Martial Musings: Slowing Down For Exquisite Skill

"Slow Down!!" I screamed.

The students were working on Tenshin Nage (Heaven & Earth throw), an advanced technique in our Ryu. The Ukes' were eager to throw the Tori into the earth, head first.

It is important to understand the two terms - Uke and Tori. Uke is the one who defends or one who receives. Tori, on the other hand, does not mean attacker but s/he who completes the technique. This is an important distinction as the goal in dojo is to "learn the way towards self mastery". That self mastery can take many forms, however, for now we will stick to elegant skill.

I return now to the throw. I demonstrated how the throw could be done in two ways:

1. Hard powered: sheer muscle strength that uproots and slams the Tori into the ground. This can get rather choppy as the Uke/Tori begin to muscle up, leading to stiff jerky movements.


2. High Skill: This time with Aiki: a complete unbalancing of the opponent coupled with skeletal freezing, before the tori goes into the ground head first. The Tori actually helps complete the technique, as the only way s/he can move is along the path of the technique.

High skill in any martial endeavor requires technique done slowly, with effectiveness. When students first begin to move slowly they begin to notice:

  • Their technique is rather choppy with one, two or more distinct stops and restarts. This slows and breaks the rhythm of the technique
  • Their balance and central axis (the spine) is off. They are in conflict with the Earth's gravity
  • They are not using the needed muscles and fascia they need and over compensation sets in. The right chaining of muscles and fascia is non existent, resulting in over-exertion.
  • Their technique does not have that smooth, clean aesthetic appeal. With this comes a loss in the art of self mastery.

As the Ukes struggled to get the Tori off the ground, they became aware of what needed fixing.

I emphasized, "if you cannot do it slowly, you really won't be able to do it real time. What matters is that the techniques are done with finesse, with economy of motion while conserving energy. This is what seperates the pros from the 'also-rans'."

One of the students asked if this meant training "like Taiji." Noticing a small smirk on his face, I responded with a resounding YES. Then I demonstrated, moving in near slow motion (10% of speed) through every stage of the throw.

He now paid attention.

I then explained what slowing down means.

1. It maintains the integrity of the technique/s. Do not change it's rhythm

2. It works the technique with as much smoothness and finesse as possible

3. It uses only the minimum required muscles, thereby building a complete awareness of how the body moves. This involves only contracting the required muscles while completely relaxing the antogonistic muscle groups. This is a hard skill to master and will keep you on your toes for years.

4. Finally, it works at various speeds. When I am learning something new, I typically move at at least 4 speeds. 10%, 25%, 50%, and then topping out at 70% of my potential. When I am intimately familiar with it, and my form has smoothened out, then and only then, do I proceed to train at near 100% for very short bursts.

Do a few thousand repetitions this way and you will transform your martial arts:

1. You clean out kinks in your techniques

2. You will come into a deep awareness of your body proper. Awareness first develops at the level of individual muscle, then at the fascia and finally at the mystical union called Ken Tai Ichi (sword and body being one)

3. You will move with high awareness, with a new enriched proprioceptive sense. This new deepened proprioception will make you acutely aware of how you are organized in relationship to time/space around you.

So where should you start?

Start with your systems basics. Play with it. Here are some ideas:

1. Pick a particular series of techniques to work on each day

2. Organize your training in ’10%, 25%, 50% and 70% weeks’, where all techniques are trained at a specific speed. Or, pick one technique and work varied speeds on day 1, move to the next technique day 2 and so forth. This will keep your muscles in a state of confusion and minimize boredom

3. Play some music and move to the beat staying with the randomness of the playlist.

Remember, if you cannot do it slowly, you wont be able to do it in real time. And to do with exquisite precision, slow and smooth is required in every aspect of the technique.

Good luck with your training, and let me know if you have any question.

Mahipal Lunia, Sensei