Kamae

With a slight nod or perhaps a quick gesture that seemed part welcoming and part commanding, Kimeda Sensei would indicate his uke for the next technique. His typical custom was to not play favourites. He would start with the highest ranking black belt and work down in succession through the seniors. This approach avoided the inevitable competition to race up in front of him in order to feel his technique. As each student received their “invitation,” they would take off like a shot — eager that they didn’t make Sensei wait and eager for the chance to learn, quite literally, at the hands of one of the giants within the Yoshinkan. They were also eager to show Sensei that they were intent, focused, committed and ready.

Each of these characteristics was shown in the posture they assumed as they stood in front of him. Listening with sharp anticipation to his explanation or tracking and sensing his every movement or intent, their heightened awareness was on display for all to see. The posture each uke assumed is perhaps the single most practiced element of Yoshinkan Aikido. It is, of course, kamae, the posture of readiness, the posture of potential power.

This is a scene that plays out in Yoshinkan dojos across the globe — students rushing up to take uke for their teachers. Standing in kamae, each uke is ready to help their teacher make a point, ready to “receive” the most direct teaching possible from the teacher, and ready to have that teacher judge their development and progress through nothing but a single stance — their kamae.

“Everything you need to know about Aikido is found in kamae.”

Gozo Shioda

It seems to me that this ritual is one of the most impactful teaching tools within the Yoshinkan, a style known for the cohesiveness of its curriculum and the efficacy of its methodology. Not only does it give the teacher an opportunity to evaluate their senior students directly, it also brings a level of piercing intensity to this most fundamental practice.

In my own experience, you could readily perceive Kimeda Sensei’s pleasure or displeasure as he judged the kamae of the uke in front of him. Sometimes he would firmly correct the uke and, in no uncertain terms, let his thoughts be known to all. At other times, he would say nothing and perform his technique without hesitation. At still other times, there might only be a slight and perhaps unspoken correction. Each of these reactions served to teach everyone in the class exactly what was required to improve our Aikido.

What Sensei was teaching during these moments was not simply the posture of kamae but rather something more full, more settled, more focused and more spectacular. He would not be satisfied with an empty physical form. He demanded the full and awesome focus and unity of your mind, your body, and your spirit (Shin Gi Tai Ichi Nyo). Uke had to be fully centred and ready and, at the same time, completely calm without any manifestation of their “self.”

Before any of us had gotten to a level senior enough to take his uke, we had spent years trying to develop this type of centred unity through our kihon dosa practice. But rushing up to take his uke was one of those irreplaceable experiences that served to take all that training and put a pin in it. There was something about standing there in front of him … ready. It was one of the most intense experiences a student could encounter. It also seemed that the very intensity of the situation was critical to pushing the student to achieve a level of insight beyond what they could achieve on their own.

That is why this ritual is so important. It allows students to gain immediate and extraordinary experience with the unity of their mind, body and spirit. As one goes through this experience properly and repeatedly, under their teacher’s watchful eye, one gets better and better. In fact, psychological studies show that working on “focus” intensely in this way is similar to building muscle. The more you work on it, the stronger it gets, the more your productivity improves and the more your attention span grows.

In our case as students of Aikido, this increased focus will result in a relaxation of muscles and a broadening of perception. This, in turn, will help us to react more smoothly and instantaneously to our teachers. When we can do this we will be well on our way to understanding a key component of aikido — sensitivity.

In Yoshinkan Aikido, when we perform the role of shite in a technique, we are trying to develop sensitivity to our partners as they hold, strike, push and pull at us in each of the 150 or so basic techniques. Contrary to what might at first appear to be true, we are not actually trying to control our partners but rather, we are trying to control ourselves in such a way as to be sensitive to their intent and then take advantage in order to unbalance them. This sensitivity is what underpins the riai (the logical consistency) in all of our techniques. There is no getting around this point. We simply must come to terms with it in order to progress.

While it may seem counterintuitive, rushing up to take uke for Sensei when called upon and standing ready, focused and intent in kamae is perhaps the single best training for sensitivity within our regular practice. Senior students know this. This is why they scramble to be chosen by their own teacher during class, as well as visiting teachers during seminars. They know that to get better they have to take uke for the top teachers. They know that if they get the chance to take uke for a top teacher in a demonstration, they will learn more in that short demo than from six months of regular training. Of course, this allows them to feel the teacher’s technique, but it seems to me that this is only a secondary benefit. The real benefit is to be able to check their own level of sensitivity, to perceive it directly and deepen their understanding.

Developing this strong, relaxed centre; this ability to match and employ timing; this unwavering sense of calm; this confidence in dealing with others, isn’t this, after all, the ultimate purpose of our training? Isn’t this the very spirit we are trying to cultivate — “yoshin!?”

Practice well!

OSU!

Chris Johnston

Chief Instructor, Shindokan Dojo
Aikido Yoshinkai Canada

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