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Bound to Connect: Musubi Part 1

Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Although it is practiced around the world, its cultural context is important. From the uniform to the technical terminology, aikido comes with cultural nuance.

The jargon is a turn-off for some. But it holds depth and direction for study. A lot of the language is difficult to translate into English.

  1. Energy

  2. Blending

  3. Connection

  4. Unity

A lot of these terms seem so vague because the English word has a different concept. Connection is a great example.

Two words often translated as “connection” or “unity” are awase and musubi. Making a fine distinction by studying the Japanese helped me understand the different skills they encourage. Awase is blending or matching. I will write a future post about the skills of blending and matching. But I want to talk about musubi today.

I watch a lot of aikido videos. Two really interesting teachers that discuss musubi are Yoshi Shibata Sensei  and Ikeda Sensei. In one video, Ikeda Sensei mentions that musubi means “tied together”. That concept popped a light on in my brain. Connection not as blending, but binding.

Musubi means knot. The fancy knot on a kimono is called the musubi. And like any fancy knot, there are different styles for different occasions or purposes.

The idea that connecting to uke in aikido is actually tying uke to yourself has informed my practice. As nage, it means that uke becomes in some way dependent on me – either for balance or for safety. As uke, it means I’m feeling if nage has my balance or has me locked up. I think the uke’s perspective is most informative on the importance of musubi.

If I grab or strike someone –let’s stick with grabs for the easier visual–I have some sort of intent. I might grab someone’s wrist to immobilize them or to move their arm out of the way so I can strike with my free hand.

If the person I grab goes slack, it is easy to keep my balance and finish the attack.

If the person I grab gets tense, it is easy to move around their tension, keep my balance and finish my attack.

There are two basic ways that take away my options. First, if the person I grab–the person in the role of nage–can disrupt my balance and get me leaning, my intent gets disrupted. My focus moves from attacking to regaining balance. Or if nage can “lock up” my joints or “take the slack out”, I lose mobility and have to move to protect my joints. My intent to harm them is disrupted.

Many aikido techniques create musubi through creating a lean or misalignment in the uke. Most kokyunage throws are examples of this. Take tenchi nage. I grab nage and nage shifts to the side, my weight and theirs falling into my palm. I start to lean and–if nage has started the throw well–I can’t let go. I am leaning and unbalanced, but still holding on because my balance depends on nage. Then nage finishes unbalancing me with their free hand and I fall to the ground. A standard kokyunage is also a good example. From whatever attack, nage moves beside me and puts one hand on the back of my neck. One of the first things we learn in aikido is that you can’t push your attacker down. But if you disrupt their balance, you can keep the attacker off balance with little effort, making them wobble like a gyroscope. Then finishing the throw is easy. It takes a lot of training to get a feel for that skill. Catching an attacker’s balance and tying it to your own is tricky.

The other option is to bind uke’s structure to itself. It is easier to understand this from uke’s perspective. If I grab nage’s shoulder, they can slide to the side and begin turning my arm. As they begin to apply ikkyo or nikkyo, my arm twists, my grip pops free. All my joints link up like a chain from wrist to elbow to shoulder to spine across to other shoulder down to hips and my structure will be dependent on nage. As a beginner, it is easy to take the slack out of one joint and create pain compliance. I don’t think that is musubi. I have been uke when all my joints are linked up gently and my structure is dependent on the thrower. I twist when they twist. I move when they move. When

drops her arms, my whole structure drops. I can’t escape, but don’t feel the need to.

In practice, I’m trying to learn and understand this process of tying my attacker’s structure to my own so that I can calmly and confidently lead the attack. How do I connect or unify not by blending, but by binding? It has become a key tool of self-evaluation, one that will take time to master.


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