TAE Journal, Edition 7: The Outer Journey – Refining Basic Structure. By Ginny Breeland
FROM EDITION 7 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2021
When we study the evolution of any movement discipline we can observe a natural progression that begins with the outer structure. As we observe the development of the exterior, we acknowledge the obvious principles that we can view and improve upon. Goals can be daunting, so work incrementally. I view these small steps as success.
This was my approach. At 152 cm/47 kg I felt extremely disadvantaged. I thought often, throughout my training, of quitting. The incremental approach was the only thing that kept me present in attendance. Things like perfecting only the opening move, having perfect hanmi while the rest of the technique fell apart, and searching to make excellent the things I could control, was my study. Things slowly fell into place, and as decades went by, I understood the importance of basic foundation, structure, and practicing to perfect the physical outer core.
I discovered that small steps actually carry a lot of weight, they create a subtle momentum toward discovery. This process also quietly imbues our life with an opportunity to practice the capacity to endure and persevere. The resulting empowerment serves diligently, it nurtures a care and conscientiousness applicable both on and off the mat.
Three Components Essential to the Outer Structure. Central Axis, Alignment, Extension.
The central axis serves as an 'unwavering steel'. It is a plumb line through the middle of the body, built upon the vertical axis to gravity. It is a valuable landmark because it helps us accurately assess our position. It solidifies centering and keeps posture intact. Poetically, it connects to the Earth's center and extends towards the Heavens. We extend down to ground, we extend up to lengthen. When we move, this axis shifts to the leg that is most stable. Feel this central midline axis from the arches of the foot to the crown of the head. The central axis rotates but rarely ever wavers or tilts. Our precise hanmi helps maintain central axis stability.
We can check if our central axis accidentally wavers or tilts by remaining aware and/or by using a mirror to check. It is not an uncommon thing to move first with the upper body- it is a habitual error frequently seen. If we mindfully move with the center, we can keep the axis vertical and straight. If we check repeatedly and correct, the body will eventually remember the 'feel' and the problem will easily be extinguished.
Correct alignment provides the ability to bear the force of a load along the length of the body structure. The strongest body position occurs when the joints are aligned. Here, the body can withstand large amounts of weight, crucial for the smaller practitioner. Multiple times I have toppled over as a result of misalignment. When we do techniques we can sense whether we are out of alignment when we choose to move slowly.
Teaching solidified this concept for me as I had to support much larger ukes (who had incorrectly surrendered their entire weight to me) while I taught. I eventually learned to balance this weight, dissipating it into the ground. Correct alignment provides a distinct mechanical advantage through its efficiency and economy of movement.
Energy delivered through a supportive alignment increases force, especially with a good degree of forward momentum. Energy received with correct alignment distributes and dissipates impact more 'evenly' sending it into the ground. If incorrectly aligned, impact will be received in the misaligned structure – often located in the shoulder, the back, or the knee. If this happens repeatedly, it may result in a chronic painful condition.
Extension is first experienced through the arms. It feels like a 'lengthening'. As we practice, we learn that it can occur throughout the body along specific 'alignments'.
We extend the arms into the fingers and beyond. We extend the legs into the feet and below.We can extend and feel projection through the back and chest. We can even extend through the breath. Without extension, body movement may appear to be 'empty', lacking, or without substance. Extension is the crucial 'invisible' factor that can allow us to feel much bigger than our actual 'physical selves'. Extension opens the door to expansion.
For myself, training aiki weapons was a key factor in understanding this elusive principle. I am personally thankful that in the Iwama curriculum we learn weapons at the same time we learn empty handed technique.
Weapons training was the first 'tool' that gave me the notion of correct body movement. I especially loved it because it was self-correcting. I will expand upon this later.
The Unified, Coordinated, Whole Body
All these features are enmeshed in the unified external body. In aikido we practice whole body coordinated movement. This allows us to move smoothly, accurately, efficiently, with a clarity that is friendly to the eye. Coordinating the upper and lower body can be difficult, but when we break down movements, we can see that it is just a series of simple moves. This principle provides a conceptual framework for all of our movement. The unification of (relaxed) posture, structure, and (strong) base maximizes efficiency (especially if our techniques are sound).
The experienced, relaxed practitioner may notice that this coordinated feel is actually more like a 'ripple' or a 'wave'. At this point it is hoped that no conscious energy needs to be spent in maintaining the correct, coordinated, unified body. When we reach this point externally the study pertaining to the mind with intention is suddenly open for inquiry and exploration.
The Amazing Concept or Riai
Riai refers to an underlying 'truth'. The movement principles in Traditional Aikido describe taijutsu, bokken, and jo as an integrated system connecting weapons with body technique. Delving into this concept catapulted my learning.
The information riai taught my body was so overwhelming it was initially difficult to organize. Riai informed and reinforced body structure and revealed a sound sense of exterior space. Riai solidifies extension, expansion, aligning, centering, and grounding. When we strike the aiki weapon all these components come together. And since, “Neurons that fire together, wire together” - quote by psychologist D. Hebb, when we practice empty handed techniques while referencing aiki weapons, we bring all these concepts into correct form.
Years passed under this influence. Other aspects like committed and decisive movement - namely the ability to move in 'irimi' with no hesitation (since my sword was always 'in my hand') improved. This was always difficult with the mental limit of feeling smaller. Taijutsu became sharper, and I actually enjoyed being as precise as possible. This was my own study. After participating in a few 'katori infused' seminars with Tetsutaka Sugawara Sensei, my centerline transformed markedly: it became a 'center wall'. I felt bolder and carried these new found senses into my daily practice.
Weapons work and Riai are beautifully elegant, efficient, and profoundly consistent. My learning increased exponentially and I was constantly in awe.
Movement From the Center
This is such a simply stated principle, but so hard to actually embody. For years I knew it only cerebrally (much to my chagrin), I thought I knew it with the body, but alas, when it was finally felt, I was floored.
Moving from the center is a learned skill, - actually it is a 'relearned' skill. If we look at very young children we notice movement from their arms actually starts from their torso. They have no tension at all, they are relaxed and move with a joyful freedom.They even breathe with their torso. As we grow older, we accumulate tension and stiffness, we lose the joyful feel, we breathe from the chest and up, and our minds are constantly stressed or distracted. We move less, we sit more, this is how we lose the mind/body connection. When we move the upper body goes first, with no thought of center. We see older people shuffle, with no connection at all - even to the lower torso. Since movement should emanate from the center, some of us have to relearn what we use to unconsciously do.
My 'aha' moment occurred when I was watching a documentary on bullfighting on TV. They had close-up, slow motion footage of the matador skillfully turning/evading the bull. His beautifully exaggerated posture was perfect – he moved from his center with such a clarity I had never noticed or seen. But there it was: 'movement from the center'. Amazing.
A flood of memories came. My Sensei, Hans Goto, had a model of a bullfighter in his dojo for a time. He even spoke of this. I am sure I nodded like I knew – but obviously, I did not.
Why did it take years to fully understand? I thought I knew. Apparently knowing things cerebrally is not the same as experiential knowing. There is a body wisdom, a body “brain” of sorts.
We should always keep ourselves in check and reexamine exactly what we might 'think' we know. This was a very good lesson for me. I retreat back into humbleness. I applied this epiphany to everything in my practice. Still, I shake my head.
I cannot describe the solidification it produced.
When we work to solidify the exterior physical form many discoveries lie in store for us. What I describe is just one way to approach. Of course there are other ways. I can only describe my own experience. Mine is a more linear approach in shaping to correct basic structure and foundation. There are many other refinements I did not share that will be revealed with the conscious choice to avidly 'study'.
The journey begins with the 'outer'.
We start with form, shape, and mechanics. Like musicians, we practice scales “in aeternum”. Constantly practice basics. Perfect the external structure and form. Create it, reinforce it, and then refine it.
About Ginny Breeland:
Starting Aikido in 1978 at Napa Junior College (California) under William Morris, she later trained with Dennis Tatoian Sensei before spending 20+ years with Hans Goto Shihan (both early students of Morihiro Saito Shihan). She began teaching in the 1990s as Goto Sensei's Assistant instructor.
In 2006, immediately after visiting Iwama, Ginny co-founded Cotati Aikido with her husband, Pete Breeland. She began creating instructional videos for youTube in 2010 and started writing for a Facebook page, ‘Aikido Advice for Women ... and a few men’. She has taught and trained at venues in Northern California- including the TAA Gasshuku near Lake Tahoe; Tuscon, Az; Sarasota, Fl; and Chiappas, Mexico.