By Régis Soavi
Seizing in itself is not the difficulty, it’s the coagulation of ki in the wrist, the arms or around the body that causes a problem and blocks us, and it’s through detachment that we can get free of it. The way to achieve this is visualization. Tsuda Senseï provides us with an example in his second book The Path of Less:
« Aïkido for me is an art of becoming a child again. […] It takes art to become a child without being childish.
[…] John, for example, tackles me from behind. I want to crouch down to sit, but he prevents me from doing so. He has biceps twice as big as mine and weighs almost 200 pounds (90 kilos). I cannot move, he is holding me so tightly. What should I do? Throw him before I sit down? I try but I cannot do it because he is too heavy and too strong.
So I become a child. I see a wondrous seashell on the beach and bend down to pick it up. I forget John, who is still grasping me from behind. (There is an important technical detail here: I move one foot forward to make two sides of a triangle with the other foot, because it is more concentrated that way.) There is flow of ki, starting with me and moving towards the seashell, whereas before, the ki was frozen at the thought of John. John’s 200 pounds become very light, and he falls forward over my shoulders.
How is it that with different ideas, we obtain opposite results, while the situation remains the same?
The idea of throwing provokes resistance. In the child’s gesture, there is the joy of picking up the shell that makes one forget the enemy’s presence. » (1)
There are many ways of seizing and it is the intention put into it that is often determinant. Some of them can be considered as superficial or even unharmful, others more dangerous, like for instance those which carry a mark of appropriation or others which can sometimes be insidious and insistent.
The scenography which allows training in Aikido considers seizing as the result of an act manifesting itself with some kind of aggressivity. This act in itself is already an attempt to appropriate the other person, so as to use him in some way, rob him, destroy him, destroy his person or personality, setting apart the well-founded cases which are not of our concern in this example. What I am talking about is the abuse of a power, whether it be real or unreal, known or desired, over the other, this other person being presumed unable to react when faced to such a display of strength.
In the animal world, the power of an individual or clan in the bosom of a larger group of the same kind matches quite definite criteria, generally in relation to reproduction, preservation or to the defense of a species. As a consequence, it is borne and finally accepted by the whole group; in case of any attempt to contest, genetic or merely ancestral rituals are meant to clarify the situation.
In human societies, particularly in ours which would like itself to be more modern in some respect, the need for assuming power over the other person seems to me more like a dysfunction, or even a disease, which are fully created by the behaviours induced by civilization. Uncertainty about one’s own power, as well as the conditionings exerted by all those already installed in the bosom of society bring about frustration and lead human beings to try to reconquer their power through words or even acts, trying where this power doesn’t lie, where they won’t find it, that is in the other person who anyway does not detain it. But on the other hand, it forces them mentally to take all the risks implied by this vain hope. The arising of such aggressivity is often due to a lack or deficit of one’s own power, whether admitted or not, that one tries to make up. Pressure undergone and felt, hence experienced as such, sometimes since early childhood brings in people the will to reappropriate what they feel intimately robbed of, deprived of, or even what they just lost. It makes them dangerous persons, merely due to their frustration. We can all understand and feel that kind of thing when helplessly faced to an administration, or when put under power by somebody against whom there’s apparently no possible opposition. From that point, there’s just one step to becoming aggressive, which some people take, while others manage to be reasonable, resign themselves because they have already accepted this state of domination out of habit and they daily undergo it. If a few people are only hardly moved, it’s because they have already overcome these difficulties and are not damaged in their own power, never having lost it or having already recovered it.
« It’s a case of the biter bit » says the proverb and this reversal of perspective is indeed what happens when seizing. We forget too easily that the one who is seizing becomes prisoner of what he has seized. He can’t get rid of it without risking to lose something in the process he has initiated. His freedom, if he has any at all, is now transferred to the one he thought he could detain or retain. He becomes a jailer to the other person, who will only think of getting free, who will put all his strength, intelligence, sometimes all his craftiness or even perfidiousness into it, because he is totally within his right and nobody can blame him for it. Our society generates this type of alienating behaviour in which both persons try to free themselves, one against the other, instead of moving to another dimension which would be more human, intelligent, and respectful of the this other person. Wanting to change these behaviours might seem utopic, yet if Aïkido exists and continues to be an art at the service of mankind, it is maybe to assert and demonstrate that, like others have already stated, other relations are possible between people and we aïkidokas are not the only ones who wish to continue in this direction.
Respiration, an answer to a specific situation
It is through ventral respiration and the calmness it brings about that one can find the immediate solution to some difficult situations. To prepare for that, it is not absolutely necessary to be an outstanding technician, or someone brave as a blizzard, or a very competent analyst but on the other hand there is need to recover this force which has taken refuge at the very bottom of our body, of our kokoro, or which even sometimes has been scattered in multiple defense systems. Trying to find a defensive solution in violent martial arts when faced with the awareness of our weakness, real or assumed, is just dodging the issue, seeking an alternative, or worse, forging ahead regardless. Aïkido, by its philosophy, suggests another direction but if this fails to be heard and above all understood, it may well cause Aikido to lose its justification, its singularity.
Attacks in Aïkido are just a way of setting a situation in order to enable practitioners to solve a problem, or even a conflict, which by the way puts them in opposition more with themselves than to with their partners. Seizings, for instance, often represent attempts to immobilize the body, therefore to block the other’s movement, through imprisonment of the wrists, arms, trunk, keïkogi or any other part which can be grabbed for this purpose. Sometimes, however, seizings may follow on from an attempt to strike that has failed. They are seldom solely a matter of blocking; considered in the perspective of a fight, they should almost always be followed by an Atemi or a final immobilization. They are only the first act, the first scene of a play which is much longer, if one may say so. It might seem paradoxical but it is through working on seizings that one will discover detachment.
Quite before seizing or hitting materializes, our sensibility is touched by something invisible even though very physical. This may be inexplicable as scientific knowledge currently stands, but this is something we know well, and even sometimes very well. That’s what makes us move, dodge, although we have seen nothing but simply felt it in an indefinable way. In order to give a clearer example, one which everybody has been able to verify in one way or another, in different circumstances, I would like to write about gazing. Gazing carries an energy, an extremely concrete Ki that our instinct can perceive. Haven’t you ever experienced, while taking a walk one evening or one night, feeling something indescribable behind you as if someone was gazing at you, watching you; you turn around, nobody there, and still the sensation lingers? The sensation, if you are not at peace, can turn into anxiety or perhaps trigger an « irrational-since-there’s-nobody » fear, when at the angle of the street behind a half-opened curtain you suddenly discover somebody observing you – or on an overhanging roof a cat watching you. The gaze of cats, and of animals in general, as well as the gaze of humans when intently observing something or somebody, carries an extremely powerful Ki. Our instinct can feel it, but it all depends on our state of mind at that moment. If we are talking with a friend, if we are lost in our thoughts after a love encounter for instance, our instinct, if not well-prepared, will have difficulty feeling this kind of things. The same obviously applies when we are worried, frightened or anguished, in this case all our being is somehow weakened, it loses its instinctive abilities.
Discovering the direction taken by Ki
Aïkido enables us to re-discover and conduct our instinctive abilities. It is thanks to a slow work on ourselves and our sensations that will appear again what we have often let go to sleep, rocked as we were by the comfort due to modern society which may seem so reassuring to us.
The work based on seizing corresponds, like everything we do in Aïkido, to a process of renewed learning and to a training of the body as a whole so that there will no longer be any separation between body and spirit. First of all, when our partner gets closer, there is no question of waiting kindly for him to seize us as requested, our whole body must feel the directions followed by the different parts of his body: arms, legs, his bearing points, all of this without looking, without observing, because it would already be too late. With unexperienced beginners, if the exercise is done slowly enough, they will be able to discover the routes taken by their partner’s Ki, the force lines. Since they work without any risk, they start again trusting the reactions and sensations of their bodies. During sessions, I don’t only show the techniques, I am constantly on the move, serving as Uke to one person, as Tori to another; without blocking them, I make them feel the direction their body must take by putting myself in the situation, making ki more material, by materializing the force lines, visualizing the openings they can use, while allowing them to act and respond as they will.
Discovering the Non-doing
Seizing can be a first step on the path that leads to what Lao Tseu and Tchouang Tseu would name Wu wei, the Non-acting, and it was the basis of my master Itsuo Tsuda’s teaching. How to teach what can’t be taught, how to show the invisible, how to guide a beginner or even an experienced practitioner towards what is the essence of the practice in our School? What is difficult to explain with words is easily understood when we let sensation guide us. To do so we have to take a few steps backward. To let go of our acquiring and piling up habits, those consumer reflexes of people always ready to fill up their trolleys with various products, techniques which are more or less modern, fashionable or old style, miraculous, easy and effortless, or even tough but efficient. Advertising is today the source of many illusions, luring its clients with colorful wonders of a world that has become so virtual. When will the new Wii console enable us to practice Aïkido with enhanced reality glasses and a partner whose potentiometer can be adjusted depending on our level, our shape, or our mood? But maybe I am behind and it already exists.
Seizing with Ki
Young children know and naturally use a certain way of seizing which is extremely efficient. It is a seizure devoid of any useless contraction. When they seize a toy they put all their ki into the act and when they let go of this toy they do it with complete indifference, there is no more Ki in it. On the other hand they have an incredible capacity when they don’t want to let go of what they have seized and are holding tight in their small hand. If this is something dangerous, their parents must sometimes unfold their fingers one by one, though their hand is so small and devoid of any true muscular strength as adults mean it. They know in a manner completely unconscious how to use Ki, they don’t need to learn, unfortunately they often lose this ability for the benefit of what is reasonable and most of the time education and schooling are responsible for this.
To learn again how to seize like a small child, without tension, and thus discover natural prehension. I often give as an example the way birds alight on a branch: they have skin micro-sensors in the middle of their paws which inform receptors which, thanks to these indications, stimulate reflex functions at the level of the involuntary, and give the order to their fingers to close as soon as they touch the branch. This manner of seizing avoids contortions, failures, and enables a very subtle adequacy of the members to the place caught (they catch). A quality seizure is a seizure which uses the palm of the hand as first contact, then the fingers close up on the object, the limb, the Keïkogi. If we act in this way, seizing is faster, without any excessive tensions, and it has remarkable efficiency, allowing therefore a good quality work with a partner.
The only seizures which respect the other one’s freedom are light but powerful, like for instance that of a small child who wants to take along one of his parents to look at a small frog he’s just seen in the tall grass and is curious about, or like that of two beings, friends or lovers, bound by tenderness and respectful of each other.
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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) april 2019.