Learning Aikido is Hard

Like all martial arts, learning aikido is hard.  My experience is that many people come in thinking it will be easier than it is.  Maybe that’s the fault of the training montage that is required in martial arts movies.  Maybe people think that something physical is easier than something mental.  Maybe  they just don’t have a clue.  In any case, it’s hard.

When I started training in Fukui, I had only been in Japan about two months.  My Japanese wasn’t great, and Kasashima-sensei was kind enough to explain in English.  Hayashi-sensei didn’t really talk much but he did make a distinct effort when demonstrating to exaggerate things he wanted us to look at closely.  What eventually developed for me was a method of watching, a method of learning in silence, breaking down each technique into little pieces that I could pick up and move to another technique.  And this was hard.  On my first trip back to the US, I bought a copy of Kisshomaru-doshu’s book Aikido, which I used more or less until I reached shodan.

As the method developed, Hayashi-sensei would sometimes drop clues that helped push my observations this way or that.  The idea that there were 10 really important techniques–five throws and five pins–and from there lots of other things sprang out.  So basically, I was lead to believe there were basic themes that ran through aikido, and what I developed was a kind of conceptual idea of aikido, an idea that lived both behind and above the technical physical aikido we practiced.  I will admit that at shodan, this idea was ethereal.  I knew it was there and I could access it in practice and in my tests, but it was elusive and often confusing.  Beyond that, the concepts were experiential and required a fair amount of reflection post-practice.  Understanding was thus cumulative, and therefore slow.   In many ways the technical components were easier to grasp, but they made little coherent sense outside of rote imitation without the concepts.

The technicals are hard too, because they are small and exact.  They are designed to be made reflexive and thus easy to be disassembled and reassembled into new “techniques” as the situation arises.  Because of their size and complexity, we all struggle with ways of describing them.  Kasashima-sensei and Hayashi-sensei used different terms than Stroud-sensei does, and many of those are not necessarily the language difference.  An example is the phrase sometimes seen in older aikido books of “sucking in the anus.”  What does this mean?  Well, it describes a particular alignment within the pelvic region to the tanden.  In tai chi chuan, you have a similar alignment that also adds the crown of the skull.  This alignment creates the proper posture for power to travel from your lower body to your upper body.  And there is a wealth of information on this for various martial arts using a wide field of terminology.  This is actually good because in reality no two people have the exact same idea when you start to develop terms for these actions.  Personally, I’ve come to use “rolling your tailbone under you” and then mentioning the three point alignment in tai chi chuan, because if someone is leaning forward (an error), it doesn’t always appear in a two-point alignment because the two points are anatomically close together and most people bend at the waist.  Adding the third point keeps one mindful of a forward lean.  A smaller example, which I won’t go into, is the grip hand/arm in standard irimi-nage.  An incorrectly placed grip can destroy a technique.  A well-placed one not only allows maximum “stickiness” to uke, but also has “option” moves within them.  Off the top of my head, I can think of two pressure points in opposite directions that you can move quickly to.  Like the concepts, expertise is cumulative, requiring lots of reps until you don’t even think about it anymore.  But many of those reps require conscious observation for a long time before you get to the reflexive stage.

All this is to say, I really love doing aikido, but learning it is hard.  Learning it is rewarding.  Learning it requires a lot of thinking.  The same thing applies to tai chi chuan, because slower training is actually really hard compared to faster training.  Kick in slow motion and you’ll see what I mean.

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