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Interview with Thomas Makiyama (2)

by Norm Ibuki

Published Online

Thomas Makiyama (1928-2005)

I’ve been a student of aikido (Aikikai) for the past seven years and, to be honest, find getting my seika tanden consistently working in the way that many teachers suggest seems to me impossible. This is one of the things I took up with Makiyama Sensei.

I first met Thomas Makiyama (8th-dan) through Lloyd Kumagai, a 71-yr-old 5th-dan Canadian friend who has been practicing with him for 20 years.

I’ve asked Makiyama Sensei about this seika tanden business, and he always refers to the hips (koshi) as the source of power.

Another word that keeps coming up in our conversations is “compatibility”, which he says can only be understood by feeling it with one’s body. He says no instruction manual on any sport can teach you how to play, and aikido is the same: “There is too much going on that you can’t see.”

Nevertheless Makiyama Sensei has written a book (Keijutsukai Aikido) in which he defines kokyuho as “the way of compatibility”, an exercise with the aid of which the student begins to “feel the movements” of an opponent. When uke grips nage’s wrist strongly, for instance, the instinctive tendency is to fight back, either by resisting or attempting to pull the captive wrist free. This is force against force, and the stronger man usually wins.

However, through regular practice, it becomes possible for the aikidoka to learn how to relax mind and body and “go with the flow” instead of fighting back with strength. The flow principle also applies to strikes, although the force then is harder to feel. Through practice one learns to react automatically, providing one has mastered to some degree the concepts of marui, ma-ai and has proper control of the koshi.

Perhaps being a Hawaiian Nisei (second-generation Japanese) fluent in English and Japanese, and comfortable in both cultures, 73-yr-old Makiyama Sensei, who lives in Tokyo, is able to see aikido more objectively than most, without getting caught up in so much of the cultural window-dressing.

He is the founder of the independent Keijutsukai (“Police/Security Techniques Association”), and one of the more outspoken expert commentators on aikido today, often challenging one’s notions of what aikido is. As one of the most senior foreign aikido masters in the world (25 years as an 8th-dan shihan and 55 years of martial arts’ experience), he has a deep understanding, which he says is, “beyond aikido”.

In the following interview I asked him to define his approach to teaching:

What do you mean by “compatibility”?

It is flowing with your partner’s movement.

How did you come up with this idea?

A long time ago it occurred to me that you have to be compatible with a person’s movement. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Compatibility could mean timing, co-ordination, lower body stability, or all of those things working together. I’ve described certain movements to you today, but I don’t think that you have registered them. Words and pictures can only show you the visible parts of a technique, but compatibility is not visible. How do you understand this? Only through practice, practice, and more practice.

If you stay with it long enough you’ll learn. I don’t say that it is something that belongs only to me. I think compatibility exists in any martial art.

The “spiritual” aspect of aikido is overemphasized, I think. For one thing, we western aikidoists are from Christian societies, and ideas that originate in Shinto or Buddhism don’t necessarily mean anything to us. I think about compatibility from a practical, rather than spiritual, point of view.

Aikido has been described as something spiritual, something deep inside of you, involving an area a couple of inches below the navel. Well, that’s all well and good, but to try and convince the western mind is pretty difficult. Seeing is believing, and these mysterious ideas seem like a bunch of bull, and people won’t stay with them for long. In order to duplicate this so-called “spiritual power” many western aikidoka have resorted to physical strength.

Just strength?

Strength becomes a substitute for skill, just as it does in other sports. Everything is based on strength, but aikido is not strength.

What is aikido then, sensei?

It’s ai-ki-do (ki wo awasu) “to fit in”, to be compatible. It’s simple. Then, why do people use so much force? I don’t believe they really understand what they are doing.

The techniques I learned for many years in my younger days felt wrong because I had to use force to make them work, and this did not mesh with the aikido theory.

I spent a lot of time trying to understand, until finally I hit on the point that it is a matter of flow, going with the flow, not going against the flow. In other words, being compatible.

You mentioned “timing”, “coordination” and “lower body stability”; could you elaborate on these aspects?

If somebody throws a punch, you have to get out of the way: that’s timing. To understand footwork takes both timing and coordination, right? You have to be coordinated in order to execute the movement. Because we don’t dance around like they do in boxing we must rely on lower body stability. The upper body can move anyway you want it to, but the lower body, the koshi, has to be stabilized.

What exactly is the koshi?

Koshi means your hips! It stands to reason that if you lower the body’s center of gravity, you have more balance, like a gyroscope, where the center of gravity is always stable.

What is coordination?

Once a person strikes, you must be able to move away from the line of attack. Then you have to coordinate your movements to be able to do anything. The reaction has to be automatic, and this only comes with practice.

But it’s clearly not any old kind of practice. How can we develop these skills?

The major problem that I have seen over the years with my students, here and overseas, is that everybody is too tense. They anticipate an attack and worry too much about what to do. The thing is to relax completely, react, and then relax again. You should not react continuously from beginning to end. That’s a major problem in aikido today. People try to force a movement, whereas it should not be forced, it should be natural.

But most of us train at dojos where strength is just the way it is.

But why? Has it ever occurred to anyone that it’s wrong? No one questions it, because they are trained only to do as they are told!

Many teachers and high-ranking students still insist that they aren’t using power, when in fact they are.

Compare what you’ve seen before with what you’ve seen today.

You are completely relaxed.

I am completely relaxed. And I am absorbing uke’s power completely and returning it to him from the koshi. It flows in and then it flows out again with twice the power.

That’s a difficult idea. How do you absorb someone’s power?

Learn to relax completely when somebody grabs you, so that you can feel their power, the direction it is going, the pressure of the grip, and so on. If your mind is made up that you are going to fight against it, you end up with a struggle. I don’t struggle because I’m getting too old!

Is there a method to learn this?

It’s just flow, that’s all. I don’t say it has to go into the hips alone, but it flows naturally into you; you’re feeling it all the way through your body and you’re returning it.

Like drinking a cup of coffee, there is very little strength or power necessary. You know the saying, “minimum effort, maximum result”? That is the principle of aikido, I think. And that’s what you’ve seen today.

How can people in other schools of aikido come to a better understanding of what you’re saying?

They have to undo the habit of fighting back and learn how to flow with the opponent. That comes first. It’s only practice, more practice and still more practice. Keep working at it. Some people get to that point in maybe five, ten, twenty years. Each person is different in how they understand that feeling. You’ve got to be able to feel your partner’s power. If he’s gripping, is he pushing, pulling, squeezing, or what? If he’s pushing, you go with it; your whole body turns from the hips.

When I grab some students by the wrist, they try adjusting many points of their stance or posture but nothing seems to work. They are already excited. They are only thinking, “Somebody is gripping me”, and they want to escape.

They’re panicking?

In a state of panic there isn’t going to be any flow. The point is to learn to relax, react, and then completely relax again: the main three points. Everybody is reacting from the very beginning, and then they’re continuing the process until the end.

What do you teach your beginners?

They do very simple basics to learn the flow. If a person pushes, you react automatically, if a person pulls, you go with the flow, not against it.

How do you teach this?

We do exercises. The beginners you saw today have the tendency to bounce their hips up and down. You notice their feet are not sticking to the mat, which indicates they are going to lose their balance. We are teaching the principle of balance, and how to relax. In the beginning it’s difficult for them because of poor balance.

What about timing?

If you are relaxed and watching a person’s face, their eyes, you can see their movement coming, whatever it may be. If you have proper ma-ai (controlled operating distance), you’re able to sense when the person is coming in to attack.

It’s in the eyes?

By looking in someone’s eyes you can see their whole body, whereas if you are looking at the fist you become sort of hypnotized by it. If you’re completely relaxed and looking into the person’s eyes, you can see their movement coming. I always tell my students to watch the eyes. This doesn’t mean that you have to stare at them!

What is your feeling about ki?

It should be a matter of fitting in with the movements of an opponent, not a mysterious, mystical power.

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