This paper is written with the purpose of explaining a not-uncommon physical hurdle in the martial world, back injury. It is something I have personally dealt with within the last 6 years (2014—2020) of my martial arts practice. Some parts of this issue were circumvented on the mat, while other parts I have simply had to compromise while maintaining my core values and goals. An example, primary core value is maintaining some level of practice, and a primary goal is passing on knowledge and skill-building. The point being to relay optimism to the reader despite the comically-dark paper title. Losing my ability to regularly, safely uke let me delve into other aspects of aikido. Such as why posture is vital to mechanically efficient motion. And how resorting to lower impact motions gave way to understanding the critical value unsuko, tandoku undo, and awase, on top of extra-curricular drills that can go with them.
Whether or not it is the intent of the reader -while on the mat- to elevate martial physicality, a person can risk taking physical abuse throughout their martial career (sans kuchi waza exercises). I had the misfortune of two disk bulge injuries from a few accumulative, contributing factors on top of a genetic predisposition in my family tree. Passing on Tomiki Aikido became more prevalent in my own life once I realized my own limitations of continuing the art from how I had originally intended.
What I am able to do is find the safe body motions to train others with while in class – while avoiding any accumulative stresses (which can lead to increased chronic pain weeks or months later). This also meant that, as I am unable to uke, I cannot truly test a student’s techniques. Though part of this was a decision for myself, of two choices: quitting the art all together or choosing those compromises. I chose the latter and was grateful that I could realize fulfillment in spite of those limitations that I formerly saw as deal-breakers. For me, teaching “the walks” was an option that allowed me to continue teaching without re-aggravation through taking kuzushi and/or hard falls. Understanding techniques is great and exciting, especially for new students, but once someone has a basic understanding of the kata motions it can allow for a deeper appreciation of Tomiki Sensei’s basic motion drills. That is, why unsuko and tandoku undo (i.e. “the walks”) are not only a foundation, but powerful tools for refining and maximizing efficient body motion when in solo practice.
There have been experimental variations in “the walks” and the Junahahon (Seventeens). Sumaiki Shishida Sensei(Waseda University professor and 8th Dan Shihan of the JAA) spoke in a 2010 seminar. He talked on the koryu aikido’s (pre-WWII) connective power of “aik” (aiki). He spoke of the importance of initial connection and how it was lost to complete-flowing and softness post-WWII. But what brings us to our point, was he offhandedly mentioned that the tegatana (handblade) attacks of tandoku undo should be practiced backwards as well. That is, sliding backwards with the legs (as opposed to the normal forward slide) when making the tegatana cuts in tandoku undo. Later in a 2015 seminar, Satoh Tadayuki Sensei (Waseda University professor and 7th Dan Shihan of the JAA, Renaissance Judo founder) considered the value in exploring and teaching a defensive style of the Junahahon off of a backing-up motion. This was in response (and in criticism) to the excessive crashing and clashing that occurs in tanto randori between tanto and toshue players.
As for understanding kuzushi safely on a more advanced level, very slow toshue randori drills can be useful. As a cross-training component tai-chi push hands drills are excellent and doing an amalgamation of both is also something that can be non-impactful when done extremely slowly. Another example of low impact motion is implementing bokken while doing tandoku undo. There are also the four-direction cuts that are a great option as a warm-up drill.
When it comes to teaching, it is hard to give perspective of how, let alone why, to a new student. As it is metaphorically like seeing partway down the mountain and trying to remember what it was like to see the world from the base of that mountain. That said, I still strongly advocate a focus on simple, slower repetitions -to learn to feel those motions- in priority over martial bio-mechanics theory. That is, the how over the why for new students. It is important to mention that prioritizing one thing over another, does not dismiss the lesser topic. As for the “why” of many aikido motions, that is a more advanced topic and not necessarily understood in one way. As a recommendation for deconstructing the “why” and the theory behind aikido motions, Bill Dockery’s book Aiki Secrets: The Aiki Codex: Secret to Circular Aiki is one great, but advanced resource. Also, as an aside for those wanting to look further into “the walks” for research and development of these motions, I highly recommend Eddy Wolput’s blog posts. The pages I recommend for this topic can be found on https://studygrouptomikiaikido.blog. In this sense I want to impart that R&D is fundamental for the growth of educational curriculum; I would argue R&D is in the spirit of Tomiki Sensei’s development of his style, Shodokan Aikido.
The above briefly summarizes some of the ways I have been able to continue growth in aikido while also avoiding injury re-aggravation. It is anecdotal, and a personal exposé on recollections of my journey thus far. For those with other injuries, of course, consult your doctor (who for me, said “if it hurts, stop doing it” and eventually I did choose to stop doing the things that hurt). Your mileage may vary, and how you improvise depends on what your limitations are and what your core goals and values include. Lastly, I would like to thank my teacher Bob King Sensei for his guidance and all the many peers, teachers, and students that helped along the way.