At nearly every camp or seminar I have attended, Sensei says these words to us just before calling us to practice a given technique. I’ve heard the words before, but never really stopped to consider if my interpretation of them was correct. After all, I’m supposed to be studying a martial art. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to define helping my partner as attacking with as much focus and intent as possible, to ensure that they really are doing the technique and not just going through the motions. To put it another way: it was always my impression that the best way to help my partner was to attack as realistically as possible.
This year, at Summer Camp, Sensei expanded on this notion of helping each other. “Don’t resist!” he clarified. “Technique is to learn how to lead!” I was a little surprised. Surely, Sensei wasn’t advocating that we not resist our partners technique? The very idea made me concerned. If there was no resistance, how can the nage understand if they’re truly taking someone’s balance? Those of us who study aikido have likely experienced training sessions in which the uke just fell down no matter what you did. It’s very frustrating, because you have no idea if you’re doing the technique correctly or not. Worse yet, if you don’t resist, what makes studying aikido any different from dancing or acting? For the first time, I was really concerned that I was being told to go down a path I did not want to follow.
My concern was great enough that, at my next opportunity, I spoke with one of the most senior students in Kokikai about it.
“Did Sensei really mean for us not to resist?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” was his response.
I grew more concerned. “Then what are we doing? If you don’t resist, I’ll never know if I’m doing the technique right!”
It was then I realized that several other senior instructors, who were standing nearby, were entering the conversation. The instructor I initially approached answered first:
“Consider a jazz musician. What does a jazz musician do when he’s practicing? He does scales and chord progressions. He practices new songs so he is sure he knows the melodies. But he is well aware that he isn’t performing, and he doesn’t sit there wondering what would happen if a piano player suddenly substituted one chord for another, or if a guitarist suddenly decided to try to steal his solo in a jam session. He practices, understanding how to play and what both he and his instrument are capable of. When he next joins a jam session, he is fully prepared to play whatever song comes up–not because he anticipated every possible combination of notes, but because he has practiced the fundamentals so much, he is able to adapt whenever he needs to.
“This is what we do when we are on the mat. We are not studying how to fight. We are studying how to lead, how to move with our opponent. Our ki exercises are our scales, and our techniques are our chord progressions. To constantly resist your nage’s technique isn’t helpful; in fact, it’s detrimental because it shifts the nage’s focus to beating you, when he should be focused on how to move correctly.”
Another instructor chimed in. “What do you think would happen to you if you were in a fight? Do you think you would do tsuki kotegaeshi? Yokumenuchi kokyunage? No! You’d move in the most appropriate way possible to defend yourself. You wouldn’t move into a technique, you’d just move. You already know that a real physical confrontation doesn’t conform to the simplicity of a single technique. So when we practice aikido, we need to recognize that we aren’t fighting–we’re studying how to move, how to lead, how to take balance.”
A third instructor made another point. “You and I have trained together on the mat. Each time you were the nage, did I resist?”
“No,” I responded.
“Were you convinced you were taking my balance?”
I had to think for a moment. “Sometimes,” I said. “Sometimes I could tell I had your balance, or I was at least very close. Other times, I could tell I hadn’t taken your balance at all.”
“Exactly,” he said. “I did not resist your technique, but you knew that you hadn’t taken my balance every time. Not resisting doesn’t mean you just go limp. It means you move logically to help your partner understand what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong.”
The first instructor, with whom I started this conversation, spoke up again. “And Sensei never says that we should never offer resistance. Resistance does have a place. It’s just that most people over-use it. Train in a technique for a while, then try it with resistance to see if you’re still able to take balance. On average, maybe 10% of your time should be spent on resisting. The rest should focus on leading, posture, and balance.” With that, Sensei arrived in the room, and the conversation shifted to other topics.
Later on, I heard a story that illustrated these concepts further. It seems that, quite some time ago, there was an instructor who had a little bit of an ego problem. Any time he trained with someone, he resisted their technique, stopping them cold. One training session, he was working with another instructor. No matter what was done, the first instructor would resist. Sensei saw this, and asked the first instructor to attack. Within seconds, Sensei and taken his balance and pounded him into the ground–by doing a completely different technique than was being practiced. Standing over the instructor, Sensei said simply: “It’s so easy to resist when you know what’s happening, isn’t it?” And this couldn’t be more true. When we know what’s going to happen, we can prepare ourselves to resist. Such advance notice is impossible in a real confrontation. I’ve known this, as have many others–but I had never thought about it to this level before.
To say that these ideas represent a fundamental shift in my understanding of aikido training would be an understatement. And yet, these ideas also fit with what I have already been discovering at the dojo. For example, I have often told students that the purpose of practicing a technique is not to throw your partner, but to throw your partner using the specific technique being demonstrated. This concept, I see now, is very much in keeping with the idea of helping each other. If we resist to the point that our partner cannot study the technique, then we hinder their progress. Resistance is a powerful and essential tool, but, like any tool, it has its place and purpose. It’s important we remember that, and learn to use it appropriately.