“Our reptilian brains kick in triggering the use of force,
and mucking up our techniques in the process!”
There is something that has long mystified me about practitioners of aikido. It is a phenomenon that I have witnessed across all styles of the art. Few aikidoka transcend this fundament limitation. What am I talking about? The default use of physical strength when applying a technique.
During my career in aikido, I can’t count the number of times I have heard an instructor admonish students to “relax” when executing techniques. Most students translate this as “use less power.” So they don’t use as much strength in their quixotic effort to make a technique work. Occasionally, a student will really try to relax by totally draining out the power from his body. This results in a “limp” state which, of course, does nothing to improve the student’s ability to succeed in the execution of a technique.
What’s going on here? As a layman, I have a simple theory about this. It has to do with the “flight or fight” instinct that we all are born with. Some would regard this adrenalin-charged state as a manifestation of our ancient reptilian brains. Scientists tell us that we share this anatomical structure and its functions with our more primitive ancestors. It is a type of instinctual behavior encoded in our DNA that seems impossible to overcome.
So how does this play out on the aikido mat? Let’s say you are grabbed by a strong person. It doesn’t matter whether you are practicing a basic or ki no nagare technique. Your attempt to move your partner meets with physical resistence. What do you do? Almost everyone will try to muscle their way through the technique. They may be successful depending on their technical level, degree of strength, and the amount of cooperation of one’s uke. This notwithstanding, their use of physical force is obvious to both parties.
Usually what happens is that the two training partners arrive at some unspoken agreement to only resist up to a certain point, and then let nage finish the technique. It is a sort of a quid pro quo pact that is common almost everywhere aikido is practiced. However, this produces a major problem for practitioners.
Because of these silent “gentlemen’s agreements”, aikidoka never acquire the ability to successfully execute a technique without using at least some degree of physical strength. Their progress is severely limited due to this impediment. Do we really have only two choices: the use of some degree of physical force, or adopting a rag doll-like state which accomplishes nothing in a physical sense?
I think there is a third physical state that is achievable. I haven’t come up with a good name to describe it yet, but let’s call it an “energetic relaxation,” for want of a better term. It is a mental/physical attitude where the body is unified energetically and capable of exerting tremendous power whose source is virtually undetectable.
This elusive state of relaxation to which I refer harnesses energy from the attack, and adds to it the considerable energy of nage’s unified structure to produce powerful, yet controllable results. This is perhaps a verbose way of describing the awase or blend of aikido. The awase cannot be maintained if physical force is introduced during the technique. A break of the energy bond between the two partners occurs.
I have been working on developing this type of energetic relaxing or unified body now for the last few years in my personal training with good results. Here and there, I have seen others working on similar approaches, but they are few and far between. Wherever I go to observe, train or teach, I find the same thing. The style does not seem to matter. Our reptilian brains kick in triggering the use of force, and mucking up our techniques in the process! Only our tacit agreement to allow our partners to complete a technique enables us to train in an outwardly amicable setting.
Have you ever experienced what I’m talking about? How do we transcend the awakening of this primitive part of our nature when executing a technique? Do you agree that there exists another physical/mental state that perhaps the Founder and a few other masters have discovered that allows them to operate on a different level? Could this be the elusive goal that we spend a lifetime striving to reach through our training? What say you?