Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai
The discovery and development of a dynamic center naturally leads to greater core ability, which includes core stability, mobility and reversibility. It also leads to a stronger connection of the various parts of ourselves to each other: upper body to lower body, front to back, left to right.
In his classes, Chiba Sensei often followed the exercise for discovering the center, (found in Cultivating an Aikido Body, Part 1) by what he called a “seesaw” exercise.
The exercise involves sitting on the mat, maintaining a strong extension through both legs with ankles and toes pulled toward one’s center, spine extended, with the head balanced on top. In this position the legs are lifted, center engaged, so that the upper body and lower body are held in a V-shape, and one rocks backward and forward without allowing the feet to return to the mat. This exercise is easily integrated into the basic practice of backward ukemi.
Ukemi as a whole plays a central role in the forging of an Aikido body. The practice of ukemi, receiving and neutralizing the energy generated by nage (and by gravity) while falling and recovering is done repeatedly in our practice. Chiba Sensei often likened this aspect of training to the act of beating and folding iron in the traditional construction of a Japanese sword. No matter how well the blade is shaped, sharpened and polished, the smith will not produce a quality blade without first going through this initial stage of the process. The “beating and folding” that is promoted through the repeated enactment of basic forms, ikkyo, nikkyo, irimi nage, shihonage, etc., is the primary means by which we unify our bodies. This unification process, in my understanding, should be well underway by the level of third kyu, and completed by first kyu.
We do not abandon this process as we advance in our art and as we age. As martial artists, we necessarily make a sustained commitment to physical training. In my experience, if the forging process is not well established in the early stage of training, the physical expression of one’s art becomes arrested and tends to break down with age. The development of one’s intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding can, of course, continue to grow, but to maintain and refine the physical aspect of our art requires a commitment to the life of the body. This requires adjusting and adapting how we train to the changes living brings. It is much easier to do if we lay down a solid foundation early.
Finding and working with our center both connects ourself to ourself, but also deepens our connection to the lived-world in which we exist. In Part 1 of this article, under the section titled “Centeredness”, I introduced the concept of the “field of promoted action,” which refers to the learned ways that we habitually eat, walk, sit, stand, dance, defecate, and otherwise use our bodies in the culture into which we were born. The experienced world, which we each inhabit, is even more complex and varied than “the field of promoted action,” as it extends beyond physical movement to all aspects of our subjective experience.
However, within that great expanse of variability there is a common foundation, the earth itself, what Chiba Sensei called our Big Mother. There are primordial ways that being creatures of the earth support and nourish us, whether we are conscious of them or not. Deepening our awareness of our connection to Big Mother can enrich our Aikido practice in countless ways. We are connected to the earth and to the atmosphere surrounding her through our feet, our breath, our hands and our organs of perception, eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin and proprioception.
Our feet provide the understanding for our action in the world. Adapted to the demands of this task, our feet are complex and wondrous instruments that dynamically connect us to the earth.
Each foot is comprised of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, numerous ligaments binding the bones, accessory bands and sheets of connective tissue and all the tendons attaching the twenty intrinsic muscles (originating from the bones of the foot itself) and dozen extrinsic muscles (originating from the bones of the leg above). The organization of these bones, joints, connective tissue and muscles in association with blood vessels, nerves and sensory organs (for pressure, pain, movement and position) allows the foot to mediate between the terrain of the ground below and the distribution of body weight and mass above. In accomplishing this role as mediator of above and below the foot acts as a sensory organ as well as an organ of support and mobility.
Living in a culture that imprisons feet in shoes from an early age, and within an environment that provides mostly even, two dimensional surfaces to move over, denies our feet the opportunity to develop the sensitivity, flexibility and strength that running, walking, climbing over varied natural surfaces provides. Martial practice offers antidotes to the dullness our feet acquire through our modern lifestyle. If you watch Chiba Sensei’s warmups you will see a variety of actions that work the toes, feet and ankles. Moving on our knees in shikko also works to enliven our feet. When enlivened feet act in accord with a conscious dynamic center, our ability to meet the fundamental demands of our practice — to manage distance, to transmit force from the ground through the whole of ourselves, etc. — is greatly improved.
Chiba Sensei often began his classes, especially morning classes, with a series of breathing exercises derived from Tempu Nakamura, known as the Father of Japanese Yoga. One exercise that Sensei frequently taught, independent from the series, connects breath to the feet, center, spine and vision via our imagination. The exercise is done standing, feet close together, spine extended, eyes focused on the ground six to ten feet in front of oneself. Beginning with the inhale, one begins to float upward onto the balls and toes of the feet, ideally maintaining the weight over the balls of the first and second toes, while one breathes in through the nose and imagines drawing the breath into one’s center through the soles of the feet. At the top, maintaining balance, one engages the tanden and begins to exhale and lower the heels to the ground with the image of strongly breathing out through the heels. At the end of the movement down, one tries to empty the lungs of air through the mouth, audibly, with a strong contraction of the expiatory muscles. The exercise was usually done three times. Sensei encouraged us to use our imagination to develop a more conscious connection to our feet, breath and center and to explore our ability to experience our weight creatively, learning to intentionally become light or heavy.
Another breath exercise (kokyu soren), one that often followed that described above, also involves the use of the imagination, this time linking the breath, center, spine, feet and hands. After jumping both feet out into a wide stance, one inhales extending the fingers and arms upward overhead, rising up on the toes and balls of the feet at the end of the inhalation and extending the fingertips and arms up and forward, then exhaling, lowering the arms and whole body to the starting point. The instruction, given by Sensei, was to imagine breathing in through fingertips, arms, down the spine to the tanden, then breathing out through spine, arms and hands, extending our consciousness as far as we could imagine (“to the furthest ends of the universe.”) Both inhale and exhale are to be done quietly, through the nose, with an emphasis on relaxation.
This exercise is reflected in the basic kokyu exercise done in hanmi. Hands are raised overhead, thumb leading the motion up with the inhale, weight shifting forward, and then cut out and down with the exhale, little finger leading, fingers strongly extended and consciousness extending out from the center, while shifting weight onto the back leg. The same image is applied to all basic cuts with the sword, or strikes with the jo. I can still hear Sensei say, “Don’t contract your muscles, extend your consciousness!”
Our feet connect us to the ground, and within the martial context, they function optimally when in the service of our center. Our hands connect us to others. The human hand is the most sensitive and sophisticated manipulative instrument in the known universe. While our lower body moves us through the world, our upper body brings the world to us. When we contact each other in Aikido, as uke and as nage, our hands, be it through grabbing, striking or controlling, should connect us, center to center. An oral instruction I received from Sensei was, “When your students’ handwork is weak, help them strengthen their center. If they need to strengthen their center, work with clarifying their hand work.”
Having established vital connections to the ground through our feet, to the air through our breath, to our partners and our tools via our hands, we also must connect to the world at large by means of our organs of perception, most of which reside in our head. To function as a whole being engaged in the world, every action we make involves orientation, using our vision, hearing, smell and possibly taste to direct our attention and or action appropriately. In developing ourselves as martial artists, we seek to cultivate “Ten direction eyes” — that is, an awareness in all directions and the ability to move in any direction without hesitation or preparation. This requires a well-organized posture, in which the head sits balanced on the spine, free to move easily, supported below by our feet and center, using our senses to guide the complex actions of daily living and the wonderfully varied forms of Aikido. The unification of the body that arises through an awakened center, connecting all parts into a cohesive whole, exists in collaboration with a fully embodied and awakened mind.
Wholeness of being allows for wholeness of action. As Chiba Sensei wrote, “… (It) activates (an) essential life force manifesting as strong physical liveliness and culminates in the reification of the psychospiritual virtues such as humility, receptivity, modesty, etc. that are necessary to the process of raising (ones) art to its highest level.”