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Aikido from the Inside Out


The Principles:


Strength versus ki.

What is ki?

Leading ki or mind

How to lead ki

You choose how your partner attacks

Ki literally means "energy" but it has the connotation of a fundamental creative principle. Clearly, ki is meaningful in aikido, as it is the second character making up the very word "aikido." But how can we understand its connection to aikido in a practical, non-theoretical way?

When we start practicing aikido, inevitably we perform the techniques using our muscles and "strength." This is how we normally think of performing physical tasks. But muscles and strength don't really work in aikido. Another kind of approach is necessary--using ki.

I remember training with experienced aikidoka when I was starting aikido and being completely baffled at how amazingly strong they appeared. Without seeming to exert any effort, they would exude phenomenal strength--a mere shrug and I would go flying. There was a sense, when I grabbed a wrist, of some terrific force coursing through their arms.

In fact, I was so overwhelmed by the strength of some of my partners that I almost became discouraged, because I seemed so far from this kind of strength and it seemed impossible that I could ever obtain such "power." Fortunately, this phenomenon was fascinating enough to keep me interested and studying.

I would say now that this kind of strength is the extension of ki. In the study of aikido, one of the most important transitions is that of shifting from the use of strength and muscles to the use of ki. An interesting aspect to this shift is that there isn't really a technique to acquire ki. Some teachers say that you can build ki or strengthen ki through various practices. My experience is that this is incorrect. Ki already exists in all things. It is more likely that we block the ki we already have rather than find that we lack enough ki. As with many other aspects of aikido, the biggest challenge with ki is to unlearn old habits rather than learn new ones.

Strength versus ki

Beginners, especially beginners who are very strong physically, often come up against the paradox of strength versus ki early on. When you use physical strength against an experienced aikidoka, it almost never works. This unexpected failure is due to two reasons. First, you are positioning physical strength against ki strength, and developed ki strength is far more powerful than the physical. Secondly, physical strength creates struggle and struggle gives your partner a hook to fight against.

For example, if you are performing an ikkyo technique against an overhead strike and use your muscles to push through the technique, you immediately give your partner "something" to struggle back against. There is something about the quality of muscle strength that lets your opponent push back. In the realm of muscular strength, a kind of Newtonian physics applies: for every action there is an opposite reaction.

Ki strength has a very different quality. It is clear, powerful and compelling. At the same time, it has the quality of a strong wind or a powerful wave. While its effects are palpable, it seems to be impossible to resist or stand up against. Who can stand up in front of a giant wave or stop the wind? It has force, but nothing to allow one to grab on to.

What is ki?


So what exactly is ki? Ki is the strength that is available without using muscles, will, struggle, or effort.

So, if we don't use muscles, will, struggle, or effort, how do we then practice? Well, this is the mystery that you have to explore during your own practice. You can find the answer to this in your own body, but the best way to start is to try, intentionally, not to use muscles, will, struggle, or effort. See what's left.

If it isn't working, try less.

This classic aikido paradox flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says "To do your best, try your hardest!" With aikido, it's more like, "To do your best, try the least!"

This is because we perform "trying our hardest" with efforting. But this very approach sets up the resistance that will defeat us. By "trying" less, we can allow something else to move in and do the work for us. This something else is ki.

Ki becomes available with relaxed awareness. Relaxation is imperative for extension of ki. Aikidoists say that tight muscles, clenching of fists, etc. cuts off ki. This is one of the reasons why we (in the role of nage) wait until the very last moment to actually grab our partner during a technique. Grabbing cuts off ki. Most of the techniques where we think we have to "grab" can be done without grabbing at all.

You just need to understand that as you practice, as you become more relaxed, as you relinquish efforts, strength, and struggle, something else becomes available. If you know about this ahead of time, you can be on the look out for it. At first, you may only notice it after the fact. Later you'll notice it during practice. Each time you notice its presence, it can help reinforce the value of letting go of muscle, will, struggle, and effort.

Leading ki or mind

When you work with your ki and with your partner's ki, you move out of the realm of the body and start working with energy. You begin working with your own energy as well as your partner's energy. This is a very different (and liberating) kind of experience. We all have a storehouse of experience and conditioned ways of dealing with the physical. However, most of us don't have as much experience dealing in the realm of energy. This newness allows us to move away from our conditioned responses and come up with something different.

For example, I know that if I am working with a big, strong man, and think about moving his body, I will have to use a lot of effort and may very likely be unsuccessful. This isn't an intellectual conclusion that I make. It is a visceral one, based on a lifetime of experience which says that a bigger, stronger person will prevail. If I approach this big, strong man with this attitude, I am already defeated. However, if I don't see him as 220 pounds of muscle and sinew, but instead see him as energy, suddenly my options are much broader.

It is much easier to move your partner's energy than your partner's body.

If you engage your partner in the energetic realm, you will have a much easier time of it. In a physical struggle, all other things being equal, the stronger person will prevail. However, in the world of ki, physical strength means little. You are moving your partner's energy body, not the physical one. The energy body is often equated with mind, intent or ki. That is, to affect your partner's energy body, you affect his mind, his intent or his ki.

The physical follows the energetic.

There is a relationship between the physical and energetic. The physical follows the energetic. In other words, if you affect your partner's energy field, the body will move easily. If you lead the mind or ki of your partner, the body tags along like an obedient puppy.

Leading ki is an advanced form of connection--connecting to your partner's essential energy without necessarily making physical contact.

How to lead ki

We can only touch on the surface of this question. The real answers will come from your own practice and experience.

A good beginning practice of leading ki is to start the technique before your partner actually touches you. For example, if your partner reaches for your wrist and you wait until he grabs you before you start to turn and throw, you will end up with someone's body hanging on to your arm as you try to throw. If, instead, you start the turn and throw before he actually grabs you, you will be able to lead his energy. In order to grab you, if you are already moving, your partner will have to track your movements and follow you. If he is intent on grabbing you, you will be able to lead his ki by just staying slightly ahead of his grab. Then you simply lead the movement into any convenient aikido form.

Clearly, timing is critical in leading your partner. If you lead too early, you will have turned before he has committed to an attack and he can simply abandon the attack and start again. If you wait too long, you lose the advantage of leading.

You choose how your partner attacks

Leading ki allows you to influence how your partner will attack. We often talk about giving our partners a clear opening for their attack. If you offer your hand, it becomes a much more desirable object of attack than if you offer nothing. By making it easy for your partner to attack you in a certain way, you are actually "making" them attack you the way you want. In other words, you'll know ahead of time how you will be attacked, because you are giving him an opening too good to pass up. This is a great advantage to you. It takes away your partner's element of surprise in the attack. If you can lead the attack, you know ahead of time what he will do and where he will end up. Again, the secret of leading ki is timing.

Leading ki allows youto determine how your partner will attack.

Proper Distance





©1993-1998 Howard Bornstein