Like a Walk Through Yūgen 幽玄

Uto, Scenes from the Noh Theater, Tsuskioka Kogyo (1869-1927)
A sudden change in the atmosphere. The kukan shifts. The air itself feels alive. Only to be shattered by the tip of the bo.

This was the feeling I tried to communicate in one class. It was something I had experienced with Hatsumi Sensei and I wanted to share. But how to teach that?

How does this occur in a technique? How does the body and weapon come alive in that instant? And to make it absolutely crass, what are the mechanics?

In fact, the mechanics are super basic. Yet as with all basics, they quickly grow profound. We've been doing a lot of walking practice, or 足馴らし ashinarashi, in my classes recently. It's difficult to understand taijutsu without understanding this. Not just in our art.  Many disciplines start here, including Noh theater,
The walk is so important in Noh dancing that the highest compliment that can be paid to a player is that his walking is good. - Carl Wolz, 1976
The experience I had with Hatsumi Sensei was of the movement through the kukan having a particular quality to it, a particular way of walking. Sensei described it this way,
"You've got to walk like a Noh actor moving through yūgen 幽玄."

I've written about yūgen 幽玄 before, but how exactly are we supposed to walk? What do you do with your feet and legs? How do Noh actors walk?

There are many styles of walking in Noh, for example:

Ashibumi 足踏み : stamping
Uchimata 内股に: inward walk
Waniashi 鰐足: pedaling
Sotomata 外股 : outward walk
Tsumasaki 爪先: tiptoe
Yokoaruki 横歩き:side slide
Yokoaruki 横歩き: side cross step
Ashi o horu 足放る: side stamping
Shikko 膝行: squat walk

But before a Noh actor learns any of those comes suriashi 摺り足 or Hakobi 運ビ. This comes from 舞 Mai which is an old style of traditional dance. Mai means "to circle." In Mai the feet mostly stay in contact with the ground. While the arms gesture slowly and gracefully. This walking  has the soles sliding along the ground so lightly the performer appears to float.

If you study this movement through the kukan and Yugen, you may look towards Noh as an inspiration. The artist John Brzostoski gives a great description of the feeling of Yugen in a Noh theater,
"It appears upon the blank stage almost as if in a cinema, in slow motion, at the wrong speed of a recording, a stretched tape about to snap, pulled into intolerable pauses of holding breath, lack of breathing, lack of thought, the complete comprehension of all movements. You know where everyone has been and where everyone is going."
For me, that is what control of the kukan feels like. When I get it right anyway. The advanced form of this walking has a quality of 引張り間 hippari ai, pulling something or someone towards yourself. And if we go back to the roots of Noh Zeami tells us to walk so that, 目前神後 "the eyes look ahead and the spirit looks behind"



Thanks for your explanation of the "walk". I have been trying to understand the purpose of the stilted-feeling walk, and this helped me form a better idea of what it's purpose is. Thank you!

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