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Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I seldom teach at the dojo where I train now.  Koshinage is something of a vague specialty that I am noticed for.  I had to do Koshinage for every test from fifth kyu on, and I had a direct student of O Sensei give me corrections during those tests.

One Aikido forum had questions recently about whether or not the legs should be together or apart.  I can't apparently post there, so I'll post here.

1.  Don't mistake a training method for the actual technique.  Sensei had me keep my knees together on my earlier tests, and then later often asked Yudansha to do whatever they would.

2.  Find out the "Why" of the specific teaching.  The teaching will change from variation to variation, but not the reason for the teaching.  For the sake of clarity, I refer sometimes to the “true teaching;”  the teaching that is there behind several contradictory statements.

Why is Aikido Koshinage different from Judo, and how is it the same?

Judo was created to be a complete time capsule of the Japanese jujitsu arts.  Kano Jigoro wanted the various arts preserved, and he wanted them transformed into a safer practice.  For some techniques, they only exist in Judo kata.  For others, Kano Sensei saw a chance for friendly competition.  He believed in venues like the Olympics that bring the world together for something safe and fun and believed safe competition could transcend global politics.  He wanted a departure from the battlefield being the only time that martial artists and clashing cultures would come together.  I respect that vision.  This is a vision that is completely compatible with Aikido ideals even if it is fully in violation of Aikido practice.

Judo embraces competition, which means that the practice surface is safe to land on - relatively softer and smoother with no foreign objects.  There is only one opponent.  There are no weapons.  There is a referee, who is to be obeyed at all times.

Aikido, for all the pacifist language, kept some of the battlefield mindset.  We do not go to the ground, because we are ready for the next attacker.  We want to have a clear view of the room, and we want to be stable and mobile.  We want to keep the awareness of our space.  Even with the same soft, smooth practice surface and the instructor watching over us, we treat the mat as a battlefield.  This is from O Sensei’s rules for practice, and this is the biggest single source of differences between Judo and Aikido techniques.  This is why we do not do Brazilian Jujitsu/Judo style pins; we do not want to be kicked/stepped on/stabbed by the second attacker.

The other glaring difference between Judo and Aikido unfortunately is not so complimentary to modern Aikido.  Kano Jigoro took a very methodical approach to his art that was one part historian, one part scientist.  In Judo, a technique is clearly named.  The Judo technique will be clearly differentiated from other techniques.  The Kodokan will have done extensive research on how to apply this technique safely, and the senior Judo teacher will know how to make the technique more effective in very clinical terms using psychology, anatomy and physics.  A Judo book published by the Kodokan will have several ways to reverse or block this specific technique.  The book will discuss variations and options that appear from your partner trying to block you from doing this specific technique.  The teaching will be clearly, concretely worded and very applicable.

An Aikido book referring to koshinage will probably have flowery language talking about the “flow” and "rhythm of nature" and will probably have pictures of waves crashing over rocks on a pristine shoreline or pencil sketches of Mount Fuji.  If not, then the description will be very stark and not offer much depth of information for a student.  Effectiveness will take a back seat.  Effectiveness is another way of saying “using your body correctly” which means avoiding future injuries for either Uke or Nage as well as enhancing your overall quality of daily life.  Understanding effectiveness goes hand-in-hand with safe practice.

Somehow, "effectiveness" is a dirty word for some Aikido practitioners as this implies a focus on “victory.”  I have not yet met the Aikido genius that can reinvent the wheel and recreate over a century of Kano Jigoro’s very complete yet ongoing work into koshinage.  I think it is a disservice to our students to tell them to ignore Judo research sources, especially with a technique Aikido places less emphasis on.  Certainly, it is a disservice to have them think we are in competition with Judo. 

I am an Aikido student, and I love the art.  The injuries that happen in Judo I believe usually come from the competition overriding the desire for safe practice.  Aikido has an advantage here – we aren’t trying to “beat” anyone in the first place.  When an injury happens in Aikido, I usually see it happening out of ignorance – we spend so much time talking about non-injury that our students do not see the potential for injury.  We do not see how to make practice more safe, because we do not even clearly see the margin of safety.  Judo has an advantage here from doing scientific studies that Aikido people do not do.  Truthfully, I think many Aikido students harshly judge the notion of Aikido being submitted to scientific study.

Why legs apart or together?

The “Why” of keeping your legs together:
-           Beginners can rotate at their waist more easily.
-          You can tell if either leg is being collapsed or out of alignment.
-          This should feel stable, or this can help develop the feeling of stability.
-          You should be able to move very slowly in practice.
-          When Uke falls, they should slide off your hip and straight at the ground.  If your legs are splayed, uke will land on the side of your knee.

Legs apart is a more advanced variation.
-           Now, you can start to get back to that mobility that we want so much in everything else we do.
-          The legs are not just splayed – there is a full weight shift.  Nage’s weight is fully over the loading side, then fully over the unloading side.  When Uke falls, there is a straight line from the hip to the foot and the knee is protected from Uke’s fall.

So, one true teaching behind Koshinage is that the Nage’s knee needs to be protected and out of the way of Uke’s fall somehow.  This now applies to any particular Kime (cut) used in koshinage whether pulsing forward or stepping back or stepping underneath or starting wide and bringing the legs together or a very strong upper body projection or whatever.

Starting with the legs together is still the most basic way to teach this, and “legs together,” teaches Nage stability.  All the other methods involve momentum and movement by both Uke and Nage, which will challenge this stability and are more difficult to do.

We had a related issue in our own dojo.  A student wanted to learn to do Koshinage for her test.  She took advice from everyone she talked to, but everyone showed her a different variation of the throw.  So, she got lots of advice all given in a very authoritative tone:
“You must never grab Uke.”
“You must grab and then let go early.”
“You have to stay holding on and never let go”
The one true teaching behind all these statements above is that Uke needs to be able to rotate to avoid hitting their head on the ground.  Grab in an O Goshi style throw (O Goshi is a Judo name, but I never heard an Aikido name for it) and to have Uke rotate, you need to hold on to the lead arm.  Do an Ikkyo/Sankyo style throw, you must let go after Uke has grabbed around your shoulder or your waist.  Uke’s lead arm will be the center of their rotation is the true statement behind all the other statements.

Beginning Koshinage variations have Uke holding Nage.  If Uke is scared and unsure of their fall, they just need to let go and nothing happens.  This is a training method that gets used until Uke is relaxed and confident of their breakfalls.  A Nage suddenly grabbing the scared Uke sets off some panic which causes Uke to not be fully relaxed when they land.  Nage also doesn't get to force the throw with their upper body and only has their hips to work with.  This type of Koshinage is a training tool.  So, "never grab Uke" is a valid statement in context. 
In the context of specific variations, each of these statements is correct and makes it easier and safer for Uke to fall.  Outside of the specific context throw, each statement is suspect.  Applied to the wrong variation, each statement is absolutely wrong. 
Unfortunately, with several cooks in her Aikido kitchen, this student did get the various ideas mixed up and gave her Uke a much harder and much more dangerous fall than she meant to.
So, pick a teacher.  Think about what they say, but pay attention.  If they know what they are talking about, they are teaching you how to be safe and effective.  When you really understand what is being shown to you, then branch out.  And when you do listen to another teacher, think about the true teaching.  Six different people can show you six different things and give their corrections six different ways but they might just be all actually trying to point you in the same direction.

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