Beginning and Ending, let the middle take care of itself. – August 27, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Can’t remember where, but somewhere in the old iai teachings is the instruction to teach the beginning and the end and not worry so much about the middle of the kata. Make sure the students work on the approach and on the disengage rather than concentrate on the actual technique in the middle. In other words, what we call zanshin is the most important part of the practice.

I’ve got to agree with this. As an aikido student and teacher I can be awfully sloppy about the approach and the finish of a technique, it’s something I’ve spent 34 years trying to fight.

With the kata based arts it’s easy to make the approach and disengage part of the performance, even though it, technically, doesn’t matter if we approach from three steps or maintain concentration as we back off for five. It’s the part in between that has the differences from kata to kata, the bookends tend to be the same for all. This attaching of beginning and ending to the technique tends to make it easier to pay attention to them.

But why is that a good thing? Simply put, it makes you better, it makes your practice more realistic, more vigorous and less dangerous. When you are sloppy on your approach and attack it’s much more dangerous to do the techniques at full speed and force. A sloppy attack means surprises, it means an off balance attacker, it means more chance of getting clocked from an unexpected direction. In short, it means you have to practice with a lot of your attention and energy reserved.

Having a set approach of a certain number of steps during which you are expected to pay close attention to your partner means that you aren’t going to miss the attack. You will be concentrating on the small movements that mean the attack is beginning. You are paying attention as your partner enters the attack distance which is a very good thing, knowing where the “safe line” is may someday save your nose from being spread across your face.

Being ready to move means that your partner can attack with full speed without the risk of mistakes due to miscommunication. It means you are safer because you’re ready.

The disengagement is also a useful phase, who knows when a partner is going to “teach you a lesson”? With full attention given to the movement out of combat range you will cut down the worries about being hit after you figured the technique was done.

At its most basic, zanshin gives permission to your partner to try and take your head off.

So teach the beginning and the end and let the middle take care of itself. Your students will be ready, they will be safe and they will push themselves to learn the middle by cranking up the intensity within the envelope of attention you have created for them. If half of your teaching time is spent trying to get them to crank it up or crank it down, the learning curve will be shallow. Set the stage and let the learning happen at its own speed.

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