the surrealist landscape created by the combination of the latest technology and the life of Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, a famous composer and figure of great pride to the Polish people (see airport name above) born exactly 200 years ago.
On October 23rd, it is time for our first training on this year’s Poland leg of the journey: 75 min evening training at Paweɫ Z.’s dojo, a permanently rented space inside a high school that the students call ‘Koɫo Dojo’ (= wheel dojo), after the district that houses it. It ccoul also be interpreted to mean ‘next to the dojo’, but as temperatures have progressively gone down during our trip, I’m happy we actually get to go inside.
Today, the space seems small for the remarkable number of people that has come together for a dose of Shimamoto Shihan’s teachings, but whether it is people’s warm hearts or Shihan’s good lesson planning, there are no major collisions, and the session is a smooth start to our stay in Poland. Shihan uses it to give an outline for the seminar he will be teaching over the next two days at a much larger venue to a much larger group of students.
As there is no Polish interpreter present tonight, and I have not been able to pick up the Polish language in 2 days (mea culpa!), I try to get Shihan’s message across in English, hoping that together with his tell-tale body language and expressive gestures, it will get through.
Shimamoto Shihan’s uke for most of this training session (and the seminar) is Matsumoto-san (4th dan) from Shosenji Dojo, Osaka, Japan, who has just arrived in Poland to join us halfway through our trip. He will also leave one day earlier than the rest of us (it is difficult in Japan to get time off work!).
Cold Weather, Warm Hearts
It is very cold here in Poland. When we left Japan, we had 25 degrees. But you all have very warm hearts here, so luckily that makes up for the cold weather, and I’d like to thank you all for the warm welcome.
自然体 (Shizentai) literally means ‘natural body’, or ‘natural posture’. But to the contrary of what this name suggests, we have to work hard to find and maintain it at all times. This is one of the most important things in aikido. It deserves our utmost attention. We need to be strict with ourselves.
Today I will explain the main aspects of shizentai. If you use this list as a check list to make sure you are doing your best to achieve shizentai, you can get closer and closer to this constant goal. I still do this, too. We need to keep examining our way of doing things. So, as always, let’s train together.
1. Shizentai for the Eyes
When getting attacked, we have a tendency to just look at our attacker, or to just look at the hand, or the weapon he attacks with. This is a very limited field of vision. It causes us to feel intimidated, shrink back, tense up in both mind and body, and limit the possible number of reactions we can come up with. Let’s try to expand our field of vision. Let’s try to make our world bigger.
• attack: shomen-uchi from the side
• defense: when you feel uke’s ki, raise your arm(s) to ward off his attack
It might seem more difficult to catch and fend off your partner’s attack when he is standing next to you, not right in front of you where you can see him. But in fact, it is easier, because when he is standing next to you, attacking from 3 or 9 o’clock, you are not directly looking at him. You cannot be tempted so easily to look at his scary face, his huge fist, or his horrible weapon.
If our partner is in front of us, we automatically look at him and adjust our movement to his movement. But in aikido, we should adjust our ki to his ki. His ‘ki’ in this situation is his first thought of attack.
When he is standing next to you, it is easier to widen your field of vision. Look at everything equally, and simply include your partner in this field of vision as one of many components. Don’t give him any special attention.
This is shizentai for the eyes: a wide field of vision. Looking at everything equally.
2. Shizentai for the Back
Many of us have a tendency to let our shoulders slump forward. It seems easier. If you walk hunched over, with your shoulder blades apart, your hands swing only in front of your body. This is the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) way of walking. Those guys get into a lot of fights.
But if you put your shoulder blades together close to your spine, and move them downwards from there, your back is straight, and when you walk, your hands can swing freely by your sides, all the way back behind your body, which is now sitting straight in the middle of this pendulum motion. This may sometimes seem to require more effort, but it is in fact more natural. It looks natural, and it feels natural. It is the only position that allows you to truly relax. And walking straight, you don’t get into fights so easily.
Whether you stand, sit, or move, always make sure your shoulder blades are in the correct position: pulled back together close to the spine, and slid down. This ensures that your back is always straight, and it is easy for your ki to come out. Even while you sit down or stand up, keep your back straight.
If you sit down with your back straight like this, and cross your legs (right foot on left thigh, then left foot on right thigh), you arrive in exactly the right posture for zazen (seated zen meditation). This is the posture of the Buddha. The Buddha has many ‘in’ (mudras/ hand gestures), but he always sits with his back straight.
This is shizentai for the back. Shoulder blades together and down. Back straight.
3. Shizentai for the Shoulders
Sometimes when we concentrate hard on achieving shizentai for the back, our shoulders tense up. It is very important to always relax our shoulders.
• attack: morote-dori, twisting tori’s arm into an uncomfortable position
• defense: ashi-sabaki into a position that allows tori to relax his shoulder and makes uke crumble, while tori re-gains shizentai
Sometimes an attack makes it really difficult for us to relax our shoulders. One way to get out of this is to simply step into a position that makes it easier to relax our shoulders. Step into the place that is best for you, and relax. You don’t have to give a second thought to your partner if you do this. You should definitely not think about throwing him. He is very dear to you. Don’t throw your dear partner. Just concentrate on what position allows you to easily relax your shoulder, step there and let it drop.
If you try to move only your hand, you use strength, your partner fights back, and the whole thing turns into a struggle. This is not aikido. In aikido, you move from your center. Your hand is just a prop. It doesn’t work on its own.
If your shoulders are tense, this is a sign that you are not in control and can’t do things at your own pace. When your shoulders are tense, your range of movement is limited.
This is shizentai for the shoulders. Always relax your shoulders.
4. Breathing Shizentai
Breathing properly is another important aspect of shizentai. Your breathing should always be calm. It should be an organic part of your movements.
Another way of doing the twisted-arm morote-dori exercise we did before is to remain in the same position. Instead of stepping into a position that makes it easy to relax your shoulders, you can also use your breathing to relax them right where you are. This is called ki-training.
This is shizentai for your breath. Always breathe calmly.
5. Shizentai for Ki
Your power in aikido comes from moving your ki. Your ki is concentrated in your lower abdomen. If I move towards my partner using my ki center, he shrinks back, or tries to run away. If I move towards him hunched over, without paying attention to my ki center, I get no reaction from him.
We did some ki-catching training with shomen-uchi from the side earlier. Now, let’s try ni-kyo, san-kyo, and yon-kyo merely by touching our partner lightly. You need to pay close attention to your ki-center to achieve this. Also, use your breathing. Practicing in this way is a good way to practice using your ki-center.
This is shizentai for your ki. Keep your ki calm and centered.
6. Shizentai for the Knees
Paying attention to a lot of other things, sometimes our knees tense up, and straighten all the way. From this position, it is impossible to move immediately. We should always make sure our knees are relaxed, slightly bent, so we are always ready to move into any direction.
This is shizentai for the knees. Always keep your knees relaxed, ready to move in whatever direction.
7. Shizentai for the Mind
Finally, we should always have a calm mind. This sums up the overall concept of shizentai, which I consider the right kamae for every attack. As Miyamoto Musashi said, kamae is no kamae. If we expect a certain thing to happen, we limit our reaction range to this thing. If we expect nothing, if we relax our body as described above, if we make ourselves empty, it doesn’t matter what happens next. We are ready for anything.
This is shizentai for the mind. Keep a calm, empty mind.
The Right 間合 (Maai) Distance
Before we do zagi kokyuho, our usual wrap-up technique, consider this. If your uke sits down first, it allows you to create whatever distance is most comfortable for you to work with. So before you sit down, think about this. Make sure you sit down in a position that allows you to work at your own pace. If I sit down here (he demonstrates), my partner can’t even push me (even though his face is swiftly reddening with effort). If I don’t pay attention to this, my partner can work at his pace, and I end up putting myself in a weaker position. Even if you have already sat down, and your uke joins you afterwards, make sure you immediately re-adjust your position to create the distance that allows you to work at your own pace.
Insects have feelers. These are their antennae to perceive what is going on around them. If their antennae fail to work properly, this is a matter of life and death for them. Even TVs have antennae.
School children have special antennae for listening to their teachers. I taught at a junior high school for 30 years. I taught some classes about antennae. The kids in those classes had better grades than the kids in the classes I hadn’t talked to about antennae. This is not surprising, of course.
As human beings, we don’t only have one antenna like a TV. Or two like an insect. We have the chance to acquire an all-round antenna system that works at 360 degrees. But to achieve this, we need to constantly polish every bit of it. This is our responsibility. Our antenna system is our ki. Let’s keep polishing it.
We are all sitting in seiza at the end of class.
Are your shoulder blades close to your spine, and down? Are you looking at everything? Are your shoulders relaxed? Now breathe in, and breathe out in a long, thin stream that goes far, far into the distance in front of you.
The main seminar takes place in a large hall that consists of a tatami area usually used for judo as the two Japanese kanji (the first one slightly warped) on the front wall show, and a wrestling area that is cushioned even more softly.
The building is equipped with changing rooms, showers, bath rooms, vending machines, a waiting room, and a cafeteria, from which mouthwatering aromas of fried food come wafting as noon approaches. It is part of a sprawling complex of buildings scattered across a spacious park area, all dedicated to sports and fitness. A remnant of the communist era, I learn, when sports were taken very seriously.
When I take off my slippers and enter the hall dressed in dogi and hakama, I am treated to a rare experience as I bow and send my ki not only to Kaiso Morihei Ueshiba, who has equipped us with aikido, the path of peace and harmony, but also to the ghosts of Poland’s communist past who – say about them what you will – have had the decency to contribute the venue for this seminar.
Through a row of windows along the ceiling, we can observe yellow leaves dancing in the autumn wind while Shihan teaches the seminar along the lines he has sketched during our first session at Koɫo Dojo, this time going into more technical detail.
Look at everything at once, I hear throughout the seminar. Eyes opening, worlds growing, hearts reaching, hands grabbing, friends flying, leaves dancing. Everything.
A Great Teacher
When my teacher, Osawa Sensei wanted me to be his uke, he was always very humble and would ask me very kindly to attack him. He would hold out his arm politely to make it easy for me to grab him in the right way. He was a great teacher.
Shihan emulates his teacher, inviting his uke in a kind, humble way and demonstrates a technique throughout which he maintains a serene smile, a straight posture, and a caring demeanor towards his partner, putting him down effectively but gently, making a cupped-hand head rest for him as his head approaches the ground.
Next he assumes an arrogant stance. ‘I’m great! Here. Attack me.’ He flexes his muscles and indulges in a grandiose, forceful throw that smashes his partner to the ground. He puts his foot on him and raises his fists. ‘I win!’
This is NOT a good teacher. This is a teacher who THINKS he is a great teacher, but he is clearly not. A great teacher is always humble. Kind. Caring.
Osawa Sensei was offered a tenth dan by the previous Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, but he refused to accept it. He was later granted the tenth dan posthumously. There were two funerals for him. One very small one only for family members. I attended this funeral, too. And another one with a huge throng of people, all those whose lives he had touched. His other main students were Endo (now teaching at Hombu) and Suganuma Sensei (now teaching in Fukuoka).
Ikkyo Ura – Advancing Backwards
You are going to do ikkyo ura from kosa-dori. You step in and get your partner to bend over by manipulating his body through his arm with your sabaki. You are now facing your bent down partner’s back head on.
Usually, from here, we just walk back, taking his arm with us until we have put him down and apply a katame. But let’s talk about this part here. Your partner is bent down in front of you.
First, make sure you locate his center line. FInd the line on his back that, right now, in this position, is his center line. Then, while moving back, cut along that line.
This is the first point: without finding the center line, the technique won’t be effective. Later, when you are more experienced, you can simply touch the arm, or any part of your partner’s body, because when you are more experienced, you will be able to still cut along his center line through other parts of his body. The center line is still essential, still in the same place, you are simply cutting it from a different position.
The second important point is the way you move when you cut along the center line. A lot of people make the mistake that they simply walk backwards. They end up sticking out their behinds, bending over, pulling their partner. None of this works very well.
Instead of bending over and sticking out your behind, do the opposite: straighten your body and make sure if anything sticks out it is your chest. And instead of simply walking back, advance backwards. This is the second point.
Irimi-Nage – The 5 Teachings
When I was in the Netherlands before, teaching a seminar, I didn’t have an interpreter with me, so the seminar was held in Shimamoto-English. I introduced my speech about the five points of irimi-nage by saying that they had been passed down by Kaiso mouth to mouth. Everybody started laughing, and I had no idea why. In Japanese, we have a word called 口伝 ‘kuden’, meaning ‘oral tradition’, and written with the characters for mouth and transmission, so I thought the phrase ‘mouth to mouth’ made sense in this context.
It was only after the seminar that somebody came up to me and explained to me what image I had created in people’s minds when I talked about O-Sensei handing down the five points of irimi-nage mouth to mouth…he did not actually pass them on to me mouth to mouth! He just never wrote them down, that’s what I meant to say.
So I will pass them on to you now. Mouth to…ear. Please listen carefully.
1. Enter your partner’s space. Move into his blind angle right behind his eyes, the spot where he can’t see you. Find the right place to start the technique. Don’t make your entrance too shallow or too deep.
2. Keep an iron ring with your arms. This does not mean making them stiff and tense, or tensing up your shoulders. It just means you create a ring of ki with your arms, and you don’t let this ki-ring break at any point during your technique.
3. Return the wave. Create a wave-motion. Let the wave rise and return to the shore. Imagine how waves roll onto the shore. This is the kind of movement you should be creating throughout your irimi-nage.
4. Fold your partner into your sphere of influence. If he is big, make sure you fold him into a more compact size, so you can drink him into your wave and work with him at your own pace, regardless of his size.
5. Turn your finger tips down at the end.
I think all of us have a problem with our ashi-sabaki (foot work) at some point during irimi nage. So in order to locate our particular problems, I believe it is useful to sometimes practice irimi nage without using our arms. I have talked about this at another seminar here before: ‘shuko no saru’, the teaching of the short-handed monkey. Back then, somebody called it ‘the monkey without arms’. So yes, indeed, practicing irimi-nage without arms is sometimes good for this purpose, although it is not really a recognized form of doing irimi nage.
Shihan picks out a child who demonstrates amazing skill at shuko no saru, throwing his adult partner with irimi nage tai sabaki (body shifting) but without using his arms.
When you do this exercise, remember to think about yourself as the center of the universe, the stable axis around which everything revolves.
Then, when you use your arms again, it should be easier. Maybe you won’t use them as recklessly as before. Also, instead of catching your partner’s arm from the side and pushing it in, sometimes try to just use atemi here instead, simply stretching your hand towards your partner’s face. You can do this to invite his attack, and it will allow you to control the timing and rhythm of your irimi nage.
Let your partner grab you with morote-dori, as hard as he can. If somebody grabs you really hard, or if your partner is very big and strong, pay special attention to keeping your elbow close to your body.
Then, turn your hand inwards and up, your little finger coming around. From here, don’t move your arm too much. Simply rest your elbow between your partner’s shoulder and chin, and turn your center by moving your foot toes pointing to the outside. FInally, drop your arm with nothing more than its own weight. That’s enough.
Another way of doing it is lifting your partner straight up as soon as he comes in to attack, and then letting him drop straight down.
First, make sure to get your distance right when you do kokyuho (see first training). There are different kinds of zagi kokyuho. The most common type is letting your partner grab your arms while they’re at medium height and width. Next, you turn your palms up and move your center and upper body towards them as if looking in the mirror (your palms are the mirror). Then you show the mirror to your partner (turn your palms towards his face). Next, imagine you are holding the steering wheel of a car and turn it left or right. When your partner is down, place your palms upwards and relax your shoulders to complete the technique.
The second type starts with your partner pushing your hands down with all his weight. Don’t try to lift your hands. Just let them slide down the sides of your knees, so your partner’s head lands in your lap, or in front of it. Then, move your center up together with your hands and finish the technique as before.
When your hands get pushed down with your partner’s body weight, another method to deal with this is simply to imitate the underhand pass used in volley ball, moving your center up and forward as you do the pass. This will throw your partner straight back.
Then, finally, sometimes your arms get crossed when your partner attacks you. In this case, check which arm is on top. If your right arm is on top, turn your body towards the left and do the same you would do in a tachiwaza kokyunage: place your arm/ elbow near your partner’s throat and turn your body the other way, completing the technique as before.
When you practice with your partner, always make sure, he doesn’t just grab or hit you when, where, and how he wants. Make sure you invite the attacks and offer the part of your body you want attacked in a way that allows you to work at your pace instead of forcing you to work at your partner’s pace. It is an art to invite people properly to do to you what you want them to rather than something else.
Of course I also listen to what my partner wants and let him do it. Take irimi-nage for example. First, he is hitting me with shomen-uchi. His force is coming down. Obviously he wants to go down, so I just let him (first part of irimi-nage, tori enters uke’s blind spot, uke dips down low). Next, he is down there, and of course he wants to get up. So fine. I let him get up (second part of irimi-nage, uke lands with his head controlled close to tori’s chest/ shoulder). Next, he wants to turn out of this, so fine, I let him (last part of irimi-nage, the actual throwing part).
In aikido we listen to each other and create harmony. We respect each other and hold each other dear. But at the same time, we never forget or try to change the fact that we are all individual, distinct personalities. We never forget that we are practicing a martial art. The special thing about aikido is that while doing a technique, we can each remain two completely separate individuals, while becoming like one. In aikido, it is never force minus force. It is power plus power. It is by following this ‘plus’ philosophy that we can create harmony.
When you finish ikkyo, your partner’s arm is flat on the ground. Make sure his shoulder is really on the ground. From there, many people make the mistake to focus too much on pushing down the arm with their hands. They hunch over forward to make sure they are pushing down hard enough for their partner not to get up. The truth is, however, that, trying too hard, and hunching over, their partner will find it easy to get up.
Instead, try putting your knee in your partner’s armpit once their shoulder is on the ground. Your other knee should be touching their arm in a way that stretches it. Then, widen your knees a little more and stretch your partner’s arm as far as possible. Don’t use your hands and arms at all, just concentrate on keeping a good, straight posture and relax. If you do this, just sitting there is quite enough to pin down your partner. He can’t get up at all. Put yourself in the right place, widen your field of vision, relax, and maintain good posture. That’s all.
‘Ten-chi-nage’ means Heaven-Earth throw. This technique is a symbol for the fact that Heaven, Earth, and Man are all connected. As human beings, we have the responsibility to be the best possible links between Heaven and Earth.
Your partner grabs both of your hands in ryote-dori. First, imagine you have a spear, and point it at your partner’s throat. This is just an image to get the right movement. I don’t really want you to imagine that you’re stabbing your partner’s throat with a spear. From there, as you step through behind your partner, your front hand (on the same side as the stepping foot) snakes straight upwards and stretches endlessly into the sky, while the other hand snakes straight downwards and stretches endlessly into the Earth.
Some people do ten-chi nage by curving the upper arm downwards in the end, but in my opinion, really stretching your hands towards Heaven and Earth is the true way of doing this technique.
We have O-Sensei’s teaching about irimi-nage that you have to point down your fingers at the end. This part is the same as the bottom hand in ten-chi nage. But if you think about it…what country is there, where I’m pointing right now, on the other side of the earth? Australia? Right. Australia. And above Australia is the sky over Australia. There, I’m pointing right at it.
So even this one hand alone symbolizes infinity, and our connection with it. When we do aikido, we try to connect with nature. With Heaven, with Earth, and with our partner. Be aware of this. When you do irimi-nage, or tenchi-nage, your fingers are not just pointing down. They are stretching into infinity.
When you breathe in, you are not just breathing in the air around your face. You are also breathing in your partner, and the whole universe, too.
Sometimes, I believe, it is useful to practice shiho-nage in a static manner, without using ashi-sabaki, to feel just how much you are capable of drinking in your partner.
Invite your partner in, breathe him in with a large round movement of your arms that curves behind your body and back to your side, bringing your partner halfway around your body. Then you lift up your arms – while making sure they do not end up behind your head – if they do your partner can easily take over control – keep them in front of your head, and gently put your partner down in front of you, after he has come all the way around your body.
This is not really the correct way of practicing shiho-nage, but I believe it can help us practice breathe our partner in, and when we add ashi-sabaki again, we will hopefully use less superfluous movements and find a better flow in our technique.
For the last part, make sure your partner’s palm is turned away from his ear, and just cut down as if using a sword. You can also practice this one-handed. You don’t really need two hands for the last part. Sometimes you can just use the hand closer to your partner.
Keep Your Hair
Grab my hair!
Shihan has a shorn head. His partner tries hard anyway.
Now imagine I had a wig. If I try to separate my partner’s hand from my head, he will pull it straight off. Embarrassing, right? And if you have real, long hair, it is even worse. Our natural impulse in this situation is trying to separate the attacker from us and pull him off of us. But if he has grabbed your hair, that really hurts. Instead, Put your hands on his and press them against your head, sandwiching his hand between your head and hands. Pin his hands down where he has put them, leave them there, and simply bow.
His partner flies over him and rolls away as Shihan gives a humble bow.
The example of hair-pulling is a principle we should always keep in mind. Somebody attacks you, so you want to pull him away from you. But remember, this will hurt. So instead, keep his hand, keep your hair. Bow to solve the problem.
We have to always accept things as they come. If you don’t first accept them, you can’t deal with them, and they can work their way into your hair style, or your life style at their own pace. Accept them, and show them respect, and they will fly right over your head.
Kamae and Love
After day one of the seminar, several people take their dan exams. The requirements include a one-minute speech. For the first group of people, Shihan chooses the topic ‘kamae’, for the second group ‘love’. There is no interpreting from Polish to Japanese at this seminar, so some of us are listening to the speeches without grasping a trace of their semantics.
After the exams are over, Shihan says: ‘I liked your speeches very much. Although, of course, I didn’t understand a word of what you said.’
This draws laughter. It also makes me think how easily the way we perceive things can change simply by not understanding a language. If somebody told me in Polish to break my leg, get stuck in a mine shaft and eat my own liver, while smiling at me and using a friendly tone, I would be sure he was my friend, smile back, and happily reply ‘Jeszcze Polska nie zginela’ (Poland is not lost yet – the first line of the national anthem, the only Polish words I know.)
It also makes me think: maybe sometimes assuming this position on purpose might not be such a bad idea. It shows us that speeches have content besides their linguistic semantics. It can give us another nudge to pay attention to not just a single aspect of things, but indeed, to everything.
What is KI?
When you ask me what Ki is, I say: ki is prayer. When you ask for somebody’s health to get better, you send them your ki. When you bow and greet your partner before and after practice, you emit ki. When you move with centered ki, you can move the things around you. Through focusing and directing your ki you are in touch with the universe. Ki is prayer.
When Shihan wraps up the seminar after morning practice the next day, he says: ‘Training here with you at this seminar made me realize once again how much fun training aikido can be. It has also reminded me how difficult aikido is. It seems simple, but when we practice, it turns out that it is exactly this simplicity that is often the most difficult thing to understand, practice, and achieve. Shizentai for example. It is the most basic concept, the pre-requisite for good practice, and we have to keep reminding ourselves of it, keep practicing it, and keep being strict with ourselves. Thank you very much!’
Our last class on this Poland trip is taught at a dojo that also houses a kenjutsu group. A large poster featuring opponents crossing swords, and wooden swords on display in front of the room bear witness to this. Once again, people are forced to make do with my English translation, as the Polish interpreter can’t make it to this session, and after almost a whole week I am still struggling with the Polish language (mea culpa!).
Warm Hearts Please
Last time I came to this dojo, there was snow outside. This year, there is no snow, but as I said before, when we left Japan, we had 25 degrees, so it still seems very cold in Poland. So let’s make sure we all practice together warm-heartedly to make up for the frosty temperatures outside. I’m coughing a lot today. But please don’t worry, that’s just because I’m so excited to see you all again.
I was told that this class was only for people wearing hakama, second kyu and above. So let’s take a second and remember why we wear hakama. Aikido used to be practiced secretly, hidden from outsiders. It was considered dangerous if random people could just watch and steal your techniques. The part of the body you look at when you try to steal a technique are people’s feet. Ashi-sabaki, or foot work, plays a crucial part in what we do. By wearing this long skirt called hakama, people could disguise their foot movements.
So in this class only for hakama, let’s remember the purpose of the hakama and pay very close attention to our ashi-sabaki tonight: the way we turn our toes, the angle of our feet, the way we move and position them.
Example: put your foot on the outside of your partner’s body, and you can throw him easily. But put it on the inside, and he can throw you.
We review the 5 teachings of irimi-nage. Shihan elaborates more on some points.
The ki ring: When trying to generate this circular ki-flow with your arms, think about how you can best create harmony with your partner. Put your partner inside this ring. With the ring and thoughts of harmony, you avoid this kind of mistake (Shihan turns his center away from his uke, forcefully grabs his neck with his left hand, and stands too far away from him, trying in vain to pull him in the direction of his right hand).
The wave: With the wave you create, take in all rocks and stones, all impurities and dirt. Water can simply flow in its own way, at its own pace without rejecting a singly thing. It can just take things in and continue its flow together with them, becoming one with them. This amazing quality is the power of the wave in irimi.
The fold: When you fold your partner in, do this by sweeping him up in your wave. In this way, you will become big enough, and he will become small enough for you to handle.
Fingers pointing down: When you teach this, think about how to word it. Will you say ‘Point your finger tips towards the tatami.’ ? Will you say: ‘Stick your fingers into the earth.’? And if you see a student concentrating too hard on his hand, remind him of shizentai, of looking at everything equally, instead of just focusing on his hand.
More on Tenchi-nage
In tenchi-nage, one hand goes up, ki flowing endlessly into the sky, and one hand goes down, ki rooting back endlessly into the earth. In between Heaven and Earth are we human beings. Heaven, Earth, and man are not three separate concepts. They do not exist separately from each other. They all form harmony together. Tenchi-nage is a symbol of this – man trying to be the best possible connection, the best possible energy channel between Heaven and Earth.
The meaning of pointing your fingers down at the end of irimi-nage is the same: the content of the teaching is inifnity, and harmony between man and all encompassing nature.
Big Mind, Small Details
Always maintain shizentai: don’t limit your world. Make your field of vision and your scope of action big. When your students focus on a tiny detail such as their partner’s hand, caution them.
Also, check your own attitude at all times. Make sure your scope of perception is wide. Are you not just looking at one student right now? Are you not just looking at one little corner of the dojo?
To make sure you are maintaining shizentai, you may pay attention to the following points and use them as a check list:
1. Wide field of vision (look at everything equally)
2. Shoulder blades back and down
3. Shoulders relaxed
4. Calm breathing
5. Knees relaxed (ready to move)
6. Ki calm and centered
7. Calm mind
The Devil in the Detail
Aikido is simple, but in its simplicity lies its difficulty. A lot of students think something is simple and get sloppy about it. Caution them when this happens. Don’t let them slack on the precision of techniques (ashi-sabaki, ankles, posture, ki-ring etc.), and don’t let them get sloppy on correct attitude (wide field of vision, right breathing etc.).
To achieve this, you must keep checking your own precision and correct attitude at all times. Use the check list I suggested to make sure you are moving forward on your path of aikido. We must not forget these simple, yet most difficult basics of aikido training. We need to keep searching for this and pass the way of searching on to our students. This is our role as those people in the dojo wearing hakama.
Look at the Sky
Every once in a while, take a look at the sky. Look at it for only one second, then close your eyes and remember what you saw. Which direction were the clouds moving? How many birds did you see? When I look at the sky at night, I notice the moon. The stars. Some clouds. But what about the rest of the sky? How much of this vast, dark sky do we actually notice?
I, too, have the tendency to look at the sky and just think: ‘What a beautiful moon!’ But the moon is only beautiful because of the dark sky. We can only breathe out because we breathe in. We point our fingers down, but we also point them at the sky over Australia.
This is an important teaching in aikido. There are omote-waza and ura-waza. Each one of us is the center of the universe. It is a big world if we make it so. Let’s always remember this.
This is my last class on this trip. I have given you lots of points to pay attention to, but as I always say, I haven’t come here to teach you my aikido. I am simply telling you about the kind of aikido I’m searching for, and my wish is that we all keep searching for it together. So when you practice here in Poland, please don’t forget to sometimes look at the Japanese sky, too.