The nature of movement : learning and teaching

by Malcolm Tiki Shewan
from the book : "Iaido - The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship"


Although I explained in the introduction to this work that Iaido could not be learned from a book (or, for that matter, from any amount of theoretical material, such as pictures, etc. ) I firmly believe that there is, nonetheless, a certain connection between comprehension through "Mind" and comprehension through the execution of "Movement". Further,I feel that this relationship could be far better understood than it is at present, if some sort of satisfactory explanation could be furnished.

The "oriental" method of teaching no is quite correctly based on the notion that movement should be learned by "making movements". The main method of imparting correct movements is, thus, to demonstrate, and allow the trainee to "copy" these movements,and, thereafter, to correct them as they proceed, until these movements correspond those demonstrated. It is considered that if the trainee works hard enough and Iong enough, he may, perhaps, acquire and understanding of his art that will lead to mastery.This higher "understanding", discernible by an other "Master", differentiates the higher levels of acquisition in any of those Martial Arts which seek to achieve these higher levels.Anything less is seen by the "Master" as being the "perfection of techniques", but not as"perfection of the Spirit of the Art".

During the time that it has been my privilege to be working and teaching Aikido and laido, I have been continually inundated with requests to "explain in words" what I was seeking to teach. Two facts became immediately apparent to me :


After some time, I came to the conclusion, while providing "explanations" requested of me, that very few trainees, did, in fact, learn better what they were being taught,when they were given explanations.This led me to examine the whole question of teaching and learning, and this led me to make some very interesting no observations upon the subject.

I came to two important conclusions :

At this point I was confronted with two questions :


I shall pass over my ultimate conclusions concerning these last two questions until later date, but at this time I would like to offer the following reflections as a preliminary estimation as to how this exaspirating gap between "explanation", and "performance",may, perhaps, be bridged.

"Explanation", lies in the realm of concept, idea. "Words" are required to convey these. The whole together may be considered a mental or intellectual function.

"Performance" lies in the realm of movements. Movements of intricate design, composed of simpler movements, and the "words" of movement the capacity to observe, seize, and eventually, imitate them. This whole together may be considered a physical or moving function.

This is a very simplified description of two of several functions of a man : but they are the two functions that concern us here. Thus, I would like to speak of some points of view which may, perhaps, appear as "new" concepts, difficult to understand without proper reflection, but which I hope will incite you to seek more of your own information and knowledge through the application of the method described here. As it happens it is also the answer to the problem of why "expla nation" does not, in most cases, hasten or improve "Performance". Observations, in themselves, are not what is really of foremost importance, but it is the way in which these observations are derived that merits interest ; that is my essential point.

The answer lies, therefore, in the fact that a "very special form of observation" of one's own movements in necessary to learn in an improved way : and this form of observation has to be learned and understood for it cannot come by itself.

As an example, the following may be said : when learning a new movement, it is either explained and/or demonstrated, and the trainee attempts to reproduce what he understands or sees. Thereupon the trainee reproduces something other than that which was explained and/or demonstrated. This is because, in the case of an explanation, it consists of intellectual concepts and ideas that a trainee has not yet acquired ; and therefore he has no fund of either ntellectual ideas nor concepts with which to form a mental picture explanation (let alone transfer it to his movements). In the case of demonstration, he has no store of movements, either intricate or simple, which will correspond to what he has been shown. So he cannot reproduce, by correspondence, what has been demonstrated.

Thereafter, the trainee will begin to form an array of concepts and ideas that satisfy him in thinkingthat they correspond to those of the teacher. Since we cannot see his concepts and ideas we can only conclude from the trainee's efforts that they do not correspond to those of the teacher or they would have induced a simpler array of concepts and ideas which would have resulted in reproducing the movements. (As an aside, also remember that is common that a good teacher should be ever ready to break up this process by placing him in an apparently unsolvable quandary). In the case of a demonstrated movement, with no explanation whatsoever,we can see that the trainee does not reproduce the movements demonstrated, and we know that he has, therefore, only untrained movements from which to draw, in his attempt to imitate the demonstration.

As it is not the province here, to seek to establish the means whereby a trainee may derive an exact correspondence of intellectual concepts and ideas with those of his teacher ; I will leave this problem as we have it exposed, but not concluded.In the case of demonstrated movements, the following interesting observations may be made : upon seeing a movement demonstrated, a trainee does one of two things, he imitates the movement either :

And no other alternative exists.

If, at this point, the trainee could reproduce the movevment correctly, and continue to do so, he would, in effect, know all that he could be taught.

The whole question of teaching and learning, then, is concerned with the length of time that it takes for a trainee to pass from not knowing how to produce any required movement, to knowing how to produce the required movement.

This can be understood in the following way : (and this is really a description of how movement is, or can be, acquired in its most primitive sense). In making a new movement without instruction, we can assume that whoever undertakes it, will make it incorrectly. This will either satisfy, or, be unsatisfactory, for individual reasons. If unsatisfactory, the mover will try again until time and experience produces a satisfactory movement. But the satisfactory movement may not be correct, in which case, time and effort have not achieved the desired aim, and the movement must be ultimately put right.

This means that, at the moment of any movement, something may be right about it, and something may be wrong about it. If the mover "tends" to make it, and something may be wrong about it. If the mover "tends" to make it correctly, it will ultimately arrive at perfection, but if the mover "tends" to move incorrectly, he will eventually create a movement that seems perfect to him, but, in reality, is wrong.

And then, it must be unlearnt.

The question arises :
is there a moment of choice, at the time that a mover makes a movement, between a correct movement and a wrong movement ? This is a very interesting question !

can be a choice if two conditions are present at the moment of a movement :

I mentioned above that "a very special form of observation of one's own movements" is necessary to learn in an improved way. It is here that it must be employed. If, at this point at the making of a very simple movement one's whole capacity to observe what one is doing, in a concentrated endeavor, is thrust upon the observation of the muscular
sensations involved in this movement, the movement itself can be observed,and the sensations of what contribute to right movement and what contributes to wrong movement, may be distinguished. One's attitude here must be as though one's life depends on seizing the correct movement, and, that it is the first and last time that this possibility will present itself. In combat, this would truly be so !

This required kind of observation will show by simple repetition, that, of the sensations noticed, some will represent the tendency to right movement, and some will I I represent the tendency to wrong movement, as me ntioned before. In disti nguishi ng these two classes of movements, the trainee, in fact, acquires a means for his own further self improvement. In present practice,
the trainee does not notice any of this at all!

He is really unconscious of what he is doing!

An interesting affirmation of these observations, the following experiment is worth carrying out. Place your foot in full sight, and begin to try to move the toes independantly sideways, or, up and down, etc. For quite some time, it cannot be done; because there is no sensation recognizable, as to what muscular movement is necessary to move the toes in
any direction (the big toe and the small toe may have some capacity for small independent movement). After the required concentrated effort is made many times, in producing some movement, separate sensations begin to become evident as connected with different movements : continued efforts will expose the sensation connected with a required movement, and the sensations connected with interference with the movement. After some time, it is possible to distinguish clearly the right sensation for producing a required movement. And, thereafter only the correct movement will follow, as long as the "special effort" is maintained. And the movement would only become more and more perfect for its, purpose, if not interfered with (were this a movement of Aikido or Iaido, for example, it would be corrected by the instructor, at the first moment; so that the trainee could experience the correct sensation accompanying the correct movement, right from the start). If all movements were learned in this way, vastly improved movements, in a minimum time, would be the result; since, admittedly, most instruction consists in either, constantly correcting wrong movements of trainees, unconscious of what they are doing, or, preventing the intrusion of incorrect movements, introduced for the same reason*.
However, unless this this "special form of observation" is understood, used, and maintained, no "explanation", nor "demonstration", will produce results other than those to which we are accustomed.

It is evident that unless future trainees learn to be more conscious of themselves and what they are doing at every moment, even the most celebrated Master will be unable to teach better or more quickly.
But these reflections are intended to suggest, and indicate, the way in which these present obstacles may be overcome.

* In general practice, however; a trainee starts with movements that are already"partly" right for a purpose, and also, "partly" wrong. For they have been learned, usually, for some purpose altogether different. For example, he may know the movement of "raising an arm" by having learned it for putting on a hat, scratching his head, or chopping wood, etc... none of which are exactly right, for example, in raising a sword in preparation for striking. As a result, the major part of this "customary" movement, which may feel quite natural, indeed, is filled with movements trained for the wrong purpose. At this point, I wish to say that this "concentrated observation" can only be applied, in the beginning, to very simple movements like hitting a nail with a hammer, chopping wood, or, in the case of Aikido or Iaido : shomenuchi Suburi; basic taiso; simple hand, foot and body movements (te-sabaki, ashi-sabaki, tai-sabaki); Reishiki (etiquette), etc. But it is in the simplicity of the movement and the opportunity to observe it, because of its simplicity, that the value of this "training" lies. We can observe, if we try intensly enough, the sensations within this movement, which enable us to lay bare the very essence of the movement. And after some time, if we persist, we will not only begin to understand what movements really are, and how they may be related to the practices that we undertake, but we will begin to see that they have a guiding intelligence of their own, that remains unperceived by us, as well as certain emotions, also unperceived, that bring them to perfection. And when the full impact of what this implies begins to stir within, the huge gap between "explanation" and "performance" will lessen somewhat, and, thereafter, we may glimpse the interesting path that lies between the trainee and the Master.

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