In Search of Harmonious Ferocity
In Search of Harmonious Ferocity
Kara L. Stewart
The concern that the martial spirit of Aikido is in danger of being lost in some modern-day interpretations of O-Sensei’s original intent and how to save it for future practitioners was the theme of this two-day seminar led by Pat Hendricks Sensei, 7th dan, from Aikido of San Leandro, and Stanley Pranin Sensei, 5th dan, author and creator of Aikido Journal, who also teaches in his dojo near Las Vegas.
Over the two days, about 30 students from several states gathered on the mat at the ParadiseRecreationCenter to explore several ideas: how can we be more effective in our Aikido, and what can we do to maintain and enhance the essential martial spirit of Aikido?
There were so many good tips and comments that it’s difficult to capture them all. I also believe that some were meant to be shared once at the seminar and then allowed to settle into each Aikidoka’s practice in whatever way makes the most sense for the individual.
That said, there were a few key points that I took home—and took to heart. It’s interesting how each seminar I attend is always good and there are always new things to consider and learn. However, for whatever reason (perhaps thanks to the seminar kami) these two days brought light to some of the very things I’ve been focusing on in my practice.
The Mark of a Great Teacher
To me, the hallmark of great teacher is, of course, how much they know, but it is also about how much they care and where their teaching is coming from: heart or ego. Hendricks Sensei is the world’s highest ranking woman in Aikido and her teaching is firm and demanding but compassionate. Pranin Sensei is a vast resource of knowledge about Aikido and his desire is to help others understand it better. Over many hours with students from all levels, both Senseis shared their gifts in a strong but humble way.
As he was describing some of the things we are aiming for as Aikidoists, Pranin Sensei paused for a moment and then found these two words: harmonious ferocity. As serious Aikido practitioners of this MARTIAL art, our attacks must be committed and delivered with the full intent behind the strike or grab. Our techniques must spring from the intent behind the technique, whether it’s to pin, throw, or otherwise control our partner. Without this full-on and unwavering intent (ferocity), while blending with what our partner is offering (harmonious), it’s just movement, not Aikido.
Hendricks Sensei discussed the notion of expression in our Aikido, which first I understood as similar to zanshin—continued focus after a technique. She illustrated expression in a few more techniques and explained that it comes from energy and focus within the person that is then expressed outwardly. A martial artist with expression continues the focus and energy of one technique into the next, and it involves the body as a unified whole.
Good expression is congruent—it reflects what is on the inside, and it takes time to develop. As Hendricks Sensei said, Aikido is based on relatively simple movements, but they must be practiced thousands of times so they become part of us and we no longer think about executing them.
At the end of both days, she reminded us to “forget everything you did today. Your body will remember.”
As a key component of Harmonious Ferocity, our intent is crucial to developing good, strong Aikido. Strike with the intent to strike, and follow through with the strike. Do a technique with the full intent of what the technique is intended to do (pin, throw, control).
I was Uke a couple times for Pranin Sensei and I thought I was bringing the biggest martial spirit I could muster. The actual outcome? Not enough intent or intensity. He helped me bring so much more to my intent and ferocity so my martial spirit mirrors on the outside what I feel on the inside.
Hendricks Sensei also told us, “Don’t be square.” When we’re attacking, don’t let our shoulders and hips be square to our partner, but rather turn our body so we are “narrower.” This is the true meaning of the word “hanmi”—half body—and it prevents our partner from reading our intent.
Don’t give up if a technique doesn’t seem to be working. Keep the intent and the intensity. Don’t muscle it or force it, but keep movement and flow and feel for an opening.
Dead Zones and Power Zones
Pranin Sensei demonstrated the dead zone (the areas to the sides of Uke’s outstretched arms where he can no longer see or reach Nage) and the power zone (directly in front of Uke where he has ample ability to see and reach Nage).
In all our techniques, we need to stay out of Uke’s power zone or get to the dead zone. Irimi Nage is a great example of getting to the dead zone. If we have to be in the power zone, limit the time there and get to a safer place quickly.
At the end of the first day, Pranin Sensei had time for three students to ask a specific question of a technique they were having trouble with. I asked about the Ura variation of Ikkyo or Sankyo, as I feel I often don’t have leverage because Uke is taller than me. In my case and the two other students who asked a question, our techniques weren’t working because in different ways, we had not taken Uke’s balance.
So somehow, find a way to break Uke’s balance and break his structure. One way is to use “hiccups” or variations in the flow or application of the technique to create openings. Another very important way to take balance is atemi—giving Uke something to think about and disrupting his focus. Kiai is highly effective as atemi. Hendricks Sensei and Pranin Sensei encouraged us to use kiai much more, with great intent.
While we want to break Uke’s structure, as Nage we want to keep our structure intact. We can tend to move body parts independently instead of as a unified structure. Our entire body, not just our arms or hands, needs to do the technique. As Blevins Sensei says, “Ki ken tai ichi.” Spirit/sword/body as one. That is the unified structure we want to bring to our techniques.
For example, when pinning in Shomen Uchi Ikkyo, bring Uke’s arm to the mat with our body as a unified structure. Pin using the weight from our center and go to the mat as a connected unit, not pushing down on Uke’s arm, going to our knees, then pinning. Stay connected to ourselves.
Hendricks Sensei shared that perhaps the biggest piece of advice she can offer based on her years of training is to relax. Stiff, tight muscles or forcing a technique do not work and do not allow Aikido to happen. Our goal is martial relaxation…that state of an energy-filled yet relaxed (but not limp) body that can move any direction and direct Uke’s movement as well.
When we are relaxed, we have so much more power and effectiveness. I saw this when I finally let go of the tension in my shoulders. Pranin Sensei said also to realize how much movement we have at our disposal—hips, elbows, arms, shoulders, wrists, etc. Even tiny movements can make huge differences in effectiveness. Aikido is about movement in three dimensions, so take advantage of that, and keep moving.
Both teachers emphasized martial relaxation repeatedly during the two days—it is crucial to achieving better Aikido.
As martial artists, we ideally are training to be aware of each situation and be ready to change course depending on what is offered (on and off the mat). As Pranin Sensei shared, each technique is fresh, new, and different. Even if we’ve just done a technique several times, never assume that the next technique will be the same.
This applies equally well to Uke and Nage. Uke needs to go with what is being offered and not assume to know what technique is coming. Nage needs to be able to change things in a second to adjust to the situation.
By the same token, the newness inherent in each technique can improve our Aikido if we take each as an opportunity to improve upon the last one rather than going through the motions of a technique, over and over, merely repeating a pattern.
Also, always keep in mind the element of surprise. We can use this to unbalance Uke with atemi or by changing the technique. We can also keep our practices safer by working with what is actually presented, not what we expect to happen. For instance, if Uke responds in a way that’s “not expected” based on the assumed technique but the partner continues with the technique the way it’s “supposed” to happen, injuries can occur.
Taking it Back to Practice
The seminar was a great opportunity to add a bit more to my ongoing learning and continual appreciation of the very sound idea
s that Blevins Sensei teaches—essentially looking at our Aikido from a different angle of the same
perspective. It’s heartening to know that we are part of a larger community that shares the same spirit and desire to keep Aikido based in its strong martial roots, with knowledge passed on from great teachers.
My sincerest thanks to Hendricks Sensei and Pranin Sensei for sharing their time, their hearts, and their passion with us, and to the new Aikido friends who practiced with me and shared these two great days.