Aikido as Moving Meditation

Two black belts practice kotegaeshi, a standard Aikido technique, at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

Two black belts practice kotegaeshi, a standard Aikido technique, at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

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.

Gillian Macleod helps a beginner learn ukemi at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

Gillian Macleod helps a beginner learn ukemi at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

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.

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

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.