Hanmi, Much More Than a Posture

As it is well known to those who have experience of how an apprenticeship in a craft workshop or training in a traditional school of arts (not necessarily martial) develops, very little time is spent to provide the apprentice with detailed verbal instructions. These are limited to some initial essential rudiments to avoid injury to oneself or others or damage to tools or material to be processed

by CARLO CAPRINO

Although this method may appear pedagogically questionable and humanly cruel today, we cannot but admit its effectiveness in the Darwinian selection of the one who – among dozens of apprentices – had the means, genius and will to become a Master. This has been indisputably confirmed over the centuries.

The contemporary technological evolution provides learners with a wealth of information and educational tools that were unthinkable even just a decade ago. It is good to remember, nevertheless, that books, videos, online classes, vintage or recent videos can offer precious support that cannot and should not replace actual practice. The practice is the only and unappealable judge of the soundness of what we know, or think we know.

Hanmi is fundamental

We are now going to contribute some reflections on Aikido, a Japanese martial art developed by the genius of Ueshiba Morihei. Although the topic we are discussing is closely linked to the principles of this discipline, we believe that students of other arts will also find some points of contact with what they are most familiar with. A necessary excusatio non petita: in this analysis, we are going to use terms and concepts related specifically to Aikido. We assume that they are known by the reader and we trust that those to whom these terms might result foreign will be able to fill the gaps by resorting to the web.

Itsuo Tsuda attacks Morihei Ueshiba. O’Sensei is in hanmi position

Most of those who have the honour and the burden of teaching Aikido, when providing the first rudiments of the art to a beginner, remark that Aikido is characterized by a type of posture called Hanmi. This is such that the body appears slightly tucked away when observed by a front viewer.

Hanmi literally translates as “half-body”. It was an intuition of Ueshiba Morihei, that drew on him the criticism of the martialists of his time, who saw in this posture a sort of cowardly attempt to escape the confrontation/clash with the opponent. The adversary had to be instead faced with open face and chest out. The biography of the Aikido founder recounts several episodes in which he was publicly challenged to demonstrate the effectiveness of his techniques against those who believed that a “beautiful death” was the ideal destiny to which a fighter should tend.

The hows and whys Ueshiba Morihei elaborated the concept of hanmi is not something that can be quickly explained. We can say, however, that it was the real “turning point” that marked the beginning of Aikido development, originating from those that were (and are) its martial roots.

In confirmation of the above, here is what Saito Morihiro Shihan [1] – who was a faithful student of the Aikido founder for more than twenty years – often repeated: “Aikido wa itsumo hanmi desu“. This sentence means “Aikido is always hanmi”, and the presence of the adverb “always” leaves no room for doubt, as it indicates its never stopping and indefinite repetition over time.

Morihiro Saito

Saito Shihan said always. Not often, not frequently, not when possible, not hopefully. Always. If there is hanmi there is Aikido, if there is no hanmi there is no Aikido. Tertium non datur, my Latin forefathers would comment.

At this point, our eager students are looking us in the eye and ask the fatal question: “So, what is hanmi?”

Confusion?

In response, the teacher tries to show this posture. Nevertheless, either due to the visual limitations arising from wearing hakama [2] and keikogi [3] or because – as the author of “The Little Prince” warned – the essential is invisible to the eye, the student’s gaze almost always stops on the teacher’s feet arranged in an orthogonal way. This is an example of the classic misunderstanding that involves moon and fingers, ends to reach and means to do so.

Takeda Sokaku

When we start to learn Aikido, the position with one’s feet kept orthogonally allows assuming the stance called “sankaku tai ” (“triangular body”). However, just like in a sort of koan [4], “hanmi is sankaku tai, but sankaku tai is not hanmi”, or at least it is not in Aikido.

Anyone can find on the web several images of famous martial artists shown standing with orthogonal feet. If this is easily understandable in the case of Sokaku Takeda, who was Head of Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu [5] and the teacher mainly responsible for Ueshiba Morihei’s formation, it can be less immediately obvious in the case of practitioners of other Styles and Arts.

Just to add to the confusion, when we scroll through those images and videos, it’s not hard to notice that Ueshiba Morihei, but also Saito Morihiro, do not always have their feet forming a right angle… Is this the typical situation of “Do what I say and not what I do” or – maybe – there is something more?

We lean towards the second hypothesis and we are going to try to explain why, reiterating that what follows is the result of the precious teachings received from the Masters. We are the only to be blamed, however, for all inaccuracies, errors and misunderstandings.

Each body is different

Let’s imagine that one of the above eager students, bordering on pedantry, would point out that we used two different terms for “body: tai, as in sankaku tai or tai jutsu [6], and mi, as in hanmi and hitoemi [7]. Far from clearing up, things are becoming more complicated.

A fairly effective way to begin to address the question is to start from the etymology of the words, and since we are dealing with oriental terms, the first scrutiny has to be of the ideograms which form the terms in question.

Ueshiba Morihei facing Tamura Nobuyoshi in hitoemi

The term tai is expressed by the ideogram 体, which is made up of two characters that respectively indicate the meaning of “person” 亻and “base” 本. Interestingly, the second ideogram represents a tree, with the lower lines representing the roots and the upper ones the branches. Its pictographic rendering evokes the Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci.

The term mi is represented by the character 身, which has an equally interesting origin since it derives from an ancient pictograph representing a woman pregnant with a fetus protected in her belly.

If on the one hand the terms are considered synonyms, on the other it is evident that they lend themselves to completely different interpretations, with nuances that connote two symbologies we can speculate about.

Without wanting to offer anything more than a personal opinion, we can say that tai indicates the body in its most “material” meaning, while mi designates it in its complex psychophysical and emotional significance.

Ueshiba Morihei explains the Square, Triangle and Circle shapes to his students

The shape of the forms

With the above in mind, we would now like to stress how O’Sensei Ueshiba Morihei gave great importance to the geometric shapes of Square, Triangle and Circle, which we often find with the relative principles in the application of the Art [8].

We can no doubt associate to the Square a static frontal posture with parallel feet. The projection on the ground of the outline produced by an erect human body is a quadrilateral that encloses and incorporates the lines of the shoulders, torso and back.

From a more “subtle” point of view, the Square represents the macrocosm of the material quaternary world and the microcosm of the profane who faces the other on his own, considering him as an opposition and a threat. The Square is the temple enclosure that excludes the profane; it is the wall surrounding the castle keeping the enemies out; it is the tetragonal form of those who – firm in their physical positions and mental convictions – welcome nothing and nothing offer.

If we imagine a bisector line that joins two opposite internal angles of the Square, therefore dividing it in half [9], we obtain a Triangle that evokes the sankaku tai, the Aikido student’s proper posture.

Sankaku Tai – Morihei Ueshia and André Nocquet

In a symbolic perspective, the Triangle, which in the Pythagorean tradition manifests itself as Tetraktys, symbolizes the ascent from the multiple to the One and, according to Oswald Wirth, since it is placed between the circle and the square, represents the spiritual world. The Triangle is the link between Matter and Divine, it is how humans (from the Christian Trinity to the Hindu Trimurti) try to represent the unknowable.

Therefore, if the Square represents who is profane to art, the Triangle symbolises the initiate, the one who is walking the Way. It is no coincidence that the triangle shape evokes an arrow, a direction, a course, a linear motion and therefore the techniques in their omote version. Traditionally, in Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, the martial school in which – as mentioned – Ueshiba Morihei was formed, omote techniques were openly taught to students and publicly demonstrated.

Hanmi, therefore, represents symbolically what it is physically displayed by sankaku tai. The student sacrifices (etymologically) a part of himself – “emptying his cup” a Zen practitioner would say – and prepares to receive and welcome the other. In a sort of alchemical process, a part of the matter that he is composed of is sublimated (nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed) transforming itself into spiritual energy [10].

Jodan no kamae

The student will be able to accomplish Aikido only by consciously assuming this attitude, even before assuming it at a physical level. We are going to be able to welcome the other only by renouncing a part of ourselves. This is how we can accomplish that union, paradoxical in mathematics but accurate and ideal in other fields, that Paolo Nicola Corallini sensei often summarizes by saying: “In Aikido one plus one is equal to one”.

Here is a possible answer to our eager student: the Masters are in hanmi even when their feet are not orthogonal [11] because they have transcended the merely material aspect and express awase [12] and musubi [13] with their partner maintaining a posture only apparently unorthodox.

Francesco Brunelli, one of the main exponents of Italian Martinism, affirmed that “The magician begins his work without any instrument and finishes the work without any instruments”. The same could be said of the Aikidoka, who before being such has no hanmi, and after reaching a sufficient mastery of the principles of the Art may not need to externally assume excessively rigid and unnecessarily forced postures. His effective hanmi has by now been internalized [14].

A similar condition is also found in the practice of Aiki-ken, in which is used a wooden replica that reproduces the katana in weight, shape and size. What is missing – compared to the original – as well as the cutting edge, is the tsuba, the handguard placed between the handle and the blade. It is an important part of any cold weapon and it is present in all types of sabres, swords and daggers: its lack, again, is due to an instructional reason: the tsuba is missing because the hips of the aikidoka, appropriately placed in sankaku tai, are supposed to carry out that protective work usually entrusted to the handguard. In both the static stance positions and the dynamic counters of slashes and jabs, it is the correct twisting movement of the hips that generates the energy necessary to deflect the opposing weapon.

The closing of the Circle

We could (or should…) finish here, but since we mentioned the three sacred forms of Aikido at the beginning of the previous chapter and we have only dealt with two of them, there we have to complete the triad.

Ouroboros, the snake that feeds on itself

If the Square represents the material world and signifies the firm static nature of the profane, and the Triangle represents the Aikido practitioner in itinere and the spiritual world, the Circle is the image of the ineffable divine world and – consequently – of the practitioner who has reached the end of his path. This is an obviously ideal condition, since no one will ever be able to say that there is nothing left to learn. All the Masters agree when they insist that the requirement necessary to continue on our formative path, however broad our experience may be, is to maintain a “beginner’s mind”. The Master becomes a student again, the ouroboros feeds on itself. Each point of the circumference is a departure and an arrival at the same time, in a path that – unlike the other two polygons – presents no sharp angles and deviations but a continuous and constant harmonization with the chosen journey.

In Aikido, the Circle is associated with the techniques performed in ura mode, in which the partner’s attack is not countered, but welcomed by “letting it pass” to control it. In addition to requiring a particular timing and sensitivity [15], this course of action also presents an especially interesting symbolic meaning. Let’s examine, as an example, the initial phases of a fundamental technique such as shomen uchi ikkyo, which in Saito Morihiro Shihan’s Takemusu Aikido program is studied as the first technique. While in the omote version of it, it is Tori [16] who with his entry “forces” Uke to perform a rotation on its vertical axis of almost 180° and therefore to assume Tori’s “point of view”, in the ura version it is Tori who rotates and ends up looking in the same direction as UkeAs Paolo Nicola Corallini Sensei explained while demonstrating tai no henko, in doing so Tori “puts himself at Uke’s side”. Tori does not force Uke – more or less violently – to change his mind and modus operandi. Rather he demonstrates him practically the uselessness of his aggressive action and supports him by guiding him along a common path.

Morhiro Saito, Tai no Henko

Leaving aside any practical assessment of the opportunity of following such a course of action, this choice requires Tori to be sufficiently aware of his means and abilities. It is not enough to believe that you are on the side of Good to be able to safely face a foray into the side of Evil to attract a partner who still wanders in his “dark forest“. As Nietzsche pointedly noted: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you”. The risk of finding yourself as a new Dart Vader, on the dark side of the Force, is always lurking. It is then – if we have worked with perseverance and honesty – that our half that we are going to sacrifice to be in hanmi will become the slag and brute matter from whose putrefactio the process of inner purification can feed. We have always to be aware that – as the symbol of T’ai Chi T’u shows us, in the White there is always a bit of black, and in the Black there is always a little white.

Conclusions

As in previous writings, I wish to thank my teachers, first and most Paolo N. Corallini, for providing me with the teachings and stimuli that produced to the considerations above. Any errors and inaccuracies that inevitably afflict these lines which – as I always remember (especially to myself) – do not want to offer answers but ask questions, are to be attributed exclusively to myself.

Copyright Carlo Caprino ©2010
All rights reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorized is strictly prohibited

Notes

[1] Shihan is an honorific term usually reserved for teachers, which we can translate as “person to imitate”

[2] Sort of pant skirt worn by practitioners of some Japanese arts (not only martial)

[3] Practice uniform, consisting of a sturdy white cotton jacket and trousers

[4] Paradoxical statement or story used in Zen to help meditation and thus “awaken” a deep awareness

[5] One of the oldest Japanese martial arts schools, connected with the Aizu – Takeda Clan

[6] Literally “body technique”, a term used in Japanese martial arts to indicate empty-hand practice 

[7] Tucked away body posture, in which the line that cuts the front foot in the middle passes through the big toe of the rear foot

[8] Various writings and insights have been dedicated to the subject, to which interested parties should refer to

[9] The evocation of “The Cloven Viscount” by Italo Calvino, is not accidental

[10] See, for more information, the analogy with the concepts of the “Three Treasures” of Traditional Chinese Medicine. They each derive from the progressive refinement of the other and represent the essential energies that sustain human life: Jing 精 “nutritional essence, essence; refined, perfected; extract; spirit, sperm, semen”. Qi 氣 “vitality, energy, strength; air, steam; spirit, vigour; attitude”. Shen 神 “spirit; soul, mind; god, divinity; supernatural being”.

[11] A bit support the readers less receptive to aspects furthest from the material technique: the orthogonal feet position is also (if not above all) an expedient used to get the student used to take an overall sankaku tai posture. With a sufficient degree of experience and adequate control of their body, students will discover that the hips are the motor of all techniques. These being the “hinge” between upper and lower body, it is the appropriate positioning of your hips that generates the elastic power necessary for the execution of Aikido techniques.

[12] Harmony, coordination, the ability to move with the partner, not only at a physical level

[13] Literally “knotting”, it indicates the ability to maintain the psychophysical connection with the partner

[14] A similar concept is expressed by the Shu Ha Ri triad which represents the technical progress of the practitioner of Japanese Arts in relation to his didactic reference models

[15] While in Aikido the techniques in omote and ura versions are studied together, in Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu only omote techniques were studied right away and demonstrated publicly. Ura techniques, on the contrary, were reserved only for more experienced practitioners and studied behind closed doors.

[16] The figures of Tori and Uke identify the two roles that we could roughly identify as “defender” and “attacker”. There is much more than this, but it is not possible here to go deeper into the subject.


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