Paying Attention

WHAT IS THE MOST DANGEROUS PART of an Aikido technique? Based on a recent class, I’d say that for me, it’s the end of the technique – when the action is over.

Sigh…of course I thought of this. Click here to play it. (Please note that he is NOT doing Aikido.)

How can that be, I hear you saying.  Aikido techniques involve strikes, dodges, blocks, holds, pins, and throws, all of which have a chance to go wrong. But a technique in progress is when those performing it are most attentive; as Samuel Johnson might have said, nothing sharpens a man’s mind more than knowing he will soon be launched across the mat.

Aikido has an ending form known as zanshin, a continued focus on partner following a throw. In combat, its purpose was to make sure the enemy you just dropped was really dead. In Aikido, Shite uses zanshin to check that Uke has landed safely, and to avoid accidental contact during Uke’s fall or recovery. In a pinning technique, after Uke slaps the mat Shite releases his hold and both partners stand and face each other to confirm a harmonious completion to the technique. It was the releasing and standing part that caused trouble during that particular class.

We practiced a technique where Uke performs a forward jumping breakfall. Once he lands, Shite pins him. During one turn when I was Shite, I stepped over Uke to apply the pin; then, after releasing him, I stepped on his elbow. After my apologies and confirmation that he was all right, we continued. My partner pinned me (also using a position where he stepped over me), and as he extricated himself and stood, lost sight of me and accidentally kicked me in the head. Fortunately, other than a small cut and a nasty-looking “black eye” bruise, no harm was done.

Here’s a video of an actual Aikido jo solo (my attempt at one, anyway).

Following a little first aid, our instructor said there were some appropriate stepover pins, but that most often there were better options. He demonstrated safer ways to release from pins, such as using a backward roll when standing would be awkward. It was good instruction, but to me the more important point was the loss of focus – that feeling of zanshin – at the end of the technique. As Shite, I stepped on Uke’s elbow because I did not watch where I was stepping. As Uke, I had not observed my partner following the pin, or waited for him to get clear before I attempted to stand. I have trained long enough to know better; looking back, I am surprised that something like this hadn’t happened to me before. Have I been lucky until now, or unlucky that I didn’t learn this lesson a less painful way? What is the sound of one foot kicking…

One thought on “Paying Attention

  1. johschmoh

    I just stumbled across your blog, as I sit here with fingers taped together because I failed to properly impart that understanding of zanshin to a new student a few days ago. The lack of that pause and continued focus following a step-in throw meant that his foot and my hand briefly occupied the same space. All will be well, as I should heal before Akira Kushida-Sensei arrives in Portland for an intense weekend of clinics.

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