Yesterday, we worked a lot on connection. In aikido, just as in real life, it is sometimes hard to make and keep a connection. When we move, very often we will lose the connection to uke and the technique becomes difficult to do. Generally, uke needs a reason to maintain a connection. If he feels threatened, he will work to mitigate the threat, maintaining the connection. If he thinks he can make nage do something uke wants, he will maintain the connection. If there is no connection, uke can just stand there and do nothing, or is free to attack again.
Of course, uke is supposed to give you energy so that you can do aikido. He can give you energy by striking or grabbing with intent. We have all worked with an uke who puts no energy into their attack. It is very difficult to do technique on such people unless you can make them do their part at connecting. So how do you make a lackidasical uke put some energy into his attack? One way is to threaten him. If you press towards his face or other vulnerable part he will use enough connection to prevent you reaching it. Given an uke and nage who are merely pressing against each other, nothing much will happen. But you can manipulate that connection. If you angle the connection to the left or right, uke will tend to move that way. If you move in or out, he will respond to that also.
Take katatori. Uke grabs the shoulder of your gi. You strike at their face. They either block and prevent you striking your face, at least strongly enough to protect their face. If their block is not too forceful, you can drive their arm back towards them (at an angle) and do technique. If their block is forceful, they may press your arm away from their face. As long as they keep pushing, you can lead them around into a technique. But what happens if they are content to merely block your strike, and don’t let you in to do technique, nor push you away so that you can lead them around into a technique? You often see this happen, and then usually nage grabs their arm and forces them into a technique. All well and good if nage is strong enough to do this, but it doesn’t take a lot of effort on uke’s part to stop nage cold.
If, however, nage angles his arm while uke is pushing, uke will start to move around. Now if nage gets loose from uke’s connection, he can strike uke, either in the head or the body, particularly in the groin. So it is in uke’s interest to prevent this, so he must not allow a gap to open up between his arm and nage’s arm. Nage can make this point by actually striking uke (lightly, in the dojo)) if uke gives him the chance. Now nage can manipulate uke as much as he cares to. The resulting technique feels very different from what you get if you don’t engage uke’s attention and make him extend his energy but just try to muscle him around.
Now if uke figures out what nage is doing and doesn’t feel like taking ukemi, he can mess things up in a variety of ways. He can just stand there like a rock, rigid, unmoving. He can just let his arm fall away from nage’s arm, not moving his body. So there is a smallish window of oportunity, between nage using the connection, and uke figuring it out and messing it up. This does not mean nage has to be particularly fast. Just that he has to stay ahead of uke, continuously changing the situation so that uke never quite catches up. The military has a name for this situation – the OODA loop. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act, and is the sequence of events in a combat situation. If you change things fast enough, the opponent can’t respond fast enough to respond effectively, and fast enough can be on the order of a second in aikido.
Kata tori men uchi has a different feeling, because uke is attempting to strike as well as hold. However, the principles are quite similar, and uke is attempting to make the connection so it is easier in a way.
Another way of practicing connection is if two aikido practitioners extend an arm and make contact at the wrist, with the same hand and foot forward. They are then pretty safe from each other. To strike or grab, one must get closer to the other. If the other person moves to maintain this alignment, he stays safe. They can have a designated nage, in which case one person just tries to get in to attack, or they can both try to do this. Initially, it is better to have a desgnated uke and nage, but both parties trying to throw the other is more like a combat situation.
As soon as one person has his position or posture messed up, he is vulnerable. If he lets his arm get too much to one side or the other of his body, he is vulnerable. The key, especially with a strong attacker, is to stay relaxed, with an unbendable arm, and move the body to accommodate whatever the attacker does. If he moves in, you move back. If he pulls in, you enter (so as to maintain a degree of control over uke’s next move), while keeping your posture. If he moves your arm to one side or the other, you move your body with it. As soon as you try to resist, it becomes a game of who has more energy, either because they are bigger, stronger, or have more momentum.
Now if you vary the angle and timing of your response, you can take his kuzushi, and apply technique.
There are usually considered to be three parts to an aikido technique: connection, kuzushi, and execution. If you do all three half way decently, you will get a pretty good technique. Of course, when working on one part, in this case how connection is used to get kuzushi, there is a tendency to forget about other parts. Thus, it is easy to mess up the actual application when your mind is on other parts of the technique. It is still important to apply the technique correctly.
Of course, writing about aikido is not doing aikido. It is hard to put some of these ideas into words, and different readers may interpret the words differently. But maybe if you read about aikido you will get ideas you can then practice on the mat.