In Aikido we often use words to talk about knowledge that mere language will not teach. We use language anyway in hopes that the spoken ideas can become reminders of, or pointers to, physical knowledge that may lead us closer to the Aikido we wish to express through our bodies.
But these ideas and concepts are not destinations in and of themselves, however entertaining and stimulating indulgence in them may seem. They are, like poetry, a symbolic doorway to realms beyond language.
Saito Sensei used the words Kihon, Yawarakai, and Ki no Nagare to denote whole categories of practice, across which a technique like Ikkyo Omote might be performed very differently.
The basic practice according to this scheme is Kihon Training. This is hard, static practice without initial movement. Someone has grabbed you; you're both standing there; what do you do? Beginning from a static grab requires you to move your body in a certain way to unbalance your opponent after s/he is already settled into the grab. This requires a certain precision and deployment of kokyu that may not be so important if you catch your attacker still in motion. This is why Kihon practice is so difficult to do without using strength, and is probably why Saito Sensei favored an emphasis on Kihon training for everyone, especially up to about 2nd Dan.
Yawarakai Training means "flexible" practice. It differs from Kihon Training insofar as the movement into the technique begins in the micro-instant the grab engages. It's as if the energy of the grab is transferred into you, triggering the technique. Watching flexible technique, one sees no moment of stasis after the grab engages, only movement, yet the grab is solid.
Ki no Nagare, or "flowing Ki" training exhibits only coordinated movement and effortless technique. The attacker grabs, but there's nothing there. Nage's body has moved with the attack, leading it just out of reach, seamlessly into the dynamics of a technique. To perform at this level requires long practice, an emptiness of mind, and a generosity of spirit. Mostly, however, talk about Ki no Nagare practice falls short. It is something that the mind cannot own, but just marvel at; a feeling of physical dynamics accessible not by words but only through practice.
In some dojos these three levels of practice are called, Diamond, Willow, and Water (Air is another category beyond these that is even further, for me, beyond words). The usefulness of these categories is measured in the practical value they provide to students working to improve their Aikido. Saito Sensei clearly thought that a methodical progression from static to flexible, to flowing practice would build power, teach precision, and enable the gradual refinement of mind and body -- the way of being -- necessary finally to bring forth Takemusu Aiki, or the spontaneous Aikido that lies beyond technique. For most of us, achieving this would be like attaining the Holy Grail of Aikido.
A few years ago I heard Bill Witt Shihan say that he only practices fundamentals, and that he does not do Aikido. Perhaps that was a hint that part of the process of reaching the Holy Grail is to become unattached to the idea of it. Simply moving into action, beyond all ideas. What a concept!
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