In my last post I discussed two Japanese words–awase and musubi— are slightly different concepts of connecting with a partner’s energy. I focused on musubi, which means “knot.” As uke (attacker, receiver of the technique), I can feel when my attack gets tied to what nage (thrower) is doing, either by a slight loss of balance that causes a bit of a lean onto nage or by joint locks.
But the words “lean” and “joint lock” are still slightly misleading. If I am getting attacked by a 300-pound linebacker, I don’t want him leaning on me. I also don’t want to rely on locking his wrist because there is a good chance I won’t be able to really grip his tree-trunk arm.
The ideas of creating a lean or locking-up an attacker are better understood as structural ideas.
First, leaning is the easiest to feel and the easiest to refine as a structural idea. One of the first things a beginner learns is how to stand up straight and do the unbendable arm exercise. While unbendable arm is generally used to demonstrate the power of ki energy, it also demonstrates the power of unifying your own structure. When unbendable arm is done well, the person doing the exercise is relaxed and mobile while the tester is almost hanging off the unbendable arm. In the effort to bend the arm, the tester becomes tense with effort. If the unbendable arm moves, the tester gets jostled or thrown.
There is a sequence of binding in the above example. First, the testee unifies her own body and structure. Musubi, the knots and ties of her bones, tendons, muscles, and fascia need to work together. The posture and ki extension smooth out the cords and pull the lines taut, so to speak. Then her raised arm is unbendable. Then the tester attaches to that structure to disrupt it by bending the arm. If the testee is using muscles, the arm bends easily. If the testee is unified and has good structure, the arm feels unbendable. The testee’s structure is prerequisite.
The same is true in technique. When nage has a unified structure, attacks often feel like a wave hitting the prow of a ship. Some attacks just bounce off. That is a good first step, but if nage can make the structure of the attack bind to their own unified structure, they then have control of the situation. There is no more attack.
The term kuzushi is closely related to musubi. Kuzushi means unbalancing or leveling. In aikido it is the process of unbalancing an opponent until the loss of balance ends in them falling or tapping out. When an uke attacks, if nage disrupts the attackers balance, then nage can create unified, single structure of both of their bodies. If that 300 pound linebacker grabs my shoulder, my aikido training is not to pull away or fight. My training is to shift to the side where my balance is centered and I can jog in place while the big guy’s balance is tied to my shoulder and he can’t let go of my shoulder or pick up his feet without losing balance. Now my structure has tied his structure to me so there is only one structure.
Another image: a tripod has one leg shorter than the other two. You need to balance a heavy camera on the tripod for a long time. The easy way is to balance 99% of the weight on the two long legs and then use that tiny 1% of lean to rest the other tripod leg on your finger. Now there is one structure supporting the camera, a tripod with two long legs and you as the third leg. One structure but you only need to hold a tiny fraction of the weight. This gets to the odd duality and unity of aikido. It is both one structure and not-just-one structure. It is the tripod and you. At the same time it is you as the tripod.
But that feeling of one-and-not-one is a common sensation in aikido. One of my favorite parts of practice is launching a focused attack at a partner and then suddenly feeling like I’m weightless, leaning on them and trying to find my balance as they casually lead me to the ground. What had been my hand flying at their head becomes something quite different and before I can process the change, I’m leaned over, falling toward the ground.
The feeling of ukemi transitioning from a balanced attack to a tripod depending on a third leg is mentally profound. I experience something quite different when I’m forcefully grabbed and thrown versus when my structure gets bound, unbalanced, and led.
That same difference in forcefulness is even more evident on the joint-lock spectrum of techniques. Muscle and angle can force pain compliance or break bones. That pain compliance is a form of musubi, but I don’t think it is the ideal. It is highly effective –martially speaking– but it is not the end goal of aikido training.
If I try to joint-lock the wrist of a 300-pound linebacker, there is a really good chance I’ll screw up. One of the difficulties in training is learning how to do nikkyo and sankyo on people with thick, strong wrists. I’ve seen small 90-pound women make the 300-pound linebacker tap out or drop. I’ve felt them do it to me. And ukemi is the best teacher here. When we think of joint locks, we think of someone tapping out in pain. We have all taken that ukemi. But I hope we have all had opportunity to take ukemi from someone who does joint “locks” through musubi, which feels more like your brain short circuiting than it feels like pain of a joint about to break.
I think the difference is compression versus stretching, like tying a belt. When I put on my uniform, I hold the middle of my belt to my belly, stretch the belt around my back, cross it over, pull it back to my belly and tie it. If I let any slack into the belt, my gi will slide open. If I leave twists in the belt, they will crimp over and dig into my skin. Some people use a square-knot to hold their belts, but my belt is stiff, so I use a knot that folds and lays flat. Arms are a lot like flat belts. They are sensitive to twists and stretching.
When I’ve felt a 90-pound woman put nikkyo on me or felt an 80-year-old put on a sankyo that is pain free but compelling, I’ve noticed that the slack is all out from my lower back and abdomen, up to my shoulder, down and around my elbow, around my forearm, and out my fingers. Rather than compressing bones and cartilage, it feels like stretching muscles, tendons and fascia to their natural limit. All the belts are pulled tight by stretching and natural twisting. My whole structure is bound up. Nage can lead the joint-lock gently and precisely without fear of a counter strike because he has the whole structure tied up.
One last image might help. Joint locks are compressive. But, at their best, they are not compressing just one joint. Imagine a chain about ten links long. It is easy to move the first link with barely jostling the next. It is easy to twist the first link and force the next link to move. If you want to move all ten links, you can twist the chain until the links bind up (just like you used to do on the swingset to raise the swing). Once the whole chain is twisted, you can push the chain or twist more to draw all the links together. Uke can feel whether nage is flexing one link in the chain of joints or all the links in the chain back to their center of balance. Uke knows when he is collapsing or jumping to protect a joint from injury and when his body is folding or stretching because there is no slack left to turn around.
Tying your attacker to you is a difficult process to learn. So far in my training, I think ukemi is the only teacher. You have to feel musubi to grasp the concept. Once you start to recognize when it is being done to you, then you begin to try and figure out how to tie your attacker’s energy and structure to your own.