“I…I don’t believe it!”
“That is why you fail.”
When most folks think about the various Star Wars quotes that best describe martial arts training (and there are many), the one that often comes to mind is the classic Yoda line: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” While I can’t even type those words without being overcome with a wave of nostalgia, I must admit that it’s the quote at the top of this entry that I think really strikes at the heart of martial training. It’s the simple truth: we often fail to perform at our best potential not because we can’t do it, but because we don’t believe we can do it.
It’s my opinion that few arts exhibit this fact more than aikido. Often referred to as an “internal” martial art because its effectiveness hinges on understanding and controlling yourself more than your opponent, aikido nonetheless is a relatively simple art from a technique standpoint. When I say this, I do not mean that there aren’t a myriad of techniques that require a great deal of technical proficiency. What I do mean is that the core movements that comprise aikido techniques take little time to understand and not much more time to implement. In fact, I often tell many of my new students that, by the end of class, they will have already understood most of what they need to know to execute whatever technique we’re practicing that evening. What keeps us training day in and day out, year upon many years, is not the complexity of the technique, but rather our own internal quest to find the perfect level of calmness, centeredness, and focus. Our goal is not to throw, but to move so naturally, so effortlessly, that our opponent is not left wondering how they were beaten, but rather why they even bothered to attack in the first place.
Of course, a pursuit of this nature runs counter to what many of us are hard-wired to think and do when we’re in a physical confrontation. Consequently, it’s difficult to believe that, by being relaxed, we can reduce even the most powerful attack to a harmless gesture. And because we don’t believe it, we unconsciously hold back from fully committing the ideas that we want to practice. Hidden away from our conscious minds, we keep a reserve of physical power and resistance “just in case” the ideas we’re studying don’t work. But instead of helping us, this reserve prevents us from studying aikido principles effectively. Just like an athlete will never win a competition she can’t visualize herself winning, we cannot truly do aikido if we don’t believe we can.
A few days ago, we put this idea to the test. On the mat were several students, none of whom had been training for more than a couple of months. The technique was katatori ikkyo, a basic response to someone grabbing your shoulder. Although the technique is not as physically demanding as others, it does rely on strong sense of timing to perform effectively. During class, we had each nage stand before his or her uke and mentally convince themselves that they not only understood this technique, but that they had mastered it. For a full minute, we focused on how this technique was as natural as breathing, that we had done it for so long that doing it was effortless; resisting the technique was unthinkable. As each nage focused, their partners attacked. The difference was astounding. A level of timing and fluidity suddenly appeared where before was stiffness and stagnation. Of course, there was plenty of room for improvement –and there always will be—but it was fascinating to see just how much our own sense of timing and balance can be influenced by our state of mind.