How Hard You Work

Aricle: Nobody Cares How Hard You Work

Admittedly I have a stereotype of a small town, machi dojo-type of mindset by which one is no longer seeking, no longer amazed, no longer noticing much anymore. This person sees things in very plain, bare terms. Their reaction to good technique is, “Oh, that was very strong/fast”, even when they directly experience it. That is, although the technique is good and not reliant on strength or speed, the person receiving it only perceives and makes sense of it as such. In my experience, this interpretation is backed up by their comments about my physicality or age – basically attributing the technique to youthful vigor or roughness – and responding by starting to do muscular, forced things. (I even recall one person who reacted very violently, apparently thinking it was some unfair trickery that he fell down so unexpectedly. I thought it was unfortunate that he felt no amazement or wonder that it happened so effortlessly.)

So there’s this correlation that many people make between exertion and results that they can recognize. If you achieve the results without exertion, they don’t acknowledge that the results are very good (or they presume you’ve made the kind of effort they recognize). If they see you exert effort, they may acknowledge that whatever you’ve achieved is good.

Psychologists have long noticed what’s sometimes been called the “labor illusion:” when it comes to judging other people’s work, we might say we’re focused only on whether they did the job quickly and well—but really we want to feel they wore themselves out for us.

The behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells the story of a locksmith, who, as he got better at his work, started getting fewer tips, and more complaints about his prices. Each job took him so little time or effort that customers felt cheated—even though, pretty obviously, being super-fast is an asset in a locksmith, not a fault.

This would be no more than an intriguing quirk of consumer behavior—if it weren’t for the fact that we apply the same twisted standards to ourselves. Call it the “Effort Trap:” it’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off.

Of course, this is easy to see in people who correlate a “good” aikido practice session with breaking a good sweat. They seem to acknowledge themselves and other people as doing “good” practice if their effort is sweaty and visible.

I also notice there is a super-cerebral, intellectual equivalent. In this case, the people stand around hyper-analyzing and striving to study some kind of ideal principle. Paradoxically, they never strive to do it easily or casually. This is, when left to their own devices in a general class, they do not incorporate this ideal principle study. It’s as if they only try to do it when they’re trying hard to study it.

Then there’s the peculiar aikido phenomenon around the partner who is difficult to throw. Some of us can make the distinction between a partner who is difficult because they are “solid”, or “aiki-heavy” or because they are behaving in a way that is thwarting you. Many people, however, cannot make this distinction. Consequently, what they experience is someone who is initially throwing them around easily but to whom they cannot do the same; perceiving a discrepancy, they try to equalize it by making it difficult for the other person. Whether this is an effort to make the other person require effort or to distress or otherwise emotionally challenge the other person (I suspect it’s the latter), it is not clear and ultimately unconstructive and wasteful.


“Yoyuu (余裕)” is a Japanese word that is difficult to translate into English. It means, ease, freedom, having a wide margin, plenty of time, space, energy, etc. – the opposite of needing to work hard, be pressed for time, have no time to breathe, etc.

In aikido, I think that we strive to achieve ‘yoyuu’ in our technique and interaction with our partners. This is deceptively difficult regarding ‘uke’. When one is ‘tori’, the objective at the beginning, middle, and end of the interaction is relatively concrete and clear. However, when one is ‘uke’, the objective at the beginning is somewhat clear (e.g., someone can strike but vary how hard), and the end is prescribed but often disagreed upon (i.e., the prescribed end is to fall down, but it’s acceptable to make it hard for ‘tori’ to achieve this and at times make ‘tori’ fail).

When ‘tori’ is executing technique with ease (‘yoyuu’), an egotistical uke changes what they are doing – they react and no longer straightforwardly accept what the ‘tori’ gives, no longer give ‘tori’ the continued energy of the attack and subsequent response. At best, without being egotistical, the reaction of ‘uke’ should be inquisitive (“Was I being complacent? Is that why the other person is having such an easy time?”) and increase the intensity of the attack and response during the technique/interaction while taking care not to interfere with what ‘tori’ is giving in the interaction. This is most difficult, even contradictory, for a person who believes that being a good, challenging partner to ‘tori’ is by being interfering and thwarting.

When one is striving to achieve more ‘yoyuu’ as ‘uke’, there are many factors to consider, and consider continually in the moment to moment interaction with partner as well as in the context of one’s very conception of what ‘uke’ should be doing. There are many ways in which one can make the interaction easy for oneself.

One can “loosen” one’s attack, or energy extending to ‘tori’. One can do this by staying loose from start to end. One can also do this in the midst of the interaction/technique.

One can “loosen” one’s energy striving to maintain equilibrium. Instead of like a tightly wound spring returning to standing, one may return to standing at a different pace or, possibly more confoundingly, by further loosening the energy extending to the partner.

Which brings me to the next point, the conception of what ‘uke’ should be doing. Regarding the point above about returning to equilibrium, the “normal” thing for uke to do would be to return to standing in a way that continues the initial attack, or extension into ‘tori’. This means that ‘uke’ does not change to another attack, nor back away, re-group, then attack again. ‘Uke’ should be continually trying to return to the initial state of attacking, or extending into ‘tori’. In this sense, ‘uke’ is a bit mindless or single-minded. (The caveat is that this is “normal” practice, and something that a person can, of course, deviate from if one has ‘yoyuu’.)

How to achieve more ‘yoyuu’ relative to the initial attack, or state? I think one has to deepen one’s grasp of “intensity”. In the beginning, “intense” means “harder, faster, stronger, more ferocious, etc.” Accordingly, if the person is not attacking ferociously, a person with shallow understanding may perceive that as an un-intense attack. (Occasionally one may be fortunate enough to encounter a person of such a high level that they attack in a way that is very overwhelming but lacking in the “harder, faster, etc.” qualities.) An attack with more ‘yoyuu’ is one in which the attacker has little tension to achieve a proportionally significant result. The result of a grab may be that the ‘uke”s entire body is involved in the grab, but with little tension. This involvement, or “extending into ‘tori'” mentioned above, is very difficult to describe in words.

How to achieve more ‘yoyuu’ in the midst and end of the interaction? The physical intensity of the impact of a strike, or any initial contact, has very little to do with this – in fact, that intensity should largely disappear, rather than continuing to press. (Any lingering should not be in excess – it’s acceptable if it’s mindfully for the purpose of being consistent in one’s role.) Engaging with the whole body, yet without tension, the ‘uke’ can a) know what the ‘tori’ is doing to him, b) be able to absorb any discrepancy (e.g., ‘tori’ moves too fast and away but ‘uke’ can keep up, ‘tori’ moves toward ‘uke’ but ‘uke’ can absorb that movement), and c) be able to respond by repositioning, using the feet. The contact with ‘tori’ reveals so much of ‘tori’ – ‘uke”s ‘yoyuu’ comes from sensing. Together with a lack of tension and responsiveness, ‘uke’ could be said to truly practicing martial arts.

The above has to do with ‘uke’ dealing with what ‘tori’ throws at him. However it’s relatively easy to preserve oneself and one’s balance, equilibrium, etc. if one is not attacking. The other key aspect is what ‘uke’ throws at ‘tori’ – that is, the attack, or more accurately, always attacking, encroaching on ‘tori’, and filling the openings. It is eliminating the gaps between self and ‘tori’ and sensing when ‘tori’ is weak / oneself is strong. As long as there is no/little gap, ‘uke’ can explore lighter and lighter physical contact. When ‘uke’ is not attacking and only preserving himself, there is definitely a gap; there is no danger to ‘tori’ of being upset or controlled by ‘uke’. The less physical contact needed, the less tension there is while the engagement of ‘uke’ is with more and more of his body. This key aspect is not directly about ‘uke’ creating ‘yoyuu’ for himself, but indirectly, by keeping ‘tori’ on his toes, ‘uke’ may have an easier time.


The way that I know of to work on the first piece is to take lots of ‘uke’ for high-level people who are throwing you hard / unleashing everything they have on you. High-level means they are skilled and are not simply overpowering you like a freight train – they are working together with your power. If they are overpowering you and there is a disconnect between what you each are giving and receiving, then you are not learning the interaction. High-level means that they are working with you, not against you, so you can also experience trust and safety/reassurance. This allows you to decrease your mental/emotional tension at the same time as your physical tension. Taking lots of ‘uke’ and figuring out how to receive more and more of the power of the ‘tori”s technique will increase your ‘yoyuu’ for what you can handle.


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