81. Move Right, Think Left

The Rikyu Doka are a set of pithy, simple (well, in Japanese at least; translating it into some kind of English that makes sense is another story) quotes attributed to Sen No Rikyu, the founder of wabi style (rustic, meditative) chanoyu (“tea ceremony”). Some of them, on initial reading, seem so self-evident that you can just imagine the flat palm-to-forehead slap as some tea person goes, “Well, duh!” Take the sayings apart, however, and they get deep. Think about them more, and they become deeper still.

One such doka goes like this:

Migi no te o atsukau toki wa

Waga kokoro

Hidari no hou ni

Aru to shiru beshi.

Translated somewhat literally into English, it goes like this:

When you use your right hand,

You must be aware of your left.

Well, sure. I got my right, I got my left. What’s the big deal, right?

Well, in any body-movement art, this is actually an important, and often forgotten reminder. It’s true in any martial art you can think of. For example, one of the hardest problems with many of my students is the proper use of their left hand when they draw out or return their swords to their scabbards. This is a big deal. A Japanese sword of the proper length relative to the swordsman’s arm reacj cannot easily be drawn out of the scabbard (saya) without the left hand manipulating the saya at the same time that the sword is drawn by the handle with the right. You can fudge it with a short sword, but you will have to go through all sorts of awkward gyrations with your shoulders, arms and hips if you only use your right hand. And that’s what many of my students do, because the necessity of doing something with the right AND left at the same time is, indeed, hard. It’s like playing a guitar or piano. Both hands work in harmony, but do slightly different things at the same time.

In so doing, as I tell my students, the coordinated use of the left and right enables you to clear the sword gracefully, and it sets up the one-handed slashing draw-and-cut that is the heart of iai. And it does so most effectively, because by using the left to pull the saya back while the sword cuts across with the right, you are using your hips and the large muscle masses of the back to cut. Rely only on the right, and you use only the elbow and shoulders, straining them to cut through anything.

The same can be said, I think, for a karate tsuki. The formal way of doing the thrust punch in kata is to pull the opposite hand, “chambering” it to the side of the body opposite the punching hand, while the hips torque. If the punch-pull of the left and right are done properly, you can feel that the entire body is in the punch, not just the shoulder and arm. By using the left hand while the right punches, the hip is allowed to torque, the back muscles come into play, and you use your thighs to center your body. In other words, you are using your entire body, not just your arm and one shoulder, to deliver the impact force.

Moving right but thinking left, therefore, means that you have to be aware of your whole body, not just compartmentalizing one part of it, in a movement, in order to utilize the full effect of your body.

This is called, as my tai chi ch’uan teacher used to say, “coordinated effort” or “coordinated movement.” Other people can call it a linked movement. While one part of the body does something, another part does something to set something else up, but reflects the main effort. For example, in a tai chi movement, an open palm pushes and strikes an imaginary attacker.  However, at the same time, the other hand draws down, pulls back and to the side, as if deflecting an incoming strike, while at the same time, the foot opposite the strike stamps down and back. The whole string of movements lends power and strength to the palm strike because the entire body effort, muscles, balance and momentum go into the deflection-strike, not just one hand.

You can also take the concept from left-right to top-bottom. When doing something with your hands, be aware of your feet, your legs, your hips. The lower part of your body is not just a means to get you nearer or farther away from the opponent. When you move in to strike with your hand, you need to have proper hip torque, balance and steadiness.

Move right, but think of your left. If both sides are properly engaged, you are working with your whole body. Also, you are setting up the next movement. Simple, but, as I keep telling my students and my own self, hard to do.

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