The other day I left school to get some lunch at a nearby bakery during one of my free periods. I wasn’t really feeling particularly lazy at that time, but the glare of the sun on my eyes which had been stuck within school walls for four hours was making me fix a pretty mean stare while I walked down the street. Also, the heat was just enough to form small beads of sweat on my forearms where my shirtsleeves were rolled up. Like I said, I wasn’t feeling particularly lazy, but the environment was making my body conserve energy and preventing any semblance of a pep in my step. Then, a gust of wind came and flipped my tie over my shoulder. It was more matter of fact than annoying and I took a few moments before doing anything about it. My pace went unchanged and I kind of just laughed at how funny I might look. But here’s where the aikido comes in; when I reached my hand up to put the tie back in its proper place in front of me, I didn’t really “reach” for it. Instead, my hand just was there. …
This isn’t meant to be some kind of hallucination I was having or my attempt to mystify anything involved with aikido or myself … but the way I fixed my tie seemed extremely relevant to my aikido training.
When I say, “I reached to fix my tie”, I think of raising my hand in front of me, bringing the elbow up, and engaging my shoulder muscles; much like an upper-cut elbow strike. Maybe I would even reach all the way up to my other shoulder and grab the tie around the middle and flip it back over. But what I did instead was, without engaging my shoulder muscles at all, or moving my elbow from its place next to my body, I raised my limp hand to just below my collar where the base of the tie was, and with the tip of two fingers and in one swipe raked downwards letting my hand fall, bringing the tie back to its natural state.
See the difference? If you’re wearing a tie right now I recommend you give this scenario a try to see if you can feel the difference.
Oh wait … I haven’t even made a connection with aikido yet in this elaborate story of me fixing my tie. Can you see what I’m getting at though with this???
In aikido with my sensei, we’re trying to execute movements with the least amount of stress in our bodies while maintaining strong form. I’d say this is a pretty common theme in aikido or any skilled martial arts for that matter … but are we often thinking about this in our practice? I’d even say that it doesn’t happen all the time in mine or with my sensei, though I think it should be employed as much as possible.
Of the four nights I practice aikido here, three of them focus on practicing basic techniques: the basic techniques that you’ll find in just about every aikido affiliated dojo and are the curriculum for tests. On those nights, I’d say the goal is to be able to do each technique properly according to your own potential … but if you’re not very good, then I think there’s a lot of steps to put together before you start focusing on relaxing your body as much as possible.
Is that backwards to some of your methods? Are you wondering why one would focus on something else other than the final goal which is relaxed movement? Well, it’s not just relaxed movement, it’s relaxed movement in martial techniques. If your goal is to be as relaxed as possible then maybe you should just go take a nap or something.
I’m diverting a bit … OK … so … three nights a week is focusing on basic technique where relaxation is not necessarily the primary focus. But, one night a week we have a smaller class where sensei has us work on some other things that maybe other aikido dojos don’t. There, we are doing aikido, and it is most often based off basic techniques, but about 90% of the time it’s hard to make that connection by seeing alone. In this class, if you are not executing the techniques with complete relaxation in your body, then you can’t do the techniques. It is in this class that I have made huge progress in not uneccessarily using shoulder muscles, separating my elbows from positions where I would need to engage the shoulders, and maintaining relaxed and heavy hands.
This is what I did when I fixed my tie: absolute minimal effort and maximum relaxation to complete a tangible physical goal. I’ve also noticed that when using my hands to manipulate things for other mundane tasks like grabbing or nudging something I employ this kind of body movement.
To further explain this type of “lazy aikido” body movement, I’d like to share with you a story from last week’s “strange” class. (Maybe I’ll call that one night a week class where we work on the more unorthodox stuff the “strange” class from now on.) The past couple weeks I’ve been busier than ever at school as we approach final exams and I somehow got convinced to extend English club for another day after school. Also, I’ve been job searching/finding and trying to prepare for a big move that will create huge changes in my daily life which is taxing a lot of my mental and physical energy. Through this, I’ve tried to keep aikido my sole pillar of stability and have been going as much as possible. But I’ve also been getting less sleep and stressing my body more which antagonizes everything making aikido just a bit harder to get to. Due to these circumstances, I was running a little late to the “strange” class which means I missed a car ride with sensei and instead rode my granny bike for 45 minutes to the next town over.
When I arrived at class I was incredibly exhausted; physically but even more so mentally. Regardless, I was absolutley elated to be at the dojo warming up while I watched the others start class. On the brink of delusional bliss, if you will. When I joined the others on the mat, I had zero extra energy to move or talk uneccessarily. I couldn’t do anything except just stare at sensei doing the techniques and then try to copy them as best as possible. When I went to the front of the line to try the first technique myself, sensei walked up to grab my hand, I tried to move into the right technique, and he just stood there unnaffected while staring and smiling at the shoulder I was trying to flex in order to move my hand. He just shook his head. I laughed and tried it on the next person; unsuccessfully. Then the next and the next and then it was someone elses turn. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but now I’m actually pretty impressed by my lack of “overcompensation” if I do say so myself. Maybe at an earlier time in this same situation my mind would flare up: “HOW DO YOU DO THIS TECHNIQUE?!?!?!” My emotions: “Why is sensei being such a dick?” And my body as well; when being met with sensei’s strong grip, just flail my shoulder and use my strength to get him on the ground. Instead, I laughed at myself and moved on to trying it on the other partners. When it was their turn, I stared in complete fascination to the workings of the technique; but what I really saw was a lot of mistakes.
It is blaringly obvious that in these “strange” classes, sensei is trying to get us to move so as to not use strength against strength. But often times our efforts devolve to working with the goal of class on the other three nights of the week, which is simply executing the technique. That doesn’t fly here during “strange” nights. You might be getting your partner to the end of the technique without doing it properly, but if you’re lucky, sensei won’t budge and will make your weaknesses blaringly obvious. There’s one particular blackbelt who is always trying to overcompensate and finish the technique, but makes it a blundering mess, though he does get his partner on the ground. Sensei corrects him here and there, but won’t make a fuss about it and definitely doesn’t stress himself by repeating the same hints over and over and over again. When I look at this particular blackbelt, I see sincere training, but he’s making very slow progress because I don’t think he sees exactly what sensei is trying to teach us. I, on the other hand, made phenomenal improvement going from not doing the technique at all to getting people on the floor with little uneccessary effort. This made sensei very happy and the other blackbelts very confused because this lowly shiroebi was doing what they couldn’t.
I don’t mean to be coming of as arrogant in any way in relaying my stories and impressions. The day after that particular class I went to school and told the story to my advisor and best friend at work, but after I said the words, “I was doing better than the other blackbelts in class last night …” he stopped listening to me right there before I got to the “whys” and “hows” and was somehow stuck on that initial phrase.
Who knows what he was thinking when I continued telling the story, but I don’t think it was about the details of my story.
Who knows what that blackbelt is thinking when he’s doing technique, but I don’t think it’s what sensei is trying to teach him.
What was I thinking about when I did an aikido technique on my neck tie?
Probably about how unbearably hot it’s going to get here in Toyama in about a month’s time.