Traditional Japanese Martial Arts for Adults
CHIKARA: Power vs Force in Aikido
How to amass great power in your life.
by Sean Hannon
teachers do not really understand the difference between power and force, or worse, think they are the same things. As such, the student ends up creating more resistance in their life, instead of more power and he or she never learns to truly generate power.
In Aikido, your objective should be on generating power. Most people tend to think that the fastest way to power is through force. Not true. Short-term power can be generated through force. However, that power is one-dimensional and usually doesn’t last. It could be argued that the Japanese discipline of Aikido is, in fact, the endless endeavor of physically harnessing maximum power with the least amount of physical exertion. Overwhelmingly, the power people learn to generate in Aikido is a form of personal power within themselves as opposed to a power over others. Power over others is almost always a product of people exerting force, not harnessing power. Indeed, people’s misconception of what power is often leads to the very opposite outcome of what people seek.
In physics, Power and Force are often (but not always) used interchangeably. However, in Aikido force and power are too very different things. In the Aikido dojo power is a product of intent and position.
Power = Intent x Position
Intent is what directs your position. Intent means beginning with the end in mind. Those who practice Aikido with intent, that is, with a visceral, internal understanding of the objective of each technique and a pliant, empty mind are far more powerful than those who may be physically stronger and may be applying more force to a technique. Intent multiples one’s power and furthermore, intent guides position.
The other half of the power equation in Aikido is position. George W. Bush, Ben Bernake and Bill Gates all have power because of their executive positions in various organizations. These men make things happen (good or bad) because of their intent and subsequent positions they take. Mahatma Ghandi was powerful because of the mental and social positions he assumed as a consequence of his intent. Fictional character, Howard Roark, from Ayn Rand’s famous 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, exhibited tremendous power by the philosophical positions he assumed. None of these men exert personal, physical force. Yet, they are all powerful.
Force is merely the product of mass or, in physics, mass times acceleration. When novice martial arts students seek to add power to their techniques, they are often inclined to add more force. That is they exert more muscle mass into the equation. Power should create more ease. Force tends to only create more sweat. Think about it. The people I know who have the most power tend to exhibit the most ease in their life by utilizing leverage. Leverage, of course, is merely a matter of positioning. These powerful individuals also tend to be wealthier and healthier. In contrast, those who exhibit the most force in their lives also tend to be the hardest working, the least leveraged and subsequently produce the least amount of outcome. Not coincidentally, they also seem to be the poorest of people and often the sickest. Truly, what we want to learn on the Aikido mat is how to generate in our lives is not more force, but more power.
A properly executed Aikido technique should require very little force (if any) but should simultaneously possess a tremendous amount of power. Because of our default, physics-oriented perspectives of power and force, this can seem rather paradoxical. A great way to gauge to your Aikido technique is simply to ask oneself, “Am I exerting force?” If so, you need to re-evaluate your physical position and your mental intent in order to generate more power. In Aikido, there is rarely any situation in which a martial arts technique cannot be increased in power by improving one’s position rather than increasing their amount of force. Often a two inch move to the left or right or maybe a 10 or 15 degree change in angle will mean the difference between an ineffective technique and an immensely effective technique. Therefore, there is an inverse relationship, in Aikido, of force to power. That is, the more force you exert in Aikido, the less power you actually possess.
As Force ↑, Power↓
Many people seek out martial arts as a means to creating more power in their lives. Power, of course, can be defined in many ways. Some people are seeking self-empowerment in the form of self-improvement, self-discipline, or self-esteem, while others may be seeking power or control over others. Martial arts can be a very a good place to discover power. However, more often than not what people end up learning is not true power, but force. Many martial arts
Think about it. When you “force” some one to do something, don’t you simultaneously expose yourself and limit your power? For example, think about having to exert force to hold someone down. While you’re holding them down through force, your arms and legs are probably occupied with the task and you are now more susceptible to an attack by another assailant. Your power – your power to respond – has diminished. You are, in fact, less powerful by having to hold some one down. You may have them held down, you may be in control, but ironically you have simultaneously imprisoned yourself to some extent. Your control of the situation has come at the expense of a portion of your own freedom. When you force others to do something, you are, in fact, forcing yourself and relinquishing your resources (your power) to them in a way.
You may notice that when an Aikido Sensei demonstrates techniques in class, he or she almost always has their hands open. Rarely do they close their hands as a fist or in a grasp like so many other martial arts. This is meant to illustrate that the power of each technique is not found in the hands and arms but elsewhere. So many new students think that the power originates in the hands – in the place of “control.” We are used to controlling things like our computers and our cars with our hands, so it is natural to assume that this, too, is where Aikido’s power originates. However, Aikido’s power comes from the intent and positioning of the practitioner and it manifests physically and projects from the “hara” or physical center of the body. That center is about two inches below the navel and about two inches “deep” from the navel.
Petite female Aikido instructors are an excellent examples of people who understand power. Due to her petite stature, she knows that she is unlikely to “out muscle” or “out force” someone. She knows that her power is a function of her intent and her positioning. Practice on the Aikido mat with her and you will quickly recognize that power is not exclusively dependent upon mass or muscle strength. Anyone who works out with petite female instructors know that her touch can be gentle, and at times almost imperceptible, yet she maintains complete control of the technique and only applies the absolute minimum amount of force – the most efficient exertion of energy. Try to redirect the technique on her and you will very quickly be reminded that she is, in fact, powerful and quite in control of the technique being executed.
If you’ll notice, female instructors match the energy of her Aikido partners. Come at her with a committed attack and her response will be proportionally powerful (but not forceful and not necessarily equal). On the other hand, come at her with a weak, uncommitted attack and her response will, again, be proportionally powerful. Why? It is because a less than committed attack requires a less than committed defense. She never wastes energy, never wastes power.
Force truly has nothing to do with power. Tremendous force can exist without any power being present. Conversely, power can even mean zero force! If some one attacks you with a fully committed attack and you simply step out of the way allowing them to fall on their face, how much force have you exerted? Zero. Yet you have demonstrated power where they have not.
Most people are taught in life (and in most other martial arts) to meet force with force – to fight fire with fire. It is very similar to the often misunderstood Hammurabi’s code of “an eye for an eye.” However, isn’t it more intelligent to fight fire with water, not with fire? When was the last time a fireman showed up at a burning home with a truck full of fire?
One of my past instructors taught me much about the difference between power and force, and its application in the practice of ‘musubi’ – or connection with others. When someone attacks you with all the force of their being – say a ten on a ten point scale – then, contrary to what you might think, you probably would not want to add more energy to the system and reciprocate with all your might at a ten. That would be exerting force, not power. When you perceive and attack of that much force it would be most effective to respond with little or no force (maybe a zero or a one out of ten). Conversely, if someone comes at you with little or no energy, it would be most effective to add energy to the system to maintain the integrity of the relationship, the connection.
So exhibiting an appropriate amount of power relative to the attack or the encounter is crucial. Provide too much energy to the system and you unbalance or stagnate the connection. Provide too little and there may be no connection at all. Then, if you have the right intent, respond with the correct angles and with the right “kuzushi,” or off-balancing techniques (again, forms of positioning), and it may seem to the attacker that you are using 100 times as much force or strength (a product of leverage or exponential power) when, in reality, you are expending a minimal amount of energy. This is true power.
Power is about generating energy from one’s ‘hara’ – one’s physical center – and building on the commitment to a relationship that one’s attacker initiates. Maintain the connection, adapt and flow with their movement. Learn to differentiate between power and force and that is where your power will be found.