In this article I will analyse one of my favourite "projections" (or throws) and one that I most frequently apply in sparring.
The term "ikkyo" means, literally, "first lesson" in Japanese. Students of aikido will know it as a foundational technique that leads them on to "nikkyo", "sankyo" and "yonko" (second, third and fourth lessons respectively) as well as many other techniques.
In essence, ikkyo, like its related techniques, is a compound "lesson" teaching the student the following:
- a "projection" by which leverage on a joint can lead the body to be "projected" in a particular direction (think of it as a kind of "throw"); and
- a pin that takes place on the ground once the "uke" (your partner/opponent) is "projected" (thrown).
I first learned ikkyo when I studied aikido in the early '80s both under my own instructor, Bob Davies, and his visiting friend and mentor, the late Ken Cottier. By the early '90s I had begun the study of the internal arts and I was taught a projection from xingyi's pi quan that was in many respects quite similar if not identical to ikkyo (depending on the aikidoka and xingyi practitioner demonstrating it).1
My internal arts cross-referencing of ikkyo and pi quan alerted me to what I believe are common errors and misunderstandings in the "ikkyo technique" (in no matter what school you study it). It is important to note that I do not claim to be an aikidoka (I didn't practise it for long enough to assert any level of expertise in that art). Second, I have the highest respect and fondness for aikido. Accordingly this article is not geared at criticism of that art, but rather the critical analysis of one technique – and how I believe it is optimally performed for use in practical civilian defence.
Some aikidoka might agree with my assessments, while many others will undoubtedly disagree.2 Regardless, I understand that aikido fundamentals are not all about "fighting techniques" but rather serve to teach you general principles of movement for that art.3 So I acknowledge that, to some extent, my "criticisms" of how some people perform ikkyo are unfounded. However if you plan to use the ikkyo projection against a resistant partner, I beg some indulgence so that I can outline my case! Please note that for ease of reference, I will be analysing the technique (initially anyway) from a cross-hand wrist grab.4
The need to use minimal force
Ikkyo is not a sweeping, tripping, flipping or other body throw (eg. a hip throw). Instead it "throws" a person through the use of leverage, using minimal force to do so. As you probably know, leverage is a very efficient and effective way of overcoming greater forces. As Archimides said:
- "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."
- an initial unbalancing (usually upward angled); followed by
- a downward pressure that directs the uke to the ground where he/she can be pinned.
The practitioner demonstrates a version of the ikkyo projection that I've often seen. Here, the "first part" of the movement is executed by what is effectively a pull that extends the uke's grabbing arm straight, as illustrated in the adjacent images.
I'm not going to say that this is "wrong"; it is certainly one way of doing the technique. However I will make a number comments about this approach to illustrate why I feel it is less than optimal.
One way of doing ikkyo – ie. by straightening the uke's arm
Who said you need brute force to "lever up" the elbow?
First, I disagree completely with the stated "necessity" for doing the technique this way.
Yes, ikkyo should not "require force" (ie. "brute force") to work. But I also hold it to be manifestly untrue that brute force (particularly of the kind the practitioner demonstrates in his video) is required for an upward "lever" action (ie. to force the uke's elbow up in a bent position).
There is simply no reason for the kind of "struggle" the practitioner is demonstrating. (Note carefully how he raises his shoulder and tries to directly oppose the uke's downward "constriction".)
As I will shortly detail, there is an easy and efficient method to raise the uke's elbow so that you can lever it, projecting or "throwing" the uke. This method is the polar opposite of what is depicted here. I am speaking of course about the "internal arts" approach to this projection, as seen in:
- the application of "pi quan" (splitting fist) from xingyi; or
- the slightly "easier to understand/learn" method that I've incorporated into my nagegata/touxing forms (which I call "shomen nage / zhengmian tou").
A video where I demonstrate the "shomen nage" or "zhengmian tou" – an internal arts version of ikkyo
Who said straightening an elbow was this easy?
Second, I disagree that the method the practitioner prefers is especially "force-efficient", not to mention effective. Let me explain: The method as shown in the video requires the practitioner to straighten the uke's arm. This involves pulling the uke's elbow straight. The problem here is essentially the same one I related in my article "Leading momentum – how realistic is it?"; your opponent will react and retract his or her arm the moment you try to pull it. I know there are some people who have exquisite timing honed after 40, 50 or 60 years of training and who might be able to achieve this.
But in truth, I never have. And I don't think I'm a slouch in relation to sensitivity and timing. My respectful suggestion is that this technique only appears to be relatively effective; this appearance is dispelled the moment you have a determined, resistant and strong opponent!
If you want to straighten an elbow, be prepared to use your forearm!
Am I suggesting that you can't straighten an opponent's arm? Far from it! I do such "arm bars" all the time. But here's the crunch:
- I never perform an "arm bar" without support - usually from my forearm.
Regardless, the practitioner in the first video isn't doing any form of "arm bar". He isn't twisting the uke's wrist at all, nor applying pressure with his palm (in the first video you see the practitioner's hand moving towards the elbow as if to support the lock but it never quite gets there!).
Instead he's relying on the uke to keep the arm straight by himself. In much the same way, he's relying up the uke to keep holding on to his wrist for the duration of the projection (when the "grip reflex" only lasts about 0.5 second at most).
The "internal" ikkyo projection
So how does the internal arts version of the ikkyo projection work? First, contrary to the first video, you don't have to struggle to raise his elbow. Done correctly, it is in fact very easy as I describe in the video below:
I discuss the more classical xingyi way of effecting a forward projection – using "pi quan" or "splitting fist"
Moving your arm along the lines of least resistance: rotating at the elbow
The first thing to note about the internal arts method is that your grabbed arm follows the lines of least resistance, thus negating any "downward constriction" of the kind the practitioner in the first video discussed.
You don't just try to lift your arm in direct opposition to the downward force. Instead, keeping your elbow close to your body, you rotate your arm from the elbow moving inwards in a half circle until your arm is up. This is illustrated in the adjacent series of pictures.
(Note that in these pictures I'm only illustrating the angles of movement of your grabbed arm – not what you should be doing with your other arm, not how you should be moving your feet, etc.).
You will find that this rotation of the arm can effected without any problem – so long as you keep your elbow close to your body!
(For more on this topic, see my article "Dealing with wrist grabs".)
I've invited the strongest, biggest guys I know to resist this movement, and they haven't been able to – even when they knew exactly what I was about to do. With the element of surprise, the resistance is greatly reduced.
Moving your arm along the lines of least resistance: fingers into the face
The next step, as illustrated in the images is ingeniously simple; you thrust your arm, palm up, straight into his face. Clearly the move is simple, but why do I say it is ingenious? Because, once again, it is the angle your opponent can least resist.
If your opponent is caught unawares, the elbow will bend. At this point you slam your other palm into the "triangle" of the elbow. I usually employ my thumb under the elbow to avoid "slipping off" (there are pros and cons to using the thumb – I regard it as a matter of personal preference; you don't want your thumb snagged, but you don't want to slip off the top of the triangle either!).
But what about my "forearm, not palm" rule? Well it doesn't apply – simply because this is not a grappling move like an arm bar: Rather, it is analogous to a punch or palm heel strike.5
Your opponent's response
There are only two possible responses to this scenario: If your opponent is surprised, his or her elbow will bend. This will mean that you push that triangle through his or her face. The resulting lever effect is devastating; with comparatively little effort, your opponent finds his or her face catapulted into the floor (or wall). It is very important to thrust directly at your opponent's face: if you try for an "angle" all you do is move off the line of least resistance, water down the force of your blow, decrease the amount of your opponent's loss of balance and enable his or her quicker recovery. But pushing into the face? It's simply marvellous! Nothing else upsets someone's balance quite so well.
Don't be troubled by the fact that there doesn't seem to be anywhere for your own body to move; such an assumption proceeds on a static analysis that is flawed. He or she will move – don't worry about that - and move exactly in the way that you want! This permits the "splitting" of which xingyi theory speaks. It is as if you are "cleaving your opponent in two".
Of course you aren't doing anything like this. But imagining that you are doing it assists in the excution of the technique to no end (largely because you are committed to a direct, central path with the downward circular moment characteristic of xingyi).
What if your opponent realises what you're going to do and stiffens his or her arm? Surprisingly, very little. His or her arm is just stiffer. As you can see from the adjacent image, your opponent's attempted resistance actually works in your favour; the stiff arm means that his or her body will be forced to rock backwards to accommodate the stiff arm. And the fact that the arm is stiff does not affect your ability to lever the arm very much; you can still attack the elbow with pretty much the same effect. What you lose from not having a bent elbow to lever, you gain by that fact that your opponent has rocked back on his or her heels and is therefore off balance.
Anyway, in my experience, your opponent will instinctively start to bend the elbow as you attack it with your palm. But even if he or she doesn't, the projection comes to much the same thing – you're punching the elbow at the point where the "triangle" would otherwise have been.
Footwork: getting the most efficiency out of your projection
The real key to the whole technique lies, as always, in the footwork. In this case you must use xingyi's "drop step" about which I've previously written. Essentially this means making a lunge with the front step before you follow through with the back leg.
When should you start the drop step? At precisely the moment you thrust your fingers into your opponent's face. What does this do? As I've exhaustively stated and restated over the years, it instantly applies the entire weight of your body to the momentum of your technique. Nothing else does this – certainly not as quickly or as efficiently. The xingyi drop step is what ITF wishes its "sine wave" were but isn't. I describe the principle in detail in the video below starting at 0:49.
I illustrate the effectiveness of this principle very simply using the "xiao chan" (small wrap) or "nikkyo" (as it is known in aikido) in the video. You will see from the above images that simply lifting the front leg adds enough force to the lock so that it exceeds the "tipping point".
I discuss some of the finer details of the zhengmian tou or shomen nage – noting the important differences between it and ikkyo
Aside from the absence of the xingyi drop step and a strange "backhand slap" to the face (instead of the fingertips being thrust in a linear path), the aikidoka in the following video does the technique in almost the exact same way as I've recommended. See what you think:
An aikido instructor demonstrates ikkyo in much the same way as the internal arts zhengmian tou
Here's another who is doing a fairly good job – again, apart from the absence of the drop step which is really so crucial in reducing the need for force (especially against resistant opponents). Very nice nonetheless. In particular I like the "tenkan" (turning) varieties, which are always an option even in the internal arts.
Another example of an ikkyo with similarity to the internal arts equivalent
No step at all?
Now compare these videos to this (honest, but in my view manifestly less efficient) method:
Another version of ikkyo. Note the lack of step through and the forceful "pull down" rather than the use of the body momentum.
Yes, this is workmanlike. But it really misses the magic of ikkyo – don't you agree? The first thing you'll notice is that not only does the demonstrator not do a drop step: he doesn't step through at all! This means that he doesn't continue with is forward momentum. Instead, he stops, then pulls his opponent down.
In other words, he interrupts his own body momentum rather than use it to his advantage – then he substitutes brute force to pull the arm down. The only reason you don't notice the brute force is because his uke is being compliant. A high attack of the kind with which he's dealing is tailor-made to be overpowered through the "simple" xingyi drop step. You're already moving into your opponent: why stop? Might it be because your opponent is moving toward you as well?
Again viewed as a static analysis it seems entirely reasonable. But if you think of it logically, the opponent here is only stepping into range; he's not planning on stepping past you. So you don't need to be concerned about "fighting his forward momentum". By the time you're in place with your step, your opponent will have halted his or her forward advance; in fact, he or she will more likely be starting to pulling away than continue the forward advance! What does this mean? By the time you come to pull your opponent's arm down, he or she will have started backing off. And every inch away from you reduces your chances of grappling effectively.
In this regard I always think of the song "Roam" by the B52s which has the following line:
- "Take it hip to hip, rocket through the wilderness."
After the "fall": unexpected stopping
Okay, you've used your arms along the lines of least resistance, punched the triangle of his elbow through your opponent's face (using a drop step and a follow up step to throw your whole body into the momentum and keep up with your opponent). He or she is plummeting, face-first, on the floor. What happens next?
What students typically do is they get surprised by the sudden movement in their opponent – almost as surprised as their opponent! This sometimes means that they forget (or delay) in making the second (follow up) step. Whatever you do, don't do this! Keep the "ball rolling"! More commonly still, students will take the second step, then stop. Of course, they should in fact keep making continuous steps, maintaining forward momentum until the opponent is face-first on the floor.
Despite injunctions to my own students, I notice that stopping, however briefly, after the step through is common. Maybe this is because we are safety conscious in the dojo: if so, that's a good thing in a way. But you still need to be careful not to groove a pause where there should be none; any such pause has the potential of being exploited by your opponent.
A "surprise mistake": the drift from the elbow to the tricep
But the tendency to "pause" does have a tendency to create one further, rather unexpected, issue and that is this:
- The hand that has, up till now, been so carefully placed in the crook of the elbow has started to wander up to the tricep.
- "[T]o me, the lever projection is one movement, using the same lever and the same pressure on the same point of the arm."
Does it really happen? Hell yes. If you look closely at the fellow who didn't step at all in his ikkyo, you'll see the same issue, plain as day (see larger image above). If you examine the aikido videos I've embedded, you'll notice that this "tricep drift" is ubiquitous. The adjacent image is taken from yet another video.
This "tricep drift" is a very bad thing. And yet, had the correspondent Ymar Sakar not alerted me to this issue (causing the delayed posting of this article so that I could address it), I would not have considered it at all.
Interestingly, I had already forgotten that this was precisely how I was taught (probably unconsciously) when I first started practising ikkyo all those years ago (and how I continued practising it for many years after that): that pressure on the tricep was somehow "okay" or even "good". Well, I'm sorry to say: it isn't. Why not? For the simple reason that when levering, the pressure should be at one end of the lever – not on the fulcrum! The tricep is mid-way between two possible lever points: the elbow and the shoulder. In other words, the tricep is the fulcrum. If you want to push there, you're going to be robbing the technique of all its effectiveness; you'll be taking away the "effortless" nature of the ikkyo projection and you'll be forced to substitute brute force instead. Don't believe me?
The best way to test this is to pause after you've done the initial "throw" and taken a couple of steps (but before your partner is on the floor (ie. just after the "rise and fall" of the elbow). Now hold that position (in which you might find yourself) and have your partner resist - in an honest way. As you'll find, I'm sure, pressure on the tricep is totally ineffective. For instance, take a look at the adjacent image that shows my student escaping my own "tricep push". The arrow shows the line of least resistance (and therefore easiest escape) by my student.
All he has to do is twist his arm and body in one motion, straightening up out of the hold. The amount of brute force required to hold my student there using pressure on the tricep is considerable - a bit like trying to push a door near its hinges.
The same video of the finer points of ikkyo, but this time set to start where I address the "tricep issue"
Even a smaller uke can wiggle out – or simply stand up - out of such a hold! A strong opponent will laugh you off. Worse, levering at the fulcrum can give your partner the chance to throw you onto your back before you even realise what has happened. I illustrate this at 5:56 in the above video.
Ymar Sakar has previously suggested that pressing on the tricep has a "safety" function. This raises an entirely different issue that I will cover in another article. For the time being it is sufficient for me to say that I address it in my previous video at 6:50.
Pushing on the shoulder is no answer either
I'm not going to say much about pushing on the shoulder, except that it in this position it is not much better than pushing on the tricep.
Why? In a nutshell, it is because when you start pushing the shoulder from behind, you're really entering the grappling domain. You're pushing close to your opponent's core. In order to unbalance him or her, you have to use your own body and get in close – remember: hip to hip! I cover this at 2:40 in my previous video. You'll see there that a shoulder press from behind is really not much stronger than a tricep press. It just doesn't work.
Where the joint points, the body goes!
By contrast, for some reason that I haven't fully grasped yet, pressure on the front of the shoulder produces a marked effect on your opponent's balance! I think it has something to do with the integral structure of the body; you're not working against the powerful back muscles that are trying to straighten, but rather simply disrupting the horizontal angle of the shoulders. Regardless, the shoulder press as illustrated in the above image is a good way to follow the principle that "where the joint points, the body goes!"
It never ceases to amaze me how a manipulation of the joints has the capacity to completely "break your structure" as Systema instructor Alex Kostic likes to say. (In fact, Alex covered this in some detail during his Perth seminar and we discussed the principle at some length later over tea.)
You'll see many more examples form 4:26 onwards in my video. Accordingly it should come as no surprise that pressure must be maintained on the elbow throughout the ikkyo projection. This means pointing the elbow to where you want your opponent to go – namely down! If he or she starts to rise, point the apex of the elbow triangle down again. It really is that simple.
If, like me, you spent years letting your hand drift up from the elbow to the tricep after the "rise and fall" motion, then the hardest part will be trusting that the technique will work – it will seem counterintuitive! But rest assured: it does (as you will see at around 2:24 in my video).
Applicability in myriad instances
In the first two videos of mine in this article I have described a number of other instances where the ikkyo projection can be applied. These include:
- a punch that is being retracted;
- a deflection (eg. a rising "block" or age/jodan uke);
- a high guard or shield.
In fact, the moment your opponent presents an elbow, even at chest height, and you have the opportunity, this can be leveraged into the projection. At 3:34 in my video "Pi Quan – Applications" I even demonstrate a (rather strange!) application I once saw in a '60s self-defence textbook: it involved ramming a pickpocket's face into the opposite wall! While I don''t consider this to be a reasonable/appropriate application for such a situation (were it ever to arise!), the availability of the technique from that odd angle still managed to impress upon me the versatility and adaptability of this technique.
The goal of this article hasn't been to denigrate aikido or any particular instructor or school. Rather, I have wanted to highlight my own research over the last 30 years into the projection known in aikido as "ikkyo". Why? Because I believe it is a devastating, inherently practical and ultimately simple and logical technique that is applicable in a wide variety of circumstances. I hope that I have been able to communicate at least some of the essential principles of this oft-forgotten gem.
Ikkyo is much more than a stepping stone to "nikkyo", "sankyo" and "yonkyo". It is much more than an "exploration of aiki principle". It is a brutally effective technique that is also intimately tied to xingyi's most central movement – pi quan or splitting fist. Given the age of xingyi, I think it is safe to say that this projection is arguably one of the oldest martial techniques ever devised (leaving aside obvious punches and kicks).
To see such an ancient, tried and tested technique (that just happens to be one of my favourites) relegated to the status of a "boring and impractical basic" is frustrating. However perhaps this is not all that surprising when you see how few people know what it takes to makes ikkyo truly functional. And yet, the "secret" of ikkyo is surprisingly simple, ie:
- follow the lines of least resistance to throw up your opponent's eblow in front of his or her face;
- punch the "triangle" of your opponent's elbow through his or her face using a "drop step" to exert instant force;
- keep stepping and don't pause until you have your opponent face-first on the ground;
- keep your pressure on the maximally efficient lever point – namely the crook of your opponent's elbow.
1. I later collated the "stray" internal arts throws and projections into 2 forms of my own design so as to preserve the footwork and essential mechanics in discreet "packages" which I call "nagegata" or "touxing" (literally "throw forms"). This experience alone alerted me the important function forms have in presenting and preserving a comprehensive martial curriculum.
Arguably, I needn't have bothered to add the "ikkyo-type" internal throw to my forms as it is already clearly evident in xingyi's pi quan. However there is also the inherent problem of pi quan's subtlety and complexity, arising from its advanced nature. Accordingly I am satisfied on balance that the technique should remain in the nagegata/touxing forms.
2. Those who disagree with my views will doubtless point to my "poor form" when demonstrating, say, the ikkyo pin on the ground. I'm not making excuses when I say that the videos I have here were filmed hurriedly after some standard lessons; this is simply fact. Furthermore, the primary purpose of my videos was to demonstrate the internal arts version of the projection and pin – not to demonstrate the "aiki" side of things. They should certainly not be read as some sort of proof that I haven't tested my views on high calibre martial artists of all styles, including aikido.
3. Practice methods in aikido are often high on "principle" and low on "direct applicability" but that doesn't mean they aren't important. For example, the various "kokyu ho" ("breathing" exercises) and the "tai no henko" drill are designed to teach you to deflect and redirect force, thus "harmonising" it with your own movement (hence the name of aikido – "the way of harmonising the spirit/breath").
4. For those who think wrist grabs are "unrealistic" etc. I invite you to read my previous articles "Dealing with wrist grabs" and, more relevantly "Gorillas in the midst: the question of wrist grabs" where I outline the primary reason practising techniques from a wrist grab: to create a consistent platform for isolating, analysing and understanding a technique by putting you "in the correct range for the application of a technique in a basic setting."
5. In fact, the relationship between the "zhengmian tou" (ikkyo projection) and a palm strike is hardly surprising. This is exactly the form it takes in xingyi's pi quan – an up and down palm strike. It is my view that this is precisely the intended meaning of pi quan – not some strange downward "slap" (be it to the face or the shoulder or whatever). More on this another time!
6. Unfortunately, a static or "standing start" drill of the kind usually employed in ikkyo practice doesn't reveal the flaw in the paradigm used by the "no step at all" demonstrator, ie. that the moment you start pulling down on your opponent's arm, he or she will pull away! And without sparring the deficiencies in this model are never uncovered. That said, the technique is still "workmanlike". It is, however, what I would unhesitatingly call "external" in approach; it is diametrically opposite to the dynamic and "momentum preservation" focused "soft" or "internal" arts of China (with which aikido is so often mistakenly compared).
Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic