Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Levels of Aikido practice

In the beginning of 2005 Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros sent an email in which the structure and the rationale of Iwama style Aikido are described. The content is clear, crisp and a very worthwhile reading for Aikido practitioners in general and Iwama people in particular. The following is part one in which levels of practice are described.

Levels of practice and their rationale

Three fundamental levels of practice:
1. Basic (kihon), step by step. Balancing movement with stillness. Clarity and precision of form , distance and timing (maai). Uncovering the Principles behind the Techniques.
2. Semi-flowing. Integration and joining of the basic steps in a flexible way. Engaging the Principles. Working with obstacles.
3. Flowing (ki no nagare). While retaining the 'heaviness' and clarity of the previous levels. Expressing the Principles through the techniques. Emphasis more on 'feeling' than form.

Each of the above levels are in turn flexible in that they can be broken down and put together in different ways according to individual and group didactic requirements.

Level 1 remains the primary and most important level. It is at this level that the lack of body-mind integration and habitual patterns of misuse and tension can be engaged and brought into conscious awareness.

Aikido dynamics are based on natural movements and at the basic level the work is twofold: learning the myriad forms and techniques of the Aikido repertoire and unlearning patterns of dysfunctional misuse on both the mental and physical levels which stand in the way of the free execution of those forms. To the degree that we remain unaware of this second 'unlearning' aspect of training will the techniques stubbornly resist our efforts at improving their quality beyond a certain point (the 'plateau' or the 'wall'). They will simply and faithfully reflect the fact that 'we do as we are'.

The more flowing levels should emerge from a maturing of the training at the first level. So while we should not reach beyond our level prematurely neither should we ignore the direction the practice takes and it's larger perspective. Otherwise the danger is of becoming confined to the basic level thinking that is all there is ( a common misapprehension among aikidoka's superficially acquainted with Saito Sensei's Aikido) and what should serve as a basis and solid foundation for further growth and expansion becomes a restriction and confinement. At this point the basics no longer serve as a platform for developing freedom of responsiveness but have become practices which reinforce defensiveness and reactivity. This is a common problem and represents an incomplete understanding of the progressional levels of the practice and of the purpose of basic training itself.

Having said that, it should be made clear that basic or kihon training, whether for beginners or senior practitioners, constitutes the main practice. It is the foundation for all other training and the ground to which we return to work on weaknesses when uncovered on other levels. But it is the understanding or 'operational framework' within which we practice which will determine whether those basics serve us or not in developing the ability to respond freely without becoming trapped by positions (both physical and mental).

The common tendency to identify and invest our sense of self with 'what we can do' seriously hampers our ability to grow beyond and challenge those positions. The great Tai Chi master Cheng Man Ching put it succinctly as follows. One's attitude in approaching the Art should ideally be one of 'investng in loss'.

This understanding of levels (and how they can be used) is a key feature of the Aikido that Saito Morihiro Sensei transmitted from O Sensei in his teaching and runs as a common thread through the whole system, from bukiwaza to bukidori to taijutsu. Please refer to Volume 5 of Saito Sensei's Traditional Aikido series for more insight into this.

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