Often, in the early stages of aikido, students are taught and shown how large, circular movements generate power in techniques. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, especially for smaller or weaker people, it conceals a deeper understanding concerning the nature of torque, or coiled power.

Large movements can be used to study the outer forms, but circles that are not spirals do not contain penetration/absorption intent and are rarely effective in a martial sense. Excessive physical intent, however, always leads to overextension which is something that all grappling arts happily exploit. Insufficient intent, by reverse, means that the physical frame or structure is always on the point of collapse.  A balloon, when pressed, maintains its inflated state whilst allowing the pressure to change its shape but not its tensegrity (tensional integrity). Internal, expansive energy must be balanced and held in check through skeletal and tissue connected structure.

The aim of aikido practice should not be the mastering of a curriculum of techniques but the development of the “Aiki” body, an expanded frame around a compressed core. The waza (technique) can be used for this purpose, a vehicle, in other words, rather than a set of routines to be memorised. In fact, all techniques studied are an attempt to pick out and isolate a set of conditions which focus ideally upon a singular optimum response. To put it another way, only one right response to any given set of conditions. Since conditions continually change, trying to replicate the same technique over and over again in different conditions either leads to habituated movement, which is pointless in any martial sense, or it can lead to the quest for governing principles.

Often people speak about the value of having a resisting opponent to validate techniques, learning how to “make techniques work”. This, to me, is the process of banging square pegs into round holes, either because you only have square pegs or because there is no time to search for the right peg. Resistance in aikido should teach you what not to do, rather than reinforcing the wrong response through more power and speed.

Another facet of this training is to distinguish between 3 different qualities of movement: external, internal, and moving in self whilst moving in space. This is best taught hands on, but we can at least describe them, to some extent:

External movement, usually identified by an emphasis upon footwork and handwork. This teaches the student to find the optimum place in “space”, sometimes referred to as ma-ai, combative distance and angle, in Japanese. Whilst this is a valuable training for the senses it has a tendency to be too slow. Normal movement beginning with the lead foot leaves the mass of the body hanging over the support foot for too long and where the mass of the body is the head will be too! The difficulty in moving mass fast enough from the root is tackled in many arts through blocking attacks with the hands.

Again, this kind of external movement, i.e. waving limbs in space, can be very effective. It is always better to block with your limbs than with your head! Let’s be clear, in a physical combat situation you will almost always be forced to move externally. There may be rare situations in which “the bridge” already exists, (we’ll come back to this later), and in those cases there is no need to move externally at all, provided the person has learnt to move internally.

Almost all martial arts begin with external movements. Multiple repetitions of fixed movements with increasing speed and power. The simpler these movements are the more chance they have of being employed in a high adrenaline, reduced motor skills environment. If a person is seeking to acquire self-defence skills as quickly as possible, the fewer techniques they study, in the most intense atmosphere they can handle is the way to go. Think military close quarter combat. Learning to “take a few shots” in order to close with, (make a bridge), and end the conflict, is part and parcel of external movement. There are some problems inherent to this, such as concealed weapons, but that is another discussion.

Internal Movement, usually identified by an emphasis upon standing still, learning to move the centre, focussing the mind upon retraining the body to make more use of whole-body power, rather than isolated muscle groups. In many CMA (Chinese Martial Arts) you will come across the practice of standing, sometimes called pile standing, holding the ball or Santi Shi (3 body posture or heaven, earth, man. This posture is comparable (in an external sense only) to kamae, the “attitude” of sword holding. Internally, however, there may be much or little going on, depending upon the knowledge and intent of the practitioner.

For an experience of this stand as if you are holding a large ball that rests on your chest and tanden (physical and energetic center of gravity) facing a tree. Now imagine your arms wrapped around the tree. Start to pull it towards you. Stop pulling the moment you engage too much muscle and tense up. Use more concentration (Yi) than muscle. At the same time, however, if you pay close attention to the moment you begin to pull you will feel change in your core, front and back, your thighs and calves, even the way your feet try to grip the ground to enable you to uproot that tree. O Sensei apparently did this with actual trees, small ones but impressive nonetheless. Then change your hand position to palm facing the tree and push it. Don’t lean forwards but try to feel the tree push back, the opposite to the pull back in the first exercise.

If you can’t get the feeling with your mind alone here are two simple “external” practices to lead you to an identification and awareness of structural realignments.

Hold a door handle (door closed please!), keep your body aligned to the vertical axis and pull the door open. Since the door won’t move you will pull yourself in as you pull out. Now put your hands on the wall, maintain vertical and push the wall until it pushes you back. If you can also identify the common point at which pull out became pull in and push in became push out, you are in the vicinity of your centre.

There are many other standing methods and ideas, most focus on the vertical and horizontal cross, the “man” between heaven and earth.  They also increase awareness of the role of gravity, the function of breathing with mindfulness, and a host of other, subtle skills.

Moving the centre follows finding it. Some teachers will state that finding it is the result of making it. I think this largely depends upon whether you define centre as centre of body mass, or as an energetic centre holding all body tissue together, rather like a second brain. For those who are interested enough, research the role of the vagus nerve.

Here is an exercise for moving the centre physically in order to create awareness of the potential energetic centre. Stick a strip of black tape straight down the front of a white tee shirt from neck to navel. Keep your head and hips facing forwards. Try to rotate the strip whilst maintaining it in a straight line. The moment it twists you have either lost concentration or reached the limit of tissue mobility. This is a superficial explanation and really needs hands on detail work. You need to keep the knees unlocked, prevent them twisting to the sides, maintain relaxed lower back, and a host of other factors. If you succeed you have moved the centre by moving the centre line (chushin), treating yourself as a cylinder with a central, unmoving axis. This is the beginning of structural and energetic movement springing from non-movement.

Another facet of internal movement is the awareness of breathing and how breath carries intent into the body directed by awareness. This is too complex to present in this blog, maybe on a separate occasion.

These are just some of the ideas and methods used in internal training. Unlike external movement in martial arts there are no obvious techniques, at least not initially. Some arts, like Tai Chi and Ba Gua, (at least the remaining genuine schools) do practice martial movement (external) whilst focusing on the internal movement of intent, breath, tissue and tendon connection, and so on. That is another reason for these arts to be practiced slowly for a long time. It is impossible during the training phase to do both internal and external simultaneously at speed.

Moving in self whilst moving in space

This is the aim of all advanced martial arts. The ability to maintain a connected skeletal and tissue structure which rotates energetically around a permanent centre. This means that hands and feet respond to internal movement and movement in space is accomplished as part of keeping ones structural integrity. (See if you can find the clip of Mifune, 10th Dan, being thrown. He leaves the ground and maintains the same posture in the air, lands in the same posture and immediately applies a counter, moving in stillness indeed!)

This kind of training is as much mental as physical, requiring concentration and awareness. In some traditions this is also referred to as mindfulness. This quality should enrich your life whilst producing the skill to defend yourself. However, there is no guarantee that developing enhanced body awareness and mental clarity will give you combat skills. So moving in space with an opponent, being able to issue power, being able to nullify power placed upon you, all of these and more require a martial system that gives the physical skills as an extension of the internal practice.

Moving in self also has different levels of accomplishments from subtle physical skills to energetic skills (still physical but at a very subtle level, nerve activity and fascial movement). A simple example in aikido is the tenkan (revolve or turn around) from a grab, the classical aikido response to a push or penetration power. in most peoples’ practice the movement is external, beginning in the feet. Try instead to move the tanden first, and only at maximum tissue stretch allow the feet to move in support of the centre. (This has some relationship to the drop step in boxing).

Now the problems begin. If the inflated frame and connected tissue work has not been successful, your turn will simply leave your wrist firmly grasped. If the study of cross connections and coiling (chansi jing or silk reeling) is naturalised, the rotation of centre causes the bone and tissue of arms and legs to rotate correspondingly. Again, this is a simplified explanation, it needs hands on work.

The aim is ultimately to have all this internal activity as a more or less permanent condition. Your body and mind are ready and full of coiled power, a dragon, if you understand the symbology and metaphor of traditional internal arts. If dragons don’t fit your world view, try visualising coiled springs held together by thick bow strings instead of hinges! Now we are approaching the nature of coiled power or torque at the heart of aikido.

End of Part 1

Special Offer

Special Offer - 50% off your first month training

Sign up here

Copyright 2022 © Itten Suginami Dojo

by: seb