When you give yourself, you receive more than you give.
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY
The act of giving a gift is a far more complicated undertaking than it might first appear. At a glance, it seems to be a fairly one-sided affair. You decide to give someone a gift, you spend time thinking about them, you acquire the gift and pass it along. Done. But we all know that it is not as simple as that. Truly successful gift-giving, gift-giving that matters, gift-giving that speaks volumes about the connectedness of two people, involves a more complex interaction. It is not a simple process of following steps as you might when following a recipe. It depends on a more subtle interplay between the intent and thoughtfulness of the giver along with the receiver’s ability to perceive that intent and react appropriately. It is this role of the receiver that is often lost on people. Almost by definition, truly meaningful gift-giving actually requires an open and committed gift-receiver. As children, our parents teach us to receive gifts with humility, appreciation and attentiveness to the person giving us the gift. If we do not learn to be sensitive to the gift-giver, if we are continuously reckless in the receipt of gifts — inattentive, careless or self-centred — we grow into adults incapable of genuinely giving gifts, incapable of creating rich and beautiful experiences for others. And so it is with Aikido. Here too, I am reminded of Shioda Gozo’s famous idiom: “Aiki soku seikatsu (合気即生活).” Aikido and life are one and the same. One’s effectiveness in Aikido parallels one’s effectiveness in gift-giving. Both depend in large part on learning to be a sensitive receiver. In fact, it is a cliché in Aikido circles that if you want to become good, the most important thing is to become a good uke — a good receiver. When performing the role of uke, if you are too compliant, shite’s application of the technique will be fake. If you are too stiff, the technique will be too rough. It takes concentrated and correct practice for uke to find the precise balance between cooperation and resistance, between open-minded sensitivity and self-directed dance. It is only when uke has mastered this balance between cooperation and resistance that they can begin to deepen their grasp of the application side of the techniques — the role of shite.
Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart.
This process is something of a hurdle for Aikido as a martial art and for new students in particular. When people first enter the dojo they are primed to learn physical skills that can be applied in fairly short order and which will result in a successful defence against a physical attack. They are typically partnered with another member of the dojo and a relatively simple pre-arranged attack and defence is learned. Et voilà, the journey begins. It is not long, though, before some new students start to question the prescribed movements of uke — why do I have to step that way, grasp this way or turn that way? These are great questions; questions which deserve valid responses. Traditionally, beginners are told that the movements they are being asked to make in response to shite’s movements are “natural” movements. The problem is that, although most beginners seem satisfied with this explanation, it is not entirely true. To begin with, the traditional explanation implies that every attacker would make the same movements. While I agree to a certain extent with this, I also disagree. I agree, of course, in the sense that I can see the fundamental principles — the riai (理合) — of the technique at work in uke’s prescribed movements. But I do not agree that these movements are entirely “natural.” As a teacher, I have seen far too many beginners who, when left to their own devices, grab and turn and step in ways that are not prescribed by the technique. This alone leads me to think that uke’s pre-set movements are not completely natural. Rather, I feel that uke’s movements are essentially learned movements resulting from the kata-based approach to our training. Now, I do not want to give the impression that I am against kata training. I actually think it is generally a well thought-out and sound format. But we have to guard against creating justifications that simply do not make sense. In this light, if we recognize that uke’s movements are not entirely “natural,” the obvious question becomes: Why, then, do we insist that uke step here and move there in response to shite’s movement? What exactly is the point? In terms of our training methodology, I can think of several, progressively more elusive, answers.
This is perhaps the most obvious rationale for learning uke’s prescribed movements. Of course, you will need to learn “to receive” (ukeru — 受ける) techniques and fall safely if you are to have any longevity in Aikido. Learning to take the “proper” uke will first and foremost ensure your own physical safety.
- Learning Shite’s Movement
Another valid reason for following uke’s pre-set movements at the beginning stages of learning is to gain experience with shite’s movements. The idea of moving in harmony with shite as they apply the technique, playing your part in the kata, is also meant to bring you to a better understanding of the direction, power, and timing of the techniques themselves. In kata-based training, it is felt that your enhanced understanding of what the technique is supposed to feel like as uke will bring you better insight into just how the technique is meant to work when performing the role of shite.
An important point here is that we are often told to relax as uke, to get out of shite’s way and not impede their performance of the technique. This skill of relaxing, not being stiff, is critical to the development of skill in Aikido and it is more easily learned as uke than it is as shite. This is, again, a difficult point for new students. They joined Aikido expecting to learn how to deal with conflict and then they find that the key to training effectively is relaxed non-confrontation! It is important here for beginners to understand that the training method is a process and that by following it and staying true to it, the skill they are seeking will develop. But it is just as important for teachers to be able to articulate this process so that students can see the endpoint and work confidently towards it.
- Sensing Shite’s Intent
In the process of gift-giving, we have seen that the receiver must be able to respond more to the giver’s intent than the actual gift. This is what we mean when we say: “It is the thought that counts.” While it may seem to be an obvious point, it is worth noting that a response to the gift-giver’s intent requires that we actually recognize their intent. This too is the same with Aikido. Responding to shite’s intent requires that we are actually able to perceive it.
The goal of sensing shite’s intent brings us to the deepest and most important levels of the study of uke. By methodically and diligently practicing to reduce the timespan between shite’s movement and your authentic reaction as uke, you can steadily develop a more acute sensitivity to shite’s intent, an intuition of the possible courses of action and a preparedness for each. This requires complete focus on shite and a fullness of physical, mental and spiritual commitment. It also requires time. It will not happen overnight.
If you read any account from someone who was a live-in student for their teacher for an extended period of time you will find them talking about this very point. Complete and all-consuming focus on their teacher brought them to a point where they could anticipate their teacher’s every intent. For reference and understanding of this point I highly recommend reading Jacques Payet Shihan’s wonderful account of his time as uchideshi for Shioda Gozo in: Uchideshi: Walking with the Master (https://shindokanbooks.com/uchideshi/). For those of us who have never had this experience, Payet Shihan skillfully and graciously provides us a glimpse of understanding.
Ultimately, the heightened sensitivity that results from this progressively deeper study of uke is actually the genesis of incredible skill as shite. When this subtle sensitivity is applied it becomes obvious that there is a lot more going on than the simple performance of physical movements. Just think about any the top teachers you may have had the pleasure to train with — those teachers who were live-in students themselves or who spent countless hours over multiple years studying and training. If you have never had the pleasure of experiencing these teachers, just watch their videos. You will notice that their execution of technique is precise and unhurried. You will notice that their techniques are soft and their movements are deliberate. You will also notice that their ukes are broken immediately, at the very moment of contact, and that they quickly run out of breath. How can they do this so consistently and with so many different ukes? Because their sensitivity is so attuned that they can feel uke’s weak points in an instant and they can take advantage of these so quickly and subtly that uke cannot seem to react quickly enough. In fact, their uke’s bewilderment often emerges at the end of a technique in the form of smiles, inadvertent laughing or dumbfounded head-scratching. “How did they learn to do that?!” uke seems to be wondering. Through hard work, through dedication, and by learning to receive the gift that their own teachers passed on to them. That’s how. Practice well!
Chief Instructor, Shindokan Dojo
Aikido Yoshinkai Canada
This post is part of a series. For more insights into a variety of Aikido-related topics, please visit the other Aikido Yoshinkai Canada websites: