Low Impact Aikido - Teaching those First Steps
Contributed by Paul Rest
One of the most interesting moments in a Low Impact class is when a new student arrives, one who has no prior martial arts training. Do you shuffle them off to the side with another student and let them fumble through the class together? Or, do you use the arrival of the new student as an opportunity to review some of the basic core principles of Aikido?
I recently had a mother and daughter show up for one of my classes. The daughter, who was twelve, had some prior Aikido classes. The mother had no experience on the mat, other than watching her daughter on a few occasions. The daughter had an "I'm twelve and I'm bored" attitude. The mother was genuinely excited about the class.
One of the students who had now trained with me for over a year and a half was present, as was a friend who is also a black belt. Quickly assessing the situation, I asked myself: "How can I make this class interesting for everyone?" In a moment of inspiration, I thought about our feet on the ground. How are we grounded? How do we stand on the mat and in the world? Does how we stand reflect who we are? Or, does the tail wag the dog. That is, does our lack or grounding or lack of clear stance (and posture) determine who we are and how we act?
I began with a simple exercise. I had everyone stand with their feet parallel and hip-width apart in a neutral stance, then asked, "How does that feel?" The answers showed a lack of focus. "I'm here." "Okay." "Just waiting."
I then had them stand with one foot in front of the other, in a hanmi, then asked how they felt standing that way. "More alert." "Centered" (the blackbelt in the class said this). "More okay" (from the twelve year old girl).
We then went into partner practice. I had them place their feet parallel again and face each other. One training partner stood with their feet together, and the other training partner would try to move them--which they were able to do easily. Then I had the training partner in a neutral stance move into a hanmi. Of course, it was much harder to move that person. Even without taking the exercise to another level where we drop our energy into the Earth, something had noticeably shifted. (The twelve year old loved moving and then trying to move her mother!)
A variation of this exercise followed, only this time one partner stood behind the other. First, the training partner in front assumed a neutral, parallel stance. The other training partner would gently push from behind (the twelve year old really pushed her mom.oh, well.mother and daughter dynamics). The person in front was easily moved. Then, as in the first exercise, the training partner in front stood in a hanmi. It was much harder to move that person now. Something had changed.
Without getting into all the esoteric aspects of Aikido, I talked about the difference between being grounded and not being grounded. I emphasized that this was not just about the martial arts, it was a way one could stand in the world. I asked the class to do a simple exercise during the next week. The first part of the exercise was to notice how they were standing whenever they remembered. Were their feet parallel? If so, they were to change into this new way of standing, then ask the question: "How does this feel different from the way I was standing a minute before?" The next part of the exercise was to observe this while doing a task. One 'task' I suggested observing was cutting vegetables, something we all do. Standing at the counter or chopping block, how does cutting feel with your feet together? Then, how does the same movement(s) feel standing in a hamni?
Whenever I have asked students to do these two exercises, the reports that came back confirmed that having a powerful stance makes a difference. With cutting vegetables, it's easier. With just standing, anywhere, the level of alertness (and aliveness) was increased.
I've also had students try this same exercise in the supermarket. I'd tell them, "Go down the isle with a shopping cart, or holding a basket (or bag) when your feet are parallel, and notice how you see yourself in that moment. If you put your feet in a hanmi, does anything shift?" Once again, students reported that not only did their attitudes shift but the change affected those around them. The people they interacted with were suddenly friendlier (no mean feat in some shopping environments). Check-out clerks engaged in friendly conversation and there was a camaraderie amongst those in the check-out line.
This doesn't mean everything will be roses. We may wish that the universe was a perfect place where everyone is friendly and co-operates, yet we all know this isn't so. Some students have reported back that they realized that they had avoided unruly people at the walk-up teller or others locations. Or, they moved out of a check-out line where a dispute suddenly emerged. I've counted those reports as examples of where having a powerful stance in the world has worked as a way to avoid potential trouble.
I think one of the most important attributes of our art is that we can break it down to a single core concept and create a highly teachable class. Examining the question of how we stand is just such a class. When discussing a Low Impact approach with other teachers, I've noticed a tendency to immediately move into recognizable techniques. But what do you do, if, like my recent class, the student has zero prior experience on the mat. I don't think a shomen uchi ikkyo where one breaks partner's balance will work.
What is most effective in my opinion is using core concepts as teaching tools. This is great opportunity for a review for all students. I remember a workshop I attended where Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei spent the first sessions just on a very basic hand movement, getting us all to try to do this simple movement in a relaxed manner. From that hour and a half my understanding of moving my hands increased ten fold.
From the perspective of Low Impact teaching with new students, the basic questions that can be asked are:
The class was successful. It was easy to see that, with the smiles and laughter in the room. As I wrapped up the class with a few observations, I noticed the mother and daughter standing together, softly talking, their bodies gently pressed together. This was a definite shift from what I had seen when class began. My 'older' student told me that she had a good time and learned a lot. And the black belt at the class later mentioned that reviewing this basic part of the art is always a great learning experience for her.
Anything new begins with a first step. Making those first steps easy recognizable and replicable are important teaching tools available to all who are teaching this Low Impact approach to Aikido.
Paul Rest has written numerous articles about Aikido and his Low Impact work. He teaches classes in Bodega Bay, California. Paul holds the rank of Nidan. He trains with Sensei Richard Strozzi-Heckler at Two Rock Aikido. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to a real mother-daughter team for their help with the photographs (taken by this writer, whose feet are also included).