Four Slightly Different Approaches and Their Common Ground
Written by Ania Small
Connection is essential to Aikido, yet it’s not often talked about. It’s difficult to define, and even harder to teach. So what is the path for discovering unity in our own body and in movement with our partner? How can it be taught? This article focuses on how four teachers: Mitsugi Saotome, Hiroshi Ikeda, Bill Gleason and Dan Messisco describe connection, and what methods they use to help their students learn how to move in unison with their partners. In addition to experiencing their teaching in class, I asked for additional clarifications of their approach. I’ve also included Guy Hagen’s writing, based on his interviews with Saotome Sensei.
Term “connection” in Aikido is often used inter changeably with “unity”. Both of them relate to Japanese words “Aiki” and “Musubi”. They describe the quality of being in one’s body and interaction between partners that allows them to move together as one. Although these terms are somewhat similar, they do have slightly different meaning. For example, the word “connection” implies two separate entities meeting and forming “unity”. Japanese term “Aiki” describes unity of energy, while “Musubi” means “tying together, or connecting two things or people”. Despite the subtle differences, all these terms will be used here as describing the same idea.
SAOTOME SENSEI’S APPROACH TO STUDY OF CONNECTION:
Saotome Sensei uses the terms Musubi and Aiki. He refers to partner’s ability to sense a response in uke or nage, and develop it into movement. He often illustrates how to feel uke’s reaction and base one’s movement and Aikido technique on it. Saotome Sensei talks about skin as a “second brain”, and asks us to be in tune with our partner through sensing with our touch his or her reaction. He mentions “bio-sensors” and using the process of “bio-feedback” to create Aiki. When he says “don’t practice Ai-Body”, he asks us to remember the principle of unifying our energy with our opponent. He teaches to sense the unity rather than just perform techniques on our partners, without feeling their response and connecting with it. He encourages us to practice Ai-Ki-Do, by joining energy with our partner both on nage and uke side.
Guy Hagen shared with me his description of Saotome Sensei’s teaching on connection, based on some recent interviews and practices: “Based upon my notes and recollections and interviews with Saotome Sensei, Sensei has three significant points that he consistently made about “connection”:
1) enabling the flow of ‘ki’
2) removing expectations, and
3) discovering ‘aiki’.
First, Sensei emphasized that muscular force and tightness “kills ki”; by this, he means that muscular tension effectively blocks the ability to sense the point of connection and beyond. He often describes ki as the processes of organic expansion and contraction and biofeedback response. He often asks, “do you have sense?” and teaches “the skin was the first brain” (simple life forms developed the ability to sense and respond automatically to their environment long before the evolution of a central nervous system or hominid cerebellum). By this he is urging students to use the physical point of connection as a gateway to sensing the complete other person as a living, breathing, organic thing. By turning the physical connection into a sensing instrument, both uke and nage allow their “first brain” to guide both the attack and response. Sensei also loves the Western phrase, “keeping in touch” because while it implies a physical connection, the meaning is that the true connection between individuals is maintained from the heart. By this, students should remember that the primary connection between uke and nage isn’t a physical one, it is an emotional and spiritual one; the physical connection is just the “extension cord” through which the energy flows.
Second, in my personal instruction by Sensei, I was many times scolded to attack with no expectation, no plan, and no idea of what ukemi I should be taking. There was a period in my training where Sensei would incrementally make my ukemi more and more difficult by changing his response to my attack at the last possible moment, switching up the throw in mid-technique, even adding another technique while I was “mid-air” falling from his first nage. Saotome Sensei has said that the purpose of ukemi is “to prepare the student for receiving knowledge”, and if I had an idea of what was going to happen I would fail to receive the lesson he was trying to give me. Cultivating a sincere attack means intentionally “forgetting” what technique nage is practicing, each time, and holding nothing back to “save yourself” from the likely outcome. The only way out is through; the ukemi that comes from each technique should be spontaneous, completely committed, and with an utter investment of awareness that at any instant things may change. This is true for nage as well. Thus, the connection should be filled with a deeply focused awareness free of expectation.
Finally, Sensei has said that the goal of both uke and nage is to discover aiki. Sensei uses the term “ikkyo” to describe the moment of meeting, in which both uke and nage discover each other for the first time. “Would you try to apply yesterday’s technique to today’s attacker? Each attacker is unique, each attack is unique.” Unfortunately, we all become programmed as beginners that uke has a job to do (to resist, stop, or defeat nage), and nage has a job to do (to overwhelm uke); we feel we have succeeded in our training when we accomplish these goals. Sensei says there is no room for aiki to happen in this type of relationship, only waza (technique) and contention. In contrast, Sensei defines Aikido as the art of discovering harmony with the forces of nature and the universe; that means that an important part of the successful manifestation of aiki requires something more than ourselves. I understand this to mean it is important for both uke and nage to “redefine success”; instead of trying to defeat an opponent, success is achieved when a spontaneous moment of aiki surprises both uke and nage. Success is shared between uke and nage, and requires both of them to create. “Discovering aiki” means that both uke and nage must approach each attack/technique with a sense of anticipation, as if both are holding a lit firecracker. Within the connection is aiki, a gift which can be allowed to manifest and be celebrated, or crushed out and abandoned because of one’s own need to win.”
Guy sensei describes what I appreciate about Saotome Sensei’s teaching regarding connection. It allows us to be open to new information, and flexible in our movement. There are no preconceived notions, and no reliance on fixed technique. His approach to studying connection requires development of freedom to sense and receive signals from our partners. It facilitates creativity and surprise. That way technique is never stale. Saotome Sensei often says to his students “it doesn’t matter how long you have been studying. Forget what you know, and focus on the moment.” He tells us that we only have “one chance and one life” and emphasizes intent and Aiki before the technique even happens. Discovering Aiki and Musubi in the movement is a priority. Technique comes second.
Saotome Sensei talks about organizing our own body and designing space around us in a away that allows Aiki. He tells us it’s “easy”, and what gets in a way is overthinking it. He mentions vertically aligning the three “chakras” of mind, heart and gut (wisdom, compassion and courage), to unify our movement, as he points to his head chest and stomach. Saotome Sensei also talks about having confidence in ourselves, and trusting our ability to manifest Aiki. The goal is not to create unity, but to discover it within our movement.
GLEASON SENSEI’S APPROACH:
Here is how Gleason Sensei describes connection: “In order to manifest Aiki principle you must first have connectivity throughout your own body. This is the result of developing your ki or intent. Secondly your movement must be a balance of yin and yang so that there is no pressure into the point of meeting with your partner. In the Chinese Classics it states,”To yield is to adhere, to adhere is to yield.” This doesn’t mean giving up space but rather using the point of contact as a pivot point. On one side yielding (yin) to your partner’s force and on the other side entering (yang) into his space. In this way your partner is stuck to you and you are free to move in any way that you choose. This requires a great deal of sensitivity. It is a simple thing but very hard to master.”
Gleason Sensei puts great emphasis on developing sensitivity. His teaching encourages to relax and physically connect with our partner both as uke and nage. Not relying on upper body strength, or overpowering the other person, creates an opening for being sensitive to their movement. When Gleason Sensei talks about the balance of yin and yang, and yielding and adhering, he describes both the quality of uke and nage he fosters in his students. It encourages openness, combined with strong intent. It fosters whole body connection. and allows the ki development. The relaxation within one’s own body allows greater “connectivity” internally, and while working with another person. Spontaneity of the movement is emphasized, technique being secondary to the principle of Aiki.
In Gleason Sensei’s dojo there is a great focus on study of ukemi. He encourages his students to attack with sincerity and intent. He emphasizes the continuity of the attack and the connection with nage. There is a lot of ukemi practice at his dojo, and he works with his students, both as nage, and receiving their technique, believing in importance of transmitting the feeling of connection through practice.
IKEDA SENSEI’S APPROACH:
Ikeda Sensei frequently uses the term “unity”. He devotes a great deal of his teaching to establishing Aiki between nage and uke. He emphasizes the importance of connecting energy with that of our partner at the first moment of contact. Ikeda Sensei talks about a line of connection with no slack. That “tight line” allows nage and uke to move together. When it’s absent, we miss the principle of Aiki, and are just relying on a good will of uke to take the fall. We are performing a technique on our partner, instead of moving together.
Ikeda Sensei encourages uke to attack and not move until there is unity. He asks nage to first connect to uke, and take their balance, before proceeding to technique. His method of teaching connection relies on practicing establishing strong body to body contact to create Aiki. Technique is secondary to that, and once the unity is established, possibilities for movement are endless.
The other part of Ikeda Sensei’s method of teaching connection is internal practice. He asks his students to learn to organize their own body and encourages research on how even our minuscule movements affect our partner. Ikeda Sensei teaches how to increase awareness of and connectivity in our body. A lot of his teaching is geared towards developing clear intent and movement efficiency.
Ikeda Sensei clarifies some points of his approach to teaching unity. “Aiki is not just based on physical touch. It is mind and body connection with one’s partner. It is like having a sword and connecting it’s tip to the person we are working with. That connection allows us not to have to move our arm power to swing the sword, just using our body movement. If you understand connecting with sword you don’t need to swing the sword, you just move the body and the sword moves with you. That is unity, connection and musubi.”
When Ikeda Sensei talks about establishing a tight line of connection between ourselves and our partners, he means physical connection, as well as mental one. It’s one’s attention and intensity of engagement. Unity requires relaxation and openness and allows freedom of movement. Creating unity physically translates into being in a relationship with uke that doesn’t leave them room to disconnect.
MESSISCO SENSEI’S APPROACH:
Dan Messisco says that over the years he “moved away from thinking about how to take another person’s balance, or even how to connect with them, to focus on integrity of his own body in the space around him”. He describes it as an “absolute, rather than dualistic perspective”. It’s goal is to “develop a presence that creates an attractive force around you. Attacking brings uke into that space.” Messisco Sensei emphasizes connectivity within our own body and “maintaining natural, everyday movement.” He especially emphasizes the connection between the lower and upper body, flexibility and skill level in one’s legs, allowing one to relax our torso and arms, and sense responses from a partner.
Since uke initiates the contact, their intent and desire shape the technique. “Since nage’s goal is not to take uke’s balance, but to maintain the integrity of their own body and movement, whatever uke puts into the interaction, comes back to them”. Nage “provides a safe place for uke”. “Both nage and uke are participants in the Aiki process”. Unity relies on “mutual respect for the integrity of movement and space”.
Messisco Sensei talks about “martially attentive ukemi.” He describes it as “supple, adjusting to change, without loosing composure, so kaeshi waza is always available.” Aiki body is integrated, whether one is attacking or receiving the attack. In his class, Messisco Sensei reminds us to keep that integrity and not sacrifice it to the idea of a strong attack (like squeezing our partners wrist and loosing our balance in the process). Connection is not pushing into our partner’s space with our arms, but continuity of movement initiated by the legs.
Messisco Sensei uses a quote from Saotome Sensei: “Don’t look for results. You are the result”. In other words, don’t look for connection or unity out there. It’s all here, in your own movement. “Aikido is everyday movement” is another of Saotome Sensei’s phrases used by Messico Sensei. He encourages students not to try to do the techniques, but let them develop organically from the uke-nage interaction.
When asked about of method of teaching that supports his approach, Messico Sensei talked about encouraging students to develop attentiveness to their body and integrity of their movement. Teacher can support that by describing techniques to students in terms of what they do with their own body, rather that what they do to their partner. For example it’s better to describe ikkyo as stepping in, raising one’s arms, and bending knees, than trying to rotate partner’s arm.
THE COMMON GROUND:
These four ways of describing and teaching connection in Aikido, despite some subtle differences have a lot in common. There might be a slightly different explanation, words, or emphasis, but the message is similar. For example, Gleason Sensei talks more about the balance of yin and yang in the meeting with the partner and pivoting around the point of connection. Messisco Sensei emphasizes the attractive force, and the independent natural movement, while Ikeda Sensei focuses on establishing line of connection. Saotome Sensei talks about the biofeedback between uke and nage and designing the space. He speaks about the universal energy we can connect with, to manifest Aiki.
Here are the common themes in their teaching:
- Importance of relaxation, creating openness and connectivity in one’s body
- developing mindfulness of our own movement and sensitivity to partners responses
- developing ki or intent
- combination of strong intent and openness in the first moment of interaction, or even before
- no pushing into the point of contact
- emphasis on the Aiki principle over the technique
- seeing unity as physical, mental and spiritual
- getting away from a mindset of winning
- the path to manifesting Aiki through both uke and nage practice
- freedom of movement through Aiki principle
All of these four teachers emphasize importance of personal research of how we move and interact with our partners. They see Aikido as a relationship, and encourage their students to move beyond the technique. All of them focus on principle of connection, and researching one’s movement, rather than repeating a pattern. There is an emphasis on a transformative aspect of the art, and developing Aiki body and mind. They see manifesting Aiki as being relaxed, attentive, integrated, sensitive to signals from partners, and filled with ki.
Connection is not easy to describe and I am aware of the danger of simplifying or missing a key aspect of the different teachers message. I tried to do my best to present their approach. I do have a bias, looking for the similarities, in order to incorporate the lessons to my practice and teaching. I’m aware that there is much more to this topic, and I would like to continue thinking about methods of studying connection. I would love your comments and thoughts.
I would like to thank the following teachers for their help with this article: Bill Gleason Sensei from Shobu Aikido of Boston, Guy Hagen Sensei from Aikido Chuseikan of Tampa, Dan Messisco Sensei and Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei from Boulder Aikikai