I’ve always had a pet theory that the original founders of various koryu moved their bodies in a markedly different way from us “moderns.” Therefore, part of the problem with us understanding how to properly move in a koryu budo is that we have to deal with different body dynamics, ways of conceptualizing how our body moves, and musculature that are just different from our own everyday lackadaisical use of our physical form.
That goes, too, for modern Japanese. As one tea sensei said to me, “Even in Japan, everybody nowadays sit in chairs, so when I invite young Japanese to experience tea ceremony, for most of them that’s the first time they’ve sat in seiza in a tatami mat room!”
Living so close to the ground (or tatami), like the premodern Japanese, or like a lot of tribal cultures, has got to do something to your body morphology.
Mind you, I don’t think it’s anything mystical, like how some people idealize premodern cultures as being “better” than our “corrupt” civilized Western culture. That is a romanticized and myopic point of view from the whole “Noble Savage” stereotype that has largely been debunked. Any culture has its own problems and issues, and I venture that a superstitious, non-technologically advanced, poorly literate society will have even more social problems than our Western one.
Still, living without modern conveniences, like soft chairs and modern toilets, does do things to one’s body. And eating potato chips while lounging in a soft sofa and exercising only one’s fingers in playing a video game does something else, not at all beneficial to one’s body too.
One of the things squatting does, I think, is that one’s lower limbs by necessity generally become stronger and more ductile. In Hawaii, I still see remnants of such tribal lifestyles among recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and other less developed Pacific Islands.
Without extensive chairs or indoor plumbing, squatting is a way of life. As ignorant and crude teenagers we used to make fun of such behavior as being “fresh off the boat” but being able to do a full squat down, on one’s haunches, shows that your legs are limber and flexible. Squatting used to be the natural way for all humans to defecate before the modern crapper and sit-down toilet. A Hawaiian anthropologist told me it was also the way women used to give birth. Lying on one’s back was an unnatural position for childbirth, she said, noting that in recording oral histories of Native Hawaiian women, she encountered a story of how one woman gave birth squatting in the fields. She wrapped the baby up in swaddling clothes and then went back to finishing up planting her row of taro in the fields, sort of as a matter of fact.
When I worked summer jobs in the pineapple and sugar fields, I found that squatting was a good skill to develop, as it kept our rear ends from getting muddy while we ate lunch out in the fields. It also helped if we had to defecate out in the outdoors. Falling over into our own poop was not a good option, so we got good at balancing ourselves as we squatted down, our butts close to the ground.
Squatting, or sitting seiza, or even sitting cross-legged, are all body positions that are what I call “close to the ground.” The body has, I think, a more concrete knowledge of its relationship to the floor or ground since it is closer to it, and unencumbered by chairs or sofas. We have to feel comfortable through our own body position and alignment. In doing so, we lengthen and strengthen certain muscles that are hardly ever used if we go through life in a “chair” culture.
I make note of this because I’m trying to figure out why some of my students have such a hard time with movements that I take for granted, like walking in a standing kata, for example. They simply look like they’re ready to topple over. They wobble when they walk. There’s no sense of grounding, of being balanced or “in touch” with the ground under their feet. They just sort of shamble or lurch forward, no matter how I try to explain about keeping balanced and centered.
My suspicion is that, in our convenient society, we don’t need to be acutely aware of our balance and body positions vis a vis the ground because many of us don’t do much physical labor anymore, or play freely as kids outdoors now that we have so many enticing computer games to entertain us. Athletes and those with a gifted physical ability may not be so cursed, but a lot of people who come through my dojo doors have a significantly hard time working from seiza, or walking in the particular way that our ryu calls for. It all goes back to having weak legs, a weak foundation. And any amount of running or jogging won’t help all that much. It has more to do with the leg flexibility and body mass/positioning awareness in relationship to the ground than sheer muscle mass.
But if you can’t get that solidity of posture, then nothing works. Not from seiza, not from chuugoshi (a sort of half-rising position with one foot planted on the ground, the other knee on the ground), or from full standing. You simply don’t have the base from which to execute a technique.
It’s nothing mystical. Eddie Wu, the current head of the Wu family Tai Chi Ch’uan, loved to break down “mysterious” movements of internal Chinese martial arts, telling me once that “mysterious chi energy” techniques were the only way premodern Chinese masters had to explain their amazing martial abilities. A former airplane engineer, Wu said that it was all about force vectors and subtle body alignment. As he said, to paraphrase, “They didn’t have the technical words to explain it, so they said, ‘secret chi power,’ or something like that. No, it’s not esoteric. It’s just very subtle manipulation of the body, timing and movement, but they didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it in that way.”
I think, too, that having a strong foundation is not all that mystical. But it doesn’t make it any easier for many students who ignored the lower half of their body for most of their lives. It’s also true, alas, for some young, athletic newbies who walked through the dojo doors. One recent dilettante lingered in my club for a few sessions, claiming he was doing MMA-style jujutsu, karate and judo at the same time, and wanted to try his hand at koryu grappling. But from starting at seiza to locking up close to the ground, to executing his techniques, his grappling was just awful, because he had no lower-body balance, flexibility or strength. He may have had the upper body musculature of a weightlifter, but he simply ignored training his lower body to move, to position the rest of his body, to flex and stretch. Everything from the waist down seemed disconnected. Hence, his application with his arms just looked weak and ineffective.
What to do then? I’m really at a loss. An individual student with shaky body balance could practice postures on his own, such as sitting in seiza, or standing, walking or doing chuugoshi, and try to fix his own posture. Or he/she could take up a study that requires sitting in seiza a lot and moving in a particular manner, like tea ceremony or shakuhachi, or Noh drama. Or doing a lot of yard work and squatting to pull weeds. Or try squatting to defecate in a hole in the ground in your backyard, to lengthen your thigh muscles. I don’t know.
One possible reason why shikko is used as an exercise in a lot of aikido classes, I suspect, is that it works on the lower body for strength and flexibility. Shikko is a kind of moving about without rising up. You do it from seiza by raising up one knee, moving it forward, then planting it down, and then doing it with the opposite knee, at the same time bringing up the opposing foot close to the other foot. It’s hard to explain but easy to demonstrate. It originated actually as a form of etiquette among the warrior class, particularly. When approaching a higher-ranked individual at the head of a hall, a bushi had to move in such a way so as not to elevate his head higher than the person he was approaching, much like how a courtier in Medieval Europe had to approach a seated lord, with his head bowed and knees slightly flexed so as to abase himself lower than the royalty.
Unfortunately, a cursory review of shikko videos on the Internet came up with really, really awful examples. Maybe I’m too much of a stickler for doing things according to their original intent, but shikko was a very formal, controlled movement. The height of the head should barely move up and down. The hands are not flailing around like windmills. They are kept in place on the thighs. The whole body moved as one, without a foot dragging in the rear. The centerline of the body doesn’t sway left to right. It just goes forward, the hip pivoting on the body centerline, with the center of gravity right between the two closely aligned feet, both of which, when moving, on the balls of the flat of the foot. For us “moderns,” it’s hard to do it that way. That’s the whole intent. It IS hard if we’re not used to squatting and moving our legs in that way. It pained me to see so many bad shikko walking, even from supposedly high-ranking aikido sensei. So puh-lease!!! If you want to do shikko, do it right!!! You even run the risk of damaging your knees and legs if you keep doing shiko wrong, I think, so Geez Louise, do it right!!!!
More so than that one exercise, however, is the whole concept about it. WHY do you do shiko, especially if you are doing aikido, which seems to love flagellating its students with it?
It’s an exercise to develop lower body strength and flexibility. There are other ways to develop strength and flexibility in one’s limbs and trunk, but they all start with proper intent and purpose. It’s not just to learn “samurai walking” or as a warm-up. Judoka will do “frog jumps” and other exercises. It’s the same intent: to strengthen the lower limbs and create a stable base from which to execute the techniques. Sumo wrestlers will do endless squats and stretches, and a drill much like how American football linemen hit a partner in the chest and then try to drive him back by pumping the legs and pushing forward in a straight line, over and over again.
Or, you could try squatting while you watch television. Whatever works. Just do it right.