On Nonresistance

What follows is an attempt to summarize what I have been trying to say in class regarding Kyu test demonstrations.


When my colleague Dan Murnan visited Blue Heron dojo this spring, I asked him to consider one aiki principle from Kimberly Sensei’s teaching that he thought was particularly important.  Right away he said: “Nonresistance.” We tried to embody that principle in the last part of our training that day.  Since then, I’ve been thinking how important it is to embody this principal as we refine our technique, and test ourselves by training harder. 

As a professor at Middlebury College, I have neither the technical capability nor any personal interest in training people to win fights. I do like to watch silly UFC fights on television.  But, this is simply an indication of my immaturity and not an indication of why I want to keep figuring out how to roll like my graceful student Holly.  A silent roll is still a distant goal.

As I understand O Sensei’s teaching in the last two decades of his life, when Saotome Sensei and Mary Heiny Sensei encountered him, he wasn’t interested in training people to win fights. Many who studied with O Sensei were accomplished martial artists in other disciplines and brought that experience and physical toughness to O Sensei’s dojos.  According to these students’ own testimony, many simply wanted to know whether Aikido “really worked.”  Once the old man threw them they were convinced by the martial effectiveness of Aikido and they stuck around to learn from him.

Now, it may well be that if we devote the next decade to intensive Aikido training, 7 days a week for 10 years with senior teachers, as the uchi-deshi around O Sensei did, we might well be able to “win” some battles in the Octagon.  But, if winning in the Octagon is your goal, well, this is the wrong sand box in which to play.  After such a ten year intensive study, I would hope we might be closer to embodying the principles about which O Sensei spoke and devoted his life to embody. 

What, then, is the purpose of training?  I would argue it is to become more centered, more compassionate, and, thereby, more powerful human beings.   Every Aikido encounter between uke and nage creates the possibility for conflict.  The question is how we respond.  Can we remain centered through a technique during which our primary goal is to stay deeply connected with our partner without even worrying about the end result?  The purpose of training is not to put the person down on the mat as fast as you can or show that you can stop another person on the mat because you are stronger, quicker, etc.  The purpose of training is to practice being centered and compassionate.

We use a variety of techniques to try and pursue this goal.  For O Sensei, every technique had a spiritual meaning.  He kept urging his senior students not to teach technique, I think, because he worried that people like us would focus on footwork and forget that the purpose of the “technique” was to manifest a spiritual principle: shihonage-gratitude, tenchinage-a bridge between heaven and earth, kokyunage-the life breath of the universe…  I believe that the study of these spiritual teachings is the purpose of Aikido training and, as a result, ukemi may well be most important study of all.  Now, as Sensei Dan McAbee in action makes clear, it helps to be a gifted, natural athlete when it comes to learning ukemi. AND, as he models, training every chance you get helps a little too.  But, as so many of us have also demonstrated, ukemi can be learned be even ungifted athletes and we learn it first and foremost through the combined principles of centeredness and non-resistance. 

To be centered means that you are balanced and your ki is flowing freely.  When you extend your arm to grab nage, the arm extends from your center and connects to your partner’s center through his or her wrist, elbow, shoulder…  Then, as nage performs the technique, our study as uke is not to resist, but rather to continue “extending ki” which means we continue to extend our energy to our partner’s center.  Nonresistance does not mean that uke should flop down like a noodle the moment nage begins to move.  Rather, it means absorbing nage’s response to your “attack” through your center such that you can stay connected for as long as possible.  Depending on what is going on, “as long as possible” might be a 1/10 of a second or three seconds or, if Mary Heiny Sensei is running those exponential spirals, well, 30 minutes, a lifetime?

If you start thinking that you should “stop” nage because he or she has not taken your balance and you think that you must show them this by becoming rigid and stiff you have missed the entire point of Aikido practice and risk injury to yourself and your partner.  Our role as uke, when we sense that our center has not yet been “taken,” is NOT to become stiff and rigid, but rather to continue extending ki (meaning continuing the “attack”) so that nage may have the opportunity to respond appropriately.  In order to respond to nage you must learn to be pliant and supple and responsive.  As techniques become faster and nage learns how to extend his or her own ki more deeply, non-resistance on the part of uke becomes even more important for our own safety as well as for our development and deepening understanding of gratitude, compassion, connection, grace, power and kindness.  Of course, there are times when we practice “stopping” and being rigid.  But, that is something different.  I know that in the many years training with Dan Sensei, there have been many times when I have not taken his center. But he has never “stopped” me in those moments.  He keeps coming. By doing so, he challenges me to ground, adjust and find my own balance before worrying about his.  Despite his martial ability to destroy various appendages should he so choose, I have never felt at risk of injury or unsafe when training with him despite having taken him to the limit of his patience numerous times due to my unceasing commitment to remain a block of ice rather than a smooth flowing river.

If you are uke with a nage who is less experienced, your role as uke is to move in a manner that helps nage learn. Again, not by moving in a manner disconnected to nage, but rather by staying connected and placing your body in such a way that an end position of the technique becomes clearer. As we all know, this is very difficult to do well.  We need to practice.  The beauty of working with a beginner is that you have the chance to really study exactly what is going on in a technique.  The familiar becomes strange.  Beginner’s mind is a clear, open and welcoming mind without pre-set notions of what is supposed to happen.  This is why beginners are so wonderful and troublesome…

From a martial point of view it is essential to learn and embody non-resistance so that if and when you do experience resistance from someone when you are in the role of nage trying to do ikkyo, for example, you do not fight and resist your uke’s resistance, but simply adjust such that you allow uke’s push back/resistance to go where it wants to go.   We are not studying or practicing fighting.  Aikido is a seminar not a debate—there are no winners and losers.  Our goal is a deeper understanding of the principles upon which the practice is based (seminar) not to win a debate tournament or an encounter.  “Ahh, got them down, I won. I did it.”  Won what? Did what?

As an uke experiencing shihonage, tenchinage, kokyunage we should be thinking about the principles upon which the techniques are based: gratitude, compassion, open heartedness, the life breath.  O Sensei said ukemi is a washing machine for the heart.  As we open our hearts through ukemi we become better able to welcome uke into our own hearts when we are nage and, maybe, we can even do this with family and friends and strangers off the mat.  Ultimately, there ceases to be a difference between uke and nage. There are simply the principles, the technique, the movement, the open heart all joined into a single embodiment of ki—the energy of the universe.  What makes this even stranger is that this can sound very fluffy until you take ukemi from Kimberly Sensei or Mary Heiny Sensei.  Not so fluffy that ki, best to try and be a little supple lest one shatters into too many unrecoverable pieces.  (How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice!)

Often, it is when we are preparing for a demonstration that we are most likely to be stressed and when we are most likely to want to “test” a technique or ourselves to see if a technique “works.”  This is also a time in our training when we are likely to be the most physically rigid because we are worried and fear embarrassing ourselves and the dojo. There is nothing wrong with the desire to be challenged, but there is a lot wrong with fostering one another’s stiffness and rigidity.   Hence, when we are practicing in the dojo, particularly when we are increasing the intensity of our training, it becomes even more important that we understand that “testing ourselves” means to more perfectly embody centeredness and compassion through non-resistance.  When you punch a bowl of water, who wins?  See you on the mat.

Jonathan Miller-Lane

Chief Instructor, Blue Heron Aikido,

Middlebury, VT.

Jonathan Miller Lane