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Article: Focus in Aikido Training 

Focus in Aikido Training
By Claire Keller, Shidoin

Resistance and correction are like a virus in aikido. A while ago, it was suggested to me that I stop correcting people while training, and I have tried to do that (with varying success). What I have found is that keeping the focus on myself in my training provides me with more than enough to work on. When I turn my focus outward, I lose awareness and stop pushing myself to be more honest about my own training.

Often, I find myself correcting people when I am feeling out of sorts. I am uncomfortable, so I look for an escape. Since there is someone right there with me, it is convenient to focus on them. When I keep the focus on myself, I keep trying to find alternate ways to do a technique, or to adapt my ukemi to what is actually happening.

Claire Keller practices aikido with Yamada Sensei
Photo by Javier Dominguez

I have written before about how being present in the moment allows for essential self-correction and also the opportunity to let go of anxiety about completing a technique. Keeping the focus on yourself is an essential component in the practice of being present in the moment.

As an uke, my job is to pretend that I don’t know what technique is coming, and so respond to what is actually happening. If I really want to show my partner that their technique is not effective, I can show them by simply moving where they take me. If an opening presents itself, I can apply a kaeshi waza (a reverse).

But stopping my partner in their tracks, especially when I know what’s coming, is counterproductive. By resisting and preventing my partner from completing their technique, I am telling them I know better. Even if I do know better, so what? Stopping people is not positive; it is a false way to build myself up at the expense of my partner.

At the same time, ukes often are too compliant. By this I mean that ukes do not sufficiently commit themselves to their attacks (perhaps out of a desire to actually help nage). This deprives nage of a chance to try a dynamic technique. The issue of resistance and stopping people is complicated and a continuing problem in aikido. I believe one way to address this is through connected ukemi, what I like to call constructive resistance.

This means uke needs to attack with an empty mind and no preconceptions about the throw. Uke needs to respond to what is actually happening—not what they expect, want, or even fear will be next. If nage is having trouble and is less advanced than uke, connected, committed ukemi allows the nage to feel how the technique works. That doesn’t mean uke does the technique for her partner. That means she sticks with them in a constructive way and lets them struggle through. This type of ukemi is a great way to challenge yourself to be more spontaneous and present in the moment. Taking risks will make you better. Thinking in advance about the way you want your ukemi to look makes you worse. Stopping your partner repeatedly just frustrates.

I have often not trained the way I am describing because I’ve been afraid to make my partner angry. Sometimes when people feel thwarted, they resort to muscling, which leads to injuries.

As nage, I have to let go of expectation about my execution of a technique. I am learning to welcome a struggle rather than resist it. I never blame my uke, regardless of the situation. It is my responsibility and if I think I look bad, my focus has shifted from myself to what I think others may think of me. This is never helpful.

Anytime you feel different inside your body and your mind, you give yourself an opportunity to deepen your training. In this way, we can hone our awareness and refine our command of our bodies and our minds. Over time, we can apply these tools to transform our aikido into something uniquely ours.

Article: Aikido as Moving Meditation

Aikido as Moving Meditation
Claire Keller, Shidoin

When I first started aikido, I remember it being referred to as moving meditation. I didn’t really see that. I was too busy being frustrated. Although I’ve tried meditating many times, I’ve never been able to really commit to it. Too much chatter in the brain. When I tried sitting, being present in the moment was all I was told I had to do. This concept really does apply to my aikido practice in a very useful way. In both ukemi and nage, trying to be present in the moment provides a useful framework for all aspects of training.

In my teaching, I always try to address the cognitive dissonance between what people are actually doing and what their brains tell them they are doing. One of the many reasons aikido is so challenging (and there are so many reasons) is the gap between what we think we see and how we are translate that into moving our bodies through space.

Being present in the moment, being aware, can begin to bridge that gap.

Since I already wrote about ukemi, let me start with trying to be present in the moment in ukemi. In aikido training, we begin with an agreement between uke and nage. The agreement is that uke will attack (grab or strike) as if they don’t know what is going to happen to them despite having seen the demonstration of the technique. I tell people to pretend their brain is an etch-a-sketch, the drawing toy from my childhood where you use dials to draw lines. When you want to begin again, you shake the tablet and the lines disappear. That’s how I like to attack my partner each time, erasing my preconceptions of what is coming.

Being present in the moment begins with how you attack. I try to attack in a connected and committed way each time. If it is a grab, I try to put my entire mind into the point of contact and stay as sticky as possible while continuing to maintain my balance. That’s a bit of a tightrope to walk, but it’s a challenge for me to stay committed but not in a way that compromises my safety. This stickiness forces me to pay attention.

In striking, I use my hips and the natural weight of my arm dropping through space to give my strike a density and power. I follow through and try to extend my ki as much as I can into my strike. I don’t overcommit, because if I do, I put myself in danger. I try to relax because if I’m tense, making the inevitable contact with nage really hurts. I think of my energy as a stream of water with good pressure and my job is to maintain the pressure. I try to make my attacks efficient, both to save energy and to be able to be as committed as possible.

I’ve noticed that people anticipate a lot in their ukemi. There are lots of explanations for this. It could be apprehension, fear of hurting a partner, fear of getting hurt themselves, protecting an injury, trying to help their partner, trying to look cool, trying to perform their ukemi in a certain way because that’s what they think or have been told is expected. Whatever the reason, anticipation takes the uke out of the moment, breaks the connection between partners and separates ukemi from the technique.

Ukemi has become so stylized that it exists as a separate thing from nage. When I watch a demonstration, if my eye is drawn more to the uke than the nage, I am distracted. Ukemi should be an appropriate response to a particular technique and set of circumstances. Ukemi means taking a technique into your body not just falling down. It’s how we learn, how we protect ourselves, how we enter more deeply into our training. It takes a lot of attention, effort and repetition.

Not being present in the moment is dangerous. Aikido done at full speed is akin to a full contact sport. If you lose your concentration for a split second you can get seriously hurt—and I can attest to that.

So, anticipation in ukemi is not being present in the moment and takes away from both partners’ practice.

Making the commitment to being present in the moment can be scary. It requires uke to trust their bodies, to take risks, to be spontaneous, to feel awkward and to potentially look bad. When I talk about risk, I’m not talking about acrobatics, I’m talking about simply responding to what is actually happening, not what you think is going to happen or what you think should happen or even what you want to happen. I’m talking about following through with your attacks or grabs and giving your partner a vigorous yet appropriate attack and safely getting up to do it all again.

Being present in the moment during ukemi forces us to let go of expectations, to simply feel and try to make our movements as efficient as possible (you can stay safer and more connected by keeping the sides of your body together, meaning if nage has your right arm follow with your right leg so you can stay balanced and as upright as possible. In this way you will also use your large muscle groups to absorb your body weight. When you’re on balance you naturally absorb your body weight into your core and your legs, taking the weight out of your joints and making your ukemi efficient and safer).

Being present in the moment requires paying a lot of attention. Patience, practice and mindfulness. This sounds a lot like moving meditation.

Article: Aikido, The Art of Falling, by Claire Keller Sensei

I like to think of aikido as a kind of recycling art. There are techniques that could result in serious injury, or were perhaps originally designed to result in injury or death, but one of the genius innovations of O’Sensei was to devise ukemi, the art of taking the technique into your body. We practice with partners and alternate throwing and falling. Through ukemi we are able to absorb the techniques of aikido without getting hurt and live to fall again.

The idea of ukemi is to learn to absorb the energy of the throw in a safe way, either by falling forward or backward.

Ukemi is perhaps the most practical aspect of aikido training, because once it becomes second nature, the hope is you will fall without hurting yourself regardless of your surroundings. So if you slip on the ice, trip over a rock, lose your footing in any way, having learned how to fall will give you a better chance of emerging unscathed. There are also the health benefits of falling and getting up. The effort of controlling your entire body is great for bone density and good anaerobic exercise, along with building core muscles from the inside out. These bursts of effort have been shown in recent studies to be quite beneficial to overall health.

Apart from the practical benefits of learning to fall, deeper issues for many adults can emerge during the process. By the time most of us take up aikido, we may not have hit the floor in any consistent way for many years—if ever. It can be a huge challenge to begin thinking of the floor as your friend and trusting your own body. Learning to fall brings an awareness of our bodies moving through space. It’s essential that all of us practice ukemi by ourselves consistently for years, using methods both taught and developed by each of us for ourselves. As we become more fluent in controlling our bodies, we can learn to respond spontaneously to what our partner is doing.

It’s a truism that in order to trust others we have to learn to trust ourselves. Ukemi practice is challenging because it requires us to trust not only ourselves but our partners. We also have to learn to take risks. This is extremely challenging in a variety of ways: emotionally, psychologically, physically. I am struck by how much pain we carry in our bodies that isn’t outwardly visible. We may not even be aware of physical pain until we ask our bodies to perform new movements. We need to be aware of our individual challenges and learn to work around them safely. When you have to do this in concert with another person, the stakes rise exponentially.

Aikido is very difficult. Often in the beginning of our training, confusion reigns. The training is really designed to unite our minds and bodies. This is profoundly difficult on many levels. But it can be incredibly freeing. Learning aikido requires getting out of your head and into your body. Time slows down (or speeds up if you are having a good practice), and you begin to connect to others in nonverbal ways, by feeling the connection to your partner at the point of contact.

Your job as the partner who absorbs the technique (uke) is to stay physically connected to your partner for as long as you can (your connection can be a grab or a strike) without anticipating any outcome, regardless of what you know will happen. All of this commitment and attention has to be sustained until you fall down. After you learn how to fall, the experience becomes more spontaneous, you learn to just hang on for the ride. Because you trust yourself, you can trust your partner. The fun begins.