Oh Crap, This Isn’t Working

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

So there you are, doing a technique, one you’ve done, oh, a couple of hundred times before. And for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.

Fortunately your advanced level of training allows you to promptly and efficiently take the necessary steps. First of all, it must be your uke’s fault. That goes without saying: if your uke had just attacked correctly, given you a committed attack, been more flexible, then everything would be fine. It must be their fault.

Sometimes I can stay stuck there for quite awhile. The worst-case scenario is when uke really is doing something unusual. A good uke can make your technique look powerful and effective; just so, an uncooperative uke, or an unexpected response to your technique, can stop you in your tracks. How are you supposed to deal with that?

Well, you could change the technique. Which, you tell yourself, is what you’d do in real life. If they’re not actually giving you the right attack, you certainly wouldn’t bother using this technique: you’d do something else, much more effective. Many people will simply abandon the technique they’re supposedly practicing, and go with a technique that’s more likely to work for this particular attack.

Not me. No, I use a simple but inevitably embarrassing approach known as “muscling the hell out of your uke.” Resist me, will you?  Take that, and that, and that. Fortunately, because I am pretty wimpy, I rarely injure my ukes permanently, at least as far as I’ve heard. However, common though this approach may be, it’s not actually the most effective way to learn aikidō.

And it’s not like sensei hasn’t explained how to deal with this exact situation. When you get stuck, correct your balance and posture and extension. He demonstrates: from bending forward over his uke like a bookkeeper examining a column of numbers under bad lighting, he straightens up, his weight settles back in his heels, he extends his arms. Just like that, uke shifts magically from a strong balanced position to a weak unstable stance where they can barely hold themselves up. Oh, I can do that!

I proceed to practice the technique with renewed vigor and confidence. And when I get stuck, I check my balance and posture and extension, which are all hopelessly not what they need to be. I take a deep breath and correct everything. And just like that, nothing happens at all!  Except that I have to muscle uke a little more vigorously to make them fall down.

The basic problem here is, aikidō isn’t magic. No matter what I tell myself, no matter how many superstitious gestures I make – breathing in, breathing out, holding my breath, closing my eyes, going faster and faster as if I can outrun my mistakes, slowing things down until uke is falling asleep on their feet – the fact is, I can always screw things up.

That’s what I’m here for, is to find out how I screw things up. The dream that something will magically enable me to do the technique perfectly is just that: a dream.

I’m here to learn. Screwing up is my job. I just wish I weren’t so good at it.