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Stillness in aikido

A few days ago, a blogospheric buddy of mine posted a cool article in which he talked about (among other things) fast vs. slow movement in aikido.  He used this great video of a cheetah hunting as an example of the fast vs. slow thing that he was talking about...


Watching that cat hunt, a different phenomenon struck me as significant.  He (she?) is not just changing speeds - fast and slow.  He has a connection with the prey and the cat has the ability to be still and do absolutely nothing at just the right time, letting his natural camouflage do its job.
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We usually don't think about this as being a skill - particularly in our lineage of aikido - because we have been indoctrinated from day-one that once you get your center of mass into motion, you keep it moving unless uke stops you or changes your direction.  But there are times when tori wants to wait for a beat or two, not adding anything to the encounter, just biding his time waiting for something to happen in uke.
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I'm not saying that the constant motion idea is wrong, it is a pretty good heuristic but no rule-of-thumb fits reality all the time 100%.  If you let a highly-ranked aikidoka from a non-Tomiki lineage look at some video of one of us (Texas, Oklahoma, etc...) Tomiki guys, one of their first complaints is likely to be something like, "indecisive footwork" or "poor stances."  That comes from our constant motion idea - when we come to a point that we need to wait, we tend to keep cycling our feet up and down.  This does keep our center in motion, but we know for sure that every time we drop a foot we are susceptible to being otoshi'd by uke, and every time we pick a foot up they might float us.
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At a recent retreat I attended we worked through a neat set of heuristics for toshu randori, one of which is, "Don't ever take a step you don't have to take," and I would add to that, "...because each step you take exposes you."  It is surprisingly hard to steel yourself to stand and wait long enough to actually see the results and consequences of our actions.  We are used to doing and moving on, and because we have moved on it is hard to trace the consequences back to the actions that initiated them.
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What? You don't think it takes skill to just do nothing?  Try the following exercise and see doesn't it make you bat-stuffing crazy within about 3-4 minutes...


See, we go through our lives accustomed to going and doing and exerting and acting upon the world and kicking it into the shape we want it.  It doesn't take but a couple of minutes of inactivity to make us acutely feel like we need to move - to do SOMETHING.
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You also see this stillness in Chinese martial arts like Taiji and Yiquan, and in their derivatives, like the following amazing thing.  Notice his steps are deliberately placed.  So far as I can tell from reading up on it, the way to develop this sort of motion is to pause for just a moment at the beginning and end of each step, hovering your foot an inch off the ground balancing on the other foot.  These guys develop an amazing sense of balance and they don't drop their weight onto the other foot until they intend to.  They don't fire their center of mass in ballistic trajectories like most folks do in normal walking.
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Compare this guy's motion to the cheetah above.  Both have the ability to stop in mid-step, hover, doing nothing, then continue or do something else.

Whatever success I had at that recent retreat at following that "don't step" heuristic was because Rick Matz goaded and coerced and even shamed me into working regularly on the Zhan Zhuang exercise above.  I recommend trying it out (the above is the first in a 10-video series of tutorials) and if the quiet stillness makes you insane, stick with it because like me, you probably need some mental and physical and spiritual  (sanchin - three things in conflict) endurance because of our insane lifestyle.



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Patrick Parker
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Poetic description of kuzushi

I perceive a big problem in our aikido, and to some degree, our judo and jo practice also.

We are all concerned with balance - maintaining ours, breaking the other guy's, etc - but we (especially westerners) seem to lack the language we need to discuss issues related to kuzushi.

About all we ever ask is "did you or didn't you 'get' kuzushi?"  as if balance and kuzushi were discrete, mutually exclusive states of being.  But it seems to me that there are lots of inbetween states - like balance and falling are opposite ends of a continuous spectrum.  It seems to me that there can be lots of kinds and flavors and feelings and effects within that balance/unbalance spectrum.  But all we can figure out how to think about is did or didn't it happen.

So, how do we talk about non-discrete touchy-feely sorts of things?  How about poetry?

A while back, Nick came up with a scheme for characterizing and classifying different ways aikido folks transfer energy from tori to uke using the metaphor of the five elements - earth, fire, water, air, and the void.  This resulted in a pretty interesting way to think and talk about and experiment with different aikidoka's feels, but this energy transfer model seems to me to mostly deal with the kake phase of the throw.  What if we use the 5 elements metaphors to classify different kinds of kuzushi?

I propose five kinds of disbalance.  Have you ever felt...

Earth kuzushi - like being crushed between a rock and a hard place by having to deal with the weight of the earth through tori's structure - or like walking down a flight of stairs and stumbling at the bottom when you think there is one more step - or stubbing your toe - you have met the proverbial immovable object!

Fire kuzushi - like being cut down by a laser - Fire is the irresistable force that shears through your structure - Fire kuzushi can be explosive.

Water kuzushi - has a back and forth feel - turning 90 degree corners - flowing around obstructions - taking the shape of the space between tori and uke - erosive.

Air kuzushi - flowing - leading - uke feels like he is grasping at vapour - centrifugal - makes uke move so fast that he can't keep up with himself - feels like the air pressure in front of the attack blows tori out of the way

Kuzushi of the void - Occupying the space'that uke needs to stand up - no contact - effects at a distance - uke is unbalanced by tori relaxing rather than exerting.


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Shoulders in aikiage

Interesting video about how to improve your mechanical advantage by mis-aligning uke's shoulders slightly...




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Aikiage in Tomiki aikido


One of the things that I have wanted to work on for a while is aikiage - this weird trick for amplifying or projecting uke upward into a rise so that you can subsequently drop them.  Aikiage makes an occasional appearance in the Tomiki curriculum, although we have never called it by this name until we started playing around with some Daito-Ryu folks.  In the Tomiki curriculum it is seen in several of the Koryu no kata as a suwariwaza ryotedori attack often followed by a sukuinage or kokyunage or shihonage.
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Several years ago, one of my instructors came up to me when I was sitting in a chair and said, "Let me show you this cool thing." and he proceeded to do aikiage to me with me seated in the chair and him standing over me.  It was a very minimal motion (nearly invisible) and I literally exploded upward out of the chair to end up standing on my tiptoes in front of him.  This trick amazed and confounded me for several years (no, he wouldn't tell me how he did it - just said it was "ki").
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But this past weekend I got to play with a couple of folks with some insight into aiki-age and between the three of us we sorta got to where we could emulate that upward projection.  It was nowhere near as sophisticated as I'd seen from our instructor several years ago, but the motion was happening and I can see how it could be worked on to make it better.


Photo courtesy of Joshua Smith



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Patrick Parker
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Why not stiff-arm in randori or shiai?

Stiff-arming in judo - it is much-maligned especially in randori, but everybody still seems to do it in shiai.  So... if champions stiff-arm and still win, why is it so bad?
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I can think of several reasons right off the bat...

  • Stiff-arming reduces your opponent's ability to attack to some degree - but it reduces your ability to attack to an even larger degree.  You are not only holding them away - you are holding yourself out of position.
  • Keeping your arms rigid when the opponent is not attacking you burns energy for no gain - so it is maximally inefficient.
  • Keeping your arms rigid makes it easier for your opponent to feel your motions - so it telegraphs your intent.
  • Your opponent can use your stiff arms for support, preventing you from unbalancing them.
  • It is a reflex - and therefore an unthinking, unconscious thing.  Trained, strategic actions that happen without thought can be good (mushin) but instinctual defensive reflexes are often dysfunctional when faced with a thinking, trained opponent.
  • Studies have shown that once we exert more than a few pounds of pressure with our gripping muscles, our higher brain functions shut down.  We can't think very good while exerting strongly.
  • When you refuse to allow your wrists, elbows, and shoulders to move, you essentially turn off the proprioceptors in those joints, reducing the amount of tactile and kinesthetic information you are getting from the opponent.
  • It is against the spirit of judo because 1) it is a reflexive refusal to yield, 2) it is inefficient, and  3)  it is essentially a refusal to learn or allow the other guy to learn.
So, you get into a fight/match with someone that you know to be trained/skilled, and you immediately grab them and lock your arms out, preventing yourself from attacking, telegraphing when you do attack, burning energy at a tremendous rate, and turning off your tactile sensors and your brain...
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Yeah, that sounds like a sound strategy.
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Now, it is sometimes a good idea to stifle the opponent's advance or to create space, but that is pretty much always an instantaneous thing.  You turn the stiff-arms on, then immediately off - and only when the trained, thoughtful, strategic part of your mind tells you it's the right moment.
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So, again... Why do champions do it and still win and then teach stiff-arming as a good thing to do?  Basically just because everyone is doing it and they have figured out how to do it a little bit more strategically or effectively than the other guys.  For the vast majority of judoka in the vast majority of practice and shiai situations, stiff-arming does you more harm than good.




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Patrick Parker 
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Modality in randori


I got the opportunity this past weekend to do a lot of toshu randori with some amazing players - some of whom I don't get to lay hands on very often and some of whom I'd never met.  A couple of observations about our randori in general...
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The modality of randori was really noticeable this weekend.  By that, I mean, we seem to have aikido mode (longer ranges, less power, more flowing, more atemi) and judo mode (closer, tighter, stronger, more mechanical offbalances).  Most everyone at this randori was comfortable in both modes and we were switching pretty freely between modes - going from far to close to kneeling to newaza and back as the situations developed.
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But the fact that the two modes exist sorta bothers me.  Frequently when I found myself getting stuck making mistakes and taking falls it was because I got in my mind that we were playing within one mode and my partner would switch modes on me.  It didn't really frustrate me because it was all good experiential, experimental randori whether I was throwing or falling, but it did make me curious.  We would like to be non-modal (aikido=judo=same thing) but we are not.
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A second thing I noticed was, I suppose, an artifact of new randori partners that had never met or played with each other.  In my club, when we are practicing aikido randori and an atemi to the face comes up, we frequently are not trying to use that atemi to throw the other guy down.  We have an understanding between partners that if I can touch your face and keep my hand there for a second or two, then I could have gouged an eye.  So, if I make face contact for a couple of seconds, the other guy takes a fall.
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Some of my randori partners were used to playing in a different mode (there's those modes again).  I suppose they were used to our face-touches being either percussive atemi or throws - like mechanical knock-downs.  So, they would often let me lay a hand on their face for a couple of seconds and they would look at me like I was an idiot as they proceeded to pluck my hand off their face and throw me down with a hineri.
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Again, I'm not complaining about being thrown or not "winning" - I just thought this was an interesting thing.  Depending on how you look at the atemi (eye attack vs. throw) we were both "winning."  But we were also both discounting something important.  I should definitely watch out for some sharp opponent grabbing my atemi, and my partners probably ought to watch out for the potential for a fight-ending eye gouge.

Photo (which doesn't really have anything to do with this article - I just think it's a beautiful pic) courtesy of Stefan Schmitz.


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Patrick Parker
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I'm sick - can I come to judo?

Occasionally the question comes up - someone has been sick with the flu or stomach bug but feels better - can they come to judo practice?  Working at a hospital and having small kids, I am so familiar with this situation that it almost seems trivial to me, but sometimes it is hard for some folks to make that decision about whether or not to participate.
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The basic guidelines that I follow and recommend - 

  • If your club is part of a school or university then follow their closings - if the parent organization closes due to weather or epidemic, then you do not have classes.  If you are not part of a school or university, it is still a pretty good idea to identify the 1-2 closest schools or colleges and abide by their closings for weather and illness.
  • Do not allow participation by anyone who has been acutely ill with flu-like symptoms, fever, vomiting, or diarrhea within the past 24 hours.
  • Keep Germ-X or something like it, and pass it around to everyone before class (even when there is no known bug going around).  If you know a bug is going around, then pass the Germ-x around before, during, and after classes.
  • If a bug has been going around, you might want to consider banning certain techniques and practices - like shomenate and newaza.
  • Clean your mats frequently - and perhaps even more frequently when you know that there has been a bug going around. 

photo courtesy of Svenstorm

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Patrick Parker
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Indispensable judo throws


Yesterday I asked, how many throws are there in judo?  Nobody can really decide.  Today I wanted to ask a related question.
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Are there any throws that are indispensable to judo? Are there any techniques that if you didn't do them or teach them, you wouldn't be able to call what you do, "judo?"
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What if our favorite, most fundamental throw, deashibarai, were so onerous to some particular player that they didn't want anything to do with it?  Would they still be a judoka?
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What if you try valiantly for 20 years and just can't get koshinage to work worth a darn?  At what point do you declare koshinage to be B.S. - or at least not part of your personal judo game - and proceed to excel in something else?
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What if you don't ever find a use for every tournament player's pet technique, uchimata?  Can you still look yourself in the mirror and say, "I do judo."
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I have always said that we want to develop a wide technical range in our judo - that we do not want our judo to become a game of 2-3 tokuiwaza that are all we know how to do.  But I've also always said that it is sufficient on rank tests for students to do well on 4 out of 5 of their throws - that 80% is ok with me.
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So, where is the balance between being able to choose your set of techniques that allow you to best express your personal judo and developing a broad technical range with many throws?

photo courtesy of parrhesiastes

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How many throws are there in judo?

The question arises, how many throws do we learn in judo?  It turns out that there is really no meaningful answer to that question - or perhaps we should be asking some other question.  See, you could say...

  • There is  1 throw in judo - everything is a variation or extrapolation on ukiotoshi
  • There are 2 throws in judo - otoshi and guruma.
  • There are 4 throws in judo - tewaza, koshiwaza, ashiwaza, and sutemiwaza
  • There are about 5 throws in judo - at least every champion has their handful that is all they ever do.
  • There are about 6-10 throws in judo - everything else is a minor variation of a few core principles
  • There are 37 throws in judo - the original 1895 Gokyonowaza
  • There are 40 throws in judo - the 1920 Gokyonowaza
  • There are 67 throws in judo - the IJF's 1982 additions
  • There are thousands of throws in judo - at least, Kano said that Ueshiba's aikido was "ideal judo" and Ueshiba taught thousands of techniques.
  • There are infinite throws in judo - or at least the potential for infinite variation.
I sort of like to view it as analogous to resolution in a computer monitor.  Some folks like to teach many throws so that you get a 'sharper' picture of what judo is - like more pixels on the monitor = higher resolution, but higher-resolution monitors take longer to refresh (at least they used to) just like higher-resolution judo takes longer to learn and may take longer to sort through to find a solution in an emergency. 
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But on the other hand, some teachers teach a lower-resolution judo with fewer throws because it is quicker to learn, easier to remember, and quicker to sort through.
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Personally I'm somewhere in the middle.  I like to emphasize a core of 6-9 fundamental techniques followed by most of the throws in the 1920 Gokyonowaza, supplemented by 3-4 of the Habukaretawaza.  So my students end up with about 10 fundamentals by about green belt, around 24 throws by shodan, and approximately 40 throws by sandan.  All the other things (the IJF 67) are minor variations for special situations or odd grips or special-purpose counters, etc...

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I think a better question than "How many throws can we put in our list?" is, "How many throws can YOU do really well?"




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How to practice the in-betweens in Gokata

Gokata is mostly a re-iteration of technical chunks from previous kata - Ichikata, Nikata, and Yonkata.  The interesting goodies in Gokata are not in the techniques, but in the spaces between the techniques.
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It is in these spaces that uke can work on getting back to the next attack as efficiently as possible.  It is in these spaces that tori can work on remaining ready for uke's ongoing attack and proactively controlling ma-ai by stepping forward to meet uke.
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So, why would we work on Gokata in a technique-by-technique manner like we find convenient for the other kata - where we get some instruction on technique #1, then technique #2, and so on?  We should find a way to work on the stuff in the spaces between techniques - a way to shine the spotlight on those in-between things.
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A practice that has been working out nicely in my classes is to take pairs of techniques.  The first two suwariwaza (for instance) are familiar from Ichikata, so we don't really need to work too much on the execution of either of these individual technical things.  So we practice the two techniques back-to-back with emphasis on...

  • tori does a technique and takes 1-2 steps back and faces uke.
  • uke rises and attacks immediately from where he is.
  • tori steps forward to meet the attack and does the second technique.

After playing techniques 1 and 2 this way with emphasis on the in-between for a while, we move on to techniques 2 and 3, then 3 and 4, and so on. After we get the in-between stuff working for several pairs, we chain them togetehr into a chunk of 3 or 4 or 5 techniques with a continuous feel and with the emphasis still on the in-between spaces.

It seems to be a good practice mode for Gokata to work pairs of techniques with emphasis on the in-between ratehr than on the techniques.

photo courtesy of Dimmerswitch


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The spirits of the koryu

So, if Gokata is supposed to be a faster, more proactive version of Ichikata, Nikata, and Yonkata, one of the first questions that folks ask me is, "Why have another kata if it is just supposed to be faster?  Why not just do Ichi, Ni, and Yon until we get good enough to be proactive and direct with an efficient uke?"
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I agree, that is something like our end goal in aikido.  We would like to get so good, to have the principles ingrained so well, that every motion and every encounter is an ideal expression of all principles.  Ideally we would be proactive and direct and uke would be ultra-efficient all the time.
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But that's kind of a stretch for us mere mortals :-)
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And, keep in mind - even most black belts are still relative beginners :-)
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What the kata designers (Tomiki and Ohba et al.)  have done is very scientific.  They have changed one (or maybe two) variables at a time.  Up through about shodan, we learn kihon - fundamentals.  But then...

  • Ichikata introduces some minor technical variations, but really seems to explore large motion and perpendicular vectors as a major theme.
  • Nikata minors in technical variation but majors in small-motion in confined spaces using powerful hip switches and oblique angulation.
  • Sankata introduces variation in ma-ai as a major theme - working from suwari to tachiwaza to longer weapons ranges.
  • Yonkata is back to the large motion ideas, but it has a distinct flowing, light, airy feel to it.
  • Gokata is a proactive, high-energy thing - or if you want to call it "faster and more aggressive" ok. 
  • Rokukata seems to be a sort of an opus - an artistic synthesis of all of these ideas.  Maybe it is Ohba's masterpiece, whereas Sankata was Tomiki's masterpiece - I'm not sure.
Pretty much all of the technical variation that you see in the Koryu no kata is spread out here and there primarily in the first two or three kata.  After that, you don't see new techniques.  What you see is new ideas or new energies - new spirits.  New ways to play with the technical things that you already know.  

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So, instead of having a whole new set of technical things for you to concentrate on in Gokata, they mostly re-used chunks of Ichi, Ni, and Yon and suggested that you practice them in a different mode.  They are suggesting that you pay attention to the mode or the spirit of your aikido rather than the techniques.

Making you re-do  your old material in a different spirit - that is transformative.


photo courtesy of Old Sarge

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Patrick Parker
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