It was the early '80s and I had enrolled in a lunchtime beginners’ class held in a basement room of the leisure centre in Camden Town High Street. There were just two or three of us who turned up week in week out to study with the teacher, Sensei David Currie. Occasionally one of Sensei Currie’s higher grades would come along too. I remember being intimidated by an orange belt who actually knew where to put his hands and feet when doing something called shihonage. This manoeuvre seemed impossibly complicated and this was the first time I’d ever seen anyone other than Sensei Currie who knew how to do it! Then one day a brown belt student turned up. He could do even more complicated things and when Sensei Currie threw him, he seemed to fly across the mat and land (mysteriously!) without even hurting himself.
I realised that there was much more to this aikido lark than was being vouchsafed to us mere beginners. After a few weeks I came to the decision to take the next major step and go along to one of the general level classes – with students that even included (gulp!) black belts. I was really nervous about that. Would I look like a fool? Would they make fun of me? Worse still, would they hurt me?
The Pain, The Pain!The truth is that some people did hurt me. They cranked on the nikkyos and yonkyos and kotegaeshis in a way that brought tears to my eyes. But the higher grades usually hurt me less than the lower grades. And Sensei Currie never hurt me at all. His nikkyos, yonkyos and kotegaeshis worked without pain. In fact, he specifically told us not to rely on pain to make our techniques effective. People are not always moved by pain and it is bad technique to assume that they will be. When, many years later, I finally joined the black belts, Sensei Currie told us: “The black belts should be the most dangerous people on the mat – and also the gentlest.”
I still think that is true. Good, skilful aikido, should not rely on pain. It should rely on using the force used against you. It should rely on leading an attack without engaging in a fight. It should rely on taking the person’s balance to lead them to fall, not smashing them into the mat with the maximum of brute force.
In fact, the more I practise aikido (and it’s been well over 30 years since I started) the more I believe that people who use pain to make their techniques work have fundamentally lost the plot. That’s not what aikido is about. It’s a cheat, a trick, an excuse for poor technique. Your technique must work whether or not the attacker feels pain. If they feel pain, it may be because they are using strength to resist your technique. But it should not be the aim of your technique to impose pain. Instead, think of using gravity to unbalance the attacker.
The simple fact of the matter is that some people can resist pain. Nobody can resist gravity.