One day many years ago, I decided to conduct a class focussing intently on the pivot.
People had been moving too straight.
On that particular day, a new guy turned up. He was heavily bearded with long hair in well neglected dreadlocks and his clothing was rough. He had a good attitude, and as is our dojo policy, he was accommodated ad hoc, with an admonishment to acquire a gi as soon as possible.
I never saw him again. Or did I?
Some years after that, a neat and tidy, clean shaven gentleman with short hair in a suit, turned up and asked for me before class.
“I want to thank you,” he beamed happily, “You saved my life.”
“Did I? How?”
“Do you remember me?” he asked as if expecting me to.
Trying to be pleasant, I replied, “Well, honestly no.. But I do see a lot of people over the years and though seldom do I forget a face… I’m trying to place you…”
To be honest, I did not recognize him although something about him felt familiar.
He laughed cheerfully.
“OK, then do you recall the hairy hippy at the class about five years ago where all we did was pivot?”
“Yees..?” I was not sure whether to be embarrassed or look around for the candid camera.
He laughed merrily again, “That hairy hippy was me!”
“Oh, OK..” I responded, starting to placing him in my mind, as the penny slowly began to drop.
“But how did I save your life? I don’t recall any recent battle.”
Smiling, he explained. Here is his story:
“After that class a lot off things changed in my life and I could not continue training. That’s why I never came back and I apologize for not contacting. One day I was at a barbecue in a mixed crowd and a young soldier on R&R probably had one beer too many and evidently not handling it well, decided to pick on me. Apparently he did not like the discussion about peace, my viewpoint or my long hair. He must have made some assumptions based on my dress code being different to his. So he started up on me. “You f**n hairy hippies bludging on the dole while men are getting killed to serve this country… I’ll teach you about peace you f**n, long haired, lazy f**r..”
He charged at me. In the improviso I did not have time to think, but you must have taught me well, because as he charged, I covered up and pivoted exactly like you taught me, I did not know anything else to do, and he flew past me and fell flat on his face in the mud in front of all the other guys and women, some who started laughing.
I went to leave, but now he was enraged and he charged me, harder and faster and all I could do at that sudden speed was to pivot, as I had done in training. So I did. The guy went right past me and knocked himself out on a tree. It saved my life. The others left me alone and I was able to leave safely.
Remember how you told us to practice the pivot privately as meditation? Well, I did, and it saved my life. So thank you. You’re a great teacher..”
I assured him that the credit was all his own for paying attention.
Irimi-tenkan, the secret of taisabaki is the foundational core of Aikido.
My acquaintances from other methods criticize, “Yeah, but people won’t run at you and not everyone will take a fall.”
Indeed! Some do, some don’t. That’s why we have the aiki-waza, atemi, kansetsu etc., as backup.
Some people train badly. They pull, or turn their back on their opponent because they have not been taught to pivot correctly. Such action will see you hurt in a real scenario. In real life, attackers will not voluntarily “take ukemi,” blend or follow, just because you think they will.
First you MUST irimi solidly until there is a clash, THEN immediately tenkan. This is the secret of sabaki. You must practice irimitenkan diligently until it reveals itself. And then START training… Closing the air space between mass and mass is a primary axiom of all jujutsu and taisabaki effects it on the run, standing, with or without weapons. As well as jamming strikes, it enables ki interaction.
What if the opponent does not fall? Most of the time he won’t, but he will expose his back.
Tai no henka, tai no henko, or tai no tenkan, is the vital basic practice and starting point for learning to pivot. Which interpretation is best? Try them all until you find what works best for you. Build technique from there.
Especially observe the videos of old teachers.
You must understand that the early versions of taisabaki were conducted for battlefield purposes, with impact, as a whole body blow designed to effect armor recoil and thereby capture vital seconds. In real battle, soldiers are not usually half hearted about action like you see in dojos. Half-heartedness, in real life, makes you a sitting duck, an easy target.
Doka are not merely nice idealistic feel-good poetry for contemplating navel fluff; and tenkan is not a dance move. The doka, or Songs of the Way, are practical key teachings on the practice of Aikido; and tenkan the core foundation.
Cooperative attacks are not attacks. Aikido-like shapes, done without irimi-tenkan as the root basis, is not Aikido, and will not be able to harmonize uncooperative attacks.
“Seeing me before him, the enemy attacks, but I am already standing behind him.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba
“Aikido is a way to move through the opponent.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba
“The secret of Aikido is irimi-tenkan.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba
PS. To the gentleman portrayed in this anecdote: Should you catch this, please let me know if you finally settled down and found a good Aikido school in your travels. And whether I got all the details correct from memory.