No matter how diligently or how long you train in your chosen martial art, you face one unavoidable fact: the total amount of progress you can make, the absolute amount that you can possibly learn is finite and limited to one lifetime. Barring injury and opportunity, the best any of us can hope for us sixty or seventy years of good training, learning, progress, insight into our art before our human mortality and declining mental and physical abilities put an end to our study. Sixty or seventy years is a lot, but it puts hard limits on how far incremental refinement can take us. We can only polish the mirror, sharpen the sword, for so long.

We can accept and make the most of this limitation, but Saotome Sensei tells us there is another way. Somewhere along our journey, we can step off the path of incremental refinement (keiko, the bit-by-bit polishing of physical technique) and step onto a path that is as old as life itself. This path is defined by a change in perspective, in which we define our martial study as the study of nature and how nature has programmed us as living animals. Like every other living creature, each of us is the result of hundreds of millions (billions, actually) of years of relentless, pitiless evolution, in which the unwary, the slow, the unsuccessful were culled from the gene pool. We are each programmed with those same millions of years of instinct, programmed movement, and natural reflexes and reactions that kept our ancestors alive through countless life-and-death encounters. We tell ourselves that our analytical minds direct and control our smallest movements, but in reality we rely extensively on our muscle memory and evolutionary programming to do everything from direct our feet as we walk across the room to flinch and duck away from startling motion. Saotome Sensei points out that a very deep level of instinctual response comes into play when we put our hand on a hot stove or when we are bitten by a mosquito; we do not respond to these situations with planning or stylistic movement.  Saotome Sensei says that when we shift our study away from style, away from rules and ideas about how to manipulate and control our attackers, toward gaining insight into how all of our bodies move and react according to instinct and reflex, it is like suddenly being able to tap into many, many lifetimes of martial training and insight. Instead of training for seventy years, we gain the insight of a million years of martial, life-and-death struggle.  Saotome Sensei is fond of saying “you can’t make Uke (the attacker) obey you!” But, he explains, “on the other hand, they can’t help but obey their natural reactions.”

“Keiko is a wonderful thing, but it is also very bad.” says Saotome Sensei.  “It provides the foundation for learning, and a structure for reprogramming our reflexes in a useful way.  But it also makes our mind stiff and inflexible, and limits the ability to see the greater mystery and vision offered to us by nature and the universe.  To tap into the greatest insights and to reach the greatest potential in Budo, we have to transcend keiko.”

Saotome Sensei provided some guidelines to help his students grow beyond keiko, and to begin tapping into this greater mystery.

100% Investment, 100% Attention

Attention is tension.  Sensei often uses the word “tension” during instruction, and just as often interchanges “tension!” with “attention!”  Again, these similar-sounding terms are connected in his mind. In Japanese, the word “tension” has a subtly different meaning than in English, and to Saotome Sensei, when he speaks of physical tension he is envisioning the feeling of being filled with crackling electricity, quivering with an intense energy waiting to be released.  At the moment one is touching a live wire, one is certainly as awake, invested, and interested as it is possible to be! “Discovering one’s internal tension requires 100% concentrating spirit, mind, and body together, with the goal of discovering how the universe manifests, the patterns of harmony expressed through Aiki.”  This electric attention is required because we cannot control what is about to happen, and we must ready ourselves to let our body respond with complete commitment and without hesitation or delay.

Tension is the balance of connected forces.  Simultaneously, Sensei clarifies that “tension” also means “aiki”, in the sense that it is the connection between Uke and Nage.  When Sensei is telling us to find tension, he means that the connection between centers is dynamic and tight, that there is a pressure and no slack; the connection feeling should resemble a powerful spring, and not a loose rope.  There is no aiki tension if Nage cannot feel Uke’s center and reactions.

“The unification of forces always becomes a helix, and this is the origin of DNA, of all life.  Even the orbital movement of planets through space are spirals, helixes.  Symmetry is achieved when the equal and opposite forces are balanced at the point of connection.”  – Shihan Mitsugi Saotome

Some of Sensei’s ad-hoc sketch illustrations about the tension and harmony between forces as expressed in nature. Notes are mine.

Bridging the tatami to the spirit requires true focus. Shugyo is the practice of unifying keiko with the universal aiki, of integrating keiko with one’s entire life,” explains Sensei.  “To manifest shugyo, we must invest 100% of our imagination and attention.  We must treat each training moment as if it was our very last – the very last opportunity we will ever get to train, the last moment before the battle.  When we train through repetition, it lulls our minds and our imagination to sleep.  We become comfortable with the idea that there will always be another repetition, another opportunity if we fail this time.  However, one good, pure, intent-ful cut is more valuable than 1,000 suburi (repetition cuts with a sword); 1,000 suburi cannot teach aiki principle!  But what would our training be like if we knew that we were going to die tomorrow, and this training moment right now was going to represent our entire life’s effort?  How much attention and focus would we summon into our training then?”

Sensei suggested that perhaps everybody would understand what he is trying to convey if he brought a giant nest of wasps onto the mat, and broke it open during training.  “With angry wasps flying everywhere, stinging everyone, they would have 100% attention!  Wasp-Sensei would be an amazing teacher!  Often, when I talk about ‘tension’ or ‘attention’, I am trying to get students to summon all of their focus, imagination, and awareness into their training right now, every time.”

“Shugyo is adaptation (evolution) – adoption (making yours/integrating) – adaption (change).”  Saotome Sensei loves English homonyms, and sees within them insight into shared and overlapping meaning, as if they had a secret mutual etymology or if they present a puzzle for us to unlock.

“Shugyo is bringing keiko to universal aiki in one’s life.  When you open beyond your self, your ego, when you connect to deep spiritual awareness, when you let go as an individual, this connects to the ‘Divine Sword of Heaven’ I speak about in my book.” (In this comment, Sensei is referring to his book, Light on Transmission).

Let yourself find wonder and surprise with every attack. “I had a teacher in high school, he would climb Mount Fuji every year, sometimes more than once a year.  I once asked him, ‘why do you keep climbing the same mountain?’  His answer to me was ‘I climb a different Mount Fuji every time!’  Each instant in our life has a unique outcome, a unique expression.  Aikido is about discovering how every moment reveals itself, and how we can express aiki in each moment.  My desire, my design that I bring to each moment of attack is the shape of my body, the strength of my heart, the effort of my will, my fire of my guts, the sharpness of my courage to discover the aiki principle when Uke attacks me, and the faith that I have that the outcome will be harmonious.”

“I cannot teach you how to reach this deeper understanding of aiki through a style-based form of training, any more than I can tell you how to walk or breathe in your body.  This is nonsense.  You must discover, be your own teacher.  More importantly, you must let each moment be your teacher as well.”

100% Strength, 100% Relaxation

Strength of structure. “When I say ‘strength’, I do not mean muscle strength, muscle force.” Sensei instead talks about the strength that arises from natural human posture and movement.  “In Aikido we do not study animal forms to discover strength, we use the strength that we have been given to us by nature as human beings to walk, stand, breathe, and move without thinking.” While conveying this, Sensei adopts an exaggerated Kung Fu posture.  “Aikido strength has to manifest effortlessly, without muscular exertion or tightness.  Strength is a manifestation of position and posture, of spirit and shape.”  The strength Saotome Sensei talks about does not involve muscular exertion, struggle, or effort.  He explains that structural strength is our birthright as homo sapiens and is inherently linked to relaxation.   “I am indicating a natural, calm body and spirit, but alive, not sloppy.  Standing tall, alert, erect.  I want you to think about your body when you are walking or standing comfortably.  You are naturally ‘full’ and strong, or you could not stay standing; you are naturally ‘relaxed’ or your walking would be stiff and as if you were paralyzed.”  Again, Sensei pantomimed his examples; standing naturally and comfortably, then rubbery and half collapsed as if he could barely stand, and then rigid with absurdly tensed muscles and facial features.  That being said, his “natural stance” had great posture!

Aiki strength is the natural strength given to us as human beings, the strength of structure that manifests as we stand and walk naturally.

“Another example is gunfighters.  Think of the gunfighters in old Western movies.  Gunfighters cannot be tense.  However, they must generate 100% attention, and be completely aware and ready to respond to the smallest change or movement of their enemy.  They fight in their natural shape, only are filled with readiness.  If they are tight, they will die.  If they are sleepy, they will die.  If they have any expectation about how or when the enemy will act, they will die.  The gunfighter’s strength is an electric anticipation that involves the mind, body, and spirit simultaneously.”  It goes without saying that Sensei is also a fan of Westerns too.

“The study of Aiki strength is the study of natural movement, natural body.  This is how you are evolved to be.  Life in a technological society sometimes robs us of this – computers and video games and cell phones make us nearsighted, robs our awareness of our environment, bends our bodies, shrinks our movement and vitality.  It isolates us from our connections with nature.  An Aikidoka must rediscover their connection to nature and their internal structure.  Then they can rediscover their strength.”

Sensei takes the opportunity to poke me in the chest. “You already strong enough, you don’t need any more strength.  No more makiwara!” Makiwara training is the Karate practice of punching a rope-wrapped target, designed to toughen the fists and improve punching power.  Often, Sensei demonstrates crazy powers of perception; I have calloused knuckles from my various martial backgrounds, and Sensei in his sensitivity can tell (even when we are just sitting around) when I have been doing a lot of striking, planking or other Systema exercises that affect my hands, fists, and body.  His message is that conditioning exercises can only improve my martial ability to a limited extent relative to developing my intuitive understanding and ability to manifest natural power.  Also, at 6’4″, he is taking the chance to tease me that I don’t need to get any bigger, and that it’s time for me to start thinking in a different way.

Strength of position.  The strength that Saotome Sensei demonstrates when teaching also is a manifestation of superior position, ma-ai (Saotome Sensei pronounces it “ma-wai”).  All technique, all connection with uke happens within Saotome Sensei’s comfortable range of motion, usually right near his center of mass.  “When there is an attack, we are drawn to uke’s power, we are attracted to the point of conflict.  It draws us away from our own strength.  It is important to connect to uke where they must become part of your strength.  When you try to change uke, you become weak; when you try to change yourself, you remember your strength.”  Put simply: close to uke, uke is strong; close to nage, nage is strong.

Strength of charisma.  As our conversation continued, Sensei made one final set of observation about the meaning of strength in Aikido; how Aikido is a path for the student to change in character and personality.  “As you discover your Aikido, you discover your charisma.  Charisma is a force of attraction, a strength of personality, you communicate this at all times.  You grow something inside that people and admire, whether or not they are martial artists.  This is not shallow – yes, maybe students admire your technique, your confidence; but more importantly, even normal people instinctively sense and respond to your innate Aiki wisdom and carriage.  This charisma is what you use to communicate to your attacker, and to draw them into your center.” Sensei commented on how over time, we cultivate a faith and trust in our strength, we build a knowledge and expectation that aiki will manifest for us, and we find trust that a motivated attacker will continue to come to our technique.  This strength of spirit is transmitted to our attackers, and helps to shape their response more surely than any effort of bending arms or twisting wrists.  “When riding a horse, the horse knows when you are nervous.  When you are dancing, your partner knows if you can lead well as soon as you touch. This is more than confidence, this is the strength of to be or not to be.

100% Freedom

Freedom of movement.  “One way to tell if you are studying with the right feeling is if you have total freedom to move in your technique.  When you are fully invested in the aiki moment, you have complete physical freedom – uke is unable to hinder your natural movement in any direction.”  Saotome Sensei laughs when I remind him of one of the nicknames he used to have as a teacher at Hombu Dojo – “Taco Sensei” (“taco” is Japanese for “octopus”, and the moniker was sometimes given to him because of the expressive and liquid way he would sometimes move his arms during technique, like an octopus waving its tentacles).  “When we try to manipulate our attackers, to punish them, we go into their strength, and as a result we give up our own freedom to move.  There is one place where Uke can limit our movements, stifle our ‘ki’, and we are drawn to it; this is the nature of atemi (moving attention through striking or pain) or shime (control techniques).  On the other hand, there are always a thousand places we can move where Uke cannot hinder our freedom; our mind and body and technique must reside in those places instead of the point of connection or in Uke.  Accessing that freedom to express natural movement is a state of mind, remembering that we are the connecting point between heaven and earth.  Do you remember my book (Harmony of Nature)? The eye of the hurricane is always available, you just must remember it is there.”

Freedom of expectation. Finding where in a technique one has freedom to move physically is easy, what is much harder is to find where in one’s self there is the confidence and trust to have freedom of intent.  Saotome Sensei emphasized that he never knows nor concerns himself with how a moment of attack will end, or how any technique will manifest. “It is vital to let go of what will happen, to not be attached to the outcome of an engagement.  If you are trying to inflict your will on an interaction, to force uke into a shape or action of your choosing, then you are mentally going into uke’s strength just as if you tried to grapple with their muscles.  You are giving up your own freedom of mind and vision, you are making yourself mentally stiff and nearsighted.  To manifest aiki, Nage must try to let go even of the idea that ‘I must win.'”  Sensei explains that while this may seem to run counter to the “ichi go ichi e” philosophy, that it seems to conflict with the mindset that every training encounter should contain live-or-die intensity, they are in fact compatible ideas.  “This is the principle of water; water is always seeking a natural, harmonious expression no matter its environment.  When one is fixed on a certain outcome or how they think something should be, their mind becomes stiff, and they lose vision of the possibilities, and they are filled with the desire to force things to happen according to their idea; the principle of water becomes the principle of ice: stiff and brittle.  We are not good at letting go of ideas that we have! To have flexibility of mind, of intent, one must cultivate an acceptance that one is not in control, and that the situation will resolve itself as it is meant to without your struggling or your ideas.  We must understand deeply that Nature will resolve the situation with your hands, your breath, your movement. This acceptance should be balanced with a sense of anticipation and discovery of the moment, with the desire to embrace and ‘find the flow’ of the moment rather than control it.  This is the harmony of nature, and this is the practice of the Aikidoka – becoming an explorer, a discoverer of how aiki reveals itself.”

We do not do Aikido, we are Aikido.” – Sensei Bill Gleason

I asked Sensei, “If we are born with Aikido, what are we doing on the mat, that is wrong with keiko?” Sensei responded, “Good question!  Hard question.  When we try to control uke, or when we are too invested in the outcome, we strangle ki, we close our perception, and we leave aiki to chance.  In the beginning, my training was in hard martial arts.  Much of my training has been on relaxation since then – relaxation of the body, but especially relaxation of my mind. Keiko tricks us into thinking we know our attacker, and we know the attack that is coming.  But we cannot defeat yesterday’s attack any more than we can breathe yesterday’s air.  We must be free to let the attacker reveal themselves to us, and let ourselves be surprised by the outcome; that is when we know we are in harmony with aiki.  That is what I mean when I say ‘ikkyo whole life!'”

100% Perception

Aiki is everywhere, even in our attackers. Sensei emphasized that aiki is not just in ourselves.  Nature, aiki, is everywhere, including (and perhaps especially) in Uke.  Sensei started by indicating that even inanimate things are subject to a certain large-scale evolution: “Aikido is the infinite expression of the adaptability of Nature.  Even the Earth, the atmosphere, mountains and oceans have changed continually over millions of years.  Millions of years of evolution have also shaped all living things, including us as Aikidoka, but evolution has shaped Uke too.  The more honestly our uke is attacking us, is committed in mind and body to strike us or grab us, the more they must rely upon evolution – Nature – to help them.  As we study Aikido, we must train our perception to incorporate Uke’s natural movements and reflexes into our technique, so it does not just become a battle of wills or a stubborn tug-of-war of muscles.”

“This is why seigan (true vision) is important.  Seigan is more than just ‘viewing’ our attacker; viewing is seeing with the eyes, but seigan is seeing with the heart, spirit, skin, one’s entire being.  Seigan lets us perceive not just Uke’s image, or our expectations, but the entirety of the attacker; their intent, spirit, attitude, their energy.  Seigan is the practice of total perception, but it is also communication.”

Sensei mostly used the English terms of “viewing” and “perception”, and it took me some back-and-forth discussion to get a grip on what he felt was important to the distinction between the two.  Key to the distinction, I believe, is intent.  Also, I was highly reminded of the internal duality presented in the book “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Galway, which points out how much of our performance is hindered by efforts to intellectually control and solve our physical actions versus trusting our intuitive, non-analytical selves to do what they do best.

To “see” properly, we must let go. Sensei continued, “If our mind tries to manage the perception, then the ‘water principle’ becomes ice – stiff and brittle.  More appropriately, the perception should manage the response of the mind – the deep mind, the body, and the analytical mind all flow in response to perception. In this way, natural response of both Uke and Nage are revealed.”  I believe Sensei is conveying that we should try to perceive Uke without expectation, not as a problem to be solved; that we should ready ourselves and open our senses completely to the attacker(s) but let ourselves be surprised by the attack and our response.  I remember, years ago, I was reading a book on Kyudo (Japanese Zen archery) and meditation (I apologize for not recalling the reference), in which the author was describing the mental state when one truly “becomes one with the target;” when the arrow is released it comes as a complete surprise to the archer.  In this sense, the archer is not looking at the target as a place to send the arrow, and intentionally making the arrow move; instead they calm their mind and expectations and desires, open themselves entirely to the target, and let the arrow “fire itself.”  In the same way, I believe Sensei is urging us to find the moment wherein every technique, every movement selects itself and executes itself; we create the possibility for aiki to manifest because we have completely opened our senses to the attacker and let the body respond intuitively.  Or, put another way, I recall a comment from Sensei John Messores (I paraphrase here): “In randori, in a real engagement, classical technique doesn’t happen.  It is only after the fact that we can sometimes recognize the technique that appeared.”

To Be Or Not To Be

One of Saotome Sensei’s favorite quotes is from Hamlet – “to be, or not to be, that is the question.”  For Sensei, this quote captures the essence of Aikido – the extent to which the practitioner can manifest themselves completely as a force of Nature with their entire being.  To touch on deeper abilities, to have the chance of achieving outcomes that exceed the limitations of our human nature and human lifespan, we must strive to connect our on-the-mat training with every moment of our waking lives.  Sensei reminds us – “100% investment, 100% attention; 100% strength, 100% relaxation; 100% freedom, 100% perception.  We must be 100% there, or our training has little value. ‘Time’ is no guarantee of one’s skill, or the measure of one’s progress.  However, a year of training as if every moment was life or death can be worth a lifetime of normal keiko.”


This the first part of a two-part article, “How To Train For A Million Years.”   The second part will discuss biofeedback, the Opposition Reflex, and Proprioception as the components of evolved, instinctual movement in our attackers. You can read the second part of this article here.

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