Tuesday, February 26, 2013

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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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