In martial arts, as in most pursuits, there are many different models that try to help students along the path. These various models attempt to illustrate the stages of training one needs to go through to achieve mastery in your chosen field.
So, let’s first provide an overview of the four stage model as initially detailed by Morihei Ueshiba.
Morihei Ueshiba talked about this progression via the four stages of Kotai, Jutai, Ryutai and Kitai, later adopting the principles attributed to the 17th century Samurai Sekiun Harigaya Usai, called Shu-ha-ri.
Some organisations condense these four stages to three, eliminating ‘Ryutai’, whilst others add an additional level ‘Ekitai’, which represent a transitional level between Ryutai and Kitai.
Kotai is the most fundamental level of practice, often referred to as ‘static’, or kihon practice. Uke attacks with a firm grab or realistic strike, and nage responds with a basic technique. The techniques are categorised as ‘Kihon-Waza’ or ‘Fundamental’ techniques, where both nage and uke focus on developing a stable stance, strong foundation and center, whilst learning basic body mechanics and angles of movement.
By the time a student reaches Nidan (2nd degree black belt), they should have developed a good basic foundation and approach to the practice of Aikido.
Jutai literal translates to ‘Soft Body’ and is often referred to as ‘Yawarakai’ or ‘flexible’. Students begin to learn and adapt to less structured attacks, incorporating ‘blending’ practice, whilst adhering to the technical structure, as taught during kihon practice.
Ryutai or ‘Flowing Body’ sometimes referred to as ‘Ki-No-Nagare’, is a more dynamic stage. Here nage tries to develop a ‘sense’ of uke’s attacks, flowing, leading and anticipating the uke’s movements, adapting when and where ever necessary to the constantly changing attacks.
Kitai translates to ‘Energy Body’, and as in the Shu-ha-ri model, kitai refers to having gone beyond technical skill and knowledge, this stage can be described as being in the state of ‘Mind of No-Mind’
Within the Shu-Ha-Ri model there are three stages which roughly translates to ‘first learn, then detach, and finally transcend’, which on first viewing seems very similar to the ‘four stage’ model, although once studied, shows a slight shift towards a guided self-realisation framework.
“Shuhari can be considered as concentric circles, with Shu within Ha, and both Shu and Ha within Ri. The fundamental techniques and knowledge do not change”
Shu, the first stage can be translated to mean: to protect, defend, guard, obey, observe, abide by, stick to or be true to, and stands for traditional wisdom, learning fundamentals, techniques.
During this stage the student focuses on observing the method/ teachings being delivered without modifications. Characteristic of this stage is the learning and absorption of the fundamentals through repetition, exactly as they are presented with total openness and modesty, protecting the material and curriculum of techniques.
Physically, this is the time when various parts of the body are trained and conditioned, whilst mentally, one learns how to focus and concentrate attention, how to generate internal energy and its natural flow through the use of the power of the imagination.
Ha means breaking with tradition, detachment from the illusions of self.
The definition of Ha translates as: to tear up, rip, break, crush, destroy, violate, transgress, open, burst. Technically during this stage, the student rearranges or reconstructs, what they have been taught, eliminating what’s undesirable, unnecessary or unsuitable for the individual. This allows new elements to be brought in for study and growth; a period of frustration for both the teacher and the student.
Mentally, one will have developed and deepened the pursuit of self-inquiry, self-reflection and understanding of oneself as an individual, having a clearer vision of one’s own potential and the best possible way to stimulate it. It’s also a time that students can now support beginners with their first steps.
Ri can stand for transcendence – “There are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone, without clinging to forms; transcending the physical”.
Ri can be characterised as meaning: separation, leave, depart (from), release, set free, detach etc. At this stage, one has acquired every required technical skill, knowledge and experience within their chosen field; mentally no longer relying upon external help or guidance. The student has grown up, finds his own path and the teacher lets go. This stage can be described as the beginning of being able see the Mind of No-Mind, or the Sword of No-Mind.
The heady heights of mastery, as described in Kitai or Ri, are for the rare few.
For me, the dojo offers a reprieve from the hustle and bustle, a place to enjoy some focused practice within an art form that is fun, appealing and very challenging. Shoshin a word from Zen Buddhism, meaning “beginner’s mind”, is a great zone to I try to achieve. It translates to having an attitude of openness, eagerness with no preconceptions.
What’s your take?