One of our first exercises that we do in our aikido classes is a set of 8 or so responses to wrist grabs. We have always called them "releases" although we are explicitly taught on the first day and reminded throughout our training career that we are not necessarily trying to make uke let go of our wrist. So, what are we "releasing?"
I have long felt like it was the conflict building up between uke and tori that is being released. In the past I've likened it to a pressure release valve that will only let so much awkwardness and danger build up between uke and tori before it triggers and bleeds some of the pressure off.
I have also used a magnetism analogy. Try to push two like-polarized magnets together and they will get to a certain point where they vibrate for a moment, then they shear apart or else one will spin to the other pole.
In any case, as uke approaches tori from outside ma-ai you can feel a psychic pressure building between them.
Some aikidoka have taken to calling these exercises something like "musubi renshu" or "connection practice." Their reasoning is that if you do the release motion and roll around uke and get behind him without affecting him (kuzushi) then you've used your initiative to accomplish nothing. I think that is debatable - you have diffused/won a psychic duel (attacking his mind is one sense of atemi), and you have gotten into shikaku (the dead angle behind uke's shoulder), which can be seen as attacking uke's position relative to tori.
So, "releasing" does not actually do nothing to uke - it attacks his mindset and his position, which absolutely has to be reflected in his posture.
But their point is well-taken. Tori would like his first motion to be as effective as possible, so if we were able to achieve a kuzushi and a connection then we would like to do that too. But kuzushi and connection are both somewhat ephemeral constructs - hard to define objectively, especially for beginners (the folks practicing these exercises the most). So it might be sufficient, or even preferable, to tell beginners that their 4 objectives (no specific order) in the exercises are to...
- get offline
- get hands up
- get behind uke's arm (shikaku)
- move with uke for 1-2 steps
But certainly at some point we want to start using these exercises to talk about kuzushi (it is actually popular in Europe and Japan to call these exercises Shichihon no kuzushi or "seven offbalances"). Somewhere around green or brown belt I give my students a fifth objective...
- kuzushi - leave uke feeling like he should take one more step to stabilize.
The sixth objective (musubi - get a connection) doesn't get a lot of explicit teaching in my school - I just don't have a lot of good words to talk about those ideas. I think that my students tend to eventually get some subset of those skills - like particularly when we start emphasizing getting kuzushi earlier and earlier in the encounter, but it sure would be nice to be able to teach that earlier and more explicitly.
In some sense, the fourth objective (move with uke for 1-2 steps) is part of musubi (or maybe it is a Kito-flavored interpretation of musubi), but there is more involved in that construct than I have vocabulary and exercises for.
Here's a couple of cool videos of Strange and Nick talking about musubi...
And here's a book that seems to demystify musubi a good bit ...
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