“Slow is good. No need to be fast. The speed will come when you need it.”
That was what my teacher said. We were practicing Shihonage.
Shihonage is the four-direction throw. It is based on how fighters long ago used to bow toward the East, North, West and South before and after a fight (I think Muay Thai and Sumo arts still bow to the four directions until now). Sometimes, it is also called the four corner-throw. Everything that Aikido is based on can be found in Shihonage. According to an account written by Gozo Shioda, O’Sensei said that:
“Shihonage is the foundation of Aikido. All you ever need to master is Shihonage”.
One of the reasons why Shihonage has a very special place in my heart is because it was the very first technique my teacher taught me. I still remember it very clearly. Katatedori gyaku hanmi Shihonage omote. Looking back at the beginner that I was, we paid close attention to starting out footwork. I got easily lost the minute the hanmi changed. I counted the steps and turned awkwardly. I kept losing my balance and kept getting my face in the way of my partner’s fist. Sometimes, I bumped into him. I couldn’t get it right. Sensei was a patient man. I do not doubt that my clumsy attempts were any good at all. But he was right there along with me guiding me to get it right.
“Ma-ai.” He says. “You get a fist if you do not understand ma-ai.” Outbalance upon entering.“Maintain your partner’s being off-balance throughout the entire technique.“I can still hear his voice in my mind when I slip up and do not get it right every now and then.“Do not pause when you pivot. One continuous motion from start to finish!”Poor bumbling newbie, I thought would never get the hang of it.
Personally, Shihonage always reminds me of cutting down with a sword. I like to practice with the bokken and cutting in four or eight directions when I am alone and have no partner to practice with. The cutting and turning with the bokken exercise lends itself well to refining most techniques, but the particular one that comes to my mind is Shihonage. Breathing with my sword strokes also helps in keeping me aware of the rising and dropping motions.
Shihonage should not be unreasonable or forced.
I think you have to segue into Shihonage, flow into it from the attack, very much like Kaitenage. When I practice it, I become conscious of where my hips are and to where they are facing. I become aware of a drop in my center when I cut down. In practicing Shihonage, I also become very much aware of Ma-ai, because, yes, I do get a fist in my face or walk into a face slap if I do not pay attention to it.
Then there is the direction of the throw. When I was starting out, I learned the one where you cut down directly in front of you. As I got more exposed to other versions, I learned them too. Sometimes, one teacher will teach the cutting down version, other times, another teacher will teach throwing your uke away version. I was so confused, because at that time, I thought there was only one correct way to do it! Oh my goodness! Was I totally wrong! There’s a whole lot of Shihonages out there, for as many as there are people practicing them and making it work for them. And, I want to learn them all!
Once, while I was performing Shihonage, I felt my arms were too short. They were already extended, but uke was still there. When my teacher saw the look of confusion on my face, he just said, “Move your body, not your arms. Move as one, every part of you, move forward. Slide.” Ahhh, so that’s how it goes. We throw with our whole body, not just the arms. We move from the center, whole body as one, to throw uke! (Imagine that light bulb going ding-ding-ding in my head.)
One tip I learned from someone close to me is that if you are dizzyingly confused, always go back to the very basic form and the prevailing principles that govern your Aikido and work your way up again. Or you can go back to the weapons where the movement was based. If you base Shihonage on the sword, you throw uke downward like a sword cut, taking advantage of its cutting edge. If you base it on the jo, you throw uke out, like the sweeping of the jo, taking advantage of its long reach.
Personally, I believe it is important in Shihonage to consider the quality of the connection you establish between you and your partner; tori and uke as one, bringing each other to the best position to complete the throw.
My teacher also showed me how to take care of my partner who was on the receiving end of the technique. I liked how he emphasized my partner’s safety as well as my own. He said he wanted me to still have partners for the next day, and the next, so I must take good care of them, make sure I do not injure them or wear them out. I thought it was funny, the way he put it like that, but now, ah, I understand, that part of Aikido is respect and loving kindness.
To this day, whenever Shihonage is demonstrated and taught for practice, it always makes me feel like there is something wonderful ahead, just around the four corners. Something new maybe, or an old familiar reliable form? Four directions can easily become eight, and all the eight directions can even become infinite. In a way, then, Shihonage is limitless.
I like Shihonage. Maybe because it was the very first technique I learned. Maybe because I feel very efficient doing it. Maybe because it was one of the first techniques that really opened up Aikido for me. Or maybe, because it very closely resembles a dance move of which I have no aptitude for.
Do you have a particular technique that is secretly your favorite?
(Please also see: “Should Aikido be Effective?“)