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Shadow Boxing

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

I felt dismayed. In the midst of preparing for my first aikido test—consisting of 10 techniques—I made the mistake of asking one of the black belts what you had to do for the shodan (1st degree black belt) test. Before the next class, he approached me with a sly grin and handed me a ream of papers. As I scanned them, my heart sank. 292 techniques, around 10 solo and paired jo and a dozen bokken kata (choreographed forms done with wooden staff and sword). And after all that, in a rite of passage called randori, a mob is sent rushing at you and you’re expected to somehow survive.

My first aikido sensei liked to begin class with a lecture. One time he proclaimed, “There are lumpers and splitters.” He went on to explain that some people naturally see what is common among disparate objects and events while others seem to notice what is unique among similar phenomena.

Scanning the shodan list, I came to the inevitable conclusion the Imaizumi Sensei, the head of our school, was a splitter. Later I would attend tests in other aikido schools and learn that few—or maybe none—of them saw fit to affix names to so many technique variations. “Show us another kokyu nage,” the sensei would tell the student being tested. And after that throw, he would say, “show us another kokyu nage… and another.”

By contrast, Imaizumi had given unique names to kokyu nage throws that ended the same but began with nage grasping the uke’s wrist at waist level, or raising it above the head to grasp it, or turning then grasping it, or cutting it while moving forward, or cutting while stepping back, or…

At first, just the notion of learning the Japanese terms for all of those techniques seemed formidable. But over time (happening to be, I confess, a splitter myself) I have learned to appreciate this approach.

Techniques, like the points on a compass, are infinite. By learning a great many distinct techniques, you begin to see the similarities and differences between them and to intuit the unnamed variations along the continuum. Learning to move in very specific ways can lead to learning to move freely.

In preparing for a test, on top of the difficulty of learning the throws and performing them with some degree of subtlety, came the fear that in the midst of the exam, my mind would go blank. I foresaw our sensei calling out a long string of Japanese words describing a technique, and having them at the moment they reached my ears become utterly meaningless.

In an attempt to inoculate myself from the experience of standing dumbfounded in front of the class, in the weeks before every test I made a recording of myself reading the technique names with a gap of silence long enough for me to pantomime the throw. As the test approached, I would listen to that recording again and again, shadow boxing an imaginary uke as each technique was called.

In 2014, a study on visualization was done at the University of Chicago. Volunteers were split into three groups. One practiced throwing basketball free throws for an hour every day. The second simply visualized a daily hour of free throws. The third did nothing basketball related. At the end of the study, those who practiced the throws every day had improved by 24%. Those who only visualized the throws had improved by 23%. Those who did nothing showed no improvement (except, possibly, improved skills in handling the TV remote).

The shadow boxing practice I used to prepare was a lot like “air guitar.” I pantomimed the movements outside of their usual context, and yet it also aligned with the visualization scrutinized in that study.

During the pandemic, I revived this method of practice, and the visualization brought one fact into sharp focus: I had blind spots.

Take yokomen-uchi tai-atari nikkyo tenkan, for example. In my mind’s eye, I see uke lifting her hand and stepping in to strike the side of my head. I slide in, catching her early, my forward hand cutting her elbow back and down, my back hand simultaneously delivering a blow to her clavicle. As uke continues the attack, I let her hand come forward a little while my clavicle-striking hand passes inside her forearm, cutting it so my other hand can come around and grip her wrist…

Then what? I know the gross movement. And if someone’s hand were actually there attacking me, I could do the technique. But I realized that there was a blank when I tried to visualize the technique. I couldn’t see in my mind’s eye exactly how to grasp uke’s hand and move it into place at the front of my shoulder to put it into position for the nikkyo pin.

Pantomiming the technique over and over, I kept hitting the void at the same spot. Finally, I called down the stairs, “Adele, come hit me with a yokomen-uchi!” (the advantages of living with an aikidoka). With my wife attacking, I started the technique, and there, right where my blind spot began, I watched my hands. Front hand cuts the elbow, back (clavicle) hand comes up to cut the attacking hand to the side, then the elbow hand grasps the wrist from below at an angle that allows uke’s arm to be rotated as I turn tenkan. Meanwhile, the clavicle hand stays in contact with uke’s hand, turning around it until the palm is on the back of uke’s hand and uke’s bent wrist is brought to the front of my shoulder where it is compressed, creating what my first sensei called “nervous stimulation”.

It’s a complicated move, a bit of a double hand-switch with a tricky rotation that takes a lot of practice to do smoothly. I realized that I have always been a bit sloppy with this move. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years! (I never claimed to be a quick study). Now I saw that the sloppiness was related to my inability to visualize the movements.

Why was this? Why could I clearly visualize parts of the technique, but others I couldn’t see without actually having a body attacking me? Were the different parts of the technique stored in different parts of my brain? I could almost remember back to seeing these complicated moves for the first time, and feeling that it was all too much to take in. I had made an unconscious agreement with myself: “I’ll get those details later.” And I did, but now I’m realizing that some of those refinements did not sink to the same level of memory.

So part of my pandemic aikido practice involved going through the list of 292 techniques, performing them solo and finding the blank places where visualization failed me, then using Adele or finding a video of the technique and going over it in my mind’s eye until I could clearly visualize it.

I highly recommend this practice.

Of course, this isn’t it.

You can learn the form to a high level of precision and still not have even begun to practice aikido.

I remember in my early days training with a great big guy, a beginner who had been practicing about as long as I had. As he started a technique, a glazed look would come over his features (as a look of utter fear must have come over mine). He was completely in his head, remembering the form of the technique, oblivious to the sentient being held in his grasp and the 7 trillion nerve cells its body contained. He operated in a vacuum, utterly unaware of what he was doing to me as I did my best to survive practicing with him without injury.

I don’t know that he ever progressed past this stage. And I can’t blame him. I don’t think that the idea of connection was ever mentioned by our sensei.

Over the past few years, connection has become my primary practice. I see the progression of learning the art (at least for us splitters) as being one of learning the myriad techniques as correctly as possible, and then throwing them all away and just moving in connection with your attacker. (Of course, it’s not sequential. Learning connection should begin from the first day.)

Connection means that you feel intimately what uke is doing, and you can move freely with him. It even has a “woo-woo” aspect. You can begin your connection with uke when he’s still across the room, and by the time he reaches you, you’ve received a myriad subliminal clues and can lead his attack seamlessly. When it happens well, I don’t know how I’ve done it. I only know that I created the intent to connect with uke, and the result can be one of those wonderful throws where both uke and nage end up laughing with the sheer joy and surprise of it.

So how do you use connection in solo “shadow boxing” practice? That’s what I’ve been playing with lately, and I think the answer is a shift of attention. When I move my attention from the form of the technique to focusing on moving with an imagined partner, I can almost feel that there is someone there. Instead of performing the technique in a vacuum, my attention is on my invisible uke, and I’m training myself to always be connected.

At last the virus is waning, and dojos are reopening. I hope to be back on the mat soon, connecting with my dojo mates. Perhaps I’ll meet my shadow.


Image credits: Shadow Boxing by Addy Chicken Compass-new by David Pappas Nikkyo by Newcastle Aikido Club Shadows by aNdrzej cH.

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