By Régis Soavi
For most Westerners, practising Aikido on their knees rather than standing seems to be at first sight very difficult. Although in our everyday life, we are very rarely in this position, it has been since immemorial times a relaxing posture, still allowing to stay vigilant.
To sit in Seiza (in Japanese « the proper way to sit ») allows the spine to be aligned and helps abdominal breathing, and so allows to put power in the Hara. Moreover, if the position, the posture, is well in line, while relaxed, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to relax the whole body.
To rest, to relax without having to lie down has always been what people working outside and therefore at the mercy of enemies, predators or even just because of bad weather conditions, have been looking for. The squatting position, still used in most countries of the African continent, in South America, Australia and many other countries, has the same function. On this matter, Tsuda Itsuo Senseï recalls an anecdote in his book The Path of Less:
« In an article probably conceived before 1934, Marcel Mauss describes this under the heading »Techniques of the body » (1)
Children squat normally. We no longer know how to squat. I believe that this is an absurdity and an inferiority of our races, civilisations, societies. And he quotes an experience he had at the Front during the First World War. The (white) Australians he was with could rest on their heels during stops, while he was forced to stand.
The squatting position, in my opinion, is an interesting position that we can help children preserve. The biggest mistake is to take it away from them. All of mankind, except our societies, has retained it.
The squatting position presupposes flexibility of the hips. In doing Aikido, I see the huge difference between the Japanese and the Europeans. The Japanese, less structured intellectually and verbally, simply imitate what they are shown. Europeans observe, take note, make a file and paste a label on it. But when they begin to execute a movement, they sometimes find it difficult to coordinate everything. If they pay attention to the right hand, they forget the left. As for the feet, they don’t know where they are. This kind of mental habit does not make practice easy. Instead of having two components, A and B, B simply imitating A, they involve a third element, C, called intellect, file, or structure, thus forming a deflected circuit that complicates the situation. »
Before walking upright, we crawled, then, seeing and imitating other older children or adults around, we stood on our two legs. The vertical position released our hands and little by little we moved quicker and quicker even with our arms full of toys. During this period of our life, our usual playground, the one we feel comfortable to play in, where we can be independent of adults is the ground. And this whatever the area of the planet we live in. Then, we encounter great changes, our bodies spread out, we leave the ground for something more aerial, more mental too because our brain is better irrigated in a vertical position, so the more we grow up the more we get far from it. The society we live in provides us with high chairs, sofas, and other settees on which we can sit conveniently to enjoy ourselves or work, to relax or concentrate. From then, we live far from the ground, we won’t be back on the ground again except in very few moments when we play with a child or when we are on the beach or on the lawn.
When people discover the dojo and that huge surface at their disposal, they feel some sort of a childlike joy that threatens them and at the same time attracts them. Some of them are aware of it, others are just impressed. While children immediately start running and rolling on the floor, grown-ups remain reserved, already conscious perhaps of the process to be followed.
The first steps, as to say, on the Tatami mats, start in a sitting position. Frequently beginners cross their legs, but even if they succeed in sitting in the Seiza position, which is extremely unusual, they will almost never be told to keep the position during the practice. After a few seconds or few minutes of meditation, often the whole session will carry on standing. Indeed we are not in Japan, and many people aren’t used any more to sit that way, but instead of considering it as a challenge, a goal to be achieved, it seems to me interesting to consider it as a game. A game that requires physical and mental implication, but still a game, so a pleasure. And even if there are constraints, they are fully part of the game we have just started.
Practising on our knees allows to get recentered while remaining relaxed. I always have my students practise slowly, specially beginners, but it is very good for advanced students too since a workout performed slowly and smoothly (I often use the Italian word legato, used in music) allows the whole body to recenter. If, as we got used to it, we don’t work using the muscle strength in our arms, but if we project our energy from our center, our Hara and have it run along our limbs, we can feel vividly the flow of Ki and see the effects. Arms must be neither flabby nor rigid, but supple and active, powerful, with this power they have when they are full of Ki. Working slowly in the kneeling position, for example in the basic forms that are Ikkyo or Yonkyo, allows, if one pays attention to this direction, to discover how Yin and Yang act, if we can say, spread out, interpenetrate. We then get recentered automatically because we need to recover our balance, the support on the knees become lighter because the body distributes the weight better, the hips themselves regain the flexibility they had lost by moving only from the standing position.
Two moments seem to me the right time to practise on the knees. The beginning of the session, since, as a slow work, it is a bit like a fitness. And the end of the session, the moment we do Kokyu-Ho which, in addition of being done on the knees, concentrates in a few minutes many physical and mental difficulties. It is, again, an opportunity to work on how to get recentered while one can check the state of the Koshi, its suppleness and so the whole posture.
Getting prepared with practising kneeling techniques, allows you to be ready when you face the opportunity of a Shiho-nage with a partner much smaller than you. The fact that you can turn while kneeling without any difficulty or loss of balance, to pass under his arm is an undeniable advantage.
But the range of advantages to practise in suwari waza (kneeling techniques) does not end there.
If I take as an example Irimi Nage in Hanmi Handachi Waza (techniques achieved with one partner on his knees and the other standing) one can feel more precisely the breath of aspiration down, and you can immediately feel if you are centered or not, if you have succeeded in creating a sufficient void in which the partner has plunged, where he has lost his balance while you stay stable. This is, still in Hanmi Handachi Waza, even more visible and concrete with two partners: the grab Katate Ryote Dori (seizure with both hands of a wrist) begins with a strike that turns into a seizure — and this is the crucial moment for a kokyu nage. The projection can only be done if one has enough practice of kneeling techniques, if one is able to become very heavy by concentrating the Ki in the lower abdomen, and to pass it beyond the fingertips.
Of course all techniques can be done from this posture with sometimes some variations but what seems important to me is that after having practised on your knees, practicing in Tachi Waza (standing practice) becomes much easier. This kind of work can have various consequences, if it is done forcefully, with the desire to win at all costs, or to stand a reputation, a role. Without having found the lines that allow the projection in flexibility, nor a deep and quiet breathing, there is a great risk of damage to the body, of having after a while serious problems with the knees or hips and a real handicap in everyday life.
Walking, moving on your knees, can be a good exercise, and for that there is Shikko. Here again it is important not to overdo it, not to show it as a competition, a « tour de force » that some will succeed more or less happily. Shikko is an excellent exercise but to use in moderation, especially at the beginning. After a few years of practice, if we have not forced, then it will have become a real pleasure. You can even do this training with a Bokken and by striking straight, this way of doing it makes it possible to check if it is the hips that move and if the rotation is done well at the lower level of the body and not from the chest. The shoulders must not move at all, but must remain exactly in the direction of the movement. When you start to feel comfortable you can start to make slow strikes with the Bokken while moving. All these exercises help to regain mobility in the hips. In my opinion, they have no immediate martial value, at first glance, simply because they are executed on Tatamis, which is normal, because who would like to train on gravel, for example, without protection on their knees?
Changes, that seem miracles to whom they happen, are possible. Years ago a woman came with crutches, she had been moving with enormous difficulties for several years. Very determined she came to practice every morning at the dojo. At the beginning there was no way for her to sit other than with her legs stretched in front of her, little by little however, after a few weeks her condition had improved. After a month she managed to get on her knees, but of course, straight and stiff as a board. From then, she began to get down, centimeter by centimeter, to end up, after several months, sitting on her heels without pain and, even later yet, enjoying it. This is not a unique case, right now at Tenshin Dojo, in Paris, a retired gentleman who came in with serious problems with his knees and ankles as a result of various surgeries he had had several years before. In less than a year of very regular practice (he comes every day) he has regained a mobility he no longer expected and now can sit on his heels. No force, taking time, having continuity, if something is possible it is done naturally. To be quite honest, I must say that in both cases the people concerned also started to practice katsugen undo (the regenerative movement) which facilitated the work of their bodies and their re-ordering.
Is groundwork essential?
Nothing, ever, is essential, but is it necessary? It is certain that we can do without it, there are even many good or bad reasons to avoid it, we can argue in these terms: it hurts the knees, it is dangerous for the joints, there’s no point in that, because nobody moves that way anymore, etc. If we can’t make out the reason of it, why should we strain ourselves? There are so many rituals, exercises that have become incomprehensible in our modern society, that even the simple act of saluting by bowing may seem obsolete, even ridiculous for many Westerners who would be perfectly willing to swap it for the “Shake-Hands”. By adapting to modernity, are we not in danger of missing the essential, of losing the spirit that leads us in Aikido, would I dare say its soul?
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(1) Itsuo Tsuda, The Path of Less, p. 175, Yume Editions, Paris, 2015 (trans. from La Voie du dépouillement, Le Courrier du Livre, 1975)
Article by Régis Soavi published in Dragon Magazine (speciale Aikido n° 25) july 2019.