Last night, a new student stepped onto the mat.
Immediately, he was noticed by the rest of the dojo. This was due to facts: first, he is a genuinely nice guy. Great personality, very polite, good sense of humor. Before class started, he kept introducing himself, shaking people’s hands, and so on. The second reason? He’s a very big guy. I mean, this is the kind of guy who you would expect could be playing pro or semi-pro football. And, in fact, he use to play football quite a lot, was an avid wrestler, and studied judo for some time. His primary reason for coming to the dojo was something that I hear I lot: he wanted exercise, and he often heard interesting stuff about aikido, so he wanted to try it out.
The techniques for the class that evening were more principle studies than actual combat techniques. There are a lot of these, but one of my favorites is a technique that goes by the very generic name: yokomenuchi kokyunage (close-in version). This is a simple attack: the uke raises his or her arm and stikes down and along the diagonal–ideally aiming to hit from the temple down to the jaw on the opposite side of the head. In this particular version, the uke is already close enough to the nage that there is no reason to take a step (hence the “close-in” descriptor). The nage’s response is to match the timing of the strike and enter in and off to the side (to avoid any any other strikes). In essence, we respond to a diagonal strike by moving along a diagonal of our own.
The tricky part of this technique is that if you respond by trying to block the uke, or force him or her in any way, it simply doesn’t work. The uke has too much power, too much momentum, for mere force to have a significant impact. But if you’re relaxed, and if you apply your weight calmly and at the right time, you redirect uke’s force downwards, which quite understandably takes them off balance. It’s the timing here that’s really tricky, and that’s what makes this technique worth studying.
At one point, during class, I was helping the new student with the technique. He very much wanted to understand how it worked, so I had him attack me. The first time, my timing was off (he’s pretty quick!) and he pushed me back a bit before I could recover. The second time, I focused more, and he dropped to the ground. At that point, he had the strangest expression on his face and, very politely, asked me if he could try again. He did so, with the same result. When he got up, I asked him what he was thinking. His response:
“I’m not trying to fall down.”
I looked at him and nodded. “I know,” I replied.
“But I am falling down.”
He put his hand to his chin, thinking. “I dont’ understand why.”
I couldn’t help but smile, because I remember thinking those exact same thoughts. So I explained a bit to him, about timing and positioning, and about how hard it was to use physical power when you don’t have the structure to back it up. He nodded, and went back to training.
Later, at the end of class, we were doing kokyu doza, a very common exercise that can really help you try to understand correct movement. Again, I went over to help, and we ended up practicing together. The result was the same as the technique. He kept trying to stop me from moving him, but he couldn’t. Again, I explained about being relaxed, and tried to point out that anything that I was able to do now he would be able to do himself soon. I could tell, though, that he was still thinking it through.
After class, we chatted for a bit, and then he headed out the door. I then turned to another student and began talking about some dojo-improvement projects I want to get done before the winter. Suddenly, the door opened again, and the new students stood, filling the doorway. “Hi!” I said. “Did you forget something?”
“Nope. I just figured it out!”
I looked at him. “Figured it out?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It’s like I’m pushing on a rope.”
I admit it–I was confused. “What do you mean?”
“When I try to move you–it’s like pushing on a rope. You can try and try, but it just bends and moves around you. That’s what it was like.” The grin on his face was huge. “That’s pretty cool,” he continued. “I just wanted to say what I thought before I forgot it. See you later!”
As he left, I turned to the student to which I had been talking. We both agreed that we remember that exact moment: the moment you knew that there was something different about aikido that you just could not explain, but that you just had to figure out. It’s a moment that usually sticks with you forever, that keeps you on the mat time and again, trying to figure out just how this stuff works. The joy on this new student’s face, that he had found something interesting, something that he wanted to understand, was one of the most rewarding experiences I ever have from teaching aikido.