The Liberating Touch
With more than twenty trips to Japan and an exceptional experience with many prestigious and respected Masters, Philippe Gouttard is one of the most sought after technicians for his very personal insight on the Aikido discipline which he conceives as nothing less than an Art of communication. He shares with us today his vision of Aikido practice and what he seeks to develop through it.
For almost 30 years, Aikido has allowed me to evolve and move forward in life. At first I considered practice solely as a body need, a physical need, just like the practice of team sports which I was very familiar with before taking up Aikido. I did not feel ready to meet the requirements of an individual practice that was exposing the body to tremendous pains and strains. The seiza posture, the falls, joint locks, the immobilizations etc. After several years facing difficulties and injuries, my body slowly got used to answering the different situations it was being placed under but more than that, it even took pleasure in moving with a partner.
After several painful years of sustaining injuries and facing difficulties, my body learned to adapt and answer to the various solicitations and slowly, it even started to take pleasure in moving with a partner. It is during this journey that the many teachers I met educated me and turned me into what I am now. Thanks to their generous help, I reached the situation which is mine nowadays. I want to humbly thank here all these professors who helped me, in particular Christian Tissier who has advised me in all my research of a new vision of practice and who allowed me to go to Japan and to understand this Aikido that was so new to me. Nevertheless, it quickly appeared to me that in order to understand a particular teacher, one had to meet many others. I had chosen to follow Christian Tissier but it seemed capital to me to enrich my practice to the contact of other masters. Since I did not reside in Paris, I had to learn to memorize what I was seeing at classes and seminars.
This approach happened to be very beneficial in terms of developing my memory in order to reproduce on new partners what I had seen during seminars. During my many stays in Japan, I could enrich my practice and then come back and put into shape this amount of knowledge that I had taken in. I also wanted to keep in me the most beautiful image of my teachers and try to communicate it whole deforming it as little as possible. But quickly, it appeared to me that the sole sportive aspect of practice was becoming very limited. For a long time, there was a conflict within me that opposed two notions; dominating a partner or learning from him. For a long time, the only thought of being strong physically satisfied me but after being corrected physically and verbally by various teachers, a new image of Aikido and a new problematic appeared before me: how to manage that my partner takes from me my qualities and of course, how to make sure that he transmits his qualities to me?
From that point, I started to reflect on the thing that I thought were negative in the Aikido practice and to discard them and of course, I tried to include into my practice everything that was positive to my eyes: not to talk to the partner, not to communicate verbally, to let express himself and forge his own experience. For me, the challenge was to figure out how to fight against myself, my fears, my anguishes, my frustrations and not try to prove to my partner that to be the strongest was the most important. Aikido became to me an art of understanding how to touch a partner, how to use my own body to communicate with a partner and how give him the freedom to go and train with other partners without feeling frustration. It became an exercise aimed at learning freedom and to respect the choices and directions of every individual. I only realize now the number of people that my practice might have shocked or bother because by being def to their own practice, I only thought that to dominate was the right way.
Through the grab, we learn how to use the palm of the hand and through the atemi, we learn what to do with the rest of it. For me, an atemi is a way to learn how to touch a partner, how to give him an information. It does not seem serious to me to be “strongly” touched by a partner, what bother me is to be “awkwardly” touched. The real pain is to feel the “anger” or the “inattention” of the one who touches me. A good example is on the mat, when we don’t make our atemi reach. What is the point showing the fist in the first place then? The worse thing is when we actually accidentally hit and what really bug me are the lame excuses that follow. This is our problem in Aikido, we do not dare to reach our desires.
For me, there is a fundamental problem on the tatami in finding a way to practice with a stranger or somebody that we don’t like just as if we were practicing with a friend. On the tatami, we praise each other but outside, we criticize. I personally believe that only practice is important. Afterwards, whatever we might say rings false, a bit like in life really. This private life, I could be slightly ashamed of it, it is not necessarily the one which I had dreamed of. Too much wanderings about; in our discipline, the professional and the personally intertwine too much. The “friends” from the beginnings went away, some new appeared with time and sometimes, friendship leaps towards the “professional relationship”. What I really love about Aikido is to discover the other through motion and to see how a person will open up through the efforts that are required of him. For me, technique is a mental and physical entitlement. The means to get to it are called Ikkyo, Shiho-nage, Kokkyu-nage etc.
Let’s get things right; techniques are our common language (hence the expression that a basic technique is like grammar) on which we attach the feelings we have at that precise moment and that we transmit to the other. When we project a partner, we not only throw him physically but we communicate to him all the good or bad sensations that we put in this throw. Once again, to project strongly or to perform a painful immobilization is not too bad is the intention we put in it is good. It is the opposite that bothers me and in my mind, corrupts the practice. I know of no student who gave up Aikido because of a badly done Kote-gaeshi but I know many who left because of bad sensations on the mat. We come into the dojo in order to become stronger and we can accept some degrees of suffering if it is justified.
The question that should always be asked is: why are we here? Why do we stay on the mat after 20 years of efforts that lead to nowhere, unless it is to develop ourselves and understand life a bit better? For students too this sensation of independence or freedom is crucial. But how to get it across? We must make sure that students are free and that they can always go learn elsewhere. Personally, if I got to the level I am at, it is because I followed the way that fitted me with the leader of this way leaving me the freedom to discover other things. Not to give students this independence is the reason why I don’t believe any more in dojos where only one instructor is teaching, I think a dojo should have a plural teaching. It is during the evolution of our practice that the choice to reduce this number of teachers must be made.
To me, going to teach in several dojos and to do so in different languages is the true Aikido. Giving everything I know to people who came just for that gave me much that I can’t find anywhere else.
Aikido does not only belong to those who do it with us but also to those which practice offends us. I am not sure that if the masters that sadly passed away came back, they would agree with the practice as we do it nowadays. However, when we pass on technique, we also transmit freedom and intelligence and therefore, it seems normal to me that the students we instructed end up having a practice and a mode of reflection that is quite different to what we thought we had given them. Learning to give freedom and respect, this is what I try to transmit to the people who come to see me and this is what I try to understand from people who give up their time and energy to me. Aikido taught me loneliness, but the kind of loneliness that leaves freedom: to do or not to do, to say or not to say. I never get the answer though. While practicing, I always feel like saying yes straight away, and then I can regret it later on. In Aikido, “attacking” a partner means that we trust him, we don’t throw anybody, we accept to be thrown.
I think that we should change the vocabulary: to “take the center”, to “use the strength” are for me concepts that lead to domination and frustration. It is uke who lends us his body for our study; it is uke who accepts to be thrown. For me, after practice, uke and tori must have exchanged their qualities and roles got inverted; the weakest became stronger and the strongest understood the weakest. We must reduce the differences between us. We grab and we attack a partner become we like him; we throw him because we know that he will come back. We must develop our senses. The grab is initiated with the eyes, the ears and the nose, it is what attracts us in the partner and the hold is performed by using knees and elbows, the hand will only confirm or not the sensation that we got from our partner through our eyes, ears and nose. Our hands has knowledge of the other, it represents our future with him whereas ourselves, we doubt constantly.
In my research, the answers I am looking for don’t necessarily always come from the other any more. As a student, our teacher is the only key to success but when we teach, answers often come from the students. They are our mirror, our perfume; they took and amplified our qualities but also our defaults. This is why we should never prejudge a student, but let him free and always leave the door open for him to go if he needs it but more importantly for him to come back. We must also be able to appreciate the progress accomplished under the guidance of other teachers. This is what I try to transmit and receive in my daily practice.