The Necessity of Pain for Progressing in Aikido
This sensation that we call pain in Aikido is something that has always been a source of intellectual interest to me. Indeed, why are putting ourselves through that suffering? Why do we spend hours falling, rolling, getting our wrists twisted in all directions, and receiving shocks from a partner who is supposedly a “friend”? We assume that pain is necessary to progress in the Way. This pain is our limit, it is what allows us to know and to understand. Without it we are nothing. The real difficulty is not if we should sustain it but how far can we go in the acceptance of pain. More importantly perhaps, is to assess when does it become just plain stupidity?
Our art truly teaches us what pain means. Everyone suffers, and everyone hurts one-another but nobody would accept to go through that suffering if it was not for the feeling of well being that follows training sessions. Reasonable levels of transient suffering always lead to a period of peace and tranquility afterwards. My journey in aikido has helped me to understand and accept the suffering that I used to initially take as a failure. I remember my first year of practice, when everything was suffering, both physical and moral. In fact, my body could not bear even the slightest movement, whether it was performed alone or with a partner. The first of these movements was, in fact, the position that we call “seiza”. After having spent many years playing football without performing any stretching exercise, be it pre or post workout, to get seated on my heels would trigger an intense suffering. Unfortunately, still to this day, this pain prevents me from feeling peaceful and calm when adopting this position.
This simple position has taught me the meaning of pain. But this suffering becomes even more painful when the Japanese masters in France and Japan come to empathically enquire as to whether I am not in too much discomfort. This impossible position has taught me, since the very beginning, that I was unable to fully relax my muscles. It is also what makes me realize that I am not yet a master, I cannot yet perform my techniques in the same state of relaxation as the one I have seen in other grandmasters such as Yamaguchi Sensei who, after each class, always had his neck muscles completely relaxed. This seiza position did however teach me willpower. Staying seated in that position for long hours has taught me to focus even more on the discourse and on the gestures of the Sensei, first in order to get my mind off the pain, but subsequently allowing me to learn and retain more information.
Documentary on Philippe Gouttard in Tokyo
I must also talk about the difference between men and women in terms of pain perception and acceptance. What I am about to say comes from my personal reflexion and it should not be held as a general postulate. Even though both genders share some experiences of corporal and sentimental pains that life brings upon them through encounters and acts, there seem to exist a fundamental difference nonetheless. As men, we seek for pain in conflict: war and combat, and the levels of these acute pains vary proportionally with the amount of investment. For women however, pain has a more chronic nature, mainly due to menstruation. Pain is therefore a part of their life cycle, something not caused by an external agent, but coming from within their bodies. For men, pain is mostly a surprise, or a quest, while for women, it is mostly perceived as “normal” and unavoidable, it is expected every month.
Aikido is a good school of pain because we know in advance what is going to happen: falls, strains, forced immobilizations etc. We endure them willingly. When we put on a keikogi, we implicitly accept these postulates, in the same way that a boxer who puts on his gloves accepts that he will get hit and knows that he will suffer.
I have thought for a long time about this acceptation of pain. Is it our partner who has to make us suffer or is it us, via our investment, that allow our partner to make us suffer? Aikido teaches us to accept pain. We know what is going to happen and we know at what moment the pain will come. What we do not know is the degree of intensity and the reaction that we will have in response to it with a particular partner, and in any given situation. In fact, one might say that tori is the male counterpart of the practice, he guides the pain, while uke is the female, the one that knows that pain will come but trusts its partner and its own capacity to cope with this pain. I like that situation and the fact that we keep switching from one to the other, once as tori, once as uke.
This realization however has been source of some problems. Indeed, for me, the main purpose of practice has always been to become stronger within all these acceptances. I mean strong in the broad sense, physically, mentally, and technically. However that strength had the side effect of making me less sensitive to what the others were making me feel, up to a point where nothing ever hurt me anymore. I remember long minutes spent receiving nikyo during the seminars of Noro Sensei, and the long sessions serving as uke for Asai Sensei. These exercises built me a very resistant body but one that had lost all sensitivity.
When I arrived in Tokyo, I thought that only that sort of training would allow me to sustain practice at the third floor. I was obviously mistaken. Without sensitivity, without feeling, there is no progression possible. It took the intervention of great masters such as Yamaguchi Sensei or Tissier Sensei, who gave me a wake up call and warned me that if I did not change my approach, practice would soon be pointless. I therefore had to re-learn to feel, to accept that my body could ache and that it was not perfect. Surprisingly, when I got into that way of thinking, my body did not become weaker, but it actually got stronger, yet more flexible and malleable.
For me, Aikidio is a perfect school that teaches us to reach some limits of sensitivity when we receive a technique, and in perception when we move our partner. It is important that our practice remains soft and constructive, so that our partner trusts us and accepts to go into difficulty so as to reach the threshold of sensitivity (suffering) that will provide him with a more profound understanding of his own body’s potential.