It is, I feel, important to reflect on what we do on the mat. Not too much at the time as the mat is more for doing and experiencing rather than analysing or criticizing. These few words represent some thoughts I have on the powers that we use on the mat during the execution of technique. The piece is not meant to be a criticism of anyone’s style of practice, more an observation of how we may develop our practice to come more and more in line with a philosophy found in Aikido that is often written and spoken about but sometimes difficult to connect with our experience in the practice.
The execution of a technique seems to me to be a process during which Tori receives an attack made by Uke, which Tori then transforms into the control of Uke’s movement so that Uke is either thrown away from Tori, dropped to the floor by Tori or pinned by Tori.
Generally I see the powers that allow Tori to do this coming into four categories.
The first and most basic is force. Physical force is applied to Uke’s posture so that it is upset, broken or destroyed and Uke may be thrown, dropped or pinned. This is the natural default dynamic that we unconsciously drop in to when confronted with a conflict. I define a conflict as two things trying to occupy the same space, whether this be a fist and a stomach or an idea and resistance to that idea. In seeing conflict in this way we are given a gateway to the use of our Aikido principles in our daily life. The greatest benefit is not our ability to defeat some rogue swordsman we may come upon attacking innocents in the high street on a Saturday afternoon but our ability to dissipate conflicts with our loved ones or our ability to ride a storm of conflicts at work without psychological or emotional damage. The sword and the fantasy battles are the playground where we learn to deal with real life conflicts for which they are but the metaphoric symbol.
So our conditioned unconscious response to conflict is to overcome it and defeat it. This manifests in our attempts to out-force it head on. If it moves and stands against us we must move directly against it, overpower it then throw it down, disable it or cause it to withdraw in an admission of our greater power. This is all very well if we are bigger, stronger or more physically powerful than our opponent. But what if we are not?
If we are not able or feel we are not able to overpower our opponent then the next avenue that is pursued is the application of pain. This could be by percussive counter attacks that cause our opponent so much pain and damage they either withdraw voluntarily or are rendered harmless by the damage we inflict. The other main avenue that is often attempted is to take a part of our opponent’s body and by twisting it beyond its natural range of movement or/and applying pressure to areas where nerves are particularly sensitive cause our opponents to cease their attack and withdraw or be held in a controlled manner until they calm down or help arrives. These locks and holds could also be applied to cause serious damage to a joint causing dislocation, and/or severe muscle, tendon and ligament damage; they may also be used to fracture bones. I’m not sure that this sounds too ‘harmonious’ in the big picture.
On the Aikido mat we find that a joint is twisted or pressure is applied to a part of the body by Tori so that movement that eases the pain is in a direction that allows Tori to throw, drop or pin Uke. We also find the holding of a lock that pins Uke in such a way that they are comfortable but attempting to escape from the lock creates pain without Tori changing anything. In fact the pain then becomes proportionate to the effort Uke makes to escape. We may feel that Uke is then responsible for the damage they may do to themselves although this is not so. Tori has taken control and therefore has an increased responsibility for Uke’s welfare.
The difficulty with this practice is that it relies a lot on all Ukes responding in the same way. They don’t! In the gentle exploratory practice we may find that most people seek the easing of pain by moving away but in the heat of the conflictual moment some move towards the pain to overcome it. They try to resist the pressure and lock the joint in order to overcome the conflict. We may release and teach them how to absorb the technique better in order to facilitate a more comfortable and safer culture to practise within. We may then tell ourselves that if we had to apply this technique in a real conflict situation the ends would justify the means. But are we really being in harmony with our Uke on the mat if we damage them because their natural reaction isn’t what we thought it should be. And this is happening because we only have control of a small piece of them rather than the full control that comes with controlling both our own Hara and Uke’s.
Either by Tori moving their body to draw Uke or by physically guiding Uke’s body in directions that are difficult to create resistance against, or even a combination of both, Tori manipulates Uke in to moving postures where it is easier to comply to a throw, drop or pin than it is to fight against it. It is much easier to put Uke’s body into the shape where it is naturally receiving technique if Uke is in constant motion. If we lead Uke with the part of our body they have targeted for their attack whilst encouraging the movement with the rest of our body it can become almost effortless to perform technique. That does not mean it does not require a great deal of intention, connection, co-ordination, centering, projection, posture in movement, and relaxed power, just that we can make technique without the need to lock horns.
Uke complies with and even anticipates the technique and goes through their half of the process without necessarily connecting with Tori. A pattern of practice has developed where both Tori and Uke have assumed or perceived roles which they carry out in spite of what the other is doing. With a good deal of practice this can look spectacular and effective but when we practise in this way we are left feeling that there is something missing. There is a hollowness to it and it does not give us the sense of fulfillment that a practice that is based on exploration of the other through connection and co-ordination can.
What do we see on the mat?
Watching people practise we generally see a mixture of all four. My own feeling is that we mostly use an amalgamation of these powers to create technique. However the predominant power used tells us something about what is going on and if Tori and Uke are being truly congruent with their spoken or implied objectives.
The use of force or might is, as adults, perhaps our natural reaction to conflict. We seek to overcome opposition in such a way that it creates a winner and a loser, Freud’s splitting. The winner of these contests generally feels justified in their violence whilst the loser withdraws to plot real or fantasy revenge. Or at times the loser has to withdraw to a place where they are subjected to trauma induced by the internal conflict that the loss has created.
The experience of winning through justifiable violence will, I feel, create a belief in an individual that this is a good outcome and not only acceptable but often a preferred result to conflict situations, whether they are physical, verbal or emotional.
This may, however, only be conceived as harmonious by the winner. The perception then becomes that because previous conditions have been re-established, harmony has been achieved. How can this be so? Does the vanquished other feel harmony? Perhaps if they are an Aikidoka whose main purpose in the role of Uke is to offer Tori the opportunity to vanquish them with technique that works because it acts out the concept of ‘good’ triumphing over ‘evil’, then their state of being overcome represents the restoration of their own balance in the world and consequent feelings of harmony. But I would question whether this subjective harmony is real.
The use of pain to control or knock down our partner immediately begs the question “how much pain?” Experiments in the 60’s found that people are capable of delivering what they believe to be fatal amounts of pain as long as they are given permission from someone in authority. Are we re-creating this on a lesser scale when we ask someone to apply a painful lock or hold on their partner?
On a basic level, technique can be applied once our partner’s resistance has been neutralised by overwhelming amounts of pain. It is true, I believe, that if we get the technique right then no damage is done and the pain goes as soon as the technique is released. However over applying the technique either by using more force than the joint can absorb or too much repetition of the technique will cause damage to the joint. This damage may go away but it may, especially in the case of children and adolescents, leave long lasting affects, temporary ligament tears and strains or even distortion and/or long term weakness in the joint. In an art that proposes that we aspire towards a condition of harmony I would suggest the avoidance of such injuries to be a basic principle and a priority for all.
The application of the locks that can produce pain can be made effective and principled if we use our ability to lead and co-ordinate with our partner so that the joint pain is only perceived when an attempt to resist and/or break away from the technique is made. We use the lead to overcome our partner’s posture and the lock to hold our partner within the technique. On the mat if our partner makes a strong effort to break away from the technique and we know they will experience pain in the process I believe we must release them immediately. It is not my wish to become the trap that causes the fox to gnaw its own leg off.
I suppose what I am saying is that I see controlled pain, when we use it, as a synergist to the prime mover during technique. That prime mover is our ability to lead Uke into and through the technique. This is achieved, when it is achieved, by either leading with the target of Uke’s attack or creating the appropriate moving relationship between Tori and Uke. Or I suppose, most likely again, a mixture of both.
The dynamic of practice partners, a ‘Tori’ performing the technique and an ‘Uke’ receiving it, is at the heart of learning Aikido and the depths the relationship is able to be taken to defines the depths of exploration, discovery and understanding we are enabled to engage with. Our ‘Uke’s’ ability to receive technique is the only real conduit we have for practising fast, powerful effective technique. A catalogue of injuries does not record good practice, it is more likely to indicate either unprincipled technique or a mismatch of Tori and Uke.
Perhaps the simplicity of the principles of Yin and Yang and the symbol itself are easily overlooked. Each is moving into the other and each contains a piece of the other. Neither can exist without the other and although one may temporarily overcome the other, in doing so it births that part of the process where it in turn is overcome as the natural powers that balance and re-balance exert their influence.
The western concepts of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong and attacker and defender are better left on the side of the mat. Maybe the relationship between Tori and Uke is better viewed as one of constantly changing the two roles of giver and receiver until both are happening at the same time.
I guess I come to no conclusions here as this is really an observation. I would welcome responses of any kind to the piece and hope it has avoided offence and stimulated thought.