“If aikido techniques are to be considered effective — and demonstrably so — then nage must be in full control from beginning to end. Anything less disqualifies aikido as a martial art.”
In the last few years, I have noticed that the majority of techniques I teach involve backward rolls at their conclusion. This is another way of saying that the mechanics of the techniques cause uke to lose his balance backwards. Of late, I have been thinking of some of the implications of practicing in this manner.
First, let’s consider what techniques lead to forward falls in the core curriculum as commonly practiced in aikido dojos. For the sake of ease, I consulted this extensive list of aikido techniques as a guide.
A close inspection of aikido basics reveals that there are really there are very few techniques that require uke to take a forward fall or roll. Various types of kokyunage techniques, kaitennage, jujinage, and perhaps a few others fall into this category. The majority of the basics conclude with backward falls or rolls. Note that although ikkyo through yonkyo techniques usually end with uke face down and pinned on the mat, I consider these as a special category of techniques that end without a backward or forward fall and thus to be outside the scope of this discussion.
On the other hand, there are a number of important basic techniques that may end with either backward or forward falls. Kotegaeshi, shihonage, iriminage and some kokyunage techniques come immediately to mind. How the falls from these techniques occur may depend on the level of the student, common training methods of the dojo, or whether the techniques are being practiced in a class setting or performed in special circumstances like a public demonstration.
Now we reach the crux of the discussion. If this category of techniques may conclude with either a backward or forward roll, who decides what fall is taken? What are the implications of employing one fall or the other from a practical or strategic standpoint?
Thinking this through further, if you lose your balance backward, it can be downright scary and dangerous to find yourself in the situation of having to take a fall. This is especially the case if your body is completely controlled and you can’t see what lies behind you. You are truly at the mercy of nage, the person throwing. Obviously, the risk of injury is ever present. What to do?
Under these circumstances, the admonition of Morihiro Saito Sensei offers an interesting perspective and solution: “Waza wa kibishiku, nage wa shizuka ni” (Apply the technique severely, but execute the throw softly). Adopting this principle in training keeps practice safe.
That leaves us with the category of techniques with “optional” falls. From uke’s standpoint, if we say the fall from a technique is optional, or put differently, “fall either forward or backward as you like”, we are implying that uke makes the decision about what to do. Do you see where this is leading?
If the decision of how to conclude the technique is uke’s, then he must retain full or at least partial control over his body movement to finish the technique on his own, as it were. Only under such circumstances can uke execute a spectacular high fall as commonly seen in demonstrations. The flip side of this — no pun intended! — is that nage has not fully controled uke when executing the technique since uke will make the final choice on how to fall. You can see this occur in everyday practice in the dojo when senior students take falls for beginners.
From where I stand, this is not a desirable situation. If aikido techniques are to be considered effective — and demonstrably so — then nage must be in full control from beginning to end. Anything less disqualifies aikido as a martial art.
One might be tempted to say that what I am advocating is a brutal approach to aikido with a high risk of injury. My reply would be, first of all, to re-read Saito Sensei words and think of what they imply. In classes I have taught over the years, practice has been safe and injuries few and far between. This is not a coincidence but by design.
My sincere belief is that it is possible to develop powerful, potentially lethal techniques, but conclude them gently for the sake of safety. This is achieved not through the use of physical force, but through a purposeful relaxation all throughout the execution of the technique. Nage’s goal is to immediately gain the initiative, apply an inescapable technique, but allow a gentle conclusion.
As always, your comments are most welcome.