By Josh Drachman Sensei, 6th dan
Saotome Sensei possesses unusual abilities that make Sensei unique as a martial artist and teacher and have inspired so many to take up the path of training and living he has laid out. Saotome Sensei is known as the most “martial” of his cohort of uchi deshi. It is his unique ability to present a compelling and effective “aiki” martiality in the face of real attacks from true fighters and swordsman that make Saotome Sensei stand apart from almost all aikido masters of his generation. I have seen Sensei neutralize, control and throw professional-level fighters with his special skill set. He can drop to the ground a group of people holding themselves up firmly locked arm-to-body. Sensei is exceptional in possessing martial skills that transcend aikido and not dependent on the cooperative construct of aikido’s uke-nage relationship. Attempting to characterize these abilities is an important project for present and future generations who are interested in following in Sensei’s foot steps. Inadequate and incomplete though the following list may be, it offers an outline of what makes Saotome Sensei unique among Aikido and martial arts masters.
Entry – Sensei’s irimi is much more than physical entry. Sensei has the ability to stand in one place, touch, connect and move multiple people in any direction (up, down, side to side, backward or forward) with a light touch using no muscular power. When applied to an individual attacker, this same entry is what allows Sensei to send an attacker flying.
Posture – Sensei’s carries himself with a light, energized, fluid grace that is the heart of what makes his technique effective. He is straight without being rigid, relaxed without being disorganized or disconnected, and is seemingly always in balance and free to move wherever he chooses or intuits is best.
Whole-body Connectedness – Sensei can take several strong, stable resistant attackers to the ground just touching them with the finger of his outstretched hand. This skill is impossible to accomplish with physical power. The key to this ability is Sensei’s use of his whole body in a fully integrated way. The finger employed is not the finger per se but an expression of the harmonious unified energy of the whole body, which can only be unlocked when the body is fully integrated and used with no muscle power. Sensei’s lower body is free, fluid and never tight. This is probably connected to Sensei’s exquisite, free and effortless suwari waza (a lost art) and phenomenal ukemi.
Intuition – Sensei operates from a subconscious awareness of his body and surroundings that allows him to perceive and orient much faster than his attackers. It enables him to stay ahead. Sensei is a complete master of the ultimate lesson of sword (i.e., sword’s gokui 極意) of sen no sen, tai no sen and go no sen. These skills enable Sensei to freeze his attacker before they attack, seemingly disappear midstream while being attacked, and counterattack in a way that captures the attack before it is delivered.
Staying ahead – Sensei can sense the moment his uke begins to attack and can neutralize the intent to attack then and there. It is sometimes difficult to continue attacking Sensei in those moments because it is clear that one has been captured and there is no point in continuing the attack to completion.
Absorption and penetration – Sensei’s touch does not pull or push but rather absorbs and penetrates. It is this quality that enables him to bring people standing at a distance from him to the floor with just a touch of his finger and to throw people with a force that is beyond simple physical extension.
Centeredness – Sensei’s operates from a well-defined but subtle sense of center. It is not a physical center, but an internal one that suffuses his whole body and enables a powerful off balancing when he shifts it internally.
Internal operation – Sensei’s movements and actions occur predominantly from within. This makes it hard for an observer to see what Sensei is actually doing. This internal condition is invisible and has to be felt to be truly experienced. Yet, it is the key to what makes Sensei’s aikido effective. It is also what is most lacking in the development of almost all branches of aikido.
Ma or Ma’ai- the control of internal distancing. This skill enables an attack to reach the opponent while simultaneously making it harder for an opponent’s attack to reach.