Be a Chameleon: Saotome Sensei and Adaptability

Adaptability has been a core focus of Saotome Sensei’s teaching for decades, going back to when he was an instructor at Hombu Dojo.

Throughout this time, he has told his students that he doesn’t want to create copycats—that is, he doesn’t just want them to mimic his movements, but instead to manifest Aikido within their own bodies and individual personalities.

The goal of practice is to learn how to embody Aikido movement in a natural way. And, if you can move naturally and respond naturally, you’re no longer caught up in the binary try/not try paradox. Instead, you’re simply being.

Saotome Sensei calls this being a chameleon. Many times throughout his years of teaching he has called himself a chameleon, and told his students that they should be one, too.

Sometimes we would be training at night during a severe thunderstorm and the power would go out. This happened several times during large classes. And Saotome Sensei wouldn’t miss a beat—when the power went out, instead of having us stop class, he’d say, ‘OK, now you’re training as if you were blind, or as if you were attacked in a dark room.’ And you find that you can quickly adapt to the dark, it just took him nudging you a little.

– Eugene Lee Sensei

But the difficulty of seeking adaptability in Aikido practice is that as soon as you try, as soon as you seek to impose your will on a situation, you fail.

Why do you fail?

Because the world is larger than you, and your will exists as a single point within a giant universe. It’s the difference between attacking a wave and riding on top of it.

Photo credit: Kundan

But of course we have a paradox here. How can you cultivate adaptability without trying to impose your will?

Maybe by not trying at all.

The concept of adaptability is fundamental to the way Saotome Sensei practices and teaches Aikido. In this article we will explore how adaptability manifests in his teaching and the many forms adaptability can take, both off and on the mat.

Adapting to the Pandemic

In the spring of 2020, Aikido dojos around the world were forced to close their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time it was unclear how long the closures would last—some thought a few weeks, some a few months. Hardly anyone foresaw that the lockdown would continue for over a year.

This was a unique challenge that had never presented itself before. How do you practice Aikido when you have to keep six feet away from everyone? If you can’t be on the mat, what can you do instead?

For many aikidoka these early days were a hardship that was not just financial, but also spiritual. Many Aikido practitioners turn to Aikido as a way to maintain balance in their lives, and, in a time when the world was being turned on its head, doing Aikido didn’t seem possible when it was needed most.

In those early days of the pandemic, ASU’s senior instructors did not hesitate to adapt to the new reality of the pandemic.

In days, ASU leadership and chief instructors had begun offering online classes to their students. New ideas and approaches to teaching Aikido sprang into creation, and students pushed forward, finding ways to adapt and continue their practice.

Irimi and Adaptability—Teaching the Principle Behind the Technique

Back in those early days of the pandemic, Saotome Sensei told several senior ASU instructors on a video call, “Aikido is daily life. Whether it’s in your relationship, in your household work, or in your response to COVID, Aikido should always be applied to what is happening right now in your life.”

Infused in these words is the principle of irimi—of entering. Another way to think of irimi is to engage fully with the moment.

Whatever happens, whether it is a sudden attack on the street or the news that a loved one is ill, the principle is the same. Rather than ignore the new reality, however unpleasant it might be, we fully engage with it—we enter—and in this way we adapt to it.saotome-sensei-adaptability-randori

Following this line of thinking, adaptation comes as a matter of course. We don’t take time to contemplate, or wait until we feel more confident or sure-footed. A new reality arises and we change to reflect that fact, because that reality is now the world in which we live.

Throughout his teaching, Saotome Sensei has emphasized the importance of the moment. Instead of planning a technique—she’ll do this attack, I’ll respond with this technique, and so on—he encourages his students to be present and natural. And to act. When the moment of attack comes, your body will adapt to whatever new reality presents itself.

For Saotome Sensei, cultivating this kind of presence in the body and mind is more important than perfecting the mechanics of technique. Through study and repetition, any student can slowly improve technique, but the spirit of adaptability is something that has to be stoked, like a fire.
In Aikido practice, when uke attacks, nage does not wait passively to see what might happen and then react to it. Nage begins moving as uke moves, joining with uke’s movements to design the space in which they both exist.

It’s important to note that adaptability is not simply defined as a reaction to a new reality. Instead, it can more accurately be described as designing the space around you by designing your own Aikido to fit your body, the attack and your partner’s body. That way, Aikido movement becomes a proactive response to a particular threat in a unique moment of the attack.

The Difference Between Trying to Control Your Partner and Finding a New Solution

In some martial arts there is an emphasis on control.

The attacker does something and the response is to try and dominate through force—a forceful counter-strike, or a forceful hold, for instance.

But in Saotome Sensei’s approach, rather than focus on winning and dominating, the focus is on finding a new solution that comes from the specific circumstance and does not require a lot of effort.

This approach means that, instead of trying to stop an attack cold, nage adapts to it and in fact makes uke feel as if they are doing what they wanted to do anyway, instead of feeling forced through violence.saotome-sensei-adaptability-beach

The concept of designing the space can be viewed on a more subtle level within one’s Aikido practice as not actively trying to make uke do something. That is, not trying to force uke to fall, but instead moving fluidly so that the natural outcome is that nage is in a space that is safe and uke is in a space that isn’t—and where falling might actually be the most natural thing to do.

This distinction is subtle because it has to do with intention, and with avoiding the desire to force someone to do something. The concept of adaptability is helpful here.

When we consider movement through the lens of adaptability, we can quickly see that as soon as nage decides they’re going to make something happen, they’re no longer adapting at all. Instead, they’ve decided in advance what they want to happen and they are now just enacting that plan. They are not in the moment but in an imagined future, or a planned past, rushing through motions they’ve already mapped out.

And here is where we begin to see the great difficulty with cultivating adaptability. It is an elusive trait, and one that, as soon as we try to have it, to hold it, dissolves into our attempts to control the encounter instead of working to design the space.

How to Teach Adaptability

As we saw with the onset of COVID-19, the world can change at any moment.

Over the years, Saotome Sensei has tried to help his students prepare for the possibility of sudden change by emphasizing different training environments and scenarios when teaching.

A given technique will look very different depending on who is doing it or who attacks you. It will also look different depending on your surroundings, the time of day, and an infinity of other factors.

We were taught from the start that there wasn’t a box in your Aikido training that you were learning to fill. There was no box. And as you begin to understand the underlying principles, there is no limit to the form that Aikido can take.

– George Ledyard Sensei

By training to spontaneously adapt to any new scenario that arises, you can begin teaching adaptability to yourself, and begin to find ways to teach it to others.

Saotome Sensei oftens ends class with Jiyu Waza, in which nage can respond freely with any technique. This habit is an example of a tactic he uses to help teach adaptability.

Saotome Sensei often talks about starting fresh each practice. Even scenarios that seem the same—practicing in the same dojo day after day, with the same people—can be opportunities for teaching adaptability.

Regardless of how long you’ve been training, there are always new things to be learned and it’s important to maintain this perspective of beginner’s mind so that your practice doesn’t become stagnant.

Oyo Henka Waza—On Adaptability in the Roles of Nage and Uke

Oyo henka can be translated as the creative adaptation of form in a martial situation, while waza means practice.

More broadly, oyo henka waza describes the idea of dealing with obstacles, and finding ways to adapt when something is not working.

Watch this video to see Saotome Sensei teaching lessons on the principle of oyo henka waza:

The demonstration in the video above showcases how Aikidoists can practice adapting their form in martial situations, highlighting the different ways that the roles of uke and nage can be reversed and blended together.

In the video, you see Saotome Sensei teaching the ways the body can respond to resistance that might arise in different directions. Through flowing movement, we see Saotome Sensei absorb and respond to different kinds of attacks and different kinds of resistance, illustrating in action the principle of adaptability.

As Saotome Sensei demonstrates, despite the challenge of “trying” to learn adaptability and the inherent paradox of trying to do something without imposing your will, it is something you can practice.

And even more than that, it is something you can learn.