Aikido is Communication with a Moment and a Time


I am sitting in the suwariwaza lined up with the others waiting for the class to start. I do not know anything about the supervising instructor except what I have seen in the training schedule – name, face and belt grade.

Soon somebody starts walking toward the shomen with peaceful steps, back straight and with a visible mindset that takes into consideration the surrounding space and the students waiting in the line. From this impression my mind starts immediately making assessments of her aikido style, way of teaching and would I agree what she is saying?

After warming up she shows the first move, which is a tai no tenkan ho and then walks right up to me and shows the movement for few times. She explains her way with only very few words but says much more with her presence. This is what hear from her non-verbal communication, “I know that you are more experienced than I am, but I would like to ask you to give me a chance to explain myself”.

I was very taken by the fact that she came up to me and we met physically and mentally in that moment. This made me to want to work with her and the further class went on the more I agreed most of the things she did or said. It was not a question about her technical excellence or explaining the showed movements. Later, I was thinking, “what did I just witnessed? Was it an aikido at the highest level?”

This meeting has made me to study the way of different instructors and how they attract their partner’s mind before the actual physical contact.

I have met people who can grasp the attention of everybody in the space provided no matter how big the audience is.  For example certain business corporate leaders can focus all the attention to themselves. Furthermore, they possess the credibility that you believe everything they say. These people do not know their audience beforehand, but they rely completely on their own physical and mental attraction, or should I call it charisma to get the message through and understood. It is not a question, do you like them or how do they look.  They just have the right words with a reasonable gravity at the right time.

Other create contacts with the people, before the actual presentation or class. They align their thoughts, anticipation and mindset in discussions and create a rank order with the becoming target people in advance. I just participated in the meeting, where I had to keep a presentation and I was not sure on what depth I should talk to the audience. Before finalizing my presentation, I went around the venue to talk with everybody to understand better the composition and background of my audience. I finalized my act just before the actual presentation in the morning. This made it possible for me to speak freely without thinking in advance what to say and truly communicate with the listeners.

In aikido we must make agreements to study it further and for safety. For example, if your partner is asking shomen uchi you cannot do tsuki or some other surprising act. But, how far we must go in this agreement aikido. In one end there is a basic kata-practice, where everything is planned beforehand. In the other end there is completely free jiywaza practice, where nothing should have planned beforehand technically nor mentally.

In every seminar, I always meet at least one a previously unknown partner with whom I can feel complete mental and physical unity and freedom in my movements. This is not dependent on the age, sex, height, weight, speed, nationality or any other personal characteristics. I believe that the most crucial factor here is not to have any prior thoughts or prejudices of how we should meet each other. Thus, both are ready to harmonize their minds and physical movements with a non-spoken agreement.  Afterwards, this kind of meeting always leaves a long standing and very warm feeling into my body and mind. I always remember these partners among the hundreds of participants in the seminars.

However, I cannot help wondering how and what I have learned from these moments or is it just a warm experience of good feeling? If my partner adjusts into my every movement, gives and takes the balance without resisting – this sounds like a perfect in every ways, but does it really challenge my ability to react into sudden and perhaps surprising movements such as changing my directions and rehearse my timing. With this I mean situations, where I should change the direction, whenever coming across using physical force, wrong timing or complete stop in my movements, because of regaining or losing the balance at the wrong moment.  If we are too united in our minds, we do not challenge each other sufficiently, but just moving together, like dancing.

Does this kind of moving together bring about the higher meaning or understanding of the essence of aikido?

In Japanese society non-verbal communication is highly appreciated. It starts with a relationship between mother and child who are taught the virtue of honesty and straightforwardness (sunao, 素直) from the young age. In the larger social framework it can be seen as the concepts of debt of gratitude (on, 恩) and social obligation (giri, 義理) in non-verbal communication between individuals (there are also other translations to these very complex words).

One form of non-verbal communication is described with a word of ishin denshin (以心伝心). It can be translated as telepathy and refers particularly to passive form of shared understanding such as between long time married couple, very close friends or sensei and a student.  Ishin-denshin is traditionally considered by the Japanese as sincere, silent communication from heart to heart as opposed to verbal communication, which is seen being more compromised with not sincere talk.

There are also other kind of non-verbal communication described with a word of haragei (腹芸 or              はらげい) meaning deliberate form of non-verbal communication where thoughts and feelings are implied in conversation instead of explicitly stated. This kind of situation can take place for example in business negotiations, where everybody knows what the other side has to offer, but pretend to ignore the fact to get better negotiation position.

How we should then interact with our partners in aikido? This is totally up to you. One thing is certain though. Every movement we do even acting as a sensei’s partner in the dojo centre or practicing with your best friend alone means something. If the movement is natural and is coming inside of you it always takes aikido learning forward in both of you. If the movement is however, conscious the implications are more complex.

We need all the possible ways to communicate and interact starting from the predetermined and ultimately ending into the free flowing non conscious movements, where there are no fixed roles for both, but only a time and a moment.



Tom Granström