19 Apr Learning to learn Aikido (and other martial arts…)
Learning to learn Aikido (and other martial arts…) – by Leo Tamaki
The shu, ha and ri steps in the learning process of martial traditions are well known. To simplify, shu corresponds to imitation, ha to exploration and ri to mastery. But, if shu ha ri can be linked with the study of a movement, it originally represents the big stages in a practitioner’s life. Today I wish to have a closer look at the much-reduced steps of a movement’s study.
Traditional Japanese martial techniques are very subtle tools. Their goal is to allow an adept to survive a confrontation with one or several opponents that are physically superior.
Even if the curriculum of a school is made of several steps with increasing difficulty, the first techniques cannot work after few repetitions (by this I mean the first few thousand times those techniques are performed). A superficial vision can lead to the impression that the techniques are levers or strikes that can be mastered in a few hours. The truth is entirely different. The true efficiency of these movements makes them… literally unbelievable. One cannot believe it. An untrained gaze will only see, in a movement, a lever resulting in an insufficient improvement of the power relationship. Despite the remaining difference in physical abilities, this movement enables an elderly to control an opponent physically superior. Which can lead to misunderstanding. This is because the technique works following a modification of the use of the body. Modification obtained… by working on the technique (amongst other components).
It is the research of an “unbelievable” result that allows it to happen. But beforehand, awareness that such results are possible is necessary. And this certainty comes only after having felt, received and experienced it in one’s body.
Unfortunately, nowadays adepts able to show abilities too good to be true are too often cons or fakes. It took me a long time before meeting a master able to truly realise such unbelievable feats. This master was Tamura sensei. And following further research, only a few amongst the experts I met have developed real unbelievable competences, even though many were pretending to demonstrate them. If you have not met such adepts yet, I invite you to keep looking. Be curious, explore, because discovery is really worth it.
Reproducing the shape
When starting martial practice, the tendency is to focus on the end of the movement, on what happens to aite. But it is only a consequence of the realisation of the previous steps. Focusing on this consequence prevents the observation of the process leading to this result. Due to this, it is possible to see some practitioners taking the freedom of modifying the form in order to end in a way that matched what has been shown.
The first step of study is the reproduction. At this stage, tori and uke need to work in cooperation, each simply trying to imitate the respective forms demonstrated by the teacher and his partner. Except for a miracle, tori’s move cannot produce the expected result. It does not matter. Uke has to cooperate, to attack correctly (timing, distance, form and especially intention). And uke has to reproduce the effect, by synchronising with tori, if tori is not able to create it.
At this stage, uke’s role is harder than tori’s. Because, without knowing how the techniques works, the effect can be reproduced too early, too late or incorrectly. This is why, in koryus, uke was always a sempai. In Aikido, it is possible to limit mistakes by focusing on a really slow execution of the movement. The teacher has to make sure that he/she, or an advanced student, regularly is uke for every student.
During this step, fast and/or powerful attacks are to be banned. Indeed, the stress resulting will prevent uke to focus on the reproduction of a precise form. It will also contribute to increase approximate movements and tension in uke’s reactions. The teacher will have to be very vigilant at this stage, as lot of practitioners attack too fast or too powerfully.
Work on the modification of the body’s use
When tori and uke are able to correctly reproduce the external form of a movement in cooperation, it is time to move to the next level: to modification of the body’s use. This pompous term covers a number of very varied elements, but it would be too long to list them all here. It can be the development of a body that is rooted or floating, united or dissociated, etc.
To reach this result, the teacher can point to the student the details of the necessary work. Such as the muscles used, the way of using them, the visualisations required, the postural work, etc. At this stage, it is essential for the student to feel the movement by receiving the technique. When possible, it is very efficient that the teacher let the student feel the body in action.
During this step, fast and/or powerful attacks are still to be banned, for the reasons mentioned earlier. The modification of the body’s use is a deep reprogramming. It is a really slow and precise work that can only take place with full awareness. The teacher will therefore be very vigilant.
Observe the effect on uke
Once the form is integrated and the work of the modification of the body’s use started, it is important to observe the effects upon uke. The results observed allow to sharpen the present work. And also to pay close attention to the adaptations required depending on uke’s morphology. It is still most beneficial to work at a moderate intensity.
Raise the intensity
When the two partners are able to reproduce the form satisfyingly, when the body is working in the required manner and that the effect is present, it is then possible and even necessary to raise the intensity. Obviously, this has to occur gradually. Tori will develop his ability to continue and modify the form, but also to move in a way adapted to the situation (e.g. stress when facing a fast and powerful attack).
Tori’s complacency will drastically reduce the further one goes at this level.
Work in opposition
In the last phase of the form’s learning process, uke not only attacks intensely, but also does not hesitate to use kaechi wazas in order to counter the movement when openings are available.
Clear steps to respect
Nowadays the learning process is often approximate. Neither tori nor uke are aware of the various phase, the attack is too often wrong (in the form, speed and power). Tori tries, for better or worse, to reproduce the effect. And the highest level of finesse available is to try to come as close as possible to the form. Work which, as seen, is only the first step of many. Only all those steps can lead to an efficacy out of ordinary.
Martial practice is a really complex field. I have thus deliberately simplified the study phases, and limited the subject to the learning process of forms. Note however that, far from being limited to that, practice also needs to prepare the adept to face the unknown, the unexpected. In practice, the various phases will overlap, and several ways of practising can be approached in parallel. Be that as it may, I believe that distinguishing between micro and macro steps helps limit the many opportunities to go wrong. Enjoy your practice.
Original article by Leo Tamaki “Apprendre à apprendre l’Aïkido (et autres pratiques martiales)”, published on 11/03/2016. Link: http://www.leotamaki.com/2016/03/apprendre-a-apprendre-l-aikido-et-autre-pratiques-martiales.html
Open translation by Nathan Augeard, with permission.
 Aite: can mean both partner and opponent.
 Tori: the one that executes the technique.
 Uke: the one that “receives” the technique.
 Koryu: traditional martial art school.
 A sempai is an elder, an ancient of the school in this case.
 Kaechi waza: counter technique