by Aaron Cass
The techniques of Aikido change constantly; every encounter is unique, and the appropriate response should emerge naturally. Today’s techniques will be different tomorrow. Do not get caught up with the form and appearance of a challenge. Aikido has no form—it is the study of the spirit.
—Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei
The word Aikido (合気道) is made up of three kanji. The first character, 合(ai), may be translated as ‘harmony,’ ‘confluence,’ or ‘agreement.’ This kanji can also be used on its own as the verb 合わせる(awaseru) meaning to ‘match,’ ‘fit,’ or ‘join together.’ If I wanted to set my watch to someone else’s we would 時計を合わせる, tokei wo awaseru, ‘set our watches to the same time.’
In the context of training, much of our practice is 合わせ稽古 (awasegeiko), or what might be called cooperative practice. We refer to the person who applies the technique as 投げ (nage, ‘person who throws’) or 取り (tori, ‘person who executes the technique’). The attacker, who later finds himself on the receiving end of the technique, is called 受け (uke, literally, ‘person who receives’). These are prescribed roles, and in class we alternate between them with our partners as we practice.
One of the greatest criticisms of Aikido on the Internet--for those who pay attention to these sorts of things--stems from this approach to training. When uke attacks, he knows he’s going to be thrown or pinned. As nage, we know we’re going to ‘win’ and successfully apply our technique to the other person because that’s our role. The criticism then becomes that Aikido is merely an elaborate performance in which people take turns falling down for one another like some sort of martial dance.
Fine. Let the trolls think what they may.
Though at times I, too, have questioned the cooperative nature of our practice, I have come to see that it holds great wisdom. On a practical level, Aikido techniques are quite refined and demand great skill to be applied correctly. With a partner constantly resisting our attempt to execute a technique, we would learn little. People would end up reverting to their reptilian instinct to fight and muscle their way through the movement, thus preventing them from gaining finer skills or technical knowledge.
The Principle of Non-Resistance
On a philosophical level, awasegeiko allows us to practice our art in a way that embodies the principles described by the founder. Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei said, “Aikido is the principle of nonresistance. Because it is nonresistant, it is victorious from the beginning . . . Aikido is invincible because it contends with nothing.” When we approach our practice from the mindset of wanting to defeat others, we train ourselves, literally teach our nervous system, to expect resistance at every turn and find ourselves fighting with everyone and everything. If this is the way you’d like to live, that’s your choice, but Aikido offers something different.
Now, there is one caveat. Though awasegeiko can teach us to move smoothly and apply technique skillfully, one eventually needs to learn to manage an attacker who isn’t compliant. This is not the place to begin your practice, but if you spend a lifetime throwing and being thrown with complete passivity you will end up uncertain of yourself and, ironically, be left with nothing but your fight-or-flight response to deal with real conflict when it occurs. Life gets messy, and one must be able to remain centered and keep peace within oneself even in the face of aggression.
Once an aikidoka has learned the basic forms, a thoughtful practitioner will find opportunities to test her skills in situations of less compliance. In the dojo, this may mean asking for a partner to provide resistance during a technique. Sometimes simply training, letting uke move as he does and working through the sticky parts, is quite fruitful. On the far end of this pursuit, some go out and test their skills in the streets as many of O-Sensei’s students did back in the day (despite O-Sensei’s explicit mandate never to fight!).
In my years of teaching, I have found that most students (especially the men--sorry guys!), try jumping to this less-compliant form of practice much too soon. They push, they pull, they stop progressing, and their bodies never learn to relax enough to access those aspects of our art that hold the potential to really make it viable.
Now, if a student is patient and able to maintain her sensitivity through awasegeiko, she can eventually begin to study the principles of Aikido with a resistant partner. The key is that when practicing in this way, one must fastidiously not respond to force with greater force. This is counterproductive and dumb.
When working in this new paradigm, the aikidoka must accept she will at times not be able to complete techniques--even with white belts whom she has thrown to the mat hundreds of times prior. With this letting go of the desire to win, to throw, to defeat others, a deeper level of training may then begin.
In the Time of Covid
Eventually, after years of dedicated practice and healthy doses likewise of humility and ingenuity, a practitioner becomes able to fluently respond to a given situation exactly as it is. She doesn’t resist, yet she maintains the ability to move freely and neutralize whatever attack may come. In short, awase, regardless of what comes, yet in perfect harmony with the circumstance at hand.
It struck me recently that this concept of awase has much to offer us now, as we make our way through this pandemic. What does it look like to live in harmony with a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands and collapsed the economy? What is the right way to live in a country thrown into further chaos by political division, widespread mistrust, and the legacy of racial injustice rearing its ugly face yet again?
There is no generic answer. I cannot tell you what is right, because although we share the same world, you inhabit your own space. There is no correct puzzle piece, but inevitably your piece fits somewhere and it is your job to find out where that is.
Awase means bringing oneself into accord with one’s surroundings. It is as much about what’s out there as it is what’s inside you. Awase cannot exist in a vacuum, and since the world is in constant change, there is no static perfection. We must find what is right in every moment and be willing to let go of the preconceptions or attachments that might otherwise bind us to future misunderstanding.
So you can’t travel--go for a walk in the woods. So you can’t see friends and family--take time to remind yourself of all the people you love and tell them that you love them. So you can’t train, not like you used to--find another way.
Recently it has been hot. We try to avoid training in the dojo because the air circulation isn’t so good. The dojo parking lot retains heat, so we’ve been practicing outside in a local park. At the end of class the other day, one of my students remarked, “You know, there are things I’m going to miss about this Covid time,” and we both looked off over the water to a beautiful smoldering sunset.
Aaron Cass is the owner and Chief Instructor at Portsmouth Aikido, Portsmouth, NH. In addition, Aaron teaches high school English, coaches sports, and lives with his wife Yuka and their two children in Exeter, NH. You can read more of Aaron's posts at PortsmouthAikido.org.