Relax when you Throw

Some years ago, when struggling to gain insight into how to powerfully perform morote dori kokyu nage (the basic form practised at the start of every keiko) I cam across an article by Koichi Tohei in Aikido Journal (Vol. 24, No. 2 1997).

Tohei Sensei 10th dan, the previous dojo-cho of the Aikikai Honbu Dojo and founder of the Ki no Kenkyukai (Ki Society organisation) teaching Aikido with Mind and Body Coordinated, is known throughout the Aikido world. (Tohei Sensei passed away at the age of 91, on 19 May 2011). So the comments he made in this article were both memorable and instructive. He gave this history:

“In 1940, Mr. Shohei Mori introduced me to Ueshiba Sensei and I became his student. I was terribly impressed with the way Ueshiba Sensei would throw people without any strength at all. I went to the dojo for every practice, but I found that I couldn’t even measure up to the high school students who were training there. After a while, however, I noticed that whenever I came to aikido practice completely exhausted after a session at the Ichikukai, nobody could move me. I also noticed that when I threw people while in that exhausted state, they would really go flying. These two phenomena made me realize that the trick was to let go of strength. On the other hand, Ueshiba Sensei was always telling us to use strength in the techniques. So I experimented in various ways with both using strength and then letting it drop away, then using it again and so on. … At that point I realised that relaxation was an important key, although I also noticed that there were things that I could not do simply by relaxing. I felt that the reason must be something I was doing wrong. … When I returned from the war, I found that whereas Ueshiba Sensei could throw me very easily, other people’s techniques were completely ineffective. There was obviously some difference between the two applications of technique. Others said that it was simply that Ueshiba Sensei had ‘the strength and skill of a thousand men,’ but I wondered if it were really true that despite both of us being human, Sensei could do and I could not do. … It was around that time that I discovered Tempu Nakamura Sensei. He taught me that ‘the mind leads the body’. The mind is the upstream and the body is the downstream. If the upstream is muddy, so will be the downstream. From Nakamura I learnt that unification of mind and body is possible through purifying the mind and allowing it to influence the body. I had already experienced this on the battlefield, but I had not connected that experience with this principle. I think the same can be said of aikido. Looking back on what Ueshiba Sensei did, it is clear that he would apply his techniques only after leading his opponent’s mind. By contrast, we were all trying to lead our opponents’ bodies, and then trying to figure out how to throw them. Naturally they would resist and become impossible to throw.

In order to lead your opponent’s mind, you must first have complete control over your own mind. If you can’t control your own mind, you can’t expect to be able to lead the minds of others.”

Of the teaching he received from O’Sensei, Tohei Sensei remarked: “The only thing of true value he taught was how to relax.” And he added: “Even the relaxation Ueshiba Sensei taught was not explained in words, but rather something he demonstrated with his body.”