An Introspective Study of Kuzushi no Ri

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Caroline Spence (left) and Yuhei Ouchi at the awards banquet.

On my journey with Aikido over the past few years I have discovered a structural strength that I never imagined could be reached by a 5’2″ woman who’s a hundred pounds soaking wet. I have developed footwork and speed that emphasizes my natural strength. Even my understanding of the nebulous concept of connection has drastically improved.

My one greatest challenge, however, remains the same. Whether kata, randori, or a more freeform sparring my struggle with the core principle of Kuzushi no Ri remains my greatest hurdle to surmount. 

The Aikido concept of taking a larger opponent’s balance rather than fighting head on is what attracted me to the art in the first place.  As previously mentioned, I am a small woman.  Without using the advantages that structure and balance offer, most of these techniques would not work with the “brute force” method that larger practitioners can fall back on.  With my size, I just don’t have the muscular strength to overpower a larger opponent. With proper application of kuzushi, the actual techniques themselves are effortless. In fact, when you apply proper kuzushi it is as if there is a quiet moment of pause before the world snaps to attention and your opponent is on the ground. Unfortunately, it is getting to that moment of execution in the first place that is often so difficult for myself and countless others. In order to overcome this challenge, I will apply Tomiki-sensei’s core principles and concepts of Aikido to explore where my techniques can be improved. That way, I am keeping the core principles as envisioned by Tomiki-sensei at the heart of my art. That is a good thing, and my analysis of my own difficulties with his founding concepts will only improve my art. 

After thinking on when my techniques fail, the first weaknesses that I have found in attempting to take kuzushi is when advancing or “taking” my opponent’s space. I am quick and light on my feet.  The concept of Ju no Ri, or Non-resistance, comes quite naturally to me. From the start, taisabaki made sense to me on an instinctual level since I know that engaging an opponent head on greatly limits my options. This has led to advantages and disadvantages.  I am able to dodge my opponent’s strikes effectively, but by the time my dodge is complete my opponent is already repositioned and ready to counterattack in such a way that I cannot effectively move into their space.  With further thought, I believe that I have inadvertently separated the concepts of Ju no Ri and Kuzushi no Ri in my Aikido.  When paired together, these two concepts lead to a simultaneous avoidance of the opponent’s strike and influence of their energy to affect kuzushi. Whether retreating and extending an opponent beyond their point of comfort or entering their space with the dodge, it is at this point that a proper aikido technique is executed. The end result is a combination of offense and defense that allows for efficiency and control of your opponent. This would mitigate my opponent’s ability to reposition and counterattack, allowing me to maintain kuzushi for the technique to be executed.  To overcome my weakness with advancing, I must not forget that Ju no Ri and Kuzushi no Ri are equal in the three principles and must be joined together to be fully effective. 

The next greatest struggle I have identified with executing proper technique comes when practicing competition style randori.  Unlike other scenarios, in competition randori your opponent has been trained with the same principles of Ju no Ri and Kuzushi no Ri as you have, so they understand the need to keep their structure and balance no matter what.  While I have heard some lament this as a weakness in randori training, I believe it is quite the opposite. If your technique only works against an untrained aggressor with poor balance, you have not achieved your greatest level of Aikido. Balance and posture are core principles of every martial art and self-defense system. Anyone with training will prove more difficult for effective Aikido. In order to challenge a trained opponent, learning to take kuzushi in the competitive, high speed, aggressive randori scenario is currently my greatest focus.  To achieve this, I must put more focus into the concept of Seichusen, or the centerline. Randori is high energy and as a result, often times focus shifts from the principles to winning. The result is that my own centerline breaks.  Even if there is a moment of kuzushi, without my center strong I am unable to take advantage with a proper technique. The centerline allows you to concentrate the collective force of your body weight and movement for a strike rather than just using the power generated from a few isolated muscles. If I can’t take advantage of the centerline, instead of the full force of my body and movement, I am only able to apply as much strength as my upper body can provide. Refocusing and tightening strength along the centerline will create a precise strike when my opponent is at their most vulnerable.

Having analyzed my practice of Aikido in this way has reaffirmed within my own mind Tomiki-sensei’s wisdom in his development of the three Principles and six concepts of Aikido. By separating myself from the often-frustrating struggle of executing a failed technique even for a moment, I have been able to see my own performance in a new light. It is with chagrin and a long-suffering sigh from my own sensei that I come to my final conclusion, one that I am sure has been reached by countless other practitioners who went on their own journeys similar to mine: to improve my Aikido and overcome my struggle with Kuzushi no Ri, I must return to the basics.