Sunday, August 22, 2010

Attacking and Receiving

In Aikido, ukemi-waza is a given. You learn it from day one and everyone gets excited about rolling forwards and backwards. It makes you feel like a kid again at least for those of us who grew up before Gymboree came into existence. For attacks though, we sort of have this love-hate relationship going on. Again and again, Sensei will stress how important it is to be an uke. Uke learns much in every encounter, more so than being a nage. Yet, we tend to gloss over on how to actually attack nage. Sure, Shomenuchi's like that, Yokomenuchi's like this, Tsuki this way, grabs are like so... Somehow, I still feel like attacking is like an orphan child in Aikido.

Is it because we didn't join Aikido to learn how to fight and by extension how to attack someone? So we stress the falls instead, how to do rolls and later how to do breakfalls and we are pleased with ourselves when uke flies all around the dojo smoothly and uke's dream is to make that smooth and silent fall that seems to whisper over the tatami mat.

There is something amiss here. Aikido is budo, and budo no matter how you dress it contains attacks. Excluding them from the syllabus just defies good sense. Notwithstanding Osensei's admonition to never attack someone, coming from his mouth atemi is very much an important component in each technique.

You must remember that story I narrated from memory about the Chado master who responded to a rogue samurai's challenge one day. On the advise of his friend, the master held his sword with the spirit that he usually employs in making tea. By virtue of his poise and calmness, the rogue samurai retreated from the fight having not found a kink in the master's composure or an opening to strike. Still, were that fight actually to commence, one has no doubts whatsoever that the master would meet his demise since he has not an iota of sword training in him. Therein lies the importance. Spirit is but a part of us, technique is every bit as important. Just as we have talked about Tai, Shin, Gi no ichi the other day, we need technique as much as we need a trained body and a cultivated spirit in budo.

So kakari-waza or attacking techniques, is important and we should learn this as much as we learn how to take falls in ukemi-waza. We need to understand how tsuki is different to uchi. Mune tsuki or a midsection thrust is powered from our hara, transferred from the ground/stepping/stance and never losing connection through our core and relaxed shoulders and arms right through our fist. In the thrust however, we are slightly different to say karate. Since, Aikido is very much influenced by Ken and Jo, our strikes too is heavily influenced in style. Therefore, people who are used to body arts are sometimes uncomfortable with Aikido strikes. Nevertheless, though it may appear awkward to strike in Aikido, we really should understand the practice behind it. We are not teaching the Aikido-ka how to break boards or bricks, or how to hit someone and bring him down in one blow. We are teaching him to strike with energy that strikes through an opponent's physical borders and into his spirit. We generate power not to bludgeon him or damage his internal organs, but we use it as a conduit for our own attack that strikes his spirit down. Still, understanding that you can hurt someone with such a strike is meaningful in that it creates a purpose and generates an honest intent in each attack.

Uchi or strikes are powered similarly from Hara but the movement is different to tsuki. We do not swing the hands nor do we create hyper torques from winding the way occidental arts generate power. Instead we mirror strikes of sword cuts. We have relaxed arms and shoulders and we cut through in a smooth relaxed motion. Using center as the fulcrum our strikes are circular and heavy. It is different than say Karate strikes. I have no idea whether it is as effective, but I believe since the strikes are not an end to itself, it is useful for Aikido-kas. From those strikes I think we can make connection with uke easily and from there blend with their power to perform our techniques. Were we to strike conventionally, this connection will not be easy to create.

But striking alone is not enough. We also need to understand how and when to attack. Attacking blindly as I mentioned before will definitely leave us to easy counter attacks. Our tai sabaki is key here in each attack. Maai too. But the first thing of all is to understand how our opponent is positioned. His kamae, his hanmi... these are important in making our decision which way we are going to attack. However, without knowledge on various attacking methods though, understanding our opponent's openings and Shikaku is meaningless as well.

Well, enough about kakari-waza. There is this other side to it and no its not ukemi-waza but uke-waza. the art of receiving. Funnily enough, half the time Aikido-kas spend their keiko as ukes, yet we have never actually learned uke-waza. We believe that our ability will save us from any strikes and woe betides whoever is stupid enough to punch our face.

The art of receiving attacks from a sword art is of course very much different than say an art devoted to bare hands fighting. Yet we must be honest with ourselves in that, how many people out there are carrying katana's nowadays. Even knife fighting promotes a different sense of uke-waza. A short weapon strikes and reacts differently from a sword. Some of Aikido techniques and the way we respond do not automatically ensure we can handle knife fights safely. Yet tanto dori is a common fixture in most dojos. We pat ourselves in the back when we've accomplished our tanto dori, yet find ourselves terrified to pit our skills with a kali exponent. Don't worry its not just Aikido. Other arts suffer from the 'Village hero syndrome' too. My contention is that, learning techniques to counter attacks be it bare hands or with weapons is great, but more importantly we need to understand really how those strikes can hit us and how we can deal with it. Because, unless you're Steven Seagal, you'll definitely get hit once or twice and like the Kyukoshin are fond of taglining.... "Its not how hard you can hit, its how hard you can get hit that matters".

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