Teaching a Low Impact Aikido Weapons Class
Contributed by Paul Rest
The evolution of the Low Impact ("Aikido for Everyone") classes I've taught over the years has in every single case included weapons instructions. This was not planned when I began exploring the idea of a non-rolling, non-falling approach to Aikido. In fact, including weapons training was probably the furthest thing from my mind.
But I found myself grounding the demonstrations of various techniques by referring to O Sensei's mastery of the jo and bokken. "The basis of this technique," I would say, "is from this movement, when using a sword or bokken." Or, "This circular move is based on one's moving a jo this way. You can see O Sensei make this same move in some of the videos showing him 'in action'." And, "This strike comes from a bokken strike that looks like this." And I'd bring that weapon out and demonstrate what I was saying. It helped those attending the classes in their understanding of the art and its historical roots. I would always add, "That is the old tradition, the cut or the strike meant to harm. And this is what O Sensei did with that movement to change and transform it into a healing energy."
Gradually, students began to understand that what I was demonstrating and that which we were learning was not just random movements, however beautiful and skillfully executed they might be to the eye. But that there was something deeper here that had as its roots in how the universe moves and how we can perhaps capture a small piece of that in our own selves- our bodies, our hearts and our souls.
First with the students in one class, the one I taught in Nevada City, then the class I taught in Marin County and then the classes in Sonoma County and elsewhere, all these locations had students requesting time be set aside each class to be devoted to weapons training. My initial instinct was, "No, I don't think this will work." But then, after looking at these repeated requests a second time, I agreed and we began working with weapons.
The following exercises are some I developed for use in my Low Impact classes:
I began with the jo, teaching various basic ways to move. For example, walking across the dojo with the jo under the left arm, held in a relaxed manner next to the body at an approximate 40 degree angle from the body's center line. Then, doing the same walking exercise, only this time holding the jo out in front with the right then the left hand, in line with the body, about ten inches away with tip of the jo being about same level as the forehead. We'd then learn how to move doing a two-step with the jo held in the same positions. Then we'd practice learning to move with a partner, either side by side, or with the two-step or by moving forwards and backwards with the extended out in the same manner.
Another exercise I found useful was a partner exercise where the jo's would be at a cross angle to each other, held about ten or so inches away from the body, at the diagonal, left hand up (cupping the jo) and right hand down (grasping the jo). The first exercise was to have the students establish a relationship where there would be equal contact at the point where the two jo's meet. In other words, neither student should feel the other pushing in or out. Once this connection was established, the students would then practice moving backwards two steps and forwards two steps. During this movement forwards and backwards, the same connection should be maintained where the jo's are touching. If contact is broken, the connection should be re-established. In doing this, the students learned to move together with their "stick," which I described as an extension of themselves- something more than what they were perhaps used to as their operational field of energy or definition of self. For some, this was mastered in a couple of classes. For others, finding that point of equal connection proved more elusive.
From those exercises, we moved to ones that involved more direct contact. The students again had their jo's at a diagonal angle across their bodies, held out again about ten or so inches. One student would stand still and would ground themselves. When they were ready, they'd indicate so to their training partner. The other student would then walk slowly (and I mean slowly!), taking two or three steps with their jo outstretched about the same distance, ten or so inches, and also across their body, until contact was made, jo to jo, with the other person. The idea of this exercise was twofold. It should first be an opportunity for both training partners to learn about grounding themselves. The person receiving the "strike" would need to sink their energy into the earth, rather than be fixated on the incoming jo/person/strike. And the person moving forward would need to have the same deepening of ki so they are in relationship to their jo and their partner when they make contact and are not leaning forwards or backwards. In other words, a "good strike" is one when both sides of the equation, in this case, both students, are able to meet with the one receiving the strike keeping their center line and balance where the jo is not pushed in (where their energy collapses) and the student moving forward makes a clean contact that is audibly verified by a sharp "hit" when the jo's make contact (as opposed to a thud or loud crack).
When I introduced the bokken, I always began by telling the class, "Imagine the edge is sharp. Treat it that way when you handle it. And always think of it that way when practicing with your partner." Of course, this took some time. Students would always be holding weapons upside down, or with the blade turned up when practicing, or trying to look a little bit like Errol Flynn in his swashbuckling days while in "Capitan Blood."
However, over time, no matter what the age of the students or their physical limitations, a sense of connection with the bokken emerged. This further evolved into an understanding that the bokken could be an extension of their ki, and of their self- a way of expression. I would begin with the same exercise as with the jo. That is, moving around the training space holding the bokken in a relaxed manner in the left hand, cupped upwards, with the blade facing up, balanced in such a way that the weapon did not need to be held tightly, that gravity had established a point of equilibrium with the hand as the fulcrum between the hilt which was the heaven point, and the tip of the blade, which was the earth polarity. Once this could be done without the weapons bobbing up and down, I would have the class slowly practice shomen strikes where they would learn how to move the weapon and over their heads without dropping the point too far back and letting gravity do as much of the work as possible. This was done first stationary and then with a step forward (beginning with the right foot and moving forward with the left foot).
We would then learn how to turn, making the same strike. Once again, moving slowly, so that the power and beauty of this movement could be fully appreciated, the class gradually made the discovery about moving together as individuals and as a collective group. For those who had difficulty due to an injury, or age, or both, I instructed them to move at their own pace. That speed was not necessary in learning these exercises.
I would then set up the same type of exercise I had the students do with the jo. They would cross swords, with the sword extended in the "at ready" position, forward from their center lines with the blade up at a 25 degree angle, and learn to move together, two paces forwards and backwards, keeping the same relationship and point of contact on their weapons at all times. I also taught the class how to move with one student making a slow shomen strike and the other one receiving it and stepping back, emphasizing once again both the energetic nature of such a move and also that moving slow was a way to insure the safety and protection of both students.
I had the following results emerge from these classes (to highlight a few of the main ones):
I now include weapons training in all my Low Impact classes, trying to discover the ideal moment when the students and the class are ready to venture into this wonderful learning.
Paul Rest has taught this Low Impact Program ("Aikido for Everyone") for the past three years. He is a Nidan and has studied Aikido for over fifteen years, a student of Sensei Richard Strozzi-Heckler (6th dan) for most of those years (www.tworockaikido.com). He has written many articles and essays about this program in particular and Aikido in general and is working on a book about Low Impact Aikido. He can be contacted at: email@example.com. You can also view his profile on Facebook, Plaxo and MySpace.