Physical Training Mar 2003
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The Marvels of Ki
Why Hinges and Handles Lie on Opposite Sides of a Door

Copyright © Richard Garrelts 2003. All rights reserved.

As aikido enters its sixth decade of existence, many practitioners appear disillusioned with the possibility that it does not offer the tools or training methodologies necessary to reach the level of skill of its illustrious founder, Morihei Ueshiba.  It is often touted that no one in the modern aikido community can match the level of expertise attained by Ueshiba because none have undergone the same training or endured the same experiences. This certainly seems a valid argument on the surface, but misses the crucial fact that few people really know what Ueshiba’s capabilities were.  The purpose of this article, however, is not to make unfair comparisons of skill level but to dissect the niceties of one of the most often used examples of Ueshiba sensei’s superiority—his apparent ability to resist a horizontal push to a bokken (or jo) held by his outstretched arm.

 When I first saw a photo of this remarkable feat, it was used as an illustration of the Japanese concept of ki.  As I had just been shown the famous “unbendable arm,” I naturally assumed that this must be, in some form or another, an extension of a similar concept.  Perhaps, by “extending ki,” the bokken could be made immovable in the same way that the arm is made unbendable.  That notion soon died off, however, with the discovery that the “unbendable arm” was really just efficient usage of musculature.  No discussion of ki necessary.  Although efficient muscle usage would be of great help in the bokken trick, it certainly isn’t enough to explain how Ueshiba was able to deal with the summative force of three men pushing.

 In recent years, a new theory has gained increasing acceptance.  Supposedly, the theory goes, Ueshiba was somehow able to “ground” the incoming force so that a push against the bokken (and the resulting torque) would be counteracted by subtle changes of position and peculiar body alignments.  This sounded much more promising, at least initially, but I soon had to rule it out as well.  Regardless of Ueshiba’s supposed level of strength, no man on earth could possibly “ground” an incoming horizontal force of that magnitude in the manner described.  The mechanics involved quickly proved themselves to be nonsense.

 There is absolutely no way that Ueshiba would have been able to transmit the entirety of a predominately horizontal force vertically through his body and into the ground, though this is often how the performance is viewed.  It is erroneous to think that a static (or even semi-static) structure is capable of converting a horizontal force into a vertical one through specific alignments.  Forces simply cannot be redirected through the body in this manner, no matter how it is aligned.  The human body can only be made somewhat “immovable” by being held in such a way that an incoming force acts to move the body as a coherent unit in either a horizontal translation or rotation around a vertical axis.  In this way, friction will be a major contributing factor to the maintaining of equilibrium.  The only possible explanation for the bokken demonstration (at least mechanically), is that Ueshiba simply aligned himself in this manner and, as a result, friction held him place.  Unfortunately, to do this he would be forced to depend on the comparatively weak muscles of his shoulders. Regardless of the quality of Ueshiba’s body alignment, he would still have to rely on the strength of his arm to maintain equilibrium.  The angle at which his arm is extended in relation to his body completely rules out the possibility of mechanical advantage allowing him to resist the push.

 Any structure is only capable of withstanding a force of lesser magnitude than the amount necessary to cause its weakest support to collapse.  As I’m sure we are all aware, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  The human body is no different.  In the case of Ueshiba’s demonstration, the “weak link” is the group of muscles responsible for external rotation of the shoulder.  Because of the length of the moment arm, and the relative weakness of the muscles involved, little effort is required to move a bokken held in this position.  The only way to prevent the arm from moving in relation to the torso is to allow the waist to give way first.  The only way to prevent the waist from giving way in relation to the lower body is to allow the hips and legs to move with the force of the push.  In any case, the greatest amount of force with which the human body (or any structure, for that matter) is capable of maintaining equilibrium is the amount of force its weakest support is able to apply in the opposite direction.  Certainly, the cumulative push of three men would easily be capable of the amount of force necessary to overpower a seventy-year old man’s shoulder.  If they were attempting to “fake it”, the force of each man’s push could not possibly be more than a few pounds.  A quick glance at the dramatic body positions on the part of the pushers goes a long way in ruling out this possibility. One can easily assume they are exerting a great deal of effort.

 Luckily, Ueshiba was filmed performing this feat (with a single uke) on an American television documentary titled Rendezvous with Adventure.  When I heard this, I quickly bought a copy and set about trying to decipher what Ueshiba was doing.  Of course, it didn’t help much, and I was still left with the vague impression that perhaps there really was something miraculous going on.  I just couldn’t seem to figure out how Ueshiba could deal with the great amount of leverage given up to the uke.

 Then, it finally hit me.  What if Ueshiba wasn’t resisting a push at all?  Would we really have any way of knowing?  What if the uke was engaging in a push-pull action of both arms simultaneously?  What if the instructions to the uke were to move Ueshiba’s hand and not the bokken itself?  Because the uke is wearing long sleeves, there is no way for the viewer to see which muscles are contracting and which are relaxing.  We assume he is pushing with both hands, but there is no evidence that this is occurring at all.

 (As an aside, it should probably be noted that it is possible the uke was instructed to engage in a horizontal translation of the bokken rather than attempt to rotate it around some vertical axis.  If this were the case, the action necessary on the part of the uke would still fall under the category of push-pull.  Because of the stability of the end of the bokken nearest Ueshiba, the uke would be forced to use his far hand to pull and his near hand to push.  A two-handed push would still not be possible under these conditions.)

 Indeed, it seems that this is where the real beauty of the trick lies—as a simple demonstration of our innate ability to fool ourselves and see what we choose to see based on our assumptions.  Close inspection of the film reveals a number of clues as to what may really be happening:

1. The uke switches foot position with each exertion of force.  While I initially thought this may have just been theatrics, it makes much more sense if the position change is to provide the uke with greater mechanical advantage to twist the bokken back and forth with a push-pull action.

2. During the second repetition of the “push,” Ueshiba takes a small step back to the weak point in his stance after the uke switches to put his right leg forward.  This is significant because if the uke’s action were a strict push, Ueshiba would have no need to bring his left foot back.  If we think of the uke’s action as a push-pull, however, the reason for this step becomes clear.  The direction of the force applied to the bokken changes and Ueshiba must compensate by bringing support to the weak point of his stance.  So, either Ueshiba just stumbled during the “grounding” of an incoming horizontal force or the uke’s action was a push-pull.

3. The uke’s front foot never becomes “unweighted.”  Try this: stand in front of a wall in a forward-weighted stance (one leg back) and push against the wall as hard as you can.  What do you notice about your front leg?  You should be able to easily lift it off the ground while pushing into the wall with all of your strength.  In this position (one leg forward, one leg back, hips square), the amount of force you can push with decreases as the weight on your front leg increases.  Now watch the film, paying particular attention to the uke’s front leg.  As the front leg never becomes “unweighted,” we can assume that he is either not pushing very hard or is engaging in a push-pull type action. While it would be possible to engage in a push-pull motion with all of one’s weight on the rear leg, this weight distribution is an absolute requirement when executing a full-force two-handed push on an immovable object.

4. With each exertion of force on the part of the uke, a slight movement of the shoulders is seen which matches what would occur if the action was a push-pull rather than a push.  The shoulders do not remain completely parallel to the bokken, which is what one would expect if the action were strictly a two-handed push.

5. During the final “throw phase” of the performance, Ueshiba is seen to rotate the bokken with a counterclockwise (from the camera’s perspective) movement of his right hand.  What stands out here is that the uke’s right hand remains relatively stationary while Ueshiba begins the release.  If the uke was engaging in a two-handed push, one would expect both arms to move forward at this point.  This, however, is not the case, and the uke is clearly seen to stumble forward as the push with his left hand brings him off balance and to the ground.  The uke’s right hand maintains a grip on the bokken throughout much of the release.  The whole movement is consistent with the assumption that the action employed by the uke is one of push-pull rather than a strict push.  The uke was most likely not pushing forward with both hands to begin with.

It is important to note that although each of these effects is apparent when the trick is performed with a single uke, the same cannot be said of a performance involving multiple uke.  The reason for this is that when multiple people are involved, they will inevitably get in each other’s way to some degree.  Each person will most likely attempt to rotate the bokken around a different axis than the others and may even be attempting to do so in the opposite direction.  Thus, the force Ueshiba must contend with in the case of multiple uke is actually less than the amount of force that would be contributed by a single uke.  For this reason, the performance in Rendezvous with Adventure provides the greatest insight into what may actually be occurring.

Obviously, none of this completely rules out the usage of an unknown force.  That is still a possibility, unlikely though it may be. It is important to realize that any mystical explanation, no matter how unlikely, cannot be completely disproven.  One can only suggest more likely possibilities.  In light of the evidence shown by the photographic and film records, no other possibility seems nearly as likely as the use of a push-pull action on the part of the uke.   Unfortunately, it is impossible to prove what exactly is occurring.  Instead, we can only ask, “Which seems a more likely explanation?”

 Some of you may be saying at this point, “But that isn’t even a good demonstration” or  “Even I could do that!”  I would definitely have to agree.  It isn’t a good demonstration, and, yes, you certainly could do it.  The uke doesn’t have nearly the amount of leverage necessary in this situation to move Ueshiba’s hand.  The trick doesn’t demonstrate anything other than how not to use a lever.  It isn’t really a viable presentation of any kind of skill, but that most definitely does not mean this isn’t what Ueshiba was doing.  Again, you have to ask yourself, “What is more likely?” Things are not always what they seem.

 There is absolutely no evidence to support the common assumption of a strict two-handed push being executed by the uke.  On the contrary, objective viewing of the photographic and film records reveals subtle body movements consistent with what would occur if the motion itself were of a push-pull type.  As the human body is utterly incapable of supporting the forceful push of a grown man (let alone three) in the manner often described, this push-pull explanation seems most likely.  While, by all accounts, Ueshiba was an amazing budoka, he certainly was not capable of operating beyond the bounds of human potential.

As aikido continues to grow and develop in the hands of today’s practitioners, perhaps it is best that apocryphal anecdotes of superhuman powers be left at the wayside.  In this way, the modern generation of students and teachers can devote their full energies to personal development and the rational explanation and expansion of the full range of technique.  While history has its place and must obviously be respected, only in looking toward the future can aikido develop to its full potential.  Aikido’s greatness cannot be realized by viewing the art as a vast repository of lost knowledge that can only be rediscovered through unquestioning adherence to tradition.

Richard Garrelts is a martial artist and physics major at the University of Nebraska--Kearney.

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Physical Training Mar 2003