Aikido: When The Body Moves the Mind

It is an established aim of Aikido that the mind and body should be united so that a person can fully be his best self in whatever he does. The concept is that of cause and effect: The mind desires something and the physical body expresses that desire through action. Imagine a human being having two sides, the mental and the physical. The mental side is the part that thinks and directs, and the physical side is the one that acts and follows the direction.


Photo Credit: Christopher Peddecord. www.dancinphotos.net

Photo Credit: Christopher Peddecord. http://www.dancinphotos.net

The Mind Moves the Body

Usually, when we try doing something for the first time, we can’t really do it well, can we? Remember how you first learned to ride a bike? Or the first time you tried to drive? Remember how it was for you the first time you tried to do any sport? Or, for the martial artists out there, the first time you tried to punch, kick, block? For the Aikidoka, remember the first time you tried to do the rolls? How about the first technique you got to do? Or the first time you held a bokken and did a shomenuchi with it? In all these examples, how was it for you?

For most of us, our first time has been a disappointing failure.

It is arrogant to believe anything can be done well the first time. Although we may think we understand the movement, (in fact, we have replayed the sequence in our minds over and over again!) when we get to the actual doing, our bodies do not seem to listen to us. We move awkwardly and clumsily as opposed to the grace and deft we have pictured ourselves to be capable of doing. The first time is frustrating, indeed.

And so we train. We train to unify what our mind has set out to do and what we are actually doing. The mind is moving the body. The mind is the arbiter of control, and the body is the faculty of action. Whatever constructs we have built within our minds will be reflected in our actions on and off the mats. In teaching Aikido skills, more important than the steps of different techniques is the reconfiguration of how we think.

As O’Sensei said: “I want considerate people to listen to the voice of Aikido. It is not for correcting others; it is for correcting your own mind”.

In order for training to be fruitful, one has to rid himself of mental distractions that limit the movement of the body. It is here where the application and practice of the budo concept of Fudoshin becomes important. Once the mind is corrected, the body will be able to move in harmony with its intentions. Following this basic concept, Aikido therefore begins with correctly training the mind so as to correctly train the body. Otherwise, training becomes a futile routine.


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Ikkyo. Seishiro Endo Shihan, 8th Dan.

Musubi: Moving as One

In the course of the physical interaction between tori and uke, Aikido techniques are done most efficiently when the tori and uke move as one. At the moment of the initial contact, there is a joining or unifying inherent in Aikido movement that is accomplished.  The point of contact becomes the point of communication, becoming the link that connects tori and uke together. It is here that Musubi is established.

Musubi is to tie together.

There is no other in Aikido, and at the initiation of the movement, the goal of training is to transform duality into oneness. Musubi training is training in uniting opposing forces through connection and circular movements. Musubi is not trained by pushing and pulling. Instead, it can be trained by skillfully attracting and drawing in the energy of the uke’s attack, uniting with the uke through a point (or points) of contact, maintaining this unity, and through circular and spherical movement, moving together as one.

It is important to always be aware of this point of communication and to not lose it: the centers of tori and uke are joined together through the interplay of energies at the point of contact. It is with the joined centers that duality is extinguished and the two bodies become one. When both tori and uke are truly unified, there can never be a separation of intention as well as their physical action. In unity, Aikido then becomes effortless.


When The Body Moves the Mind

In doing any particular Aikido movement, tori and uke should always move as one unit. During a technique, there is an ongoing interplay of energies running between the tori and uke from their centers through the point of contact. In order to maintain musubi and continue moving together as one, tori should move in such a way that that there is no resistance, until the technique is completed.

changeResistance is an indicator of duality.

Resistance signals a disruption in the movement. Forcing the technique through resistance is not Aikido. There should be no clashing in Aikido. Resistance is therefore a sign of separation, and a call to reestablish unity -an opportunity for henkawaza.

Henkawaza is simply defined as changing from one technique to another. It is what you do when you “failed” to complete the initial technique because of resistance, hence doing another technique to address this “problem”. Realistically, henkawaza happens all the time, especially when dealing with very responsive and well-trained ukes.  However as the Aikidoka matures in both skill and knowledge, opportunities for henkawaza happen less and less.

Sensitivity to connection and to resistance of uke is therefore important during the execution of any movement. Otherwise, the tendency to force a technique increases.

These changes in the interplay of energies are usually subtle, and can only be felt through softness and sensitivity. Depending on the feeling, the body then moves the mind to adapt with any and all circumstances that arise in any particular movement. Sensitivity to tactile inputs in training as well as other sensory data is critical to developing good Aikido.


Our bodies have afferent (sensory) and efferent (motor) nerves that provide inputs and outputs to and from the brain respectively. When the mind moves the body, it is when efferent nerve fibers efficiently address the instruction from the mind and manifest these to actual physical movement . In instances when the body moves the mind, by way of afferent nerve fibers through different sensory inputs, the body feeds the mind with real-time information about the physical circumstances of the movement currently being done. The mind can then reconstruct the initial action-decision to adapt with the changes that may have occurred based on the information it has received.

This interplay of motor output and sensory input in the Aikidoka initiates the dynamics of the-mind-moving-the-body-and-the body-moving-the-mind (MB-BM) cycle. In any given technique, this cycle is repeated indefinitely until the movement is completed. It also goes without saying that the Aikidoka is making and acting on one decision after another at a very fast, almost instantaneous rate throughout any particular movement. It is only with continuous training that these skills are honed.

This ability to decide and act almost instantaneously is sometimes coined as intuition, the hallmark of mastery.

(Please also see: “Aikido: Kata is NOT Waza“)

Balance

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“Balance, the stroke of the wise, the style of the sharp. The way, the groove. Bal-ance: the sole of the feet, the soul of the Universe, takes step after step down the beat to time: da DUM, da DUM. Bal. Ance.” -Mark O’Brien

Such a delicate topic, balance.

A long time ago, I was totally enamoured reading Dungeons and  Dragons books.  There was this series about twin brothers.  One of them was a strong kind of moose-like kind of warrior, and the other was a sickly but powerful magician with hour-glass eyes.  I loved that series, and  felt especially drawn to Raistlin, the magician.  That was his name.

In their world, the gods were always in a power struggle to tip the balance of the world to their advantage, and all the people had a basic orientation: the good, the bad and the neutral.

I was happy reading through this fictional world and enjoyed my literary sojourns into those books.  Balance was just an important part of the story, but in real life, I never really paid much attention to it before Aikido came into my life.  That was x number of years ago.


  • Aikido

In Aikido, we are always conscious of our center of gravity and the seat of our balance so that we can do our techniques effectively.  We practice together and in pair work we find out the point at which we can upset or affect the balance of our partners.  After a while, being aware of our hara and center becomes second nature and  “is just is”.  It’s just there, in yourself, in your mind, in your technique.  How can I explain this any better knowing it’s just there?”

The practice of aikido opened a whole new way of looking at balance, and  I am rereading those books again, as well as revisiting older classical works.  How refreshing it is to come back to old haunts and see them and feel them with fresh eyes, new perspectives!

  • Ancient Wisdom

Ancient philosophers caution us to do things in moderation, to maintain a balance in our lives.  Some of them advise us to balance the pleasures and the sacrifices, the spiritual and the worldly, to consider the one side of an issue alongside with the other.  In old Chinese medical books, there are even cold food  and hot food categories and acupuncture meridian points to activate to restore an unbalanced spleen, or an upset stomach and all that. Diets are advised to be balanced according to our energy and nutritional needs.  To dancers,  athletes, actors and everyday ordinary people:  Balance is a universal prerequisite to living a full and well-lived existence.

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“Health is the natural condition. When sickness occurs, it is a sign that Nature has gone off course because of a physical or mental imbalance. The road to health for everyone is through moderation, harmony, and a ‘sound mind in a sound body’.”  -Jostein Gaarder, Sophies World

It is one of the first things we acquire in order to walk, to appreciate  visual art, to blend and adjust flavors in cooking.  For example, if you are a fan of cooking shows, you will see that the host/cook balances the acidic and the salty, sweet flavorings in his dish.   When we eat something, we don’t like it too salty, or too sweet.  Like the baby bear in Goldilocks, we want everything just right, and “just right” is actually the balance we instinctively seek.

What happens when there is imbalance? We get sick. Too much salt and our liver and kidneys get out of whack.  We go to the doctors to set our internal balance right. When we are sick, we try to get well again.

  • The Arts

When we experience extreme joy or extreme sorrow,  when we experience ecstasy and despair, we also seek to right the imbalance.  We cannot stay ecstatic all the time, or depressed all the time.  When we experience a great event, we seek creative outlets to pour  out the excess of the emotions incurred by  that event.  Hence, some great works of literature or of art have been the fruit of the creator’s  life of imbalance.  If I remember right, Van Gogh painted his most memorable pieces  when he was in a deep depression.  Picasso had his periods, too.  His life was tumultuous, and his periods reflected it.  They had to find a way to let it all out.  Unconsciously, we seek to right the balance.   It is the same with composing  photographs.  One has to be keenly aware of the balance of the composition to be able to create a pleasing, or disturbing or moving  image.

  • Drives and the Self

When we act on a desire or a need, shouldn’t  the action also be balanced by our conscience or ethics? When there is an imbalance, confusion  ensues.  Take for example those two girls who stabbed their friend in order to get close to a certain “slenderman”.   Extreme desire without the balance of conscience or ethics results in harming another human being, which  might  also result in extinguishing a life.


I was not aware of the importance of balance in every aspect of life before I studied Aikido.  I took it for granted,  and took balance for movement as separate from balance for art, or from emotion.  There was never a unifying element and connection and they, (dance, movement, art, photography, painting etc.) were just subjects.  Until Aikido.  Now, it feels like a prerequisite in self- awareness to me so that I can relate to the world better.balance2

What is it about this martial art that opens me up to being more sensitive?  More perceptive? More appreciative? Less  reactive, more calm, more patient? Is it particular only to Aikido? Or does this happen to someone practicing in other disciplines as well?  Yoga? Tai Chi? Has the art you have been practicing ultimately thrown open the doors to your inner self-awareness and your relationship with the world around you?  I am curious and happily grateful for this stage of growth.  Infinitely curious, boundlessly grateful,  and thoroughly  happy!

And yes, I have a life aside from Aikido and away from the blog.  I don’t practice on the mats all the time, or think about it all the time.  I have more fluency in maintaining a healthy balance in living a full and happy life.

I still think about Raistlin, the magician with hour-glass eyes, even if he went over to the dark side.  Maintaining his neutrality got in the way of his ambition.  But he sacrificed himself to right the balance in his world.

Delicate, I tell you, this element we call Balance.

 

(Please also see: “Rollercoaster Sensei“)

Opposites: A Humourous Approach to Balancing Acts

Photo source: Publications International, Ltd.

Photo source: Publications International, Ltd.

Yin and yang, dark and light, soft and hard, cold and hot, female and male. Working with these opposing characteristics everyday makes the world go round and mat practice interesting. We harness their balance to create an effect. And of what worth is one without the foil of the other? There can be no appreciation for light without the contrast of what is dark. Of what value would chiaroscuro be without contrasts?

How light is a feather without comparing it to the heaviness of, for example, a brick? Unless a pound of feathers is equal to a pound of bricks, then a pound is a pound is a pound. Let’s take a look at dragons, for example. Smaug, the dragon in the hobbit, is a western born dragon. By that, I mean, he was conceptualized by someone from the West. Smaug was grasping, greedy, exceedingly proud and exceedingly destructive; a total manic gold-hoarder. Eastern dragons, on the other hand, are usually regarded as benevolent beings, bringing rain to parched land, teaching man the arts. The eastern dragon usually guards a pearl . Just one pearl, not a hoard of pearls. A creature much revered for its wisdom and elusiveness . Same creatures, but polar opposites.

Cultures are like that, as well.

In my line of work, I have met a lot of people from different countries. For some cultures, smiles are few and far between, sometimes they are even considered a sign of weakness . Being brusque to the point of being rude and firm is the norm. It takes some getting used to, but I have to try to understand, since I was born and raised in a city of smiles. I smiled at someone once who misunderstood it for disrespect. Since I cannot vow never to smile again, I simply and sincerely apologized.

It is the same with eye contact. In some places, a direct eye contact indicates you are open to conversation, in other places, direct eye contact is considered an affront and could get you into trouble. So many differences and opposites that it could drive a body to hermit-dom.

We try to establish a balance of these opposites to allow us to be ourselves yet operate in a world that might not be as understanding as our birthplace culture.

creekIt is a delicate on-going process in our day to day existence. I tend to liken the situation to a tightrope walker, wherein the tightrope is the life you want to live, and it is the tightrope walker’s job to stay balanced and focused so he can reach the other end safely. He uses his arms, his feet and his body to keep himself on that rope. Whenever he becomes unbalanced, he compensates by moving his arms or feet. But his center of gravity must, at all times, be within his control while on the rope.

It looks easy when you are just watching him do it, but when you try it yourself, you fall after 2-3 seconds. When we watch other people’s lives, it is easy to think “I can do that!” But when the time comes for us to live it, we falter and wonder how they can do it.

Once, a long time ago, while I was out in the field doing some grassroots peace education, I met a very stern and unyielding man. He had grown stern and unyielding from the hardships of farming and poverty. He never cracked jokes, and every attempt at humor me and my friends made fell flat. He was guarded, suspicious and angry. But he was interested collaborating with an education program that would benefit the residents in his area.

And, his eyes softened every time he saw his grandchildren.

Just that. Right there and then, I knew. He wasn’t doing this for himself. He was too old, too set in his ways, too brusque, too angry. He was doing this collaboration for his grandchildren. And it was all there, in just one soft look from one hard and angry man. All the hard work made it all worthwhile, for all of us who were involved in the project. Since he could not do what I can and I could not do what he can, we had to find a way to finish the job without losing his identity nor losing mine.

Sometimes, there is no middle ground, and we have problems reconciling two opposing ends . So it becomes a balancing act of understanding where the other person is coming from and what we can do from our stand point, too. All this trouble, going back and forth, working on working harmoniously together to finish a project must be seasoned liberally with a sense of humor and a willingness to try something new or strange.

DandelionWe had problems, sometimes, because neither one of us was willing to concede decisions to the other. There were times when one of us had to walk away and take a time out. I realized I could never fully understand being in his shoes, and he bluntly told me, he couldn’t imagine himself to ever be in my position, as well. But we both had the community’s best interest at heart, and neither one of us was going to leave any unfinished business behind. That we were both very stubborn was obvious. We also had to keep the integrity of the project intact despite our differences.

For about 18 months we were seesawing with working it all out, that when we finally came to a mutually satisfying plan of action and an even better execution, we felt a huge sense of accomplishment, relief, joy and fulfillment at the closing celebration.

When all was done, and it was time for me to leave, in the end, seeing that man’s smile was my own secret reward.

(Please also see: “8 Tips to Making Peace a Habit“)

Aikido: Kata is NOT Waza

Kata is a set of pre-arranged forms (rational movement, forms) used as a training tool in many traditional Japanese martial arts. The kata is a logical pattern of time-tested movements that carry the secrets of learning an art. Through practicing the kata, we become adept at it, and once the kata movements can be done spontaneously and effectively, it becomes waza (natural movement, art/technique). But the kata is not waza.osensei

In mathematical formulas,we all know that the formula will get us to the right answer, but first we have to get 3 things correctly:

(1) we have to know what formula to use,

(2) we have to know the correct formula, and

(3) we have to know how to apply the formula to different problems that that particular formula is intended for.

In Aikido, the  kata is the formula- the tool we use to get the answer, and the answer becomes (Aikido) waza-the spontaneous, appropriate, logical expression or applicattion of the kata. The kata demonstrates the technical mechanics of the techniques, revealing the points for atemi, kuzushi and tsukuri which are needed for the effortless application of the technique, should the circumstances require.

Therefore, it is my belief that Aikido uses the different kata in its teaching system otherwise we wouldn’t have a system at all. The basic movements, as I understand, are kata designed for the partnered training of tori and uke. They are pre-arranged, with a pre-arranged result. And the key to learning Aikido is to discover the rational meaning and connections within the movement of the kata for it to be martially applicable in an actual martial encounter.

Aikido training therefore, is immersing yourself with the forms, for the purpose of slowly unfolding its mysteries until the waza is unveiled within you.

I have noticed that there are Aikido dojos that do not even consider that there is a kata, and they think that the kata is the waza. The kata is just the tip of the iceberg. The mysteries are still hidden underneath. If you practice Aikido in such a way that that you think memorizing the kata will make you martially proficient, I suggest you start thinking very hard about the system you use to understand Aikido.

If we are going to look back at those who came before us, and look at how they did their techniques, although it may look the same, they are not. No Aikido waza is the same. There have been adjustments within the kata to compensate for the speed of the attack, the size of the attacker, maai-their position relative to each other, the changes in rhythm and timing of the attack, the environment, among others. These minute details have all been considered for them to have done their waza properly.

Today, we see the instructors perform the kata in Aikido classes especially to train beginners. In demonstrations however, during randori, we see them performing their waza.

ueshibaIn my understanding, Aikido has both visible and invisible qualities. These are trained through memorizing the  kata (Shu), then questioning kata (Ha), then understanding the kata and performing waza (Ri). (See: Shu-Ha-Ri: The Road to Mastery).

On this note:

If a person finds that his techniques does not work,  he is in Shu. The reason it doesn’t work is because he does not understand how it works.

To use the analogy above, Aikido is the answer. Don’t blame Aikido if you do not understand the question, or if you do not know the formula, or if you do not know how to apply the formula to different problems. Another analogy would be: Aikido is like a pen: don’t blame the pen for your bad handwriting.

The basic forms (kata) are there not to be practiced and taken as everything Aikido is all about as a martial art. It is there to be used as tools for the Aikidoka to understand how to perform the different waza and is not the end in and of itself. The kata  is the beginning from which our knowledge of Aikido can spring from, as such, it is vital, but it is not the goal. For each waza (natural movement) there is a kata (rational movement), but the kata is not always the waza. And the difference between the two is Aiki.

How about you? How did you find your own Aikido? Please share your thoughts.

Aikido: The Sword of Life and Death

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Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the sword was primarily made to protect. No. The intention was to slay. The more lethal the art, the more efficient it is. Such was the path of a martial artist. However, in the course of history, humanity has long been seeking the good, especially after having seen the devastation of evil. And from a sword that kills (The Sword of Death, Satsujinken), people started adapting the idea of a sword that preserves or gives life (The Sword of Life, Katsujinken). 

Now Katsujinken and Satsujinken cannot be one without the other. Like in the principle of Yin and Yang, there is a dualism that exists: “in all evil there can be some good, and in all good there can be some evil”. This is a natural law, in an attempt to maintain homeostasis. Like in all things, there should be balance, without which, there can only be chaos. It is believed, at least in Japan, that martial artists are like iron, forged into swords in an anvil, ultimately used as tools either to kill (Satsujinken), or to protect (Katsujinken). It is for the martial artist to choose what sword to wield. But the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba O’Sensei thought of a higher path.

Indeed martial arts have always been taught  to maim or kill. There was no martial art to satiate the purpose of peace. This is where the uniqueness of Aikido enters.

flat,550x550,075,f.u2O’Sensei fashioned Aikido in such a way that it can be used as a tool for reconciliation and peace. Without giving up the battle, O’Sensei sought of a martial system that can be both efficient and life-saving. The mere fact that this seems like an oxymoron is why Aikido is such an innovative art. As O’Sensei said:

“The penetrating brilliance of a sword wielded by a man of the Way
strikes at the enemy lurking deep within one’s own body and mind.”

In Aikido, we manipulate the energy of an attack, neutralize it, and then overwhelm the aggressor with our technique. Once the technique is finished, we find ourselves in a position of control, and it is here where the threat has been eliminated, and reconciliation can begin. As with all things that need to reconcile, in a martial situation, the way of Aikido starts with hope, and it is in this hoping that our hearts aim for peace. From this example, the efficiency of Satsujinken or the Sword of Death and the will of Katsujinken or the Sword of Life are coexisting in perfect harmony. Aikido has struck the delicate balance between martial effectiveness and transcendental love.

In a broader understanding, Aikido is more than a martial art. It is a Budo, a martial way. To learn Aikido is impossible without learning the principles of peace because these principles are deeply rooted within the very purpose of Aikido itself.

In everyday life, Aikido teaches a person not to be wimps but to be champions with a heart. There can never be real peace in a win-lose situation, and to give up without making a stand creates resentment within the defeated and is therefore unacceptable. Resentment are seeds of conflict, and there can never be real reconciliation until the conflict is thoroughly neutralized.

Aikido is also called the Art of Peace. Aikido teaches a person to live in such a way that we always strive to resolve a conflict and not reinforce it by hate. Aikido goes beyond the martial discipline through the brilliance of its philosophy. It digs deep into the very dynamics of the circumstances, and changes the dynamics to create a win-win situation. As such, Aikido is both martial, and philosophical as well. Through its seemingly endless applicability to everyday life, Aikido is more than just a hobby. It has become a way of life.

 

(Please also see: “Aikido and the Two Faces“)

The Floating Bridge of Heaven

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba referred to the connection between the Tale of the Floating Bridge of Heaven (Ame no Uki Hashi) and Aikido when he said that “Aikido is ‘Standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven’.”

ImageThe “Floating Bridge of Heaven” may very well be the most essential point of the creation myth of Japan.

This tale has been recorded in the Kojiki (“A Record of Ancient Affairs”). It speaks of two divine beings summoned by the first of the gods: Izanagi  and Izanami. Long ago, when the world was just beginning, two gods appeared in the land we call Japan. Izanami (“The Female who Invites), the female essence, and Izanagi (The Male who Invites), the male essence, stood upon the floating bridge of heaven, looking down at the swirl of sea below. They began to stir the ocean with their jewel-studded spear. As they stirred, they said these words: “Kohro, Kohro, Kohro,” and before long, because they stirred with such strength and determination, a vortex was created, and the drops of saltwater from the spear caused the waters to curdle, and from this curdling came the first body of land, an island the gods called Onokoro.

Back to O’Sensei, he continues to say

“In the Way, you must first stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. If you do not stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven then Aiki will not come forth.”

“The left hand is Izanagi, the right is Izanami, in the center is Ame-no-minakanushi, this is yourself. This is standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven and turning in a spiral. This is called Taka-ama-hara. Heaven and earth are one unit, water and fire are also one unit, all appears through Iki (breath). This is the endless appearance of the Kami. Aiki technique comes forth endlessly.”

Further, in a Doka (Poems of the Way) of O’Sensei, he states:

“Manifest yo (yang) in the right hand, change the left hand to in (yin) and guide the opponent.”

Ame-no-minakanushi was the first deity to appear in heaven (along with Kunitokotachi) who charged Izanami and Izanagi to create the first landmass. In this account from O’Sensei, it is being said that the creation myth is a analogy: wherein Ame-no-minakanushi is in the center (you) and on the left is Izanagi (in/yin) and on the right is Izanami (yo/yang). This is an illustration of the most basic principle of Aikido.

In an interview with Henry Kono Shihan, he recalls a story about an experience he had with O’Sensei:

One day that we were having a party for celebrating his birthday, I quietly asked O Sensei “O Sensei, how come we can’t do what you are doing?” and he just replied “Because I know Yin and Yang and you don’t”.

Now  here in Kono Shihan’s story, O’Sensei explicitly states how vital this principle is in Aikido. Here, It may be understood that O’Sensei is saying that should first understand the concept of Yin and Yang before you can even attempt to manipulate it.One of the ever famous lines of O’Sensei says:

” I am the Universe, the Universe is me.”

I believe that the Aikidoka should understand that to be able to be effective, he should be in the center (Ame-no-minakanushi) of the universe, on one hand is Izanagi/In (yin), and on the other is Izanami/Yo (yang). With the Aikidoka standing in the center of the Floating Bridge of Heaven, he unites the opposing forces of In and Yo while moving in a spiral (it is interesting to note that is said that the movement of the two gods Izanagi and Izanami as they mated is often represented as a spiral. And in addition, Izanagi stirred the seas with the jeweled spear to create a whirling vortex)

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The Floating Bridge of Heaven, consists of creating a state within yourself wherein you are in the center. Like the spinning top, you are stable yet dynamic. The center is on the neutral point between Izanami and Izanagi to the left and to the right, and between heaven and earth from above and below. And from this point, the Aikidoka connects opposing forces (In and Yo) and expresses that connection in spirals through the body through Breath (Iki).

This may as well be one of the most important technical instructions the founder, Morihei Ueshiba O’Sensei, gave us.

This gives birth to Aikido.

(Please also see: “Iwato Biraki: The Story of Amaterasu“)