One of the core ideas behind Kokikai Aikido is often referred to as natural movement. The idea is both simple and logical: when we move in a natural way, we move with strength, flexibility, and adaptability. When we move in an unnatural way, we often move stiffly, slowly, and weakly.
Few people would disagree with the notion that, when required to respond physically to a given situation, the more natural the movement the better. But what does natural mean? At first, natural is often interpreted meaning default. In other words, the default ways in which I stand, walk, turn, are defined as natural because they are the movements to which I am most accustomed. But it doesn’t take long to realize that this definition is inaccurate. After all, how many of us have a favorite way of sitting, walking, or moving that we’ve done for so long it feels natural to us, but we know results in poor posture or balance? Nearly all of us have such movements ingrained into our muscle memory, and we train to modify them. So natual cannot simply mean default.
Another initial definition of natural pertains to our level of comfort. A natural movement, in this definition, is one that is the most comfortable for us. This idea comes into play most often when working on a stance. Understandably, we want to be in a position that is comfortable for us. And certainly, a movement that feels uncomfortable cannot be a relaxed movement. However, the opposite is not true: a comfortable movement does not mean that it is natural. For example, I like to recline back in my chair. I do this because it is comfortable. Does that make it natural? Perhaps for hanging out at a barbeque with friends, but certainly it is not correct for self-defense. So, while we know that natural must also be comfortable, we cannot say that being comfortable leads us directly to being natural.
My current definition of natural, as it pertains to aikido, has lately become the following:
A natural movement is a positional attitude that provides the greatest stability and flexibility for a specific context.
For example, take a look at what we call natural stance. This stance places the feet shoulders-width apart, with the weight balanced primarily on the balls of the foot but supported by the heel. The entire posture is tipped forward ever so slightly, with the chest raised, the neck elongated, and the head pulled back. When you stand in this position, your body weight is distributed very well across your skeletal structure, and balanced so that you can move quickly should the need arise. Most people have no problems with the stance—it is called natural stance for a reason, after all!
To illustrate how identifying a natural movement can be difficult, however, let’s consider hamni. In hamni, one foot is in front of the other. But how are these feet positioned? Lately, our dojo has been exploring standing with our feet in a T position. If our feet were placed together, the heel of the front foot would be perpendicular to the middle of our back foot. Our feet, however, are roughly one pace apart, our legs are relaxed and slightly bent, our hips rotated towards the front. Many people comment that this position does not feel natural—that is to say, it is not the default way in which we would like to stand, nor is it the way we normally would find comfortable. However, this stance offers us a great deal. It forces your weight to be on the balls of your feet, which ensures mobility. It also positions your hips and knees so that a rapid tenkan turn can be initiated effortlessly. In other words, from a context where self-defense is paramont, this position is completely natural.
The challenge when looking at movements is, I think, that we often neglect the context of that movement. We inadvertently seek a position that is comfortable, without realizing that the type of comfort we need does not apply to the situation for which we’re training. We want to recline at a barbeque, when in fact we are studying how to defend ourselves from an attacker. If we can place our continual focus on how our position applies to our surroundings, our ideas regarding what is the most natural state is likely to change significantly.