FROM EDITION 9 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – WINTER 2023
Levels of practice in Takemusu Aikido include (broadly), kihon waza / ki no nagare waza; henka waza / kaeshi waza; oyo waza; and ultimately takemusu aiki.
This is a brief exposition of the levels of Takemusu Aikido as I understand them. What can be appreciated is a clear progression in the above six levels from clear, and precise (kihon and ki no nagare waza) through to exploring the ability to change and be flexible (henka and kaeshi waza) to free and spontaneous response (oyo waza and Takemusu Aiki).
Generally our practice focuses on the first two levels and rarely on the last four advanced ones. Hence in the discussion below I will give these last four more attention.
Usually performed from a static start, they are the basic techniques in Aikido and are performed ritualistically (kata) from a variety of attacks beginning with grabs and progressing onto strikes. They are like the studying of the alphabet and the grammar system of a language.
This first level is by far the most important level as all subsequent levels, even though presenting challenges unique to themselves, are fundamentally built on the skills and knowledge acquired at this level. In practice there should be a clear balance between technique and principle and between stillness and movement. The ‘what’ of the techniques needs to be underscored by the ‘how and why’ of the principles of the art. These two (technique and principle) are like the wheels of a cart and both need to be trained from the start.
Ki no nagare waza
Basic technique performed in a flowing manner. If Kihon can also be considered as learning to stand and walk then this level is about being able to run and jump. The main issue here is about following and joining. The main challenge arises in breaking the three connections we have begun to develop at the previous level (the connections with the ground, our own bodies and with the other).
Henka waza are techniques where nage changes the technique depending on one of two
The technique being performed by nage ‘fails’ and hence is adjusted to either a variation of the same technique or a different one.
Uke resists or evades nage’s technique causing nage to follow up with a second technique.
Henka can be didactically built up from static through to flowing forms but the essence of its performance becomes manifest at the flowing level where the ‘change’ from one technique to another is seamless. There should be no deliberation but a feeling directly into the openings that are presented, as the pathways into the first technique are lost or blocked.
This is advanced level practice and requires a thorough knowledge of the techniques plus the developed ability to ‘stick’ and follow the changes in the encounter that require the change to a second technique.
Nage should not use force to achieve a result nor resistance to attempt to stop uke’s change.
Every structure or form has strong points and weak ones. Nage’s job is to follow uke’s changes and connect to his centre where he can finally neither resist nor escape through the weaknesses revealed in his movements. To do this requires sensitivity above all else and then, once centres are connected, kokyu (whole body power) to neutralise uke with a technique.
These are Aikido techniques used as counters to Aikido techniques. Originally they were taught only to senior instructors but nowadays have become part of the advanced level of the curriculum of techniques and practices.
As with henka waza where the essence is the ability to stick, flow and change with new conditions, kaeshi waza requires the same abilities, but now applied against nage by uke.
Kaeshi waza techniques, as with henka waza, can be performed in one of two ways:
Uke exploits a weakness in nage’s technique and enters with a technique of his own.
Uke provokes a weakness in nage’s technique thereby creating a window for his counter.
Kaeshi waza affords a deeper study into the techniques - with their individual inherent
weaknesses. A technique can be considered as a shape, with curves, corners and changes of direction. It is at the ‘corners’ and changes of direction that techniques become potentially open to failing and where counters can be applied.
Morihiro Saito Sensei would teach kaeshi waza this way: for example, ikkyo was first practised as usual and then Sensei would give examples of counters at progressive points of opportunity along the timeline of execution of the technique. For each technique studied in this way, three or four clear ‘windows’ of opportunity would be revealed sequentially.
This practice therefore is not just fascinating in its own right but deepens our understanding of the techniques themselves, allowing us to appreciate their weak points and therefore ‘seal’ them, making them stronger and in effect more difficult to block or counter.
This is the practical or ‘combative’ application of Aikido techniques. They are characterised by speed, technical brevity, the use of atemi (strikes) and a deep understanding of three strategic timings: go no sen, sen no sen and sen sen no sen (see Ethan Weisgard’s article on these distinctions in TAE Journal number 8).
A prerequisite for this level is that the aikidoka through their previous training has come to embody and is committed to non-resistance and connection as fundamental relational strategies and that their intention is not one of merely fighting and defeating the opponent but of sparing him. Oyo is not a departure from the principles that characterise Aikido as a unique martial art which goes beyond simply defeating an opponent. There is a choice being made here: Aikido techniques can be devastating but the choice is to control versus damage the opponent. That intention must not be lost at this level.
In oyo waza, atemi is used as a form of kuzushi where we distract or unbalance our attacker with a non-lethal strike allowing us to perform a technique. This technique is generally very brief and simple.
For example, consider nikkyo as a response from a kata dori attack. Performed at a basic level, nage moves to the side and rolls back, connecting to the forearm to set the wrist and elbow joints of the arm for the correct alignment required for the technique and ends with a dropping motion connecting to the attacker’s centre through his arm and whole body. In essence this step-by-step training of the technique teaches us the configuration and ‘shape’ of nikkyo, developing the technique from a merely wrist technique to a whole body technique which controls our attacker’s centre.
The oyo waza application of this technique from this same attack will involve an initial back fisted strike (ura-ken) to our attacker’s face as he connects with our shoulder. Simultaneously our other hand connects with his shoulder-gripping forearm. In this situation uke will reflexively flinch backwards after being struck loosening his grip. We stick to and follow his withdrawal, executing nikkyo in one motion, dropping him to the ground. The whole sequence of response in this case should be executed as one motion in less than a second.
However, if we do not ‘understand’ the essence of nikkyo from our basic training, practising oyo waza as such is meaningless. It should not be approached as sets of techniques to be memorised but as an understanding to be executed directly.
Consider nikkyo as the color royal blue and all possible variations as shades of this blue
(as distinct from all possible variations of ikkyo which we could designate with the colour yellow). No matter what the variation, it is ‘blue’. This ‘blueness’ which defines what makes nikkyo a nikkyo is what we need to gain through basic training. In oyo waza no matter the attack if nikkyo is suggested as a technique in the relationship that springs up in our response, it is that ‘blueness’ that we apply and not a set practised technique.
So this level can be practised through examples but in essence is an expression of our understanding of the basic levels. In a real situation we need to react instantly without thinking. There is no searching for techniques but a simple execution of them in a modified practical form. As the saying goes, ‘It does not matter if you are talented or not, it only matters if you are trained or not’. This level is all about the depth of your training.
A few last words on timing.
All events can be represented as a normal curve:
Everything appears with a beginning, develops to maturity and then subsides. In the above case intensity is represented by the height of the wave while duration is represented by the horizontal axis from left to right.
An attack can be understood using this analogy. The three basic timings refer to which part of the event (wave) we engage with.
If we are late and the attack has developed fully, we engage at the end as power begins to dissipate. This is known as ‘go no sen’. In essence the attacker has the initiative, and we seek to regain it following and drawing out his power.
If we engage within the attack, we enter while his power is at peak. This is risky as if we get the distances and angles wrong, we can bear the full brunt of his attacking power. However it is at this point that our attacker will be least able to change what he is doing. This is 'sen no sen'.
If we are able to perceive the beginning of the attack (the intention) then we can enter deeply to the left of the wave and forestall it. In this timing we take the initiative and do not allow our attacker to develop his. This is the preferred strategy whenever possible. This is 'sen sen no sen'.
These three timings along with a deep sensitivity to distance need to come into play instinctively at oyo waza level.
All of the above discussed comes to fruition at this level.
Take: martial techniques
Musu: to be born, the source of, the creative element
Aiki: the state of mind of the practitioner (harmonious, non-oppositional)
The techniques are examples of solutions to martial conflict situations but if we simply think that learning Aikido is a matter of memorising many techniques, this is a superficial approach. What we should seek is the genius and inspiration that is their source. We seek to embody Aikido itself. From that place - at source - we are in a position to spontaneously create techniques unique and appropriate to the situation at hand. This being able to create techniques fluidly and spontaneously as demanded by the situation is considered the highest level of Aikido: Takemusu Aiki.
In my opinion the essence of Aikido is not technical. The techniques are an ultimate and very visible expression of Aikido which, when deeply understood through practice, can lead us back to what gives them life and meaning, their source.
From this ‘place’ our ‘strategy’ will be one of absorbing and joining with the intent and movement of the other.
And the resolution will look like a technique.
At the beginning of our journey it’s all about struggling with ourselves (our bodies and minds) and the other and learning the vast corpus of the techniques. But as we learn to do less, get out of our own way and join with the other we come to see that the techniques are actually simple and constantly pointing us inwards towards simplicity.
The level of Takemusu Aikido is where the techniques have been embodied and their lessons learned, returning us to a simplicity and connection with all things. From this place our actions are Takemusu Aiki.
It can be appreciated that the six levels above actually resolve into three. The first two, kihon and ki no nagare, are where most of our daily training in the Dojo takes place. It is here at the most basic levels that all the techniques and principles are learned which form the subsequent base for the next four levels. Techniques at these levels are practised in a ritualised fashion and are known beforehand.
Henka and kaeshi waza are obviously very similar in that they both entail developing the ability to follow and change with changing circumstances. The practice is less fixed, being decided in relation to the attack or initial technique but opening with the change or counter.
Oyo waza and Takemusu Aiki are very close and both entail responding directly and unthinkingly from an unknown attack with a spontaneous response. The difference is subtle but, in my opinion, oyo waza is limited to a martial response while the response at the final level can be beyond what is normally understood as a martial technique. Being totally appropriate in neutralising aggression can take many forms.
"Aikido is not an art to fight with enemies and defeat them. It is a way to lead all human beings to live in harmony with each other as though everyone were one family. The secret of aikido is to make yourself become one with the universe and to go along with its natural movements. One who has attained this secret holds the universe in him/herself and can say, 'I am the Universe"