There’s a really common idea in aikido that if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work. I can understand where this sentiment comes from. If somebody applies a nikkyo lock to you then it’s usually accompanied by pain. That tends to be how it works. The classic one for this though, is yonkyo. People groan when yonkyo practice is announced because it means they’re in for a lesson of pressure point squeezing pain.
The catch though, is that yonkyo doesn’t hurt. None of the katame-waza in aikido actually hurt. They can hurt, no doubt about it, but only at the choice of either the nage or the uke.
For example, if nage applies the lock quickly, then uke will be taken off guard and experience pain. If nage applies it slowly and uke decides to be the proverbial tough guy, then uke will feel pain. If; however, nage applies the technique at a speed that uke can respond to then uke should feel no pain. By moving with the lock it doesn’t hurt.
The locks in aikido aren’t really designed to cause pain. That’s more of a side-effect than anything else. The locks are known as katame-waza, which means controlling techniques. Once again the clue is in the name. They aren’t called pain techniques, or agony techniques, or anything like that. Their primary purpose is to control. A properly applied nikkyo for instance will manoeuvre the arm into a position where it structurally ’locks’. Uke tends to go down because this arrangement of limbs requires minimal pressure to cause pain. If uke had their pain receptors removed they still wouldn’t be able to stand up again without breaking their wrist. The pain doesn’t keep them down, the pain simply tells them that structurally their arm is in danger. This generally translates to people screaming though so you can see where the confusion starts.
The greatest example of this misconception is in yonkyo. Everybody focuses very heavily on achieving the correct application of the pressure point to the inside of the arm. It makes for a spectacular display if you get it right as the uke will drop like a stone. Unfortunately it’s also one of the most unreliable ways to do it. Ask anyone who has tried yonkyo and they will almost always be able to regale you with a tale of a person on whom the pressure point didn’t work, even when sensei tried. This was either because the nerve didn’t run there, the uke’s arm was too thick to achieve the pressure on the nerve, or they quite simply stood there and soaked up the pain.
This leads to the question of whether or not we should cause pain, and while an interesting discussion I’ll save it for another post.
The failure to apply pain in yonkyo will teach an aikidoka one of the greatest lessons they can learn. It’s the reason that it’s one of my favourite techniques. Not because of the way it works, but because of the way it doesn’t. The fact is that at some point, every aikidoka will encounter abject failure when trying to use pressure point pain in yonkyo. It’s a literal guarantee. There are 2 take aways from that depending on your point of view.
The first is that yonkyo sucks. It’s unreliable and you shouldn’t ever use it except as a last resort. The second take away is that pain is an unreliable mechanism of control and there must be another more reliable way.
The majority of students take the first, and only the first of these things on board. Some students come to realise the second. These students start to wonder what that better way is. Simply put, it’s to use the body’s limiting structural movement against it. To move the limbs into a position from which any aggressive move towards the nage will result in the limb breaking.
The interesting thing about this is that as the move from inflicting pain to inflicting structural control takes place, the ability to inflict pain actually increases. The better the structural control of the limb, the more refined and precise the nage’s application of the technique, the easier it is to cause pain.*
If you want to develop an unstoppable yonkyo (or any katame-waza) forget about working on the pressure point, instead work on developing the control of uke’s structure that is presented by the technique. That way, uke will always go down regardless of whether or not you hit the pressure point on the arm.
It doesn’t have to hurt for it to work.
*As a side note this is also true in yonkyo, where it may actually be impossible to cause pain on the arm. The reason being that yonkyo is a pin that ends on the floor. Affecting the uke’s physical structure leads to them being off-balanced and ploughing head first into the ground. At speed. While I haven’t gone out and tried this myself to gather the empirical evidence I’m going to hazard a guess that bouncing your face off the pavement at high speed hurts a lot more than a bit of a nerve pinch. The end result will certainly last longer anyway.
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