Sempai (solo) - Now rouse her right up boys, for Tokyo town
Kohai (chorus) - Go waay, waaay, throw the man down
Sempai (solo) - We'll choke his butt out then throw the man down
Kohai (chorus) - Oh give me kuzushi and slam the man down
.......... Waaay Ho and slam the man down
.......... Slam the man down boys, slam the man down
.......... Oh give me kuzushi and slam the man down
Sempai (solo) - We fall on tatami of local dojo
Kohai (chorus) - Hi, ho throw the man down .......
............ Sung to the tune of a Merchant Marine Chanty, circa pre-1890's ....
When I first left my old dojo years ago and was asked to open my own dojo and begin teaching independently I approached a YMCA and used their gymnastics floor and then later, when I had the chance to open a stand-alone dojo I worked with people with engineering experience and designed a floor based on an old Kodokan design. We built it 45 by 50 feet and put canvas and Olympic foam mats on top of a wood frame topped with plywood; but the part that mattered the most was the suspension system, 800 specially designed steel springs, custom drawn and spun to a uniform draw weight to support the floating floor. Some folks use valve springs and I've even seen designs that used blocks of foam between the lower and upper plywood layers or even car tires laid on their sides.
Regardless of the exact design of the floor the fact remains that in order to learn Aikido (or any throwing art form) you absolutely must do two things and do them consistently over a sufficiently long period of training time. First, have a floor that will let you throw (and be thrown) hard, with vigor (force) and second, use it for regularly scheduled powerful ukemi practice and not just for walking, rolling, some half-hearted "soft” ukemi/floating leaf falls on it.
Sound repetitive? Yes it is; that’s the importance of ukemi, real ukemi and not some geriatric version.
I've been to many dojo of the kind my ex-Sensei referred to as "country dojo", as opposed to what he referred to as "professional dojo". While he never spent much time expanding that discussion topic, I and others interpreted his remarks as setting forth the difference between a dojo that approaches everything as soft and slow (almost like a form of soft, geriatric Aikido) and one that has a more serious, powerfully dynamic, "take another 100 ukemi and throw a little harder please" approach.
Looking back on it now, years after leaving his tutelage, I now realize several things possible about his avoiding (for the most part) this topic and the protestations (and indeed arguments from proprietors of “country dojo”) it can create;
- First, you have to have a good falling surface and the simple fact of the matter is that most dojo simply don't and never will. They train anywhere they can whether that be in the back area of a BJJ school or on folding mats at a gymnasium or gymnastics school or they use crude wrestling mats like those at a dojo that I ran a seminar at years ago; dirty, hard, punishing. They do the best they can but pro-level facilities are just beyond their resources.
- Second, most of their student population is older or off the bad end of the BMI tables. Old, overweight players can't take the physical punishment so the entire curriculum is slowed down to something that could be called "NHB" (Nursing Home Budo).
- Third, they teach a fluid crowd. That is, they find it difficult to retain more than one or possibly two senior ranks, so for the most part no one sticks around long enough to develop really high-level ukemi ability which retards the development of those who actually do hang around.
- Lastly, they follow the "internal power" ideas and "soft off-balance" ideas to the point that they forget to do Aikido; instead, training incessantly in arcane exercises designed to teach internal power while barely moving their feet and developing overly cooperative ukes. They become wonderful at holding hands but unable to do dynamic Aikido.
Any one of these ideas can (and did all those years ago) create arguments, as the Sensei from any dojo that fits one or more of these "country dojo" descriptions will protest since they view themselves as teaching "real Aikido". The first three I certainly understand (and understand well) since I started at a community ed center myself with really bad folding mats on concrete floors but we still found a way to do better and threw hard onto crash pads and also worked on fast and hard attacks and kuzushi but pulled back just before we blew uke into the floor.
Bottom-line; we do what we can with what we have at hand. I consider myself lucky to have a large, professional-level dojo with the best falling surface possible. Others don't have my resources and if I didn't have them I'd probably have a dojo less than half the size I have now and would with a small group of dedicated players but I would still do dynamic Aikido and would still require everyone to throw hard and take hard ukemi; even if I had to aim their flying corpses at crash mats on the other side of the room.
The impact of ukemi (bwaha … small pun) will, over time help develop a strong, adaptable (to stress) and resilient body; one that can take a lot of punishment while enabling the uke (the "receiver") to simply get back up and keep going. Sensei used to say, and I find myself repeating him in this regard, that each and every time you fall (get thrown) every single muscle, tendon, ligament and organ in the body, including the connective tissue and fascia receives a very brief but powerful isometric tension, even the eyelids, that strengthens the body in its entirety. It gives you what he used to call a "hard body" as your innards' strengthen to meet the performance demands put upon them.
I also believe (although he never addressed this aspect) that when we are thrown we briefly hold our breath which serves to "pressurize" the body from the inside out, strengthening the circulatory system with the temporarily increased pressure. This has been described before by researchers including Moshe Feldenkrais in his writings on Judo. Plus tactically, we don't really want to fully exhale as we hit the floor since the person throwing us could land on top, crushing our chest, and aside from pushing any last air out of our lungs, totally compress the rib cage and break ribs since the chest is not momentarily locked, but is instead collapsing.
So what else can taking dynamic and powerful throws teach us, and give us ability in? How about this:
- When you learn how to take falls as they are honestly and powerfully thrown you begin to learn an intuitive feel for countering those throws because you know when the throw is there, and when it is not. You learn to intuitively feel the difference between him controlling your balance and posture or only seeming to.
- When you train, and you are thrown by your uke honestly (and not as pre-arranged "jumping" or "dropping down") then you in-turn get to throw him so you practice both the tori and the uke side and gain a deeper understanding of both, and what each feels like as the "giver" and the "taker" (person throwing and person being thrown).
- Once you fully understand these aspects then randori takes on a whole new level of sophistication. If you attack and he attempts a waza using little to no kuzushi then you immediately sense it on an intuitive level and you simply "walk out" of anything he does. Frustrating for him perhaps but it pushes him to clean up his movements and it makes you "unthrowable" in the sense of every legendary martial artist you ever read about who had control of "internal power".
- Every time he hits that off-balance you absorb the shock and develop the ability to redirect that impact whether it be a kuzushi, an atemi or an attempt at a joint lock. As your body learns to absorb it, it adapts and controls the attacker via tai sabaki and self-control of posture and self-control of internal power (position of spine, muscle tension, etc.)
- You learn the ability to push his power back into him. The simplest example would be he takes kuzushi and enters for wakigatamae so instead of resisting, you intuitively follow his power and motion and "feed" him the armbar and take Gedan-ate or Sukui-nage. By learning to not resist, by learning to relax which in turn better enables you to absorb his energy you become able to combine his energy with your energy and throw him with less effort than you could have otherwise.
So the question should also be posed; should you ever do "soft" Aikido and study little intricate, slowly developed ideas of "soft off balance" and "soft touch" Aikido?
Of course. That's all part of the broader picture in my view. However, the "soft" side without throwing dynamically is only a small part. Even people like Ueshiba who was reported to have once commented that he got to be as good as he was after 60 or so years of hard training used the bigger picture of start hard and end up soft. Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei: “I am what I am because I trained hard style for 60 years. What can you do?”
Many Aikido players, being raised only on a diet of "soft touch" never learn these basic ideas and thus their Aikido is forever flawed to a certain extent due to their never having experienced what true dynamics can be.
Go find a mat and ask your partner in geiko to slam you into the mat, and in return, you to him as you both sing a couple of choruses of a sea chanty.
L.F. Wilkinson Kancho
The Aikibudokan, Houston, TX