Facilitating the Learning of Aikido Principles Through Scenario Based Training
If you are an Aikido practitioner and you are reading this, you may or may not have experienced scenario based training in your dojo. I have visited quite a number of dojos over the last 14 years and I have rarely seen it myself. That is not to say that these dojos did not ever engage in this kind of training, but I did not witness it during my visits.
At most Aikido schools the Sensei will choose an “attack” (grab, punch, kick, or combination) and demonstrate a technique to deal with it. The students then grab a partner and practice the “movements”. At some schools, the instructor used almost no words at all during class, communicating almost entirely by pantomime. Moving slowly at some points and pointing at uke or exaggerating certain movements to illustrate key ideas. I want to be very clear; I’m not saying this is bad or ineffective teaching, or that someone at this dojo could not become very proficient. This kind of training clearly demands extreme levels of attention and concentration by the students on the movements of the instructor. This kind of attention should be cultivated and is very important. However, for a student that is looking to gain some practical self-defense information, this approach may leave them a little short.
A new Aikido student looking for some self-defense strategies might ask, “Why would someone just grab my wrist?” This is an excellent question, and should be addressed. In an article I read online recently, (“Grab my wrist; no, really!” by Chrisopher Hein) the author addressed it as a tradition from the times of the Samurai where an attacker would seek to control the weapon hand(s) of the defender so that the defender could not draw and use their sword on them. This makes a lot of sense, historically. Notice though, that this is a scenario that has become ingrained in the Aikido training methodology. Sometimes there is an explanation, but in many dojos there is none. In a modern context, why would someone grab your wrist/lapel/elbow etc.? Well, they do it for the same reason they did it back in the samurai era, to control you and produce an effect they desire.
Another question a new Aikidoka might ask (or be told) is HOW to grab/punch, etc. Again, from my experience, the “how” varies widely at different dojos. For the purpose of this article, I will stick to a grab (no pun intended). There are only a few different ways someone can grab your wrist/hand/arm. They can grab and pull you towards them. They can grab and push into you. Or, they can just grab you and stand there without putting pressure on your center at all. Uke could also use some twisting type of pressure on you in order to get you to rotate, but I will save that topic for a later discussion.
Finally, this brings us back to the original question, which could and should come from any Aikidoka: WHY would they grab in a particular way? Well, a grab and pull might come from an attacker trying to bring his victim closer in order to punch or stab or grapple them to the ground. They might also be trying to pull you into a sheltered position in order to conclude their “business” where there are no witnesses. There are many more reasons a thinking person could imagine.
A grab and push might have the purpose of forcing you backwards into another attacker, a wall, or other confining space that is advantageous for the attacker and not for the defender. Or it could be the prelude to forcing that person backwards to the ground. Again, we could come up with many more examples.
If an attacker just grabbed without exerting any pull or push pressure, it is debatable as to whether this even constitutes an attack at all. If there is no effort by uke to affect nage’s center, then the uke is really not in much danger. So training against this kind of “attack” should really only be used at the very early levels of Aikido. When nage is completely unfamiliar with the new ways of moving their body and needs help just to make sure they are able to perform the largest of the gross motor movements involved in the technique. Once students can perform footwork with some proficiency, they should move on to a more challenging grab.
One principle that you hear a lot in various forms of martial arts is: “if they push, you pull, if they pull, you push”. This is the essence of Aikido in that the blending or harmony of the art is in not opposing the incoming energy but using it in its original form against the attacker. So if we apply this principle to a grab that pushes into uke, then nage should allow this energy to continue to point forward (from uke’s perspective) as you deal with it. For example, let’s look at a wrist grab by uke’s left hand to nage’s right wrist (katate dori), with uke putting pressure into nage’s center. Rather than trying to force the point of contact back towards uke, nage could allow that energy to continue on its way as they tenkan to uke’s left shoulder. During this movement, it is easy for nage to maintain a connection to uke’s center by keeping the tension in his arm. When performed correctly, the result is that uke’s balance is taken quite easily. In fact it is even easier than if uke was grabbing with no pushing pressure at all. Uke almost initiates his own kuzushi (balance breaking) on himself. Once uke’s balance is compromised, they are now at nage’s mercy and nage can finish the encounter with a variety of techniques.
If nage tries to enter and tenkan when uke uses a pulling grab, they will immediately find that they can not get to an advantageous position. This is because of the simple geometry of the forces. If uke pulls, nage must pull back in order to keep their hands in front of them during the tenkan movement. By trying to counter a pull with a pull, it turns into a fight and the bigger/stronger/faster person will prevail.
So a pull should be countered with a push in order to use uke’s energy against him. In the same katate dori grab, if uke pulls, nage should enter and push. This put’s pressure on uke’s center. Nage can then take their balance by moving straight into their center, or in and off to the side. Again, once uke’s balance is taken, nage can finish with an appropriate method.
To summarize, our training as Aikidoka should not just consist of the same attack with the same energy and trying to perform all defenses against this energy. Some Aikido movements simply make no sense (or are dangerous for nage) if they are attempted against the wrong incoming energy. When studying the gross movements, it is appropriate to perform any defense against any attack. However, when considering real attacks with either pushing or pulling energy, the list of appropriate responses by nage will be reduced.
So how does all of this relate to studying and mastering the essence of Aikido? Well, by performing your practice against the appropriate energy, we learn to sense that energy by touch. In a physical conflict, the reaction time from touch stimulus to reaction is much faster than from a visual stimulus. So by training to react based on what we feel, we increase our odds of successfully dealing with a physical attack. Without explicitly including this type of training and explanation into our practice, we are just doing “movement” with no real purpose. A student might still get to the same place after years of training without these scenarios, but it would take many more years than training with them.
Moving beyond the mat, once we learn to respond to physical energy in the appropriate way (push/pull-pull/push) we can begin to understand how this same concept can be extended to other non-martial applications. Instead of butting heads with someone in an argument, take what they are giving you and use it to your advantage. When people try to pull you into their emotional turmoil, go with it and see if you can help resolve it from a cooperative/empathic standpoint. I’m sure everyone has their own example of how they could or have used this principle outside the Aikido dojo. My goal is just to make sure that is it used properly INSIDE the dojo as well.