Dennis Bandiero, Tomiki Aikido Raleigh
“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” (Winston Churchill)
Aikidoka, and really any martial artist, hear the same lexicon of fundamentals repeatedly in their formative years, whether politely suggested, shouted, or served with a side of eye -roll. Me being the type that doesn’t really listen until you grab my facemask, as it were, I’ve received more of the latter two approaches. Sometimes I was being my generally obtuse self, or simply not focusing. Other times, however, it was me failing to understand the basic concept, or worse, failing to assign it proper importance.
Reflecting back, I considered writing about the imparted martial knowledge or physical benefits of aikido. Or maybe the camaraderie of the dojo. All are important, but I came to the conclusion that grasping (finally!) the fundamentals dramatically impacted my aikido, and my life, more than any other element. What follows is a listing of the basics that any aikidoka, from still-in-sweat-pants white belt to veteran black belt, will recognize. If a technique you’re learning is “not working”, look for one of these. Almost invariably, you’re leaving one of them out. And as you sort out these basics on the mat, try reaching for them in situations off the mat. You might find that adding one or two to the problem at hand has an equally “fix it” effect.
This is the first basic I ever encountered, probably within minutes of hitting the mat. I may have begun as its worst practitioner also. I’m FAR from a natural athlete and would be beyond my years if one anyway. This made for a spastic, stiff display of aikido until I finally understood: I really was holding my breath for long stretches! This is such an obvious basic that I consider it the foundation of all the others.
I fixed this large problem mainly through solo kata practice (“invisible man”). I learned to synchronize my in and out breaths with the techniques. This soon translated to class. Once internalized, proper breathing greatly improved my stamina and flow. My kata became less clunky. Belt tests and randori became fun challenges as opposed to anxiety machines.
Along with the obvious aikido improvement, I believe proper breathing eased my anxiety and aided “flow” in other adrenaline-producing environments. For example, I have a terrible reaction to heights. My heart pounds and my head swims near any ledge. Through simply breathing in a controlled manner, I was able to calmly look out over the vastness of the Grand Canyon last year. In a very different situation, I struggled with stage fright as a musician. Like many, I used to self -medicate with alcohol to override this feeling, sometimes with erratic results. Over the last couple of years, I returned to live performance but this time sober. I made sure to breathe, especially through musically difficult sections, and found I enjoyed the experience even more than I remembered.
The relaxation concept can prove confusing at first. How does one relax when attacked by someone at full speed? How about multiple people? Heck, how about one person at 1⁄2 speed and the whole class is yelling “RELAX!!!”? Legitimate questions by anyone who has ever sparred.
Firstly, relaxation is the child of breathing. Without controlled breaths, my body tense s and my movements become robotic and limited in range. This tenseness quickly becomes a feedback loop with frustration, one increasing the other. I once quit aikido because of this deflating experience. Fortunately, a fellow student talked me out of this bad decision.
Once I developed controlled breathing, I found relaxation to be a mostly mental exercise. Like proper breathing, I first learned to relax body and mind during the predictable movements of good ol’ kata, then progressed to testing. Eventually, combined with experience and confidence, I even learned to relax in free sparring. Please note this took a while! When relaxed, time slows down just enough for me to see and feel openings. I feel in control as opposed to my delayed over-muscled reactions to uke’s movements when tense.
Relaxation is also the key to being a good, and healthy, uke. This loomed large for me about a year ago. I was 6ft up a ladder repairing a leaky skylight. It was a cheap ladder and I was being unsafe, standing on the step that says “do not stand.” Stupid, I know. All of the sudden, the ladder started to give way. I clawed futilely at the old popcorn drywall while muttering, “___!” and “___!” Then, in an instant, I said to myself, “I’ve done this before” and prepared for a fall. On my way down, I twisted into a side fall and landed,almostperfectlyImightadd,onthehardwood. I’dliketosayIimmediatelystoodup,dusted myself off, and got back to work. Reality is quite different, however. I’ve never experienced a blow like this. The resulting boom was incredibly loud, as was my unintentional kiai. I blacked out momentarily, waking to my family’s faces all yelling “Are you alright?!” Then, and only after a prolonged “systems check”, I stood up, amazed and thankful that I could walk. I threw the broken ladder away and quit for the day. Without that momentary presence of mind afforded by relaxation, the results could have been disastrous.
I find this concept the hardest to maintain under pressure but the most easily fixed when pointed out. In the simple terms most useful to me, you’re “centered” when two things are occurring:
- Your arms are directly in front of you.
- Your hips and back are straight and in line with your feet.
Any other position (bent over at waist, an arm way over to the side) is considered “out of center.” This condition most frequently occurs when learning new techniques. While wrestling with the unfamiliar footwork, throw and, of course, the basics listed here, it’s easy to allow uke to drift out of your center. A common example is when aigamae-ate becomes a “clothesline” because torei moves to the side of uke as opposed to applying the throw facing uke. The result of out-of-center execution is a distinct lack of power and control. Muscles that work in concert during correct performance are now isolated and weak. Along with the loss of power, this isolation also makes smaller muscles/tendons more subject to injury (Ex. rotator cuff). Additionally, being out-of-center (balance) can mar the ending of throws, with torei stumbling through a technique’s finish.
Conversely this out-of-center state is exactly what we seek in uke! Without uke being off -center (balance), aikido becomes exceedingly difficult or impossible (unless torei is considerably larger than uke.) We work hard to achieve a twisted, leaning and stumbling uke, if only for moment.
Placing this idea of “out-of-center” or “off-balance” into my life experience theme becomes more conceptual. I’ve certainly experienced momentary mental off-balancing many times but didn’t recognize the tactic until later in life. In my youth, my unlearned response to such mental games was immediate escalation and a frontal counter-attack. It was effective until it wasn’t. Many “attackers” are seeking this off-balance response either consciously or unconsciously, with the former usually taking advantage of the state. Over time, I’ve come to recognize such “attacks” professionally, personally, and in current events. As such, I’m able to filter out unimportant words and actions and respond more intelligently and effectively to pressing matters.
Energy and Movement
For me, this is the most difficult fundamental to consistently practice, but once realized, opened the most doors in my aikido. For both torei and uke, movement creates energy. As torei, our first lesson is to avoid the incoming energy by moving. Simply translated, “don’t be there!” Once this VERY important skill is honed, we can learn to use the energy of an attack by re-directing it, adding our own energy to it, or both. Maybe some people are naturals to these subtle controls, but I’m sure I’ll be working on them for the rest of my time in aikido. Now that I’m able to repeatedly feel these controls (ending much frustration), I’ve become become fascinated by combining differing amounts of energy with differing angles and attacks.
The word “feel” is important here. I can see an attack or a weak line, but I can only feel momentum and energy. Once you’ve captured uke’s energy, they will seem weightless. In that moment, a technique can be executed with surprising ease. If you’re not achieving this in kata or randori, first check to make sure YOU are moving. Frequently, torei will pause during an attempted technique, draining all energy from the torei/uke system. The result is a bemused uke standing at ease while torei frantically yanks an arm or pushes against what feels like a brick wall.
This image of torei straining mightily against an unyielding target is a familiar one. I can remember launching headlong into challenges. When I met resistance, my general approach was to back up, lower my head, and launch again in the same direction. Although a tenacious spirit is admirable, it becomes self-defeating when wielded without thought. My “bull in china shop” approach administered many self- defeats! Fortunately, the patience and experimentation it takes to develop aikido technique slowly worked its way into my everyday problem-solving. I’ve developed more willingness to look at a challenge from a different angle if an initial try at a solution fails.
In conclusion, my aikido dramatically improves when I manage to combi ne all four of the above basics: Breathe, Relax, Center, and Energy/Movement. Also, I use them constantly to diagnose problem areas, almost as a checklist. But I’ve also learned to apply the se same fundamentals, whether physically or conceptually, to improve and diagnose many situations off the mat.
(Dedicated to Chang Sensei,Koch Sensei and Townsend Sensei. I really was listening!)