By Régis Soavi
Certainly the Jo, the stick, has always been used in Aïkido. But does it really belong to our Art? Its teaching has always been particular and often even separated from the regular courses. Many of us have tried, through other schools of Jujitsu, to find some forms, some kata, some “secret thrusts”. Some have taken an interest in Kobudo. Yet the art of the Jo in Aïkido has its own specificities, its rules.
Personally, what has always fascinated me, is more the extreme accuracy that can be obtained by following a certain type of training. Instead of working on power, I found it more profitable to concentrate on motion, movements and above all precision.
Training to precision
I was a young instructor when I started to train more regularly with the stick. Back then, I tied a soda cap at the extremity of a rope that I hung from the ceiling. My training consisted in making tsuki on the soda cap and each time that it moved to immobilize it again. Then I changed heights. Later I worked on the yokomen and the hits from below, always trying to be precise and without increasing the speed. I worked slowly looking for the right angle, using the displacements and little by little I increased the speed of the execution. Finally I started to hit by using the movement of the cap that flied around to the left, the right, with sudden leaps that were sometimes odd, or even scary if it had been the Jo or the Bokken of an adversary. I could go around that axle that I hung from the centre of the small dojo that used to be in the backyard of number 34 in rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève in Paris. I still remember it with emotion because it was thanks to Master Henry Plée that I could do this type of work. Indeed, he had allowed and even supported me in this direction (an accomplished Budoka, he loved that we trained to the very best of our ability). After several months of this type of training, I moved on to the work on makiwara, but I have to admit, without insisting too much because I found it tedious. Instead I loved the hits in all directions, in the “shadow boxing” style.
In this exercise I found the difficulties of the work with the soda cap, plus the power that I had to control, the circular movements, the speed and above all the visualization. That work of visualization that I already glimpsed in the teaching of my master Itsuo Tsuda. It is also thanks to this that I’ve discovered the importance of having your own stick, I mean a personal working instrument. I am one of those teachers who believe that the Jo must not be a manufactured product of a predetermined length, thickness, or weight. The Jo has to be in proportion, with no exaggeration, otherwise we’ll be dealing with a Bo, to the person who uses it, his or her height and musculature: as there are enormous differences, it seems to me a mistake not to take this into account, but in any case it is the way the Jo is used that remains the most important point.
As far as I’m concerned, I now use the stick more as a pedagogical tool. As always it is about retrieving and understanding the ancient forms, of course, but above all about channelling the released energy, feeling it circulate and flow along this piece of wood.
Master Tsuda used to tell us: “The Jo has three parts, the two ends and a centre, unlike the Bo that numbers four parts due to the way one seizes it, with both hands at an equal distance from the extremities”. Doing tsuki the technical aspects of the strokes vary, whether one uses it in the ancient form suited to the spear, or as a Jo, that is something much shorter, holding it with both hands in the same direction or one opposite to the other. All this didn’t matter to him: what was important was the transmission of ki and the act of non resistance.
The Jo was only there to enable us to discover the Non-doing, to deepen our breathing.
Then the stick (I suggest to call it that way) is used as if it was an empty tube that gets filled with ki, that has a certain autonomy, that becomes alive again.
The stick exacerbates distances. It forces us to have another relationship with the distance, to feel the axes as well as the changes of direction, of orientation.
Some people have a particular affinity with the Jo, others prefer the Bokken. Even if it is part of my teaching, I give them the time to find out whether it makes sense to them, whether it helps them go deeper in their practice.
It is one of the means I sometimes use to make people understand how the strengths involved in our practice circulate: it is precisely with the stick that I can show this.
I ask uke to grab the stick very strongly and tori has to find the axis, the direction by the mere movement of his body, of his koshi, not of his muscles or arms, to slide the force applied, so that when tori moves, it creates such an imbalance for uke, that he accepts to fall and drops like a ripe fruit falling from the tree.
There is a moment in which it is particularly pleasant to practice the stick, and this is when you are outside, in the open air.
And the time for this is the summer workshops, which we have organized for almost thirty years at Mas d’Azil, in Ariège. There we are lucky enough to be able to change an old gym, practically unused, into a wonderful dojo, in the course of several pleasant working days. Since it’s next to a soccer field, we can go outside to practice weapons.
I know that practitioners are then very happy to practice outside the tatami mats.The space is so much bigger that we can rediscover the dimensions that the old arts required.
After having been confined to an enclosed space, the whole point of these open air sessions is to expand physically: no more ceiling, no more walls, no more limits. It is the moment when everyone can experience different dimensions, the ideal moment to try, in this space, to feel further.
Practicing outside, whilst we are used to the uniformity of the tatami mats, is a constraint for the entire body: the ground is no longer that flat, there are some holes, some bumps, all movements, taisabaki, and obviously the falls or the immobilizations become more difficult.The speed of the attacks is often reduced due to the unusual conditions. But in turn, when we practice on the tatami mats again, everything becomes easier: one has gained skill, speed, strength in the legs, and balance that one didn’t have before.
We then take the opportunity to practice with many people, three, four, six, or even up to eight attackers (one tori and seven ukes) who, in the respect of our Art and with no competitive spirit, try to reach out and put the one in the center in danger. No need to pretend it’s a movie: we are neither samurai nor secret agents whom nothing can stop. It’s about moving more and better than we usually do, feeling the movement of our sphere, the gaps in it and the risks there are of having an impact in those places.
The importance is not given to a perfect technical skill, whether in defense or in attack, but much more to the sensation of the other people’s movement, to distance, to the energy that one can throw.
Such a wide space allows circumferences of about eight or ten meters, sometimes. In circular movements Tori’s gaze, with its intensity and precise direction, relays the power and speed of the stick. This alone is sometimes enough to create the right conditions for a reply, a correct move.
I don’t know if I am well understood: it is a game in which all participants, from the very beginner to the most experienced, have their own role depending on their level. The six or eight attackers will moderate the power and speed of the attacks (tsuki, shomen, yokomen) according to this.
Each of them seeks the right position so as to find the weak point, the speed of approach, the right angle.
The attacks are as much as possible genuine attacks, but they are always done without violence and even if possible not too fast, in any case not hastily.
It is important in this type of work to be careful not to block or corner the one in the center, so as not to drive him into a spiral of fear that would lead to aggressiveness, but on the contrary to help him come out of his imprisonment, both physical and mental, and to allow him to develop his potential.The summer workshop lasts for two weeks and is very concentrated: two Aikido sessions, two Katsugen undo sessions and one weapon session every day. It means seven or eight working hours per day, about fifty hours a week. That’s why we need this kind of work with the Jo, enabling bodies to unwind, to open out and find another dimension.
Sticks spin, spaces move about, bodies which are at times weary stretch. The atmosphere remains peaceful, sometimes even cheerful, but accuracy is there.
Men, women, children of all ages, in the respect of the specificities of each of them.
The sensitivity of the foetus
However, a clarification: pregnant women sometimes practice until the very last moment in our School. But since the beginning of their pregnancy we pay particular attention to the fact that being in such a special state, even if of course we never touch the body with the stick, it’s forbidden to do tsuki in the direction of the womb. Regardless of the risk of accident, to which we always pay a lot of attention. The point is not to direct the ki in that way, in other words with “the intention to hit”. Such a directed and guided ki would be instinctively recorded as dangerous and felt by the mother, and most of all by the baby, who is nothing but sensitivity, as an aggression, to the point of risking to cause at least a fear, or a contraction that would harm his good development. When we work on tsuki strokes, pregnant women step aside and watch, but do not participate.
A centripetal force can become a centrifugal force
Sometimes we work with Jo against Bokken. The point then is, precisely because the weapons are different, to understand on the one hand the way to use them and on the other hand their limits and capabilities, without forgetting that behind all this there is a human being. At other times, it is only uke who has a weapon. A stick, a Bokken, can be frightening if you have no weapon.You don’t know in which direction it will start, men, yokomen, tsuki, you cannot stop the stroke with a simple wave of your hand. Only by dodging, doing taisabaki, can you avoid the shock. Taking hold of the stick or of the Bokken, is then one of the chances to stop the attack, to transform it and make it harmless, so that we can use its energy in the opposite direction or divert it towards another direction. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see, to feel how for example a centripetal force, when it gets in contact with a centre, can turn into a centrifugal force so that it is driven towards the outside. What do we mean by “stopping the spear”1 ? The real point is not a question of winning or losing but rather of changing the system, of allowing something else to arise, and for this, the knowledge of the partner, the understanding between both partners is essential.
In every person there are some good and some bad sides, some good and some bad habits: all of this has to be guided towards harmony. Harmony is at the origin of our life, the thing is to get back to what is natural and always there deep inside every individual. That is, for me, the way of Aikido.
Our horizon can light up if we understand better the words of O Sensei Ueshiba, transmitted by my Master Itsuo Tsuda in his teaching and through his nine books. These words didn’t remain a dead letter; on the contrary they have come to life, once more, and continue through those who are willing to follow this path.
Article by Régis Soavi on the subject of the Aîkido stick (Aïkijo), published in Dragon Magazine (special Aikido n° 13) in July 2016.
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1Budō may be originally understood as «the way to stop the spear».