Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai
As we continue to explore the process of developing and maintaining an Aikido Body, I want to review and expand on earlier topics. An Aikido Body is of course, a human body. Even more fundamentally, it is a living body. Our language – the English language, specifically – biases our self-perception, so we see ourselves as objects or things, when, in fact, we are, as all of life is, ongoing processes. We are not objects, we are subjects, actively engaged in the process of living. At some point we will all die, and as corpses we can be considered objects – although the process of decomposing is also quite dynamic. But, as living, embodied beings, embedded in a living world right now, we are gifted with life, bodies, consciousness, and the ability to make distinctions and choices. We can recognize what is toxic or nourishing in our world and choose appropriately. Movement is one form of nourishment. Unfortunately, many of us develop habits of movement that are to movement what junk food is to food.
Training can strengthen our capacity to sense ourselves with greater refinement, so we may learn to distinguish functional, effective action from junk. For our training to fully serve us, however, we also need to extend our conscious awareness to our everyday actions: how we lie, sit, walk, breath, bathe, cook, play, and receive the nourishment that being alive in this world offers us. When we, through conscious practice, learn to move as whole beings, connected to our partners and the world at large by means of our center and all our senses, a liveliness emerges in our movement and responses.
Aikidoists tend to discover this quality of liveliness, on the mat by practicing ukemi. Chiba Sensei, having discovered this liveliness, said of it, “The practitioner frequently experiences a sense of pleasure and joy in the discovery of the body’s previously hidden potential – an experience often accompanied by a sense of safety and security while training.” He continues that, in his experience, “Sustaining injuries during training is largely the result of [the person] handling his or her body in a fragmented manner…” 1
Sensei described the art of ukemi as “preparation for the unexpected” and counseled us to avoid mechanical or rote habits of practicing ukemi. He defined ukemi as “the means for receiving and neutralizing force, without resisting, trying to escape, collapsing or flying away.”
The process of neutralizing a force coming towards or into us requires an acceptance of and joining with that force and is best accomplished with a passive will, as opposed to a will seeking control. In our practice, whether as uke or nage, using weapons or in solo practice, we build a repertoire of actions that take residence in the deepest resources of ourselves. Usually when we practice, we consciously observe ourselves as we do it. Yet there are times on the mat when we respond to a given situation with our “adaptive” unconscious or non-conscious mind. When this happens, we move from the domain of kata, or form, to that of true martial technique or waza, which is formless. Many of us have experienced this in the role of uke, where we find ourselves getting up from the mat with no conscious sense of how we arrived there.
Eventually, through training, this quality of liveliness can manifest in all aspects of one’s practice and by extension, off the mat, in one’s everyday life. There is a natural and pure quality to our acts when, to use Chiba Sensei’s words, “perception, judgment and action arise spontaneously and simultaneously.”
In our daily life, our conditioned responses, developed on the mat, can at critical times serve to save our self or others. I have experienced this in mundane ways, such as braking to avoid hitting a deer with my car before my conscious mind realized that the deer was there, or catching a falling object without conscious intent. This kind of non-conscious action is known in the Japanese martial tradition as mu so ken – dream-thought-sword.
Chiba Sensei wrote about several intense, life-or-death situations where he experienced this spontaneous, unconscious action. A couple of those situations involved saving himself when attacked. Other situations led to him saving someone else. On one occasion, while waiting to catch a train in Japan, a non-stop train approached the station at a high speed, as two brothers on bicycles approached the crossing. The older brother decided to play “chicken,” by riding his bike across the tracks in front of the approaching train. His younger brother, following, fell on the track. Without thought, Sensei rushed forward, threw the bike off the track, grabbed the fallen boy, and launched them both forward across the tracks with a forward roll, just in front of the oncoming train. Another time, while fishing at the pier in Ocean Beach, San Diego, Sensei spied a young girl drowning in the ocean below. He instantly jumped in and rescued the girl. When I asked him about it, years later, he said he simply acted, without hesitation or forethought.
These, and other more combative experiences, confirmed Sensei’s belief that the body responds more quickly and effectively in the present moment than does our discursive mind. While his teaching is often misunderstood and misrepresented as harsh, one aspect of it was a deliberate attempt to create conditions on the mat by which we could discover and nourish this developed spontaneity (mu so ken) to protect ourselves and others.
Frequently when teaching, Chiba Sensei tested his uke’s liveliness by executing a technique, such as ikkyo or irimi nage, where he would cut them down, allow them to recover and cut them down again and again, before finally completing the technique. This situation required uke to remain connected, centered, extended, lively, and fully present, perceiving everything. Often, Sensei would change to a different technique, and his uke was expected to follow. This practice, which requires we perceive deeply with all our senses, leads us toward the cultivation of openness.
In his recent Biran article, “Still Here”, Champion Sensei describes the Aikido Body as having “an expansive frame around a compressed core”.2 In the first part of this series I addressed the development of a compressed core in the discussion of centeredness and connectedness. To clarify further how a “compressed core” supports and interacts with a “expanded frame” I would like to expand on these earlier remarks.
The discovery and nourishment of our tanden, which is essentially our movement or “action center”, is the starting point for exploring the cultivation of an Aikido Body. The tanden works with two other centers: a “feeling” or “heart center” in the chest and a “navigational center” in the head. As upright creatures, these centers are balanced along our central axis and relate to the spine and our alimentary canal (gut). When I think of a “compressed core”, I think of these three centers functioning as an integrated and dynamic whole:
Our action center, which resides in our lower abdomen and pelvic bowl, connects us through our legs and feet to the ground, enabling us to move through the world. This lower center relates to our survival, individual conservation and reproduction.
Our heart center connects us through our arms and hands to one another, our tools, and allows us to bring the world to us. It sits on the central tendon of our diaphragm, is suspended between our lungs and its function is closely associated with our breath. This middle center relates to feeling, sensation emotion, and our relationship to others.
Finally, our head center orients us and allows us to navigate the world. Our head houses all of our teleceptors, organs of perception that connect us to the outside world, eyes, ears, vestibular system, taste and smell. This upper center, resides in the center of the head– where the skull sits on the first cervical vertebra — at the level of the eyes and ears.
These three centers all have perceptual aspects. Our lower center is associated with exteroception, which is the sense of contact with our base of support, our ability to recognize the firmness, amount of friction, or stability of the surface we are moving over. Our heart center is associated with interoception, our sense of what’s happening within us, which includes emotions, as well as the many sensations generated by movement, muscular and visceral. The center in our head, enables us to access the world outside ourselves. Action and perception mutually inform each other. The balanced, combined functioning of these three centers empowers us to act with confidence and competence in an expansive and expressive way.
The language by which the body, heart and mind communicate is that of feeling and sensation. Essential to refining our action in the world is learning to listen to that language. In learning to listen in that way, we open our senses to see, hear, smell, and taste, supporting a deeper engagement with the world we are a part of.
In Aikido, our capacity to generate and neutralize power correlates with the development of our tanden. Concurrently, our ability to make and sustain sensitive, lively contact with our partners is influenced by our hearts. I believe that emotion colors our perception, perception guides action, and the clearest perception comes with love. To be able to move to the right place, at the right time, with the right choice of technique (where, when and what) arises only when all centers are open and our frame is well conditioned and expanded.
The foundation of openness is the ability to listen with all of our senses with the attitude of a beginner (shoshin), or the wonder of a child. To accomplish this, we must consciously close at least one important opening: our mouth.
When we sit in seiza or zazen, our posture is upright and relaxed and our focus is centered on the present moment. Included in right posture is our “oral posture.” The lips should be lightly closed. The tip of the tongue should lightly touch the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. The jaw should be forward, but relaxed. This position of lips, tongue, and jaw ensures we breathe through our nose, which conditions our unconscious breathing away from the unhealthy practice of mouth breathing.3 Correct sitting posture assists us in quieting our internal chatter or mental noise, which deepens mental and physical stillness.
When we practice on the mat, it is Birankai’s tradition to keep our mouths shut. Of course, there are times when the vigor of training requires us to open our mouths to take in more oxygen to meet cardiovascular demand, but there are almost no times in our training when it is necessary to open our mouths to speak. Talking during training distracts from our engagement with our own senses and our presence in the given moment, creating noise on the mat that can endanger those practicing around us. This is a critically important element in Chiba Sensei’s teaching. On his mat, conversation was not tolerated.
When training vigorously, especially on a crowded mat, we must rely on hearing, as well as vision and kinesthetic awareness, to avoid collisions with our neighbor. Verbal noise creates a safety risk. With our mouths shut, our senses open, our breathing is healthier, and our mind more focused. When we sit to observe a teacher’s instruction, we endeavor to keep our internal dialogue quiet – and our internal mouths shut, just as when practicing Zazen. By so doing we enhance our learning, enabling us to cultivate “eyes to see” – to see what is, as opposed to what we think we know – and eventually to engender our “eyes to see through” – to see beyond outer form to the inner, normally invisible elements of what is shown.
Champion Sensei, in the article referenced above, discussed the martial principle of ichi soku ta, meaning “one equals many”. This principle speaks directly to the importance of openness, notably, the recognition that when practicing with a single partner, the potential for multiple attackers is always present. How we enact any form (shihonage, ikkyo, irimi nage, etc.) should reflect this understanding. Regardless of the form we do, our gaze should be soft, our peripheral vision wide, hearing active, our ability to turn and change direction readily available.
While it is true that in certain circumstances action can arise simultaneously and spontaneously without conscious thought, when training or in other learning situations we yoke our attention to our actions. This allows us to make choices and create opportunities to step out of our habitual patterns and refine and expand our understanding of and ability to execute any form. In this way we can discover how each element of our practice reflects the whole.
In presenting the five principles of Centeredness, Connectedness, Wholeness, Liveliness and Openness in his essay, “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness”, Chiba Sensei wrote, “Openness is both generated and characterized by a strong interrelationship between body and mind…In this stage, the physical and mental aspects respond to one another in mutual and nearly simultaneous development.”
While the thrust of this three-part essay focused on cultivating an Aikido Body, the development of an Aikido Mind cannot be ignored. Of the five pillars, openness probably contains more psychophysical aspects than the other four. For myself, the qualities of mind and attitude that accompany the cultivation of physical aptitude in Aikido are humility, curiosity, flexibility and creativity. When our Aikido Body/Mind matures through the forging and awakening influence of our training, we can bring the foundational principle of O Sensei’s post-World War II Aikido, that of take musu aiki – the martial generative power of aiki (union with nature) – into being. Essential to discovering the creative potential within our art is the necessity of dissolving our attachment to our egos. Our art, as George Lyons Sensei so beautifully expresses, offers the opportunity to step out of any fixed world view, to detach ourselves from our social and cultural biases, so we can see the world with fresh eyes.
In conclusion, I want to add a few comments regarding physical conditioning, and to offer a few references I have found useful.
Chiba Sensei did not limit his physical/mental/spiritual training to Aikido. Sensei came to Aikido with extensive experience in Judo, and other martial arts. He incorporated into the Birankai “curriculum”, Iaido and Zazen. He also practiced Yoga, beginning with the Yoga of Tempu Nakamura and later, that of B.K.S. Iyengar. He spent intense periods of misogi, or purification, training at Ichi Ku Kai.4 In addition, he ran, bicycled, loved to fish and practiced and appreciated various artistic traditions; painting, calligraphy (Shodo), poetry (in both Japanese and English), and on occasion, singing.
I have found several other disciplines very helpful to my development as an Aikidoist. Particularly valuable, when I was young, was extended periods of time backpacking, often at high altitudes, which not only provided elements of physical fitness, but placed me intimately in the more-than-human world. I have practiced Tai Chi Chuan for as long I have practiced Aikido, and fenced for over 30 years. My Tai Chi teacher, Choy Kam Man, and fencing coaches, Charles Selberg and Michael D’Asaro Sr., influenced me tremendously as a teacher and as a person. I have been practicing Iyengar Yoga the last few years, and find it deeply enriching. I have practiced the Feldenkrais Method professionally for the past 25 years, and have extensive experience with the Alexander Technique, Structural Integration (Rolfing), Tui Na (Chinese massage), and other approaches to movement and the life of the body. All of these various activities inform my Aikido training.
For resources related to movement and physical well-being, I suggest the following books and websites. For teachers, I hope these resources prove useful in expanding what you incorporate into your warm ups and conditioning elements in your classes. For all of us as students of Aikido, I hope these resources provide more movement choices to support our ongoing development of our unique Aikido Bodies.
Books (please choose “Birankai International” on Amazon Smile) :
- The Thinking Body, Mabel Ellsworth Todd, 1937
- Awareness Through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais, 1972
- Yoga: The Iyengar Way, Silva,Mira & Shyam Mehta
- Your Spine Your Yoga, Bernie Clark, 2018
- Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, Katy Bowman, 2017
- The Practice of Natural Movement, Erwan Le Corre, 2019
There are of course many more great resources. The most important resource is your own movement, driven by your own curiosity!
- Thanks to Shiun (Biran Continental Europe newsletter) for the Chiba Sensei quote, excerpted from “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness” Shiun, Vol 5, No.2, 2007.
- “Still Here”, Archie Champion, Shihan, quoted in Biran, Fall 2020 print edition.
- I strongly recommend Breath by James Nestor, which describes the plethora of negative health consequences of mouth breathing.
- See Adam Sorkin’s recent article in Biran, Fall 2020 print edition