Saturday, June 19, 2004

Observations of Silent Aikido

[Note: Those of you who don't train in Aikido, or any other martial art may find the following rather tedious... H/C]

Each year, on the anniversary of the passing of O Sensei, North Texas Aikido conducts a “silent class.” No student may talk from the time they bow at the threshold of the dojo until once again back outside. A kiai, laugh or moan (as the situation warrants) is considered acceptable, and certain allowances are made for the person assigned to handle incoming calls or visitors; but no verbal communication is otherwise allowed.
For the first few years, this typically made me uncomfortable and left me with an awkward frustration. I have been – and continue to be – the sort of student who tends to learn best by explaining and demonstrating to others. My methods have usually been to use analogies – flowing water, inflating balloons or anything that suddenly comes to mind, and I’ve rarely hesitated to expound on them at length to my usually long-suffering kohai during training. Training partners who don’t respond well to one visualization technique to understand the intricacies of tae no henko are frequently barraged by dozens of others in my zeal to help them understand some abstraction I’m trying to convey to them, and by extension, comprehend more deeply myself. Consequently, during these early silent classes, I would maintain a constant internal dialog, spending the entirety of class scripting out how best to file away the information I was receiving, and more importantly – I thought – how to explain it to others. I would focus more on the deprivation of speech, than any deeper lesson that might come as a result. As I’ve begun to mellow with maturity, I have come to realize the value of these quiet times, both internal and external, and have strived to still my tendency to try and package everything with words.

Shut Up and Train

My Sensei, Russell Alvey of North Texas Aikido, has a sign, which occasionally gets posted on the bulletin board in our small kitchen area. It reads simply, “Shut Up and Train.” There is usually no explanation associated with the sign, nor is it ever specifically pointed out during or after class, yet we all get the message: less talk, less discussion and more actual performance of the demonstrated techniques. It has been during the “gentle reminders” in general, and the somber atmosphere of our silent classes in particular that I’ve made some of my more profound leaps of understanding in my own Aikido training. The inherent problems of overanalyzing technique through discussion become increasingly apparent during the silent sessions. As a result, I’ve endeavored to better understand the qualities of silent training that engender a more personal and valuable training experience.

What Color is Blue?

To a colorblind individual, or someone otherwise visually impaired, “blue” is an abstract concept. No amount of description or expository prose on the subject will make them understand the qualities of hue, tint, shade or the refraction of light that – we who can see – call “blue.” So, too it is with aikido techniques. Certainly we can instruct a student to “stand in this fashion” and “hold your hands up this way,” but the internalization must be through personal discovery. Sensei tells us that we cannot have his Aikido, nor he his sensei’s. That is to say that what we take away from his classes must be our own. No amount of explanation can make our techniques exactly like his. No deep philosophical discussions or metaphorical analogies can make us feel exactly what he feels when performing techniques. Frequently, I stumble when trying to explain what Ki feels like when extended. Words don’t adequately convey the sensation, and all my attempts seem shallow and imprecise. This brings me to my next point.

Making Other People Wear My Filters

If I tell a new student, “you will feel a certain way when you do the technique correctly,” I may be inadvertently prejudicing them towards frustration and failure. What I feel during the execution of my technique is deeply personal and is a result of my current level of understand and training in Aikido. Another student at the same level may feel completely different sets of cues and feedback while doing the technique, even though physically performing the same actions. Frustration may set in for the newer student who may not experience what I describe at all, yet performs the technique properly for his or her level. He or she may feel an expectation put on them that a technique isn’t correct unless they experience the sensations I’ve described. Any other personal feedback or physical cues might be interpreted as irrelevant and discarded. As a consequence, a newer student may struggle with the conflicting information between my description and his or her personal feedback.
I experience and understand Aikido through the filters of my own background experience, culture, beliefs and level of training. If learning Aikido is a journey, then asking a fellow student to focus on the view from my vantage point only serves to diminish their appreciation of the vista from their own mountain.

Tuning out the Static

When faced with a silent class, I am forced to quit forming questions for my Sempai and rather concentrate on the subtle shifts of balance and ki. Careful observation of the demonstrated technique to glean the proper foot position and shape of the movements become paramount. Interpretation of the ukemi to see how the uke’s balance has been affected gives rise to understanding of the direction of the throw. Eventually, the static of internal dialog – the constant buzzing of words and phrases in my mind to describe the motions for later use – give way to a more serene, yet more intense physical focus on the techniques themselves. “Direct transmission” of technique through ukemi, concentration on the manipulation of balance, and blending with my partner begin to transcend spoken communication. Physical emulation takes place instead of rationalization. Rather than limiting technique by vague verbal description, the information bypasses my filters and is absorbed directly. I’ve head this referred to as “muscle memory.” When working with kohai, I am forced to be very clear in the performance of technique, to convey physically the essence of what is expected. I am compelled to demonstrate technique without ego or excuse, without explanation or exposition, without the frustrating inadequacies of mere words. I and my filters have been removed from the equation and only the aikido remains. There is a purity I experience in these classes – a distillation of information into its most elemental form. For a brief moment, my partner and I experience communication on a much deeper and sincere level. Because blending with each other’s motion is so paramount to mutual safety and understanding, it becomes more instinctual than instructed. Without the interruptions associated with verbal direction, ukemi becomes more personal and fluid, flowing rather than halting at preset points. The tendency to overanalyze techniques is washed away by the sweat of actually performing them, and questions tend to give way to revelation.


Following these all-too-rare classes, there is a reinvigoration of the excitement I felt when I first began taking classes and everything about Aikido was new and mysterious to me. My fellow students seem similarly energized, as well. Outside, after the class has ended and the restriction of silence is lifted, there is a quiet reverence that still hangs palpably in the air. No one wants to be the first to break the spell of silence as we make our way back to our daily lives. We smile and nod quietly to each other, as though we’ve shared some great secret, some bond of brotherhood that will forever enrich our experience in Aikido and the world around us.



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