Sensei [Saito Sensei] always emphasized that Aikido was based on the use of sword and that the basics of Aikido (kihon) were where the focus of the training should be, for both beginners and seniors alike. He developed a reputation through his many international seminars, of putting a strong emphasis on basic technical training and although he would often show more advanced levels, many aikidoka, both within Takemusu Aikido as well as without, have come to equate this school of Aikido almost exclusively with the first level of strong solid basics (katai kihon).
However, this impression is incomplete in many ways. Takemusu Aikido includes all levels. In line with other Japanese traditional Budo and Bujutsu, the key elements for all the more complex and advanced levels are ‘encoded’ in the most basic practices and hence this is where most of the training takes place. What are these key principles that we need to access and develop in basic training? How do these principles relate to the more advanced levels? What are these levels and how do we make the qualitative shifts in ability to access them?
In learning basic technique at the solid static levels, we are not just learning techniques but are also learning good ‘body use’, balancing out our sense of physical presence by developing greater ‘grounding’ and ‘sense of back’, making distinctions between power based on contracting isolated muscular groups with power based on whole body coordination. And most importantly we need to be aware of, and work with, what we are doing with our minds from the very beginning. The physical sense of ‘grounded penness’ we are endeavouring to develop should go hand in hand with a similar settled yet expanded and relaxed state of alertness - and these body-mind states should be developed and tested under gradually increased pressure in the training process. These essential principles (and many others) should be emphasized from the beginning as their development form the foundation for all subsequent growth in Aikido.
In Iwama when Sensei would teach the more flowing forms (nagare and ki no nagare) and other advanced levels, he would employ a particular didactical method where he would isolate and emphasise the key points. We called this method 'semi-flexible' training in that the flowing form would be interrupted at various points in sequence to check it (position, angle, balance, atemi options etc).
The transitional didactic from basic static to flowing was in effect a mixture of two levels (For more examples of this check Volume 5 of the Traditional Aikido series by Morihiro Saito Sensei).
The fundamental levels are two, with the 'semi-flexible' level a didactical transition used between and within them.
A: static (kihon)
B: flowing (ki no nagare)
Each level can be further divided into two sub-levels which in practice tend to overlap:
A1. BASIC STATIC SOLID (KIHON KATAI)
At this level each step in the technique is associated with a pause which allows us to check and feel our position relative to the ground (footwork, balance, compression patterns and pathways), our physical structural alignment and our relationship to our partner (angles, distance, structural disturbance and balance break issues). Most of this training takes place at the 'holds' level of attacks (katate, morote, ryote, kata, ryo kata, mune dori). The practice takes place slowly and should develop whole body coordination, strength, flexibility and sensitivity as well as deepen into the Principles briefly touched upon above.
An important point here is that the 'pauses' are not 'empty'. The training is one of movement balanced with stillness, where the moments of 'stillness' are as important (if not more) than the ‘movements’ themselves. Whether we move or are still, our energy or 'ki' should remain dynamic and expansive while our awareness should remain uninterrupted and open (zanshin).
A2. BASIC STATIC SOFT/FLEXIBLE (KIHON YAWARAKAI)
This is a second level in the basic static forms, but while the emphasis on the first solid level is a sharp clear strong form with pauses, the second level aims to 'take the hard edges off' the techniques by softening and dropping the center of the power to the lower body and center. Techniques also tend to be done as one movement from a static start. The ‘whole-body’ coordination becomes more 'rounded out' and a shift begins to take place from emphasizing strength based on uncoordinated muscular contraction to kokyu ('whole-body-power rooted in the ground, directed from the center and expressed though the periphery').
'Semi-flexible' This is the didactical teaching method that links the static with the flowing forms as described briefly above.
B1. BASIC FLOWING (NAGARE)
It is important to begin this level slowly and focus on good movement and body use (tai sabaki), connection and blending (awase), balance control and balance breaking (kuzushi). Speed and power come later and are not to be emphasized at first. Too often this level is done without these key points in mind and the practice becomes an aerobic weak and meaningless 'choreographed running around and falling over' kind of aikido: much movement but weak or absent connection with uke who is often thrown from positions where his balance has not been compromised and his center not controlled. When our practice would degenerate in this way in Iwama, Sensei would bring us right back to the basic static level.
The flowing level is not simply the basic level in movement without breaks from a flowing contact start, but involves technical details as far as changes in footwork, handwork, angles and distances, etc. Atemi that were emphasized in the basic may disappear or take other forms. Another prerequisite for useful practice at this level is the development of the yawarakai, 'softer' quality at the second static kihon level both as uke as well as nage This quality easily translates to flowing forms. While one is at the 'hard' static first level (katai) transitioning directly to flowing forms is usually very difficult with the practice usually breaking down in terms of connection and fluidity of movement.
Nagare level practice is the most common form of regular aikido practice among different contemporary styles and schools.
B2. ADVANCED FLOWING (KI NO NAGARE)
At this level all the principles of connection and center control have been minimally understood and internalized. Perhaps not to the extent that one can perform techniques in this ideal way consistently, but in the sense that when these basic principles are not being adhered to, one immediately feels their absence and is thus able to make corrections. The focus on this level is much more the 'felt sense' of the interaction. Hence the 'energetic' aspects become prominent. This is the level one often admires in senior practitioners and teachers when they seem to hardly exert any effort yet control opponents convincingly and gracefully.
Ki no nagare techniques typically are 'simpler, faster and more direct. Nagare techniques are ‘denser’ and ‘longer’ as far as contact and duration. In ki no nagare the physical contact between nage and uke is minimal and in some cases even absent. The ‘energetic’ felt sense of connection however required for these advanced techniques should be deep and unbroken.
In practice a distinction is not always made between these sub-levels within static and flowing technique, however the distinction becomes clear with experience and sensitivity.
Once the basic technical repertoire has been developed through the above fundamental levels then other areas of technique and practice become accessible and although for teaching purposes, they can also be broken down using the semi-flowing teaching method, these advanced levels are normally practiced at the second flowing level (nagare and ki no nagare).