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Exploring the Principles: Weight Underside

I thought weight underside would be one of the easier principles to discuss, but it is both obvious and counter-intuitive.

I have begun to think of my body as two separate weights that meet at my center point. One is the weight from my center to the soles of my feet. The other is from my center to the highest point I can reach. The bottom weight, from hips to floor, is like a bucket of water hanging from my one point. The upper weight, from my center up to the top of my head, is a gyroscope balanced on my pelvis with my spine as the gyroscope’s center.

From the waist down, my weight should always be on the soles of my feet. Obvious. But can I shift weight back and forth without twisting my knees or losing connection to the ground? In boat-rowing exercise we have all seen (and all been) the beginner that throws his center forward, his back foot comes up, and he steps forward. Can I throw my weight forward without my back foot coming up? Counter-intuitive after 30 years of walking and running.

Have you ever swung a bucket half full of water? As the bucket comes forward and twists up, the water almost stays parallel to the lip of the bucket (although it shifts slightly, not quite parallel to the top of the bucket and not quite parallel to the ground). With a bit of pendulum swing, the water stays pretty calm in the bucket and doesn’t slosh. When you swing the bucket forward, the water shifts forward and up, tugging at your arm. If you don’t sink some weight back and down, the bucket will pull you forward or jerk to a stop and slosh. If you pull back and down against the handle, the bucket and water swing up rather than pull forward. Then the water starts dropping straight down until the handle and your arm make it pendulum back. At the back swing the water goes back and up, your body weight shifts forward and down and your arm  tugs forward and down.

This is how weight underside feels. I used to slide my weight straight back and forth as if my center was on a track. Boat rowing warm-up was jerky. My feet didn’t stay evenly weighted.

Now I focus on my feet and center. If I stand naturally and let my center sink an inch or two, like I’m holding a heavy weight, I feel my weight evenly across the soles of my feet. When I move my weight forward, it swings forward like an invisible bucket of water swinging forward. When my center stops over my front leg, I rotate my hips back and down so my back foot is still rooted. Then I slide my center backward until my weight is over my back foot and I rotate my hips slightly forward and down so my front foot feels just as connected to the mat as when my weight was on it.

Feeling the soles of my feet was an important step in understanding how to move my weight. The hip motion came from Tai Chi. In Tai Chi, the knee stays in line with the toes and twisting comes from the hips. The same advice about the knee applies in all sports. The knee is a hinge, not a ball and socket. Bend the knee naturally and let the ankle, hip, and spine generate the body’s turning. (Related to Tai Chi, I suggest studying the illustrations on this blog. I’m a visual learner and these images inform a lot of this post).

When I realized how much tension I carried in my hips and began to relax, my weight naturally settled. My butt and upper thighs relaxed. I felt my knees and ankles more. Relaxing useless tension made me more centered. Now my hips rotate and pitch and yaw better, more like a bucket.

Above my center, I find my spine the best indicator of where my weight is. If my posture is straight, I’m not aware of strain on my spine. If I drop my chin toward my belt, I feel my spine stretch and complain. If I lift my arms straight out with tension in my shoulders, forearms or hands, I feel the weight of my spine. If I pull one elbow into my side, I feel my spine give way.

We have been exploring the idea that there is an equal and opposite for every action in our technique. If I raise my arms forward and up, something is going backward and down. Heaven and Earth throw is the most obvious example of one hand goes up and one hand goes down. But sometimes what is moving isn’t visible. Both hands go up and forward and…what?…goes down?

Think again of the boat rowing exercise. As I throw my hands forward, I do not flex and jerk them forward. If I do, my head jerks forward too. If I jerk them back, I’m likely to lean back too. Or in shomen uchi exercise, how do I throw both arms up to block without needing to lean or step forward? What is going down at the same time? I don’t know…Something, even if it is just a mental something. Bio-mechanically, I think it is another thing we have been exploring: bringing the shoulders back and down. Just like the hips, the shoulders are ball and socket joints. If I lift my hand forward and up, the back of my shoulder may jut forward with my arm and my spine follows along (weapons practice will point out this flaw with sore muscles). Or I can settle my shoulder blade back and down like my arm is a balanced lever. Like a gyroscope some weight is moving forward and some is move backward all the time, but it all falls on the spine.

So my body is now a gyroscope balanced on a bucket handle. (I dare you to find that sentence in aikido lore. Or anywhere. Ever.)

When I put the two halves back together, they can move independently above or below my center. My legs and weight can slide and step around the mat in balance. If my lower body is not in balance, I can usually feel it get bogged down by my spine tilting. I can move my hands and arms up or down or twist independent of my legs. I can do boat-rowing warm up with legs and torso independent. Just upper body, just lower body, or both moving in unison.

But solo movement is the basics. What happens when an attack pulls or weights my wrist? This is where things are really fuzzy. I do feel my tendency to lean my spine away and pull. Cringe. Flee. Sometimes I over compensate for that and lean in to counter-attack. Then uke can pull me over.

What follows now is rough-sketch ideas. If you press horizontally against the top of a gyroscope, it presses back because it wants to stand up straight. A gyroscope is most stable at the base.  If you poke the top of a gyroscope, it bobbles a lot more than if you poke the bottom. So I connect uke‘s pull or push to my center–the bottom of my gyroscope– so my spine doesn’t wobble. If it does wobble (like, I don’t know, every time) I can feel the wobble and let the bowl of my hips and lower body shift to catch it. In tenkan warm-up, I feel the weight of uke‘s attack, move that weight to my spine (or my spine to it until we are in balance) and then I can turn freely.

I often laugh in aikido when I really try to attack someone and find myself flat on my back, none the worse for wear. When it feels like the thrower barely touched me, didn’t fight me, and yet the world spun around until I’m staring at the ceiling, when that happens it feels like the thrower manipulated gravity. I try to hit a partner on the head and then my spine moves slightly forward, then to the side and down until my hips are stuck and then my spine rolls back and I fall. Kokynage. Or I try to grab a shoulder and my arm begins to twist as if I grabbed a spinning gyroscope and, after a spin, my fingers are behind my shoulder and my spine tilts backward past my hips and I fall. Shihonage. 

Receiving an aikido throw is often like poking a gyroscope that will not topple or like someone has handed you a swinging bucket of water all the sudden. The expected success of a strike turns into mental and physical confusion.

The training of aikido and keeping my weight, mind, and presence stable, is to be able to receive energy and move without tilting or sloshing myself. When I am centered and weight underside, I can accept energy and not lose my center, lose my spine, or lose my footing.

That is the best of my understanding of weight underside today.  It is very difficult to understand, let alone explain. I hope my explorations give you ideas to try. I know I will have more to say as I keep learning.

(Featured image “nature paisible” courtesy of Yann Coeuru.)

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