“Atemi: Use Whatever You Can” by Eric J. Webber

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“Atemi: Use Whatever You Can” by Eric J. Webber

The term atemi is a composite kanji that refers to a defensive strike (ate: strike) used to help deal with an attack.  Atemi is typically used to help achieve kuzushi (taking the opponent’s balance or center), which then makes technique much more effective.  However, although it is used to take uke’s balance, in reality atemi is used to shift uke’s mind from the intended target to another focal point that is more advantageous for nage.  Thus, a good atemi is simply that which changes uke’s mind.

A good atemi will stop the flow of energy when necessary, and actively encourage the flow of energy at other times.  Different interactions and engagements will determine which is more appropriate.  Atemi is used to help create aiki (rather than increased conflict), to create space and/or time in order to achieve kuzushi, and lead uke into a technique that will satisfactorily bring the conflict to resolution

There are several methods of atemi.  The first method to be examined is the most obvious, that being to strike using the hand.  When striking with the hand, it may be held either open or closed.  Different martial arts have different approaches on which configuration of the hand is strongest in a particular situation.  Some teach that a closed fist is strongest.  Other options include an open palm strike, the ridge hand technique (striking with the forefinger side of a flat hand with the thumb tucked), and the tekatana strike (striking with a flat hand using the pinky side of the hand – the classic “karate chop”).  Typically, in aikido all are used to some extent.  Implementation of this method of atemi is fairly obvious, though a couple of examples may be useful:  nage may use the ridge hand technique when passing under a yokomenuchi (bending the knees to drop the body, extending the arm closest to uke and moving irimi to the rear of uke, striking ridge hand to the solar plexus while passing through); nage may defend against linear attacks such as shomenuchi or munetsuki by sliding off line to create a new line of attack and striking tekatana on uke’s head or attacking arm; nage may strike yokomen when defending against yokomen, using irimi tenkan to take the center line and thus securing a superior position.

Other striking options using the upper body and extremities include elbow strikes, shoulder blocks, and head butts.  Brushing the eyes and throat strikes are also valid atemi.  While some of these options create less harmony than others, they can be very effective in capturing uke’s balance, center, and attention.

The lower body may also be effectively used to atemi.  Kicks are very effective in disrupting uke’s mind, center, and balance, even if never landed.  In defending against shomenuchi, a front snap kick can slow or stop the attack from reaching its target.  Nage can use the momentum of the kick to propel forward and slip past uke in an irimi movement (e.g. irimi tenkan movement for an iriminage).  Nage can also raise a knee to make uke flinch, thus changing uke’s mind from focusing on the attack to now focusing on defending himself from the knee.  This can be seen when uke is being lead to the ground during ikkyo: if uke begins to resist in the middle of the technique there is usually an opening to place a knee or front snap kick in uke’s rib cage to help change his mind from resisting the technique to self preservation (by taking the ukemi).   Nage can also use other lower body methods for atemi to refocus uke’s mind, such as stepping on feet, sweeping ankles and knees, and thrusting hips into uke’s center of gravity.

As a final note on physical attami, it should be noted that many times atemi are hidden within the techniques themselves, and are apparent only when either explained or explicitly demonstrated.  There are typically multiple atemi in most techniques, though this depends on the specific technique and the specific execution of the technique.  As an example, shihonage (omote) has several atemi possible during the set up for the actual throw.  After achieving kuzushi and having uke’s hand, wrist, and/or arm in a firm grip, nage can atemi using a front snap kick to facilitate stepping through to turn uke.  Nage can also use an elbow to atemi while stepping in front of uke.  Another possible atemi is to sweep the ankle or kick the close leg after the pivot, directly before throwing uke.  In yokomenuchi shihonage, at least four atemi can be found in the execution of the technique from beginning to end.

The aforementioned methods of atemi are concrete approaches in which nage uses physical contact to change uke’s mind.  It is important to note that a strike used as an atemi does not necessarily have to make physical contact in order to be effective, but should have the ability to do so.  However, the threat of physical contact can be just as effective in some cases as actual contact itself.  Uke’s imagination may be more powerful that nage’s ability to execute a strike, thus the threat of a strike would have a greater effect.  In this vein, there are a couple of methods of atemi which do not require such physical contact, but that are still very effective.  Two methods of non-striking atemi are kiai and presence.

Kiaiis a method of harmonizing one’s energy and intent, usually manifested in a sharp shout and exhalation of breath.  Simply explained, a kiai is a sharp shout at the moment of an attack in order to focus energy and make the attack more effective.  (Specific methods of kiai and vocalizations will not be examined here, though the reader may be directed to more on the subject in “Kiai in Aikido: Explanations and Explorations,” located at www.aikido-westreading.org)

Kiai can be used very effectively by both nage and uke, in that the sharp shout and exhalation not only serves to harmonize one’s own energy, but also to disrupt the energy and harmony of one’s partner.  By using kiai as atemi, nage can refocus uke’s mind, thus disrupting his original intention, and make the attack less intense and more manageable.  When used along with other methods of atemi, kiai becomes a very powerful tool as it provides more than one point of contact with one’s partner in disrupting his focus, balance, and concentration.

Uke can also effectively use kiai as an atemi by employing it at the moment of attack to capture nage’s mind and keep him from being able to effectively deal with the attack, making the target more likely to remain stationary and easier to hit.  It will thus serve a dual purpose, that being to harmonize the attacker’s energy, as well as disrupting the intended target’s mind and focus.

As a side note, if both partners use kiai in the martial exchange, it then becomes a battle of concentration and will to stay focused on intention.  Focus, concentration, experience, and calmness will come into play in determining who will prevail in taking the other’s concentration and center.

Presence is another nonphysical atemi that can be a very effective.  By having a strong presence, nage can disrupt uke’s concentration and change the situation by changing uke’s mind.  Presence as atemi can be formulated as a body position, a movement, a glance with meaning and intent.  As an example, uke attacks yokomenuchi.  Nage steps in on the line of attack and places the lead foot directly on uke’s centerline (i.e. in line with the knot of uke’s obi), pivots and presents his center directly in uke’s pathway.  Uke must then decide whether to move off line and give way to nage’s presence or try to battle him for that line.  Should uke perceive a strong presence, he will need to get off line or risk losing the battle for that space.

Another example would be in a randori situation where an uke is lining up an attack from behind and nage catches the movement, and glances back to let uke know he has been spotted.  The glance in itself may be enough to let uke know that he has lost the element of surprise and may be in danger of opening himself up should he proceed with the attack.  In this example, nage may need to realign himself to help in the presence atemi, using body positioning to affect uke.  A subtle movement can also be an effective atemi, in that the presence of a hand or arm in a particular position or motion may indicate the possibility of effectively striking and thereby change uke’s mind.  Thus, the presence of nage acts as an atemi in that it changes uke’s mind and forces him to make another choice rather than follow through with the original intent of the attack.  These types of exchanges are usually rather subtle, but are nonetheless very real and important in aikido training.

In conclusion, suffice it to say that atemi is very important in aikido practice.  It can be applied in any technique in some form or another, and should be studied at length and in depth.  Atemi should always be applied with care and consideration for one’s partner, the situation, and the intended outcome of the atemi and the technique.  Thus some amount of reserve and caution should always be employed when using atemi, but nonetheless it is an important part of aikido training and should be approached as any other technique should be approached: with seriousness and respect, and with an open mind and heart.