O-Sensei’s “Cupped Hand” — The Secret to Ura Movements by Stanley Pranin


“O-Sensei can easily perform a variety of techniques where uke is powerless to resist because he has lost his balance.”

Many dojos practice aikido’s tai no henko exercise regularly or even religiously during every session. Some teachers will explain that this is a blending movement that allows one to set up for certain aikido throws. But what is really happening? Let’s take a closer look.

First, consider this wonderful image of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba at the point of completion of tai no henko.

Notice that his hand is in a “cupped” position. What is the purpose of this rather strange hand form? Looking closer we see that this tai no henko blend has brought uke’s torso forward and down. Expressed otherwise, uke has been unbalanced.

How has this been accomplished? Uke first grabbed nage’s wrist from the side. O-Sensei’s pivoting motion and cupped hand have conveyed mechanical energy through uke’s arm that has caused him to loose balance forward and down as is readily evident in the photo. From here, O-Sensei can easily perform a variety of techniques where uke is powerless to resist because he has lost his balance.

Here we see the entire process masterly performed by Morihiro Saito Sensei.

tai-no-henko-sequenceLastly, I demonstrate an adaptation of this same “cupped” hand movement as a setup to unbalance uke before moving to his flank. From here, ikkyo through yonkyo omote techniques can be very effectively applied. This approach is part of my “Zone Theory of Aikido” research.

In my next article, I would like to talk about the mechanics of the kokyuho movement and its function in aikido techniques.


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  1. The Spanish translation of the above article by Pedro Riego appears below…

    “La mano ahuecada de O-Sensei… El secreto de los movimientos Ura” de Stanley Pranin

    Muchos dojos practican el ejercicio de tai no henko de aikido regularmente y hasta religiosamente durante cada sesión. Algunos profesores explicarán que es un movimiento armónico que permite prepararse para ciertas proyecciones de aikido. ¿Pero que está realmente pasando? Vamos a mirar de cerca.

    Primero, consideremos esta maravillosa imagen del Fundador del Aikido Morihei Ueshiba al punto de completar el tai no henko.

    Fíjense que su mano está en una posición “ahuecada”. ¿Cuál es el propósito de esta posición tan extraña de la mano? Mirando de cerca notamos que este tai no henko ha traido el torso de uke hacia adelante y abajo. Expresado de otra manera, uke ha sido desbalanceado.

    ¿Cómo se ha conseguido esto? Uke primero agarra la muñeca de nage desde el lado. el movimiento de pivote de O-Sensei y la mano ahuecada han transmitido energía mecánica a través del brazo de uke que le ha causado perder el balance hacia adelante y hacia abajo como lo es evidente en la foto. Desde aquí, O-Sensei puede fácilmente ejecutar una variedad de técnicas donde uke está imposibilitado para resistir porque ha perdido su balance.

    Aquí notamos el proceso entero magistralmente realizado por Morihiro Saito Sensei.

    Finalmente, demuestro una adaptación de este mismo movimiento de la mano” ahuecada” como una configuración para desbalancear a uke antes de moverme a su flanco. Desde acá, las técnicas de ikkyo hasta yonkyo omote pueden ser efectivamente aplicadas. Este enfoque es parte de mi investigación de la “Teoría de la Zona del Aikido”.

    En mi proximo artículo, me gustaría hablar acerca de las mécanicas del movimiento de kokyuho y su función en las técnicas de Aikido.

    Traducción de Pedro Riego

  2. maybe you should mention, that the fourth picture of the Saito Serie is not made within the same process. Uke and nage have turned 90 Degrees for a better point of view.
    Otherwise, the Aikidoka which are not so familar with the tai no henko could be a little bit confused.


  3. Ace Atkinson says:

    I agree with Uwe. Stan, that is a great series of pictures. I share with other Aikidoka that the extension of Ki is then focused out of the wrist.

  4. Sugawara Tetsutaka Shihan, who trained with O Sensei and Saito Sensei, cups his hands, but also tilts the palms slightly inwards, as though holding a very large ball. He claims that this gives even greater effectiveness.

  5. Hi Stan,

    The Blending purpose of Tai No Henko is what we almost hear in every practice .The different hand gestures or opening of the hand have different effect in the flow of Ki or effect to our partner either mechanically or mentally.In Taoist Chigong specifically the Tendon Neikung ,they believe that Ki or Chi flows better when the hands are openly and extended to allow Ki to flow especially on Tendon .The Taosit explain that The tendon are longer that the muscles and can store Chi or energy longer than the muscles which accumulates lactic acid when use always and easily makes the practitioner tired .There are exercises used by Taoists in order to strengthen our Tendon ,( Mantak Chia,Tendon Neikung).These are series of Qigong exercises accompanied by Breathing and Rooting which whichl will enhanced our Ki flowing understanding and body postures and proper angles.Just my one cent and thought about understanding Ki/Chi flows by using proper Postures and angles and maybe will help other practitioners why proper placement of our hands are important in the practice of Aikido.

  6. I still find this probably the most difficult technique to execute. Just when you think you’ve cracked it someone else will grab and hold you with a different level or direction of strength or power, etc. I guess this technique can be discussed forever as everyone seems to have a different opinion of exactly how it should be done. I bet you could do a whole series on just this move alone.
    For instance what is the best way to do this move against
    – a push
    – a pull
    – a centre attacking hold
    – a neutral but blocking hold as soon as you attempt to move in any direction
    – an overpowering squeeze with no direction
    – a limp hold (pretty pointless for this exercise but for completeness)
    Can this be done completely
    – without strength
    – with a dropped shoulder but without tension in the shoulder
    – without moving your centre to to your hand and leaning into it – a heavier nage having a weight advantage
    over a smaller uke
    – without pulling uke as you move your hand towards your centre
    – by moving your hand to your centre and pivoting
    – by moving your centre to your hand and pivoting
    – by moving both hand and centre to align and then pivoting
    – by moving hand, centre and pivoting at the same time
    – by other subtle techniques ?
    (Notice between picture 2 and 3 of Saito Sensei – what exactly is happening to close the gap between hand and centre – before, during, after the pivot?)
    Many things influence this, e.g. it ‘seems’ easier to do this during continuous movement (more so at speed) when uke hasn’t got into a stable position – but for most beginners this is quite often practiced from a static position – and quite often the instructor does not explain how uke should actually execute the grab in that static position.
    I notice that a higher level/longer practicing nage is able to execute this with the hand further away from the centre – which is almost impossible for a beginner. Maybe they forget sometimes that having done this for so long their “inner ki” is more easily turned on or directed, and forget to teach a beginner like a beginner is seeing/feeling the situation?
    Quite often you might hear the response – well you just have to find it for yourself – the problem being that the beginner is more likely to turn to strength first when totally frustrated, blocked by lack of understanding the principles, blocked by “now I’ve got it – eureka moment – when one teacher’s explanation is suddenly blocked by a different type of hold by a different uke”.
    It would be great to really go into depth on this one movement and pool the knowledge from all the great teachers and practitioners out there – to help both teachers and students of this seemingly most basic but most elusive of movements – I imagine there could be some interesting debates.
    Thank you

    • Chris Ward says:

      Each attack from every uke is going to be different (and some attacks are not attacks at all as uke’s mind is concentrating on holding onto your forearm as firmly as possible – this is not an attack)

      Saotome Sensei talks about oyo henka or resistance as something to be adapted to – in other words nage should use the resistance or the difference in the attack as a chance to blend and flow into a different technique or what I think of as true technique. Saotome Sensei goes on to say that this fosters communication between uke and nage and the resolution of conflict. True technique is doing what is there; what is appropriate for that attack. Granted, this can be a problem in class if Sensei wants to teach a particular technique. If this is the case it is uke’s responsibility to provide the appropriate attack to give nage the opportunity to learn that technique. If uke feels that nage is not doing it properly (particularly if uke is a senior student), uke should be providing the solution or guiding nage so that they may improve their technique.

      Oyo Henka or resistance is good training to foster flow, feel, freedom of movement and true technique or principle. But even this is not truly practical. When someone attacks you, they are not just going to grab – they are going to grab punch, kick, attempt to grapple etc. It is this energy that truly creates true technique or principle. I believe Kono Sensei had it correct when he said the attack should be light – because on the street when you are attacked, the heavy resisting grabs are not going to be there – the energy will be huge and the attack continuous – not one of a grab or punch followed by the attacker resisting your throw or pin. If they do, you already have them – you can simply atemi, etc. This is one of the reasons why Kono Sensei talked about how important an appropriate true attack should be light… and continuous. Because that is what is actually going to happen.

      True attack provides the energy and intent and when appropriate in class the actual multiple attacks that you are going to get if you are in a sticky situation. This is practical. And this is where eventually you start to learn flow into a technique without thought – just doing what is there. A wrist grab followed by a tsuki to the face is what truly creates the throw. Without this kind of training, it is very hard to apply what you are trying to learn on the street. This is what O’Sensei was truly doing. Freedom of movement, relaxation, extension or ki, moving from the hara and taking his space through his movement is what I believe he was trying to teach. He never did anything exactly the same way. And without that live energy and true intent and actual multiple attacks, it is very hard to learn his art, let alone with a calm mind along with all the principles that hallmark O’Sensei’s practice.

      So, although I believe that extension or ki are important, quite often we will feel resistance making us question these principles. This is where Nage must learn to adapt to the attack Nage should be extending, etc. but each attack is going to be different and where appropriate (not resistance for its own sake) feel how to appropriately adapt to that “different attack”. Nage should be blending with and doing what is there, not just blind repetition.

      One day O’Sensei was demonstrating some techniques to his students and then gave them the opportunity to practice. He was then asked by one of the students “but O’Sensei which technique do you want us to practice?” to which he replied “they are all the same technique”.

      Ok, I’m done rambling. :)

  7. Minoru TANAKA says:

    “….. this seemingly most basic but most elusive of movements …”

    Freshly graded practitioner, I’d agree rather well to Warren’s point of view.
    In my opinion, the waza of Tai-no-henko is one of those which exhibit particularly well the difficulty for the Uké to execute “correctly” the attack. By “correctly”, I mean to THREATEN the Tori with inner power, but without muscle force or very little, while, at any moment, ready to respond instantaneously to possible reactions from the Tori. So, a satisfactory execution needs, first of all, to get out of the inherent mental structure (in the Uké), that is Teacher–Student relationship, just only during the execution of waza, of course. Under this angle, let us get a glance again at the pictures given by Stan in his article.

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