Currently I am re-reading a book titled “Hidden In Plain Sight,” by Ellis Amdur. It’s a book about the roots of Morihei Ueshiba’s power, that covers a lot of the history of Daito Ryu and Ueshiba’s development of Aikido.
It’s a very interesting book, written by a true scholar. Although many of the names and martial styles are unfamiliar to me, it has been very informative. The book has, without a doubt, made me see Aikido–at least Aikido as Ueshiba taught it–in a different light.
However, that’s not what I’m here to write about.
In chapter four, “Aikido Is Three Peaches,: Mr Amdur writes:
“A considerable amount of skill, however, can be acquired by the innately talented simply by osmosis. The act of taking ukemi from a teacher who really puts the student through his paces will teach the student some of the body skills without him knowing, really, that he has reworked his body structure. For example, if tested physically with more and more severity, one begins to “instinctively” learn ways of breathing best suited to taking a blow or a fall. This learning by osmosis is further enhanced when one attempts to throw or counter that teacher. Without explicit instructions, one will not learn all or even most of the skills that are possible for a human being to acquire – but one can learn enough to stand out within not only the aikido world, but even in the larger world of martial arts.”
Unlike the common translation of the word ukemi, which most people use to describe falling techniques, Mr. Amdur uses ukemi more literally to refer to a concept of “receiving body.”
Per Mr. Amdur: “Properly understood, ukemi is the mastery of force – the act of absorbing and redirecting energy, and even adding one’s own power and sending it back to the attacker.”
His assertion, and I agree with it, is that ukemi is not just about falling. It’s about learning to “FEEL.”
Learning to “feel,” and using those feelings constructively was something I wasn’t taught. Or at least I wasn’t taught explicitly. But perhaps the ways I made various discoveries related to self-preservation were a direct result of the how my early training was conducted. I took a lot, I mean a lot, of ukemi–ukemi that I was in no way, shape or form prepared or trained to take.
Before reading Mr. Amdur’s book I had always just accepted the fact that I had been the victim of a half-crazed Japanese man who had it in for me. Now I have to consider an alternative possibility; perhaps he was actually looking out for my best interest, and taught me in the best manner he knew how.
In either case, the end result was the same: he forced me to learn things on my own by taking ukemi. By Osmosis!
Lesson 1 – Pain Avoidance
Anyone who has ever read, or listened to, stories about the way I was taught will be aware that for my first three years of training, I was little more than a punching bag for my teacher’s son. I routinely had the crap beaten out of me.
Training was often harsh. While I like to believe that my teacher had no real intention to permanently injure me, I frequently went home with bruises, welts, abrasions, cuts, and sprains. It was a good day was when I only felt exhausted.
Complicating matters, my mother who had no knowledge about the martial arts, and if she had have seen these injuries she would have made me quit. I can still remember wearing a sweater on one of the hottest days of the year just so my mother count not see the welt marks all over my arms. “No mom I’m not hot,” I boldly protested while I quickly became drenched in my own sweat.
Since I didn’t want to be forced to quit, I had to hide my injuries. This meant that I rarely if ever received any professional medical treatment. Occasionally, I could blame these injuries on sports I was involved in. But in most cases, I either treated my injuries on my own, accepted the occasional first aid my teacher offered (usually some stinky liquid that was rubbed on, some foul tasting concoction, or moxa), or learned to ignore and work through the pain.
I guess what doesn’t kill you, does makes you stronger. Although, you do pay for it as you get older.
While it might seem like “lesson one” was to develop a high tolerance for pain, the real lesson that I learned–at least eventually–was how to reduce the amount of pain I was receiving.
Rather than enduring, I learned to evade, avoid, blend with, ride, or redirect the incoming force: ultimately dissipating that force such that most of the energy didn’t impact me and was at least paritally redirected towards my opponent.
Admittedly, training could still be painful. But the rate at which I was injured greatly declined.
In fairness to my instructor, he did eventually teach me techniques that involved evading, redirecting, and blending. But most of the lessons of how to actually apply such skills were self taught out of necessity during those first few years.
His intention, at least initially was clearly to leave me alone to figure things out, myself. Techniques were often done to me without any prior warning about what was going to happen. I had no time to formulate a plan for what I could do in response, or to prepare myself to fall in a certain way. I was simply told how to attack, and before I knew what was happening, I would find myself put in some painful joint lock, and/or on the ground. Often, things happened so fast, that I could not even sense how techniques were being applied to me; I knew the end result, but not the means.
Lesson 2 – Taking Falls
Another thing I had to teach myself was how to fall. Unlike most dojos, where throws and projections are a dominant element of the beginning curriculum, I was never taught Ukemi Waza (falling techniques). My teacher didn’t show me, or anyone else.
I had to teach myself how to fall, out of necessity, and for self-preservation. It was a skill I picked up very quickly, by trial and error, often without giving it much conscious thought. Granted, my falls might not have looked pretty, but they were functional.
After reading Mr. Amdur’s book, and thinking about what he wrote, I can see that not being taught how to fall was very beneficial for me. It forced me to learn to “feel” techniques and how they were being applied. It eventually taught me how to respond in a manner that not only reduced a technique’s harm, but also allowed me to counter it with little effort.
One thing I learned quite quickly, and became very good at, was to instinctively shift my center, or alter my body to counter techniques. Nowadays, I have to make a conscious effort to stop doing this when I am practicing with others, especially if I am the uke (receiver of a technique) or am working with people who do not know me well.
Of course, my teacher’s son was also aware of these methods. Often we would find ourselves in a game of counter-versus-counter-versus-counter, before we could finish the technique we were supposed to be practicing. Basically, we were sparring.
But this was sparring in a way that was acceptable to my teacher. He often encouraged such behavior, because he knew it improved our overall ability to use such techniques in the real world.
Of course, such training ingrained a habit that others often find annoying: I will not fall unless I really have to. When receiving a technique, I will not project, hurl, leap, and/or launch myself–unless my training partner makes me.
Acting too cooperatively and “faking” a fall was something my teacher would not tolerate. If he even had the slightest inkling that we were behaving in such a manner, there would be hell to pay.
“Baka da!* You make it work, or you learn how to make it work. But don’t fake it, ” he would yell (well, that’s the family-friendly version; and the real version would be accompanied by some swipes from his cane or whatever else he happened to be close at hand).
Lesson 3 – Relaxation
Have you ever heard the expression “Tension Kills?” Well it’s more than just an old saying.
Early in my training, when I knew I was about to get pummeled by some technique my teacher’s son was about to perform on me, I would become very rigid. Since I knew it was going to hurt, I would become tense. My body would lock up. Because
I wasn’t pliable and relaxed, I had to absorb the full brunt of the force.
My teacher constantly yelled at me for being “stiff,” too flat-footed, or as he said, too “heavy.” At the time, I thought “heavy” meant I was fat. I was confused since I knew I wasn’t fat; clearly whatever he was trying to teach me was lost in translation.
As time went by, I finally understood that “heavy” meant I was being stiff and rigid. I was being my own worst enemy; I wasn’t allowing myself the ability to move freely and adapt to the situation. I wasn’t relaxed.
Unfortunately, by the time I finally understand what “heavy” meant, I had already started learning how to relax on my own. I taught myself how to become pliable, how to just accept what was about to happen and “go with the flow.”
Learning to remain relaxed was probably the greatest breakthrough I made in my martial arts training in that period. It drastically changed both how I received techniques and how I applied them.
This lesson marked a transition point, where I went from glorified punching bag to actual student. And it only took mr three years of abuse.
Lesson 4 – Every Action Equals A Reaction
What I really love about aiki arts are the subtleties . They are also something I have hated, and which often frustrated me to no end–especially when trying to teach aiki.
Often these subtleties arise because many aiki techniques have to be done in a specific, systematic order in order to work. Just the slight shift of the head at a wrong moment, an imperceptible twisting at the wrong angle, or even improper breathing can ruin the effectiveness of a technique. Sometimes a tiny shift will have drastic results.
In the art of aiki, every action has a reaction.
Conceptually, this is not hard to understand. But putting the concept into practice is another thing. Simply put, in order to perform correct aiki against an opponent, one must first master their own body.
Mastering the subtleties of one’s own body is often referred to as the “internal” part of martial arts. By being fully in control of the body, and using it in an integrated manner with no extraneous movements, one generates extraordinary power, speed, and efficiency. It is not about feeling “comfortable,” it’s about doing things correctly.
By learning to “feel” the techniques that were being applied to me, I learned what actions caused which reactions. These lessons were burned into muscle memory rather than conscious thought. No longer did I think about what I was doing; I just did it.
The funny thing, is that teaching has forced me to reverse this process so that I can better explain and demonstrate the things I am teaching. And, yes, having to stop and think about things has affected my ability to execute them like I used to.
In reexamining things, maybe I’m doing a disservice to my students by trying to explain in too much detail. Perhaps I should be more like my teacher and force them to figure it out on their own. We’ll see.
That said, one of my mantras in school is, ” Stop thinking so much! Just do it.” Unfortunately, this lesson goes over the heads of most students, who can’t or won’t ever comprehend what I’m talking about.
Lesson 5 – Point Of Reference
This is closely related to lesson four; “point of reference” describes the manner in which I learned to apply “actions equal reactions.” Understanding action equals reaction is meaningless if you can’t apply it–apply it instantaneously, without conscious thought.
Personally, the way I process information–whether it be physical movement, verbal instructions, or things I read–is by firmly establishing both a starting point and the objective. How I get from point A to point B can vary.
When it comes to physical movement, establishing a starting point is normally very easy. Reaching the objective is the hard point. There are often translation problems from my mental intention to my body’s physical expression of it. The body is not always capable of, or coordinated enough for moving in the intended way. Too often, you end up either omitting steps or adding extra movements, without ever being aware of it. This brings us back to the subtleties of aiki.
The simplest example I can use to describe “point of reference” comes from when when I took Karate. In the beginning, I had a very hard time learning the kata–their solo forms. I was simply terrible at it. I understood the overall point of learning the kata, but unless individual movements and sequences were broken down with the purposes explained in detail, I found it hard to visualize what I was doing. That made remembering the sequence of movements very hard for me.
Thus, to learn the Karate kata, I had to create various points of reference to remind myself that I was blocking this or that attack, and then using such-and-such defense.
Practicing solo kata does not give the kind instant feedback I was accustomed to having. Since you’re not applying any of the movements to an actual living, breathing opponent, there is no way to check that your movements are correct and viable. There’s nothing to “feel,” except your own actions.
This is not meant to be derogatory, or to suggest that the bunkai (applications) in kata are not effective. It’s just that the way karate practitioners approach their objectives is different both from how I was trained and how my mind processes information.
In fact, my teacher did teach kata. We just did them in reverse. Instead of learning the solo portion first, we started by learning how to apply the movements. After we had understood that, then we would practice the movements on our own.
For me personally, that was a better approach, because I didn’t have to imagine what I was trying to accomplish; I knew my objective. My points of reference where clear: I had to do this in order to achieve that.
As I explain it to my students, forms are sequential movements, that have to be done in a specific order: A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. Leave out one step or alter the sequence, and you are not doing the form. You may get the application to work, often by being forceful, but you still did it wrong.
Lesson 6 – Breathing
The last thing I learned from ukemi was how to breathe properly. This is an ability I don’t think my teacher could have fully taught me, given the language barrier between us. Breathing from the hara (abdomen) has little meaning to a 13-year-old. My teacher could poke my tanden (a spot below the navel considered the center of power) as much as he wanted, I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t feel it.
Of course, learning to breathe properly has a lot to do with relaxation, and learning to “feel.” All these elements seem to always work in conjunction with each other, which can’t be a coincidence.
Unfortunately, I can’t even begin to explain how I breathe in relation to my fighting skills, or how I use “breath” in my techniques. Nor can I explain how I figured it out. It seems like my body learned it on its own through a lot of trial and error.
Undoubtedly, training at the beach (which we did often) assisted my need for proper breath control. My teacher liked to pin us face down in the water, and hold us there until we surfaced, gasping for air. The more one thrashed, the longer they were held. As you can imagine, the first thing we had to learn was to relax and not panic.
Holding one’s breath underwater, even for a few seconds, can seem like an eternity–especially when you’re not prepared for it and are being held there against your will.
Though torturous, my teacher wasn’t drowning us without purpose. There was a lesson to be learned, though it took a while to figure it out. And, no, the lesson was not to stay away from the water when he was around–although that was good advice; it was how to breathe properly.
I learned how to inhale such that an optimal amount of oxygen was taken in, and then how to release that breath as needed–or, in the case of being held under water, how to hold it in and use the air for as long as possible (which is also useful to know when countering choking attacks).
I wish I could elaborate more, but I really cannot describe what I do better. It has become completely reflexive.
One instructor told me, some years ago, that one should never inhale when doing a technique; it should be done in one breath. He also stated that the samurai would often watch for their opponent to inhale and attack them at that very instant. That was how important proper breath control was.
Unfortunately, he would not go into detail on how to breathe properly. He basically said, “figure it out on your own.”
That statement may not have been the response I was hoping for, but it might be the proper one. Maybe learning to breathe correctly needs to be self-taught, at least to some degree. An instructor can give insights into methodologies, ways to picture what you are trying to accomplish, and even corrections, but in the end the practitioner has to put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves. It’s not easy but it is doable.
However, it’s not possible to learn without combining the other lessons that I’ve discussed.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, when I started training it was harsh. For most of my adult life, I have been under the assumption that my teacher didn’t like me, and was just trying to get rid of me during the first few years.
I have always wondered why I was taught in this manner, so brutally compared to how other martial artist I have come to know were taught. I’ve even questioned whether what I endured those first few years really qualifies as training, or if it was just hazing.
But maybe there was a lot more method to my teachers “madness” than I ever realized.
Perhaps, instead of just verbally filling my head with theory and principles, things I wouldn’t have understood at the time, he made me learn them first hand. He forced me to use, and develop senses I didn’t even realize I had. He brought out the latent abilities that I needed to avoid being seriously hurt, made me overcome fears in a productive manner, and got me to trust my intuition.
He forced to me to re-work my body, to retrain how my body moved. I learned to mentally prepare myself for a confrontation, and to use instinct rather than conscious thought both defensively and offensively.
He didn’t “give” me my martial skills, he made me take them, and make them my own.
In conversations we had later, when I was an adult, he claimed to have taught us in the same manner that he was taught. Maybe that was how things were done before the commercialization of the martial arts. I don’t have enough knowledge of traditional arts and their training methods to give a definitive answer about that. But if you know me, you know what answer I’m leaning towards.
Traditional or not, I don’t know that how I learned was the best method. It certainly was not a path most people would undertake by choice. I was just dumb kid who didn’t know any better.
But looking back from where I am now, I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.
* I’ve heard that “baka da” can be translated in many ways.
The word “Baka” can mean jerk, dolt, imbecile, fool (foolish), stupid, worthless, absurd, ridiculous, and/or idiotic. Any of these worlds might describe how my teacher felt when I did things wrong. All of them probably applied when I did things wrong repeatedly after receiving corrections.
The translation I’m going with is; “What you did was stupid.” Although the word “absurd” would fit his personality better than “stupid.”
Of course I guess he could have also said, Baka yamero yo, which I believe translates to “don’t be such an idiot.” This phrase seems to be more appropriate, but given the nuances of the Japanese language may have other connotations that made the phrase inappropriate to use.
I like Baka Janai, myself, which means: “are you stupid or what?” But I think that’s more slang.