Coffee Break: A little more knowledge for your training

As we start our journey to the end of a tumultuous 2020 and embrace the challenge of a reduced demonstration in the sense of size or exposure, please approach it with the same sense of opportunity to grow, to push yourself to be better. Then you will celebrate more profoundly the end of this difficult year.

In this sense of demonstration, and for some their progress towards Sogo Shinsa (significant grading), I’d like to explore why many high-level techniques may look too simple or ‘fake’ to the untrained eye. A major reason for this is ‘Yoyū’, a martial principle that Japanese budōka (martial artists) have for centuries acquired over many years in their advanced martial training; a principle not seen by the layman eye and only attained after many years of committed and consistent training.

Yoyū’ in its simplest sense means ‘margin’, or the moment and definitiveness of the kill/control of an assailant. But when you dig a little deeper into this principle, it encapsulates so much more, which I’ll unpack later by way of two stories from two distinct masters of their respective arts. In these stories ‘Yoyū’ will mean margin, but will also include the mastery of other principles intrinsically linked to it: such as Mai-ai (combative distance), Ri-ai (the combative intention applied at the perfect moment, distance and timing), Sei-to-Do (non-action to action), Zanshin (state of intent awareness and mindset that remains throughout and after the technique is executed), Fudoshin (conviction, confidence and immoveable/uninterruptable spirit, a serenity of mind that nothing can perturb) and of course Mushin (the state of no mind or no ego corrupting the definitive and natural action of the martial artist – the unfettered mind). In these stories you’ll see references to these concepts implied, yet not explicitly discussed. But it is through mastery of these principles in addition to the technique itself, that these masters are often perceived as effortless and unreal by the untrained and unlearned observer’s eye.

The first story comes from Michiharu Mori Shihan. In it Sensei discusses his time as an uchideshi (live-in disciple) under Master Gozo Shioda and his thinking behind ‘what makes a good Aikido technique’. The definition of ’good’ may differ from person-to-person, but here I believe Sensei alludes to the ‘good’ technique only being achievable through mastery of all the aforementioned principles.

The height of good Aikido technique

The other day, we filmed a self-defence technique class focusing on Nikajo for uploading online to my Patreon students around the world. I told my wife that I was going to demonstrate a ‘bad’ Nikajo as it was for street fight techniques. As she had no idea what I meant I took my son’s wrist standing nearby and put the bad Nikajo on. He screamed in pain. Yes, the ‘bad’ Nikajo can cause extreme pain. My 4th Dan son, who has been training Aikido nearly twenty years, should be somewhat used to joint locks. Still, the bad Nikajo was more than he could bear, and he was in agony. Looking at his face, my wife asked me why I was not keen to teach this in the usual class when this Nikajo worked that much so easily. I replied that it was because this was such a ‘bad’ Nikajo. Well, as I answered her while listening to my son’s scream, I began to think how I really distinguished between good techniques and bad techniques.

The techniques that can take you down or throw you without you even knowing what happened are good techniques, I think, while bad techniques inflict massive pain and leave you feeling that you were pushed down by physical force. You feel good and pleasant when you receive good techniques and you feel unpleasant or even angry when bad techniques are applied. Moreover, bad techniques tend to be ineffective on those people who have thick and strong joints either naturally or through long-term training. On the other hand, the effectiveness of good techniques is universal.

My image of a true master of Japanese budo is an old man who can easily beat up young practitioners with his sublime skills despite the young ones’ superior physical speed and strength. My Master, Gozo Shioda, was the person who absolutely embodied this image. And when Master Gozo Shioda was asked what the utmost Aikido technique was, he replied, as most of you know, “Becoming friends with the person who came to kill you”. The answer sounds very unrealistic and more like a Zen question to me, a riddle for me to seek what he really meant. 

One day, during a black belt only class, I remember Master said to us, his uchi-deshi (disciples), as he was happily enjoying himself demonstrating Aiki-waza on one of his uchi-deshi, “It is not a genuine technique if your uke is not begging you to put the technique on one more time. It’s no good if your uke dislikes your technique or feels unpleasant. Your uke will keep coming back to feel your techniques more with great glee after being thrown hard. That is the right technique.” Truly so, his uke looked to be enjoying the moment fully. This was the time when I understood what the utmost and sublime Aikido technique should be.

I learned from this experience that a good Aikido technique performed properly, based on principles and mechanism, makes one’s uke feel thrilled in its beauty and practicality, and therefore the uke wants more. If I did not learn the “correct” Aikido from Master, I might have misunderstood that a good technique was to cause extreme pain and to force absolute power on one’s uke. Thus, I place importance to teach techniques based on principles and to harmonise with uke’s movements. I believe that a technique applied by force ignoring uke’s movements but with one’s self-centred intention, or you may call it ‘ego’, is the bad technique.

After all, we train Aikido which is the art of harmonising, no matter whether in a soft way or a hard way: “Welcome when it comes, let go when it leaves, harmonise it when confronted.” This is the secret of Aikido. It is pretty simple and reasonable like learning a basic maths equation of adding and subtracting to me, yet the meaning of the principle can be deep and complex. The Aikido dojo is the place where we learn this ultimate harmony with one’s heart through physical training.

I guess anyone can do a week’s training to learn the basic Nikajo technique and perhaps apply it to inflict severe pain in limited situations. But not anyone can apply it effortlessly with mastery in any situation, at any time, against any physiology that may confront them… That is, to inflict a sense of wonder in their assailant as they are controlled seemingly easily. This, I believe is only achieved by way of mastery of ‘Yoyū’ (and associated principles above). This is why training in Budō is so different to simply learning to fight!

We now move onto the second story. This story comes from Pascal Krieger Sensei (10th Dan Shihan in Shodō; Menkyo Kaiden in Shintō Muso Ryū Jodo; 4th Dan in Judo; 3rd Dan in Iaido) writing on his time training in Japan under Shimizu Sensei (SMR Grand Master). Here Krieger Sensei reflects on how Yoyū impacted on his learning and mastery in the traditional Japanese combat arts.

Yoyu ga aru, ne!

When I used to train in Shimizu Sensei’s Dōjō, I heard for many years a comment which I took to be a compliment: “Isogashi, ne!” Translated into common parlance, it means, “You’ve really kept yourself busy!”. I was very pleased that the particular rapid sequence I had just executed had caught the master’s eye, and bowed briefly to make my pride appear more modest.

Later, I came to realize that this apparent compliment was in fact a fully justified criticism. I was so busy “flinging” myself about that I left myself no margin [Yoyū] between the techniques to let things manifest themselves and to take the opportunity to rest.

Over time, the student having reached a certain level realizes that he has attained a certain serenity in applying the techniques. His reactions are measured and the economy of movement he has acquired gives him the benefit of a certain margin, or Yoyū. More and more, he has the impression that the opponent moves in slow motion. He has the time to let things come. If Shimizu Sensei saw a student displaying these characteristics, he might replace the ironic, “Isogashi, ne!” with “Yoyū ga aru, ne!” (You have Yoyū!)

Krieger Sensei goes onto explain in his book ‘Jodo: the Way of the Stick’ (1989) that when a master demonstrates a technique, this concept of Yoyū is absolutely remarkable. Observers who are unaware of this notion are often impressed by the composure, or in a critical (and ignorant) sense the observer might think it to be scripted or prearranged, or even unreal. With Yoyū the master takes his time, ‘his movements are sober and devoid of any fantasy or anticipation’, yet preserve what Krieger Sensei calls, ‘the characteristic grace of natural movements’.

Like all training in Budō, Yoyū is equally applicable to everyday life. I think you all know someone who has Yoyū: they do things methodically, efficiently, precisely and soberly, and throughout their many day-to-day activities save themselves a lot of time. Yoyū is indispensable to the busy person. We’ve all heard the age-old adage: If you want something done, give it to a busy person. Perhaps we should rephrase this, ‘If you want something done well and efficiently, give it to a person who has Yoyū!’. It is but the efficiency of knowing when and using ‘the moments in between’ that demonstrate a grasp of Yoyū in daily life, the moments that many will let slide or squander away in meaningless and frivolous actions. A lazy person has no Yoyū because this concept implies moments of intense activity that some are just not prepared to do.

So, again, please enjoy your regular training in Budō at the Sunshine Coast Dojo. Enjoy it with the mindfulness that you are training to become someone with Yoyū: someone who pursues the ‘good’ technique in a martial sense and aspires to aware of, understand and move efficiently through the day-to-day ‘margins’ to be ‘good’ at life!


Ryan Slavin

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