Practicing (3)

Reflections on A Consideration of Aikido Practice within the Context of Internal Training by Ellis Amdur

I would be among the first to assert that Saito’s successors did not and do not exhibit any ability — or interest — in training in aiki. … It is certainly possible that Saito, like so many others in this field, kept internal training methods to himself, but I think it is more likely that Saito was, in large part, an example of what I have termed “osmosis”: that, given sufficient intense and intimate interactions with an expert, one can unconsciously steal some degree of the skill, without really knowing what one has accomplished, or at least, how one accomplished it. …  Without a curriculum, transmission is almost impossible.

I feel fortunate about the teaching I’ve received in that I’m a mix of Endo sensei’s exhortations to feel and Saotome sensei’s perspective that aikido is truly about applicability and life and death. When I practice, I study the current method and see how it does or doesn’t work, and what does or doesn’t happen/arise. I have my reservations about the need for a curriculum as mentioned above, but a critical self-awareness of what one practices is crucial, as is the cleverness with which to organize one’s experience. To some extent, it is the teacher’s responsibility to coherently display their method, but the decisive factor is the individual student’s tendency toward self-awareness and cleverness.

My experiences with those skilled in internal strength are different (though not all the same): sometimes it is as if one has grabbed hold of someone who is like fluid steel; sometimes it is like grappling with an anaconda; and with other people, it is like grabbing at a ghost: but it is never a mutual practice of limp, relaxed bodies….

Considering the slow process with which aiki tends to develop, such practice will take a lot of time, consideration and patience on both ends of the practice spectrum. Both uke and nage therefore, must also fight against the desire to establish that decisive, unambiguous “victory” that is inherent within conventional aikido practice.[xxx]

The cooperation aspect, I’ve learned to appreciate as necessary. If there is any significant amount of game-yness, where people are finding loopholes and other ways to betray the predecided roles of nage and uke, it ends up simply producing confusion. The “victory” that is seen in the practice of each technique, should always be understood to result in at least some cooperation by the losing role.

The caveat is, the drive and ambition to advance one’s ability is important also. This may include developing the ability to overcome game-y behavior by the partner and succeed in executing the technique.  It’s a slippery slope. Competitiveness can have its role in stimulating a person’s ambition to advance, but it can also be a dark forest that one may get lost in.

One final stumbling block remains, however, and this is the seemingly arbitrary nature of aikido waza: how does one avoid the pitfall of it remaining mere collusion.

Regarding the pitfall of mere collusion, I see several antidotes. One is the ambitiousness I mention above. Even if the partner it cooperating with me, my ambition makes me want to control them even more by my technique. I try to find where they don’t / can’t cooperate. I also try to “poke” them into a state of less cooperation, more antagonism. Another antidote is the use of “jiyu waza” practice. The unpredictability here should make collusion less possible. Of course, it’s better if my technical repertoire is broad, so that my partner can’t quickly guess what I’m attempting to do. As uke, when I make little to no effort to guess what my partner is attempting, I’m also continually thinking how to reverse partner. When I’m nage, I presume my partner is also seeking to reverse me. And, often while I’m working, as nage, if I have enough margin of error, I play on thin ice, too – thin ice being, letting the risk of being reversed be high, as a way to invite uke’s spontaneous action.

This question is tied to another: why, out of the total corpus of Daito-ryu waza, were so few techniques selected out for training? This cannot merely be laid at the feet of Ueshiba Kisshomaru. I don’t care what branch of aikido you observe: the Shodokan of Tomiki Kenji, Shinei Taido of Inoue Noriaki, the Yoshinkan of Shioda Gozo, the prewar aikido of Shirata Rinjiro or Iwata Ikkusai, or the present-day Aikikai of Ueshiba Moriteru, they are all doing the same techniques. To be sure, one or another faction may have retained this or that waza from Daito-ryu that was their group’s specialty, but in no case are those techniques central. Just about everyone has the same essential 12 — 20 waza. The limited nature of aikido practice goes right back to Ueshiba Morihei, who, as some may recall, limited many practices to ikkyo alone. I believe that Ueshiba selected specific techniques (and their variations) that encased the core principals that lay within a certain set of Daito-ryu techniques (Ikkajo, for example). There are two ways to regard this:

Daito-ryu partisans, particularly those who practice the full range of “human origami” kata, regard aikido, therefore, as a watered-down version of Daito-ryu, a few basic techniques abstracted from a magnificent and full compendium of jujutsu kata

Another perspective would be that Ueshiba himself was a kind of “home-brewer,” that he distilled out the essential frame within Daito-ryu techniques to cover all major configurations of two figures in (standing or kneeling) combat, which he regarded as more than sufficient to train the aiki-body as he viewed it.

If you, as an aikido practitioner, accept the latter definition, then you have more than enough techniques, which can be regarded as two-person exercises, for the development of internal strength.

In my case, I do consider the current range of aikido techniques to be enough. I’m a believer in the saying, try to make all techniques as one. That is, they shouldn’t feel fundamentally different from each other. Going by this thinking, but without explicitly pursuing internal strength, but instead pursuing viable relaxation, good balance, and some kind of effect on partner that is not primarily physical strength – it’s possible I’ve just gone without the terminology of “internal strength”.

Proper aikido training would entail a powerful grasp by uke (with “aiki”) within which nage expresses the appropriate technique to redirect uke’s force within himself or herself rather than merely away. In other words, “there is no such thing as tenkan . . . without irimi.”[xxxii] Any deviation from integrity should result in uke countering nage: in other words, uke becomes nage, and the practice continues. Such a change in how aikido is done on a physical level, can result in a change on the moral level: rather than the archetypal meeting in which nage receives and subdues the errant action (the attack) of uke, there develops a more fluid exchange of roles between uke and nage. What makes this a training device rather than freestyle is that one is required to a) hew to the aikido form and the principles of internal training. In other words, aikido as a moral relativism, determined by circumstances, rather than moral absolutism, determined by role.[xxxiii]

I think this “moral” piece at the end is about the possibility that Endo sensei talks about: the possibility that uke will turn the tables on you – always be aware of this risk. Ellis takes this one step further and seems to say, even if the tables are turned, you keep practicing. Personally, while I don’t know about any “moral” impact, I can attest to the mental detachment that is necessary to keep the practice going. Without the detachment, the switch of roles is jarring and unnatural.

How can one possibly practice such a method of training within an ordinary aikido dojo? Given that, as I suggest, that there are far less than 500 aikidoka seriously studying internal strength, scattered in various parts of the globe, most of your training partners will not be able to grab, move or even stand with aiki, and as I’ve said above, have no interest in doing so. Most of them never will. Even amongst those who do express some interest, most will pay no more than lip service once they are aware how much boring, repetitive practice is required before they achieve any level of skill. In the future, as in the present, there will be far more who “know about” than truly know.

I think Ellis is lamenting how one can practice to attain internal strength in a regular aikido dojo. I don’t know about “regular”, but I feel that my “normal” practice of aikido is sufficient, because I include an emphasis on relaxation, a certain concentrated tightness, and alignment.

The truth is, were one to become well-trained in this manner, one could easily — and respectfully — enter any aikido dojo on the planet, and never even reveal — unless you chose — that you could stop the other person’s technique (as one friend teases me, “Aiki Superman, eh? Replicating Ueshiba’s Aiki-Avatar role!!”). Even so, you could train with them, without disturbing practice — unless you chose — and yet further enhance your ability at aiki, because taking good ukemi via receiving and fitting in appropriately can be a fantastic training for aiki.[xxxiv] Remember my quotation of Ueshiba Morihei from 1921: “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want.” What a marvelous practice of aiki, therefore, that I have just proposed! You will be training in ostensibly classic aikido, and your training partners will be helping you develop your aiki skills, all the while unawares.

While I still don’t know what people mean by “internal strength”, the above is probably where I fit in best at the moment.

You will be part of the community and yet beyond it. There may be something lonely about this, perhaps like an opera singer who can never sing arias outside his or her own home, because his country music loving neighbors think he sounds like a dying cat – or, on the other hand, a wonderful singer of country music in an Italian neighborhood. But this loneliness is, frankly, part of the dues you’ve got to pay if you choose to remain within the aikido community and do so tactfully as well. Until you have developed truly superlative skills in aiki, you will have nothing to brag about anyway. Why be a missionary for something you cannot manifest?

At your own dojo, or with those one for two training partners, you will be able take your training to further and further limits, practicing, if you will, a version of pre-war/post-war aikido: the best of both worlds. It is quite possible at some future date, you will step out on your own, leaving behind an aikido that is no longer part of your world. I expect that there will then be a more extensive community, however small, waiting. But if you desire it to be an aikido community, treat all who are part of the aikido legacy, and all who chose to participate within it, with respect while you do your homework.[xxxv]

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