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Monday, January 10, 2011


I have only recently learned that Tenshin is the name of the Aikido association that follows Steven Seagal Sensei.  This blog entry is about a type of movement used by the USAF.

Tenshin was a movement I never really knew the name for when I was a Kyu rank.  At 2nd Kyu, we had to do Yokomenuchi Kokyunage 3 ways, and Tsuki Ikkyo to Yonkyo.  All of the tsuki techniques were done with tenshin, and I did at least one of the Yokomenuchi techniques with a tenshin opening.  Using the footwork as a throw in and of itself, with few embellishments, really helped me feel how powerful the motion could be.

Around my 2nd kyu, I moved to Lake Louise for a year and a half.  While in between jobs, I went to the USAF summer camp to see Moriteru Ueshiba (then Waka Sensei).  After a week of mostly USAF teachers, I was struck by this one movement - "It's like an irimi-tenkan, only moving in another direction!" is how I would later try to describe it to my peers in Saskatoon Aikikai.  I came across this movement many times with USAF lineage teachers and with much broader application as tenshin was commonly done as a small part of a larger technique.

The new USAF test requirements have made this one of three ways to describe a technique, and it is one of the primary ways to receive any attack.  I like to talk about 4 corners (an entire blog on it's own) and it's definitely one of the primary corners.  Saito Sensei does demonstrate tenshin movement too, but he is very specific about when it should and should not be used.  I think tenshin has many traps and pitfalls and is all too often practiced badly or inappropriately.  I'll try to get some video to add to this blog.

Before I go further, I try to follow O Sensei's rules for practice.   He clearly asks us to be aware of all directions at all times, and he is clear that Aikido is an art for fighting against a larger group.  This is why our pins don't look like Judo pins, this is why we don't lie on the ground and choke someone out.  We can see the whole room from our pin, and we can move and defend from any direction.  The basic kata give us a number of ways to deal with a group of attackers, but we train one-on-one most of the time.  When kata make no sense, consider the form if you were surrounded by a larger group of people.

I do not have eyes on the back of my head.  All of my sensory organs aim forward or to the side with the exception of touch.  I move forward well, but no one can move as well backwards as they do forwards.   We're just not built that way.  If I think the mat is crowded, I'm more likely to practice moving in a tight corridor - but this makes my practice worse.  I start to try to only move in a narrow area to avoid collisions with other pairs, giving more advantage to uke.  I don't learn to get off the line, and I don't learn to use centrifical force.  Finally, after practicing like this for months, when I do have an empty mat I'm still more likely to move straight.  When freestyle happens against multiple attackers, the exercise becomes contrived because my techniques are becoming fake.  I never learn "mat sense" as I never need to.   Ukes get reprimanded by onlookers if they get too close to a throw in progress.  It's all done for a good reason, but it makes my Aikido worse and reinforces mistakes.

Too many Aikido people try to move straight backwards when doing tenshin.  We do this because there is no consequence in many dojos for doing so and often because of crowded conditions.  It also shows a desire to escape instead of engage our attackers. 

When I just move straight backwards, my uke will be pulled on top of me.  I add to his attacking force while making myself less able to dodge it.  I also can't see what is right behind me.  I might trip over any number of things or run out of room or walk into a second attack.  In a recent Sandan test, the nage tripped over someone she herself threw in the middle of a freestyle.  It wasn't a bad accident and she recovered well.  What if the surface was more dangerous, like a floor covered in broken glass, or rocks or stairs?  What if the surface ended, like a subway platform?  What if I'm against a wall?  With entering movements or tenkan, these situations provide opportunities for nage.  Stepping backwards without full awareness give uke a huge advantage.

What happens by accident in practice can happen on purpose in a real situation and the results might be worse.  If I collide with the wall or step off the mat or trip on someone, I try to wake myself up and take responsibility for my error.  Sometimes, I like to specifically put myself in a position where I might collide with the wall, just to see if I will.

There is a drill I sometimes see where uke attacks forward continually and nage is just supposed to receive with tenshin until the opposite end of the room is reached.  I think this drill is a mistake to practice - it encourages tunnel vision on one attacker and it makes nage move in a very linear fashion.  With a more circular movement, I might never reach the other side of the room.  I prefer to practice a tenkan or an irimi to the second strike.

The Shotokan Karate kata almost always move forward.  There might be a single step back or sideways, but mostly they change direction and start moving forward in another direction.  If I am already in motion, tenshin is a difficult movement to do as I need to fight my momentum and reverse my direction.  On an icy surface, I already know I'll probably fall over.  Irimi and Tenkan allow me to conserve and continue momentum, tenshin is to initiate movement and creates momentum.  So, while the USAF is making this a basic movement I still see Irimi and Tenkan as being more useful and more easily martially applied.

I like to turn more with my tenshin, and I really emphasize the sideways motion.  If I end up facing at least 90 degrees to the original direction, I can now see what is behind me and still see what was in front.  It's very easy to continue to motion with my hips and see the whole 360 around me in the single movement.

To make the initial sideways motion, I need to be on my front foot.  If I've already tried to shift away from the attacker I need to use my forward leg to move.  It's not wrong, but I see too many people shift away, then shift forward so they can move sideways then move again - and it takes too long.  If your weight is on your back foot, there are other types of motion for this situation and don't bother with tenshin.  This footwork is for leading and blending, but to do that you do need to be engaged and connected to your attacker.

People will shift back unconsciously, and it's usually because they are nervous or don't want to be a violent person.  I can see people who are doing this just to escape, without any thought of where they are escaping to or what advantage they hope to gain.  This introduces problem of intent.  Too many people do the tenshin in practicing their Kata with no intention.  I can look at people and see who is thinking, "that was a wasted extra bit of motion on the front of the technique" or "Now I can Start to counter attack (after their tenshin is finished).  Tenshin is a solid platform for a variety of strikes and throws as well as an opportunity to get to a more advantageous position against a group.  If you never put any intention into this moment of initial contact, you're doing yourself a disservice.

In a 1935 video, O Sensei shows a tenshin motion against a rifle and bayonet going into an Ikkyo movement.  While many people start with the Yokomenuchi Shihonage movement when they first learn tenshin, tenshin is not always done pulling down.  Against a firearm or a bladed weapon, pulling down and towards my own abdomen would be fatal and lifting up while getting off the line gets me to a safer place.  Tenshin can be done moving to Gedan (downwards), Chudan (across) or Jodan (upwards); with only one of either hand making contact or both;  with the hands moving together or in different directions.

I mentioned Saito Sensei earlier.  When I read his books, the tenshin movement is used in Ki No Nagare practice, with a different corner used for Kihon practice.  Saito Sensei's use of tenshin is almost strictly relegated to techniques in motion I think.  I interpret when the motion hasn't begun or is stopped or uke is rooted, you do not open up and lead directly in front of uke.  I try to encourage students to do tenshin before they are grabbed and not wait for uke to grab them and lock down.

A final comment mirrors my own initial impressions.  I called tenshin "an irimi tenkan that moved away" when I first saw it.  I'm seeing a teacher occasionally step more forward and people are calling this irimi tenshin.  Stepping Forward and then leading or blending is irimi tenkan.  The lead for irimi tenkan does not have to be 180 degrees; it just is for the beginner's class (Yamada Sensei will show a 90 degree motion.)  Tenshin is emphasizing the leading out motion, Irimi emphasizes the entering and when done to the inside there should be a strike to the face.  The two are something I try to keep very separate in my practice, but eventually they both need to come out spontaneously and the difference between the two can get very murky at the midway point between them.  Eventually, there is no correct name and I think that's the most correct labelling.  Tenshin is ultimately just a tool to be used singularily or in combination or discarded with when appropriate.

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