In The Aikido and Zen Dojo:
The First of Aikido’s Three Pillars – Footwork

Last week we covered the notion of ‘pillars’ in many martial arts. In Aikido, our three pillars are:

  1. Footwork
  2. Balance
  3. Timing


footworkThis week, we want to look at footwork. The basic Japanese term is ashi sabaki – with a host of more specific terms usually taken from traditional swordsmanship – ayumi ashi, okuri ashi, hiraki ashi, tsugi ashi, etc. The actual names are not that important – it’s more that the tradition of the sword valued footwork so highly as to define it so rigorously. And another anecdote … as I understand it, the boxer Muhammad Ali’s last words to his grandson were something to the effect: “Practice your footwork!”

Like so many martial arts, footwork in Aikido is so, so important … and, at the same time, it is so, so unimportant. The difference is a matter of where you are in your training. Proper footwork is vital when you are first learning this great art. But it must ultimately be completely forgotten. The founder of Aikido had a saying – “Learn and forget”. Think of the mastery of footwork in Aikido as like hiking and carrying a canoe that you will need to cross a river. Once you have reached and crossed the river, you have no more need of the canoe. You simply put it down and move on. (And, of course, there will be many who will become attached to the canoe and will be unable to ever put it down – they will not forget! It’s the same with footwork.)

But first, realize that footwork is simply a matter of

  • placement and
  • movement.

Foot Placement

In a short while of Aikido practice, you will realize that mastery is truly about the little things. And one of the little things is the reason behind our starting stance – hanmi.  When anticipating an attack, our weight is equally distributed over both feet – one forward and one back, both turned out about forty-five degrees. And when you stand in hanmi and lift either foot, you will naturally ‘fall’ forward on an angle. This is so, so important. In Aikido, nearly every technique requires you to quickly get off the line of the attack, and as you can see, proper foot placement automatically gets you moving in these safe directions.

Likewise with finishing stances. Proper foot placement allows you to effectively extend your balance well into your partner’s space – taking their balance while keeping your own balance (and energy). You should recall that proper finishing foot.placement is the body’s natural brake – allowing you to extend your balance further and further forward without ever reaching some dreaded point of no return – the point where your strength gives out and you lose your balance.

Foot Movement

footworkSecond, we have foot movement. Let’s face it, there are only a handful of things you can do with your feet. And you must get very comfortable hearing and recognizing these following terms … and being able to mix and match sequences of the actual movements. For Aikido, there are six basic foot movements:

  • sliding,
  • stepping
  • opening,
  • pivoting,
  • back pivoting (tenkan), and
  • two-step turning.

We don’t spend much class time with the first three movements, but you will, once you start working with weapons. But in every class, without fail, we practice the last three as part of our fundamental skills development. These footwork skills are all so very important! (And at the same time, of course, unimportant.) I can’t urge you enough to practice them at home, at odd moments – like waiting for the microwave. When I was first learning Aikido, and when I had enough TV and when my daughter was in bed, I would go in the back yard and play with footwork. You can too.

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