Some time ago, I wrote a post on natural movement. In that post, I proposed the following definition for the phrase:
A natural movement is a positional attitude that provides the greatest stability and flexibility for a specific context.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the last word in that sentence: context. The inspiration for this line of thought came from an unlikely source. One day, as I was flipping threw my new Verizon FIOS television service, I came across a show on the Discovery Channel called Time Warp. This show, like many that I’ve come across on the Discovery Channel, seems to fall well into the “I can’t believe they’re making an entire show out of this one idea” category. The premise is simple:
- Do something.
- Film it.
- Replay it in slow motion.
Really. That’s it. From what I have seen, they’ve done everything from blow up cars to popping water balloons. And people get paid for this. (If this wasn’t a childhood dream of mine, it should have been.) On this particular episode, they had magicians/illusionists Penn and Teller performing sleight of hand tricks: specifically, variations of the shell game, where a series of balls appear and disappear under three cups. The hosts of the show were amazed to find that, even when filmed and replayed in slow motion, it was very difficult to see what the magicians were doing. One of the hosts asked if this was because the hand really was quicker than the eye. It was Penn’s response that I found interesting. In essence, he said that it wasn’t that they were fast. It was that you were watching something for which you had no context. During our everyday lives, we don’t see someone moving a ball between several cups. So we have no frame of reference on which to base what is and is not within the realm of possibility. He implied that, were we in a situation where we saw this trick day after day after day, we’d be more inclined to figure out what was going on and why. Since we don’t, it’s easy to fool us simply because they have a deeper understanding of what’s going on than we do.
It was this explanation of the importance of context that made me think about aikido practice. How often have we seen a demonstration, or felt a technique, and wondered: “How on earth was that done?” I have lost count of the times I have been left dumbfounded, sure that there was some other power at work that took my balance so effortlessly and so quickly. Yet, as anyone who has studied aikido for a few years can tell you, there’s clearly no magic to it all. The human body works in predictable ways, but we don’t always understand the context in which those movements might manifest. We assume certain ideas about how we can and will move in certain situations, when in fact we really have no basis for assuming those ideas are correct. To use the shell game as an analogy: we assume we have complete understanding of how to pick up a ball and place it under a cup, when in reality, we’re totally clueless.
The fact that aikido can be so effective is a result of the context of conflict, and this is an area that few of us spend any significant time. This has advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage, of course, is that we have a system of self-defense that is highly effective and can be learned by anyone, of any age or ability. But there are two main disadvantages of which we must be aware. First, because aikido does not fit in with our default understanding of how physical conflict works, it may never reach the popularity of other arts, such as Tae Kwon Do or Karate, which often do fit with that understanding. I don’t mean to say that these other arts are not effective; they most certainly are. They just also happen to work within the average person’s instinctive assumptions of how the human body works in physical conflict.
Second, when we do decide to study aikido, if we make the wrong assumptions of how attacks work, we’re deluding ourselves that our techniques are effective. We’ve seen the results of this in pretend aikido schools where the movements are illogical and only work because the instructor has conditioned his or her students to fall. Or even in individual students who mistakenly assume that their mental understanding of aikido equates to total understanding of its application. Consequently, we must be very careful in what assumptions we make about conflict, and constantly test them. As Sensei often says: “Prove it!”
In the end, I think a core aspect of our training has to be an analysis of context. It is not enough to understand a technique, we must understand the theory behind the technique, and the theory and application of the attack for which the techniqe was designed. This is not always easy; but it does lend itself to a very rich and rewarding path at the end of which is probably what most of us truly desire from our studies: understanding and control of who we are and what we do.