圧覚 Akkaku (Sense of Pressure)
Pressure- bearing down on me, bearing down on you...
Ichi Go Ichi E
One Meeting, One Chance
People are occasionally incredulous that not all combative methods hinge on 'sparring*,' (the assumption seems to be that this sole component is more critical than any other in creating useful skill-sets). As mentioned in previous entries, the primary means of transmission for many older-style Japanese arts (including the one that I study and practice) are kata (形 [two-person] forms) in which the senior takes the role of the Uke/Uchitachi/Uketachi (受/打ち太刀/受け太刀receiver/swinging sword/receiving sword), the 'loser'. As practice progresses, the speed, maai (間合いinterval meet, the nexus of distancing and timing), contact strength, connection, etc. are all subject to change, sometimes radically. What often gets lost in written descriptions is just how unpredictable things can get within an individual form.
In learning any two-person form, both partners' are trained to initiate, receive and counter certain specific actions in certain orders- and for a while, this happens exactly as learned. However, once the junior can replicate the gross format, the senior begins making alterations. Before you know it, the senior partner can end up next to (or behind) you, while maintaining the format, forcing the junior to adapt and extend his/her awareness beyond his/her own space to include wherever aite (合手meeting hand, one's partner) is at that moment (keep in mind, this is all without losing focus on greater spatial awareness).
The cutting, grabbing, crushing or striking in these forms might seem (almost) symbolic at first; shortly, though the danger becomes clear. Maintaining the attention and concentration required to avoid being struck, cut, bound or immobilized is taxing, especially when it feels like no matter where or how much you move, that aite is uncomfortably close... or just slightly too far away for your cuts, thrusts, kicks, punches or grabs to land, while s/he always seems to be able to reach you with ease. Akkaku (this sense of pressure) is a distinguishing feature of effective kata keiko (形稽古- form consider the old, or, practice) on both physical and psycho-emotional levels and keeps us working at or close to the edge of our skill** while reinforcing the maintenance of core body and tool-use mechanics.
Among other things, akkaku prevents kata keiko from degenerating into merely tapping tools, striking the air near aite or grabbing/contacting in some namby-pamby way. It provides a sense of urgency while helping to shape appropriate responses, built on the framework of kihon (basics) and gensoku (principles) native to our arts**. In sets with matched tools (sword to sword, spear to spear, 'unarmed,' etc.), we are presented with what appear to be symmetrical, force-on-force exchanges that make variations on kihon. As we progress, those kihon become more robust and useful thanks to an understanding derived through the alterations found within one's kata. Training with akkaku also gently reinforces for shitachi (仕太刀performing sword) or tori (取りthe taker or 'winner' of a technique or form) that merely repeating the form ‘correctly' is no guarantee of a positive outcome.
Through consistent akkaku, it becomes clear that doing kata exactly the same way every time, even if it appears 'technically right' is an empty exercise (and poor training, which a good aite will make obvious rather quickly). When done with proper intention (well designed) kata aren't fragile museum pieces to be treated preciously and put back on some shelf, nor are they observed at a remove. Good kata are robust, meant to be inhabited, thoroughly dissected, digested and internalized***. By bringing participants into the present to share a completely unique expression of principles in a setting that varies slightly depending on each person's level of experience, power generation, friction, etc. This is an excellent example of the expression Ichi Go Ichi E, the idea that even in the familiar each iteration will be unique.
Of course, there is 'free play' in Japanese arts; much of it quite hearty (up to and including inter-school challenges.) With that said, there is a direct benefit to working at the fullest extent of one's speed and power against someone capable of leading you to make the 'appropriate' (to strategy, level, etc.) tactical choices through kata. It is a means of transmission that alters the practice in progressively subtler ways, evoking some of the same psycho-physical responses as being in 'live fire' situations, with fewer of the bad habits and almost none of the feelings of invulnerability that 'winning' at sparring can induce. And, as if by some strange coincidence, it turns out that many of the skills from properly trained kata translate to 'free' exchanges rather nicely (almost, as if these silly old training methods make provisions for real-world use...)
Yours in appreciating pressure,
*It is my contention that concentrating on sparring without a firm foundation in basics and body method can lead to bad habits, sloppiness, reliance on too few responses, and, can reinforce the assumption that force encounters ought to be symmetrical, a profoundly dangerous notion. Also of concern is becoming too used to the built-in accommodations required to not die in robust exchanges. In other words, working one-on-one, barehanded, on level ground might lead to an inability to adapt to additional opponents, a challenging environment, or tools being deployed.
**Not safety though, that's dumb! Which is why it works best to train with someone seasoned enough to know where on the continuum between level-appropriate stress, adrenal response and 'likely to die'-level panic we, the juniors, ought to find ourselves at any given moment. Good aite are constantly pushing each other, not by trying to show the other person up, but through honest, connected and present interactions.
*** This is one reason that it makes no sense to 'shop' for forms from other arts and ways- those worth their salt exist to reinforce skills specific to one art's transmission. Beyond the very real likelihood of misunderstanding the meaning of a form or its applications, it can lead to incongruities. The kind that can be difficult to overcome when it matters, e.g. under duress (the very most wrong time to discover that a skill only works intermittently or not at all outside of the laboratory conditions of class...)