Tenkan by Nev Sagiba

One day many years ago, I decided to conduct a class focusing entirely on the pivot. People had been moving too straight and too frontally. And so that’s all we did for an hour and a half; pivot.

On that particular day, a new guy turned up. He was heavily bearded with long hair in well neglected dreadlocks and his clothing was rough. He had a good attitude, and as is our dojo policy, he was accommodated ad hoc, with an admonishment to acquire a gi as soon as possible.

We practiced.

I never saw him again. Or did I?

Some years after that, a neat and tidy, clean shaven gentleman with short hair in a suit, turned up and asked for me before class.

“I want to thank you,” he beamed happily, “You saved my life.”

“Did I? How?”

“Do you remember me?” he asked as if expecting me to.

Trying to be pleasant, I replied, “Well, honestly no.. But I do see a lot of people over the years and though seldom do I forget a face… I’m trying to place you…”

To be honest, I did not recognize him although something about him felt familiar.

He laughed cheerfully.

“OK, then do you recall the hairy hippy at the class about five years ago where all we did was pivot?”

“Yees..?” I was not sure whether to be embarrassed or look around for the candid camera.

He laughed merrily again, “That hairy hippy was me!”

“Oh, OK..” I responded, starting to place him in my mind, as the penny slowly began to drop.

“But how did I save your life? I don’t recall any recent battle.”

Smiling, he explained. Here is his story:

“After that class a lot off things changed in my life and I could not continue training. That’s why I never came back and I apologize for not contacting. One day I was at a barbecue in a mixed crowd and this huge young soldier on R&R probably had one beer too many and evidently not handling it well, decided to pick on me. Apparently he did not like the discussion about peace, my viewpoint or my long hair. He must have made some assumptions based on my dress code being different to his. So he started up on me. “You !@#%^&* hairy hippies bludging on the dole while men are getting killed to serve this country… I’ll show you peace, you !@#%^&*, long haired, lazy !@#%^&*..”

He charged at me. In the improviso I did not have time to think, but you must have taught me well, because as he charged, I covered up and pivoted exactly like you taught me, I did not know anything else to do, and he flew past me and fell flat on his face in the mud in front of all the other guys and women, some who started laughing.

I went to leave, but now he was enraged and he charged me, harder and faster and all I knew do at that sudden speed was to pivot again, as I had done in training. So I did. The guy went right past me and knocked himself out on a tree. It saved my life. The others left me alone and I was able to leave safely.

Remember how you told us to practice the pivot privately as meditation? Well, I did, and it saved my life. So thank you. You’re a great teacher..”

I assured him that the credit was all his own for paying attention.

Irimi-tenkan, the secret of taisabaki is the foundational core of Aikido.

My acquaintances from other methods criticize, “Yeah, but people won’t run at you and not everyone will take a fall.”

Indeed! Some do, some don’t. That’s why we have the aiki-waza, atemi, kansetsu etc., as backup and to induce the rout.

Some people train badly. They pull, or turn their back on their opponent (effectively routing themselves) because they have not been taught to pivot correctly. Such action will see you hurt in a real scenario. In real life, attackers will not voluntarily “take ukemi,” blend or follow, just because you think they will. In real attacks, most of the time the opponent won’t fall. But he will expose his back if you move correctly.

First you MUST irimi solidly until there is a clash (softer in training), THEN immediately tenkan, by capturing the forward ki; and riding it to enter behind the opponent. This is the secret of sabaki. (and training wild horses) You must practice irimi-tenkan diligently until it reveals itself. And then START training… Closing the air space between mass and mass is a primary axiom of all jujutsu and taisabaki effects it on the run, standing, with or without weapons. As well as jamming strikes, it enables ki interaction by capturing a ki flow before the opponent can change it.

A tenkan is not a true and effective tenkan, unless it is first preceded by strong irimi, and the two are combined into one action. Correct it is to deploy initial atemi waza or other means of interception on entry, to induce the rout. If you are observant, you will notice the openings to enter behind.

Tai no henka, tai no henko, or tai no tenkan, is the vital basic practice and starting point for learning to pivot. Which interpretation is best? Try them all until you find what works best for you. Build technique from there.

Just make sure you never pull, but ENTER on top of the movement before turning to enter behind the opponent to control the movement. In practice you should aim for optimal rear position but in reality, in the heat of a situation you will most likely end up to the side, in the opponent’s blind spot. This is sufficient to be effective. Indeed, sometimes preferred.

Especially observe the videos of old teachers.

If you pause even one millisecond or retreat one millimeter, you will be defeated. Even if you momentarily think of retreating, you will decrease your chances of success.

You must enter and meet the attack instantly intercepting it. Tenkan is neither a retreat not a clashing but a concurrence and accommodation to take control.

You must welcome the attacking ki, connect and agree with it as soon as possible.

Tenkan makes it possible to take charge doing so, whilst making yourself safer. The tachi waza flow-on continue to take charge from there. Additionally, where there are more than one opponent (or groups of opponents in the field of battle) this way of moving, enables them to become obstacles to each other; and one can often be used to act as a temporary shield, thereby providing you time and motion advantage.

You must understand that the early versions of combat taisabaki were also conducted with impact, as a whole body blow designed to effect armor recoil and thereby capture vital seconds. In real battle, soldiers are not usually half-hearted in action, like you see in many dojos. Half-heartedness, in real life, makes you a sitting duck, an easy target.

Most of the original warriors were horsemen. They learned early, that to control a larger, stronger creature, you must take control of the rear and drive the action from behind, as do hunting animals. Frontal attacks will be defended and increase the element of risk. So also when moving troops. This is based on the fact that the rout, i.e., late attempts to run, are easily defeated. The basis for aikijutsu was based on experienced battlefield strategy, in particular, the rout, part of ‘Gunpo’ or understanding of field strategies. (see Gunpo and Heiho) It follows that in both Heiho and Gunpo, the collective strategic skills which included horsemanship, archery, spear, sword, Aikijujutsu etc., only the optimally effective predispositions would be embraced as useful.

Retreat is only useful when conducted very early. About a week before. The more time the better. Late retreats, presenting your back to an opponent at the last moment, are suicidially dangerous and are known as ‘the rout.’ Equally, capturing the rear is most effective strategy in both battle and combat. Ushiro waza are fake-rout counter strategies and essential training.

The principles of battle, the topology of hopology, apply equally and hence the basis of Tenkan being to enter behind the opponent to take charge by evoking an instant rout. This is the essence of applied aikijutsu and Aikido. Otherwise it is just making shapes that won’t work in a real situation.

These shapes are like walls on a house. Without the foundations: Tenkan based in the hips and hara, directed by the legs and feet; they will not stand up. Empty shapes built on sand.

With Tenkan, Aikido comes to life from a rock solid base.

Doka are not merely mystical poetry, but instructional; and tenkan is not a dance move. The doka, or Songs of the Way, are key teachings on the practice of Aikido; and tenkan is the core foundation of practice.

Cooperative attacks are not attacks. Aikido-like shapes, done without irimi-tenkan as the root basis, is not Aikido, and will not be able to harmonize uncooperative, in other words, real attacks.

Disgusting as the reality of war may be, the understanding of the effective principle of irimi-tenkan evolved in hard experience on the ground. The battleground.

The distillation can be found in the proper techniques of Aikido. The laws of time, motion, spatial relationship and physics being the same; as above, so below; Tenkan applies equally as an effective strategy for one on one, where there are multiple attackers, or in the strategic deployment of troop movements. Thus it has been used, in several key strategies to effect the rout, for destruction, for many thousands of years.

Tenkan is the basis of aikijutsu and Aikido. The paradox of Tenkan is this: To effect it optimally you have to become at one with your opponent (ki no musubi) and turn to face the same direction. In so doing, you momentarily see as if with his eyes, the same viewing point. Whilst this can enable a destructive victory there is no need because it drains the resources of the attack by neutralizing it. This invokes a clarity of perspective which is unique, and with it the realization that no destruction is necessary because there are more similarities than differences, a great many other options open up. Over time, training like this, heals the mind of the disease of destructivity, in the realization that there is greater power in conjoined cooperation than contention, no matter how skilled the other techniques.

The circle has been made complete.

“Seeing me before him, the enemy attacks, but I am already standing behind him.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba

“Aikido is a way to move through the opponent.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba

“The secret of Aikido is irimi-tenkan.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba

PS. To the gentleman portrayed in this anecdote: Should you catch this, please let me know if you finally settled down and found a good Aikido school in your travels. And whether I got all the details of your vignette correct from memory.

Notes & Definitions:

Gunpo : field strategies.

Heiho : collective strategic skills including horsemanship, archery, spear, sword, Aikijujutsu and other methodologies. Necessarily these were combined strategically in action.

Topology : geometric properties and spatial relations

Hoplology : the science of human combative behavior and performance.

Bones retrieved in archeological digs of old battlefields reveal that most bodies (usually 80% or more) were hamstrung, had sustained spinal cuts, rear of head etc. reinforcing that the rout ( becoming frightened and making the bad decision to cut and run) was often the cause of defeat.

The technique of entering to the rear by effecting a frontal distraction; or forceful frontal offensives designed to shock the enemy and surprise them in fearfully turning to run, is one of the oldest strategies known to human beings. Hunting animals did it before men. Study lionesses hunting. Study various battle strategy including Napoleonic, Roman, Etruscan, Mongol, Persian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian Mesopotamian and most others throughout history. Some are better than others.

Scot battle rout
Scot battle rout

They all had methods of evoking and capitalizing on the rout. In other words irimi followed by tenkan.

Whilst little is recorded about Assyrian tactics in battle, their reliefs tend to depict their troops launching devastating chariot and cavalry charges smashing the enemy lines and then their foot soldiers to exploit the divided enemy and maintaining the momentum to follow up. The infantry would then destroy the scattering enemy. The Assyrians preferred a forceful frontal assault followed up by the rout in this way.

One such recorded example by the Assyrian – Sennacherib, describes his devastating victory utilising the rout following an unrelenting and explosive frontal assault as follows:

“At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane…I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows scattering Humban-undasha, the commander in chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles…I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and gore. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage…”


In other words a crude and early version of battlefield irimi-nage, or irmi-tenkan.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your valuable discussion of tai sabaki and the fascinating link to combat perspectives.

    In the Yoseikan aikido taught by Augé sensei, the tai sabaki that you describe is called “Irimi Senkai” which emphasizes your point–the initial movement is an Irimi followed by the senkai/tenkan movement. Augé sensei stresses that irimi senkai is not just a pivot to avoid the attack but an initial engagement that starts kuzushi followed by a pivot to redirect momentum while maintaining kuzushi. It was really interesting to see you relate this to a broader perspective and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

    Best regards,

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