Surfing the line between Yin and Yang

3rd Dan essay by J Turvey

I’m sure if the reader of this essay has practising Aikido for some time they will have had the same feelings as myself, ones of disappointment after a class because things didn’t go as well as they liked. The techniques struggled to worked and felt really awful. This happens at all levels and at a senior grade seems somehow worse because of our internal critic saying “I’m a [insert number] dan black belt and should be better than this”. This is a normal occurrence when learning Aikido, which we all will have experience at some point, but what is the root cause of our internal frustrations?

One of the things that O Sensei said was that there should be no competition in Aikido and the vast majority of Aikido organisations pay heed to this traditional path and do not have any formal competitions. But just because there are no formal competitions in an organisation doesn’t mean to say that the student will not fall foul of competing.

There is, up to a point, a benefit of having a competitive mind set in the early years of training because it can motivate the student to continue training and get better. However once a student reaches a more advanced level then this competitive mind will ultimately begin to hinder their progress. It seems quite common that even after many years of training many of us are still guilty of trying too hard to throw our Uke by using force in our techniques. We desperately cling on to the form that we are trying to do, struggling to make the technique work because we want to show the world that our Aikido techniques are good, effective and better than the next student. This desire to do the techniques well is a form of internal competition. In fact even the simple desire to take an opponent’s balance could be looked at as a very mild form of competition.

These types of internal competition are quite difficult to become aware of because of their subtle nature, and I believe they are one of the root causes of much of our Aikido sorrows. Somehow that desire to do the techniques well causes subtle tensions in the mind and body, stopping the student from being truly relaxed and centred, and ironically halting the student from doing the very thing he wants to do. Unfortunately this desire to do well or to compete is hardwired into the human body so it is very easy to fall into this trap of still competing without realising. So what can we do about it?

If we look at the other end of the spectrum, there will be times in any Aikidoka career when they would have experienced what I like to dub the “sweet” techniques. These techniques are basically those times on the mat when a technique is done in such a way that Uke ends up lying on the floor with no idea of exactly what happened. These sweet techniques are often ones that are done by mistake and are not generally the originally intended technique that was supposed to be performed. Nage somehow blends naturally with the energy supplied by Uke and seamlessly flows into a more appropriate technique. There is no forcing on of the form in this manifestation of the technique. Also the spontaneously nature of the movement of the technique is over before Nage has any chance to think what he is doing.

These sweet techniques give us a taste how awesome Aikido can really be and if we could somehow tap into doing Aikido that way on a regular basis then our skills will be greatly improved.

One of the traits of the sweet techniques is that there no time for thinking about the end result. Stubbornly holding on to form is closely linked to this, because the end result is part of the form itself. So if the student lets go of any desires to make an end result to a technique, this should help them remain relaxed and tension free. It will also allow the student to be more sensitive and open to the other possibilities or variations that manifest themselves during the movement, allowing the student to change if the energy supplied by Uke changes.

The sweet techniques just kind of happen by themselves so if the students thinks of it in the terms of “just let the techniques happen by themselves” then this will help them lose that desire to follow form.[1]

Another of the traits in the sweet techniques is that the blending is natural, there is no force or clashing together of bodies. Nage and Uke move together more like they are one unit rather than two separate units. Blending is really at the core of Aikido, we know this because O Sensei gave us a massive clue by naming his martial art Aikido. Aiki can be described as the “joining of energy” and it is a core principle that has been used as a tactic to deal with martial conflicts throughout the history of martial arts.

Aiki is closely tied with the concept of Yin or Yang which describes how opposite forces are complimentary, interconnected, and interrelate to one another. In fact many of O Sensei’s poems refer to them for example:-

Manifest yang

In your right hand,

Balance it with

The yin of your left,

And guide your partner. [2]

Another reference to the importance of the Yin and Yang concept for Aikido is the Floating Bridge of Heaven myth. Some of O Sensei’s direct students [3] have claimed that O Sensei said that you weren’t doing Aikido unless you are standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven.

The Floating Bridge of Heaven is one part of a mythological story which comes from the ancient text of the Kojiki (which translates as record of ancient matters). At the beginning the Kojiki explains that in the chaos or the primeval void that existed before anything else, the various parts separated to form heaven and earth and the first gods came into being. The last of these Japanese deities were called Izanagi and the Izanami. They were summoned by the first gods and charged with creating the first land masses on the earth. They did this by standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven and by stirring the sea with a jewelled spear churning it until it became thick and glutinous. The drips that fell from the end of the spear (the curdled brine or salt depending on which English translation you read) piled up to form an island. The two deities descended to the Island from the bridge. Izanagi translates as male-who-invites and Izanami translates as female-who-invites both are often associated with In & Yo which are the Japanese terms for Yin and Yang.

The inherent nature of a bridge is something that connects two separate places or things together. In this case the Floating Bridge of Heaven sits in between Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth themselves are often thought of as manifestations of Yin and Yang.

One could think of the Floating Bridge of Heaven in symbolic terms as the line that runs through middle of the Taijitu symbol. Inside the Yin section there is a little part of Yang and inside the Yang section there is a little piece of Yin. You could even say that these dots could symbolize Izanagi and Izanami standing on the floating bridge. The line in the middle also continues around the outside, encompassing everything inside.

If that wasn’t enough evidence of the importance of Yin and Yang another direct student of the founder, Henry Kono once asked O Sensei “O Sensei, how come we can’t do what you are doing?” and O Sensei replied “Because I know Yin and Yang and you don’t”. [4]

It is clear to me that the Yin and Yang concept is a really an important principle for blending and an integral part of Aiki. Some teachers have explained it so that the student tries to manifests both Yin and Yang elements when they are doing the techniques. However I think it is more subtle than that, so I’m leaning more towards what Kono sensei teaches. When Kono meditated on O Sensei’s answer to his question he realized that the emphasis should not be on the Yin or Yang themselves but on line in-between these two forces.

I confess though that this concept of “Standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven” or my interpretation of this “Surfing the line between Yin and Yang” are not so lucid or easy to understand. These ideas are still relatively new to me in my Aikido career and extremely difficult to put into words or to give any real technical explanation of exactly how to achieve them in our daily practise. Still I believe the discovery of them to be an important breakthrough on my Aikido path. Ask me in another 20 years and I might have a better idea!

If we go back to the traits of sweet techniques, there is no clashing; the blending is smooth and Nage’s gives no resistance to Uke’s energy [5]. The blending is completely natural. Luckily for everybody that natural blending is something that we have all been doing for many years, it is just that we don’t realise it. Here are 3 examples:-

  • A romantic kiss between lovers.
  • Holding you partners hands when walking.
  • Dancing with your partner.

I’m sure there are many more examples of blending that occur naturally in everyday situations. To quote O Sensei’s teaching:-

In aikido there are no forms and patterns. Natural movements are the movements of aikido. Its depth is profound and it is inexhaustible [6].

The common theme with these every day instances of blending is that they tend to occur in more happy intimate type relationships. Generally these situations only occur when there is some affection, love or compassion between the participants. So we can say that there is a caring quality to these types of movement which is based on loving affection. If we can actively tap into that same loving mind set then our sensitivity to Uke’s energy flow will be better, again helping us to adapt our techniques to any changes perceived in that energy flow.

Thinking back to my own experiences of sweet techniques this kind of loving attitude is not easy to discern in them. Perhaps it can only be seen at the end of the experience in the smiling faces of Uke and Nage which is often the case. I don’t know, but many books on Aikido stress that O Sensei said that Aikido is love [7]. To quote an example:-

I have taught you the art of nonviolence through the practise of aikido, a martial art that through physical motions creates actions where the spirit yields to the action of the heart. Aikido is love and if aikido is love, then aikido is heart. The creator has given you a heart like a sword, solely for the purpose of destroying the aggression in the heart of your adversary who is your brother, not to harm him: Extend your heart, rather than your sword [8].

So certainly that manifestation of love for the opponent is (or should be) an important element in any Aikido practise.

The last trait of the sweet techniques that I want to briefly mention is the total lack of adherence to the form. Nage naturally adapts to Uke energy throwing them with whatever techniques is appropriate. To learn the moves of Aikido we still need some structure to practise the various forms, so how can we train in this non-form way? Fortunately there are already some formal ways we can train in this manner they are called Jiyu-waza (free techniques) and Randori (multiple opponent attack) [9]. We can also take the approach to allow students some flexibility when they are doing the techniques shown by the teacher. So that if the attacker’s energy is wrong for the technique shown, rather than them stopping and restarting it, they are encouraged to explore the movement and flow into something else.

In conclusion we can work backwards to try and improve our Aikido by analysing our sweet techniques and attempting to reproduce some of the same conditions and mind sets in our everyday practise. We need to figure out how to “stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven” or how we can “surf the line between Yin and Yang” in order to develop our Aiki skills. We should become more aware of our nature’s predisposition for internal competition, in order to resist the urge to force on techniques or to have any attachment for achieving a desired end result. Thus, allowing the mind and body to stay relaxed and centred, so that the techniques are able to manifest themselves in a more natural manner.

We can start this by practising our Aikido with a loving attitude, and without having any expectations.

Open heart, Open mind


  1. This mind set might hinder the learning of the basic form, especially if Uke is giving a more genuine strong attack. So Uke should be slightly more cooperative and give the correct type of energy to the attack in order for Nage to do the technique proposed by the teacher.
  2. Page 74, The Art of Peace, Morihei Ueshiba translated by John Stevens
  3. Motomichi Anno Sensei, Bob Nadeau
  5. Terry Dobson repeated states that non-resistance is the key to aikido, and if you understand non-resistance then you get Aikido.
  6. Page 89, The Spirit of Aikido, Kisshomaru Ueshiba
  7. Page 23, The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido, William GleasonPage. Page 31, Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, Mitsugi Saotome. Page 35, It’s a lot like dancing an Aikido Journey Terry Dobson/Riki Moss/Jan E Watson
  1. Page 3, Aikido Heart & Sword, Andre Nocquet
  2. There may be other forms of waza too, like for example Henka-waza that will also allow this type of training forms too

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