I’ve often heard that aikido is considered an internal art; that is, an art in which the fundamental foundation of its self-defense strategy rely on internal manipulations of center and positioning, rather than external movements. In many ways, this is true: few of the movements in aikido are revolutionary in their own right. A quick study of any other martial arts system reveals that many of our jointlocks, throws, and other defenses are just as present in other systems. Instead, what makes aikido unique is our focus on how we perceive these movements.
A classic example of this is a technique that, in Kokikai Aikido, we simply refer to as ryo-te mochi kokyunage. In this technique, the attacker attempts to grab the nage’s arm using both hands. The kokyunage response, in this instance, uses a movement referred to as sayu (in warm ups, saya undo). The nage turns 90 degrees, curls the arm the uke is attempting to grab, and then lifts and opens the arm as if gesturing to an object above and behind the attacker. A few minutes study of this technique can actually reveal a great deal about the mindset of the nage. Those with a tendency to be aggressive in their techniques quickly realize that there is precious little that stands in the way of them sending their elbow forcefully and decidedly into uke’s face. (Full disclosure: as a blue belt, this is the technique in which I accidentally knocked a training partner down for about 5 seconds.) Those who abhor conflict tend to through their arm straight up in the air. Neither movement is entirely correctly–though those familiar with “external” arts might recognize the more aggressive tendency to be a relatively common response.
The true response, which is hard to do and even harder to see, is to use the attacker’s momentum to take them off-balance. It’s here that our perspective makes all the difference. If you think aggressively, then you are almost always leading in a straight line, parallel to the floor, strait at the uke’s head. A strong, determined opponent can stop this attack, and the results are disasterous for the nage, as their elbow is in the perfect position to be reversed into ikkyo. And if you put your arm straight up in the air, the uke will simply ignore it and change their attack. The correct response is to focus on taking the uke off-balance. This necessitates that the nage enter uke’s space more deeply, and blend with the attacker’s movements more thoroughly. Anything less is simply insufficient.
What makes this technique difficult from a learning perspective is that it is so difficult to see the correct movement when it is performed. In fact, it would be easy to assume that the correct technique is to put the elbow into the nage’s face, or to throw the arm up in the air, because these movements may well be demanded of the nage based on how the uke is attacking. It’s only when you are in training in the technique, wondering why it is failing time and time again, that you realize that you have to change your mindset, move beyond the desire to attack or evade and focus instead on the need to integrate, blend, and guide your uke to the point where their balance is gone and you have full control.