I start by saying read Ecclesiastes 1:9, then continue, because I’m not saying anything particularly new. This is an idea that I’ve been mulling around for a while. During my baby hiatus, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things and the toe-to-toe encounter is a something that has come up over and over again. This is where we face our opponent and just hammer it out. This idea is built into popular macho culture, into sports, and into our training. But training aside, the idea of a toe-to-toe encounter shouldn’t exist in aikido. We should be trained to seek out the weak points, to observe, to move our feet.
Granted, if you’re really learning aikido from a good instructor (and I’ve had the fortune of having a lot of good instructors), you know that every techniques happens “off the line,” meaning at a slight angle and taking advantage of the weakness of the shikoku that is inherent in any stance like hanmi. While this may sound obvious, there is another aspect to this that runs deeper and is a greater danger to the aikido practitioner—this is the very idea that a fight is a toe-to-toe encounter.
This problem isn’t a physical one. It isn’t a matter of training in a different way. The problem is in how we think about engagements. Even as our body moves off-the-line, our minds stay fixed in front of our uke. We are going do x then y then z to uke. Even as we try to center the technique around our tanden, our minds are centered within the uke, and so the technique is split. Going toe-to-toe disrupts the cohesion required for a proper expression of ki (this is another matter for another time), because whether or not you believe in ki, mental, physical, and emotional cohesion is required for a fully effective technique.
When we see combat sports, we see participants square off—often toe-to-toe—on a flat, even surface without obstacles that limited in size by either a real barrier, such as a boxing ring or an octagon, or a simulated one, such as the red line in judo. In normal aikido training, we are often confined to an imaginary rectangle, often because of space constraints. The effect of this, both through observation and practice, is that we have the toe-to-toe idea reinforced within us. I don’t say this as a criticism, because practical considerations for combat sports and aikido dojo have made things the way they are. It is what it is (practice constraints) and nothing more or less. The problem is accepting the toe-to-toe idea as desirable and not training ourselves out of it. Mental training, after all, is the most difficult thing to do, whether as an instructor or as a self-directed student.
Randori requires mental flexibility, the ability to move from uke to uke without interruption. What is often best, and seen in many shihan demonstrations, is moving from weak point to weak point. This is difficult because the uke aren’t stationary and so their weak points move. On the other hand, how many randori have we seen where nage has moved little and has “squared up” in front of each new uke, often letting another uke set up behind them. Uke will almost always be able to get behind you because you’re in the middle of an open area, but a good nage doesn’t allow for a good set-up. They’re behind, but aren’t in a good position to strike. Randori, while dangerous, demonstrates clearly why there are no toe-to-toe encounters in aikido—set-ups take too long, the mind sets on a fixed point, and opponents whom you are not focused on are allowed a chance to square up to your weak points. Randori allows you practice freely outside of the O-keiko rectangle.
As I’ve said, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, mostly as I’ve had time to read, something I believe is truly beneficial to the martial artist, who constantly needs to have a growing mind. There’s a lot of materials that talk about the same thing and none of this I’m saying is new or particularly original. At the same time, we all need to be reminded from time to time. I’ve only seen the first couple of Stanley Pranin-sensei’s “Zone Theory of Aikido” but it seems to be pointing in this direction, at least technically. I also liked Nick Lowry’s book, “Aikido: Principles of Kata and Randori” and “Aikido Ground Fighting” by Walther von Krenner, et al..