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Aikido and the art of the kayak

The following roban was written on grading for shodan, a tradition in Riai Aikido:

On the face of it there may seem little in common between the arts and ways of Aikido and those of kayaking, but after twenty years of kayaking and ten of Aikido, I remain surprised at their many similarities and synergies, and that those similarities and synergies seem to grow with my experience of both.
In a sense I took up Aikido because of my kayaking. I became as inflexible as I became fit, and resolved to take up some activity for greater flexibility. I considered and tried innumerable options, from dancing to gymnastics, rock-climbing to yoga, and a wide range of martial arts, before being captivated by a demonstration of Riai Aikido. I felt an affinity for the graceful, sweeping, flowing movements. Whether that affinity stemmed from my years of swinging paddles through the water, I know not.
An immediate practical concern was that through Aikidoís many wrist holds I would damage my wrists, which are so essential to kayaking, and the body part that I repeatedly injured paddling. But my fears were unfounded, and indeed quite the opposite occurred. My wrists are far more supple that they ever were, are no weaker, and I have had no wrist problems kayaking since taking up Aikido. But, that is just one small physical consequence. The compatibility of Aikido and kayaking run deeper.
Many of the technical teachings of Aikido will be familiar to the kayaker, albeit in a different language. The power stroke of an experienced kayaker is not the pull of a blade through the water with the lower hand, as beginners imagine, but the push of the upper hand ñ fingers open and pointing ki or energy, arm relaxed and ìunbendableî, powered by the hips. As the paddle rotates, to left, to right, the body twists with it, not only providing the hip power but also ensuring that at all times the paddle is in front of the centre for strength and control. Weight is kept low and the whole body relaxed.
O Sensei once said ìIn out techniques we enter completely into, blend totally with, and control firmly an attack. Strength resides where oneís ki is concentrated and stable: confusion and maliciousness arise when ki stagnates. Aikido is the art of learning deeply, the art of knowing oneself.î Quoting this, Alex Clover pointed out in Hakama that if one changed the word Aikido to kayaking, and the ìattackî to the elements, the message fitted his experience of kayaking into strong winds perfectly. I am sure that it did, as it does for me, but to me the similarity runs deeper still.
Kayaking into strong winds is the equivalent of being nage, in balance and control, and retaining that control through techniques akin to those of Aikido. Greater synergies between kayaking and Aikido apply when considering the interplay with others, with oneís partner in kayaking not being another person but the elemental sea itself. Even if a kayaker does not deliberately seek out rough water, conditions can change alarmingly quickly, and one day rough water will find the kayaker. A rogue wave, a boat wash, a tidal race, a storm, a surf landing: all these can transform in a moment placid water to a threat to survival. The skilled can apply more refined techniques and survive bigger waves, but eventually any kayaker however skilled will meet their match: the sea can summon up more malevolent power than any uke.
Then the game changes, the cat becomes mouse, the nage becomes uke. Just as in Aikido, the trick is to recognise this moment and flow with it, regaining balance and posture effortlessly for the next onslaught. Most beginners, through simple lack of experience, will tend to react with inappropriate instincts. They will become tense and rely on upper body strength, but it is useless to counter the full force of the sea with mere strength. In a direct parallel to Aikido, their inability to relax into the situation is exacerbated because they do not know how to roll: they have not learned to take ukemi.
Gradually over years of experience, in kayaking as in Aikido, one progressively builds up the ability to relax, anticipate and react smoothly and without losing balance, posture or energy. The beginner, with luck, will survive a rogue wave. The experienced kayaker will avoid it or, failing that, blend with it and use its energy to advantage, perhaps to surf out of trouble, or to roll up effortlessly. This is kayaking in three dimensions, just as in randori a nage might drop or roll to maintain control. To me the closest physical parallel to randori is running a wild sea, and vice versa. Indeed, many writings on Aikido use the analogies of wind and wave to illustrate the philosophy and techniques of Aikido.
There are parallels between kayaking and Aikido even in the history and philosophy. Just as in the first decades of last century O Sensei was synthesising centuries of Japanese martial arts expertise into what he called Aikido, so at the same time the Western world was discovering the centuries of kayaking experience in Greenland, from which beginnings all recreational kayaking has evolved. Just as Aikido has its rich philosophical underpinnings, so does Greenland kayaking, embodied in the ways, culture and language of the Inuit. In any art, for whatever reason one took it up, one sooner or later becomes interested in its origins and history. Some years ago I took my kayak on extended pilgrimage to Greenland to experience the environment of its origins, and my kayaking has been greatly enriched for that. Soon perhaps I should take my gi on pilgrimage, a logistically easier but I am sure no less fruitful undertaking.
Despite all these similarities and synergies between Aikido and kayaking, I do not believe that there is anything unique in that. Rather, simply that O Senseiís art of Aikido has in a very real sense merged and made visible some fundamental principles of physiology and of harmony with oneself and with others ñ be those other people or the elements ñ that has great relevance to many or most walks of life. I am sure that most Aikido practitioners can see the similarities and synergies between Aikido and their other pursuits, kayaking simply being mine.

Conrad Edwards, December 2002

Page last modified on November 18, 2006, at 10:21 PM