How Many Licks…

When I was young there was a TV commercial for some lollipop/sucker brand, with an animated boy and owl. The boy asks the owl, apparently a professor, how many licks does it take to reach the center of this brand of sucker. The owl takes the sucker, gives it a few licks, and then bites it.

So how many licks does it take?

In the dojo, especially if you leave it occasionally and travel to other dojo or seminars, you very quickly realize some of these places are teaching techniques you know, but not quite how you do them. If you pay close attention you may find that the same instructor may even show one group a different way, or in the very next class may show it a different way. Which way is right?

The answers to both questions are the same, there is no right way.

So how do you learn Aikido when the techniques keep changing?

They don’t. Your understanding of them does. Having more than one way to do something does not make one way more valid than another. It is simply another way. You have more than one way to get to the dojo from your house. You may prefer one way, but there are others that are equally as useful and important. Especially if one of those ways is much easier when traveling in snow or rain, or construction has closed your way down.

In Aikido, we train to learn how to be, we train to better ourselves and how to harmonize and neutralize an attack, not to collect ranks or techniques. At the kyu levels it can be very difficult to see beyond the technique, but you need to see the greater picture. I, personally, know at least seven different ways to do Ryotetori Tenchinage. I can tell you, there are more I don’t know (yet). In the dojo, for testing, we have one way to do Tenchnage. It is a way that was handed down from Mistunari Kanai Sensei to Chang, and mildly modified by Witthar and then me (to return an aspect back to principles). Occasionally I will teach the other ways in class.

What could the purpose of all those other ways be? Well, ask yourself, are you the same height, weight, and level of physical fitness as sensei? (either one) Do you have the same level of understanding of technique? Is your attacker always the same guy? Does it matter if you’re 5’2” and the attacker is 6’2”? How about if the roles are reversed?

A good, proper technique is one that follows principles. They are the same principles that we talk about in every class, some of which are standing straight, connecting and moving from your hara (center), hand and feet work together, and all the action is at your center, not behind or beside you (with exceptions). Returning to the Tenchinage techniques, all of them that I know follow the exact same principles. How is that? The technique changes when the outcome is different. For example, throwing uke to a different place, or the need to generate more energy to move and throw uke, or, to overcome some physical issue (tall or short uke, strange shoulders, one that’s well planted).

All the ways I have kept in my catalog of techniques follow principles, and each one works. I have, however, seen one or two Tenchinage techniques that defied base principles, and not surprisingly they do not work (unless uke lets you throw them). Those I keep as an example of what not to do.

The technique is a tool, not the end result. It is there to teach me how to move and toss around an uke, any uke. It will change and morph to the needs of nage. If sensei is tall, he will use a slightly different approach than if sensei is short. A point of reference here, Graham Sensei is tall, at least 6’, and in excellent physical condition. Same for Montgomery Sensei. Chang Sensei, adversely, was 5’2” and overweight. Graham and Montgomery are swimmers and physically active outside aikido, Chang probably couldn’t have swam a lap. Chang’s aikido utilized his excellent, and lower, center. Everything with him was sinking. Graham and Montgomery, adversely, tend to go over uke’s center, or around it. To them, to sink as Chang does, would eventually kill their knees. They know the process, and both have in fact taught it and done it, but it is not their way.

You, in time, will develop your own way, your own aikido. You will do so from working with a diverse array of uke, and instructors. It will take time, a lot of time. And, if you are lucky, one day you too will be an instructor, and all those different ways of doing a technique will become invaluable to you when you are trying to get someone who’s 6’2” to properly throw someone who’s 5’2” and settled their center.

Hopefully, at that time you will fully understand how a dojo with multiple instructors of different heights and sizes (even genders) can keep a dojo on track, and why one or all teach a way that wasn’t actually his, as I often do.

The licks you take to get to the center will not be the same as the others in the dojo. Enjoy the sucker and the journey it gives you, and don’t worry so much about the way someone else took their journey. Just take your licks and come back for more.

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