Six Harmonies

The six harmonies are spoken a lot about in Chinese martial Arts 

Mike Haft wrote the following about the six harmonies in Aikido Yuishinkai, reprinted with permission from

Many readers will doubtless be aware of the resurgence of interest in ‘Internal Strength’ in aikido. Historically this soft, internal skill was referred to as aiki by the founder of Daito-ryu Sokaku Takeda, and was a skill-set he passed on to his students.

Many who have studied the Chinese internal arts such as t’ai chi ch’uan will have heard of something called the Six Harmonies (not to be confused with the Six Directions, which is something related but definitely different). Discussions of this in the context of understanding aiki are quite common on internet discussion forums, the tone of these discussions is often such that you would be expected to believe the skills and understanding of things like the Six Harmonies have been lost from aikido, if indeed they were ever present. So I thought I’d use this blog post to explain the Six Harmonies and point out where they exist in the Aikido Yuishinkai approach to aikido.

When I studied t’ai chi ch’uan the Six Harmonies were explained to me as consisting of three internal harmonies and three external harmonies. I’ll deal with these separately for reasons that will hopefully become apparent as we go.

Three External Harmonies

The three external harmonies (in Chinese: wai san he) are the basic mechanics of posture and can be considered the nuts and bolts of how to move, they are loosely:

  1. Your hips harmonise with your shoulders.
  2. Your knees harmonise with your elbows.
  3. Your feet harmonise with your hands.

Even a cursory examination of aikido techniques shows that they contain all of the above principles in pretty much every movement you consider. In all aikido waza the hand and foot on one side of the body move in unison when executing that technique. Katatedori kosa kokyunage, for example, at its basic level involves moving in a circle where your hand is outstretched and located more or less directly above your foot, the two are moved in unison, there are countless other examples of this basic fact of movement. There is even debate on this as to how precisely the samurai walked around in every day life, as most people walk, their left hand swings forward as their right foot moves forwards and thus acts as a counter balance. There is however something called namba aruki (or sometimesnaniwa aruki) where the walker moves the hand and foot on the same side of the body whilst walking, rather than the opposite. Walking in this style involves falling forward into every step, which Maruyama Sensei calls to chi-ho.

The three harmonies described above are however about more than walking and posture, they are also principles for how to move the body. The first harmony: Your hips harmonise with your shoulders, means that your shoulders be driven by your hips at all times, never the other way around. When you try to drive your hips with your shoulders you break your connection with the ground and will invariably end up using physical force to try to overcome a training partner/opponent. A common example of this is when people first learn kote gaeshi, there is a tendency to assume that the criteria for a successfully applied kote gaeshi is that uke’s wrist bends, this (false) assumption in turn can lead people to use shoulder power to try to force the wrist to bend. In fact uke is moved by the hips driving all of the movement in this technique. The second harmony: Your knees harmonise with your elbows, means that your elbows often stay directly over your knees when you move. Again, using kote gaeshi as an example, when you execute this technique it’s far less effective if you lift your elbow up and point it out to one side, thus breaking the connection with your knee. Also, if you have your knee (or your elbow) locked then executing a good kote gaeshi becomes much more difficult, locked knees break your connection with the ground, which is ultimately the source of the power you use for techniques. It is very common to see the rear leg braced when aikido techniques are performed, but Maruyama Sensei specifically says that both feet should be flat on the floor and that the rear knee should be unlocked, in other words don’t break connection with the ground. Allowing your knee(s) and elbow(s) to be free to bend or flex when doing kote gaeshi means you will be able to feel a stronger connection between your centre (tanden) and uke and thus be able to transmit more force more effectively. The third harmony: Your feet harmonise with your hands, means that you should point your toes at your target, at least in the t’ai chi ch’uan context, when discussing the third harmony they usually say to pivot on your heels, but this is different in aikido. I usually think of it in an aikido context very much as namba aruki, the foot moves the hand when you perform a technique. If I want to do kote gaeshi I move my feet to move my hands. This keeps my whole body in the correct alignment, keeps my posture correct with my feet below my hips and my hips below my shoulders and my spine straight but not rigid, and it means I don’t find my centre of gravity slipping outside of defined borders within my body, thus making me much more physically stable in general.

Three Internal Harmonies

The three internal harmonies (in Chinese: nei san he) are all about intention and spirit and how these combine to move the body, I’ll stick with the Chinese names for things below rather than mixing up two languages:

  1. Your spirit or “emotional mind” (xin) harmonises with your intention (yi)
  2. Your intention harmonises with your breath and physical momentum (“qi”)
  3. Your breath and physical momentum harmonise with your physical strength (li)

Perhaps the best way to explain this in the context of Aikido Yuishinkai is with a sword cut. Maruyama Sensei teaches how to do a shomen uchi cut like this:

  1. Visualise the cut, see it in you mind before all else
  2. Move tanden, make the cut with tanden before you move anything else other than your mind
  3. Let the body perform the cut, by now it should feel effortless, no more difficult than dropping your sword on the floor.

The parallels between the two lists above should be obvious, but, for the sake of completeness I’ll explain. The first part is about your martial spirit rather than any divine spiritual matters, if the divine is linked to it in your approach then that’s fine, but it needn’t be, it’s about your spirit to fight and not be destroyed or hurt, this is your emotional state (xin) and you must harmonise it with your intention by visualising the cut you are about to make before you do it. Next you must harmonise your intent with your ki (qi) and the ki of the universe, you do this by first moving tanden, initiating the movement from here brings your power up from the floor, and uses your hips to drive your movements as detailed in the three external harmonies. Lastly, your breath and physical momentum harmonise with the movement of your body as you allow your body to make the cut. The operative word here is allow, the cut is the result of all of the above six harmonies, you must allow it to happen rather than try to make it happen. Trying to make the cut happen is likely to involve using shoulders to drive hips and thus break all the harmonies you seek to achieve. You should have a feeling of trust, trust the sword, trust the technique and it will work, try to override it in anyway and you break the harmonies and make a bad cut. One way you’ll know it’s a bad cut is because you’ll have trouble stopping the sword as there will be too much tension in your shoulders. If you do succeed in stopping it it’s likely it’ll have a characteristic wobble at the end before it comes completely to rest.

That’s it, those are the mysterious Six Harmonies talked of so much in internet discussion forums. Of course the above is only a small taster, there is a great deal more depth to the subject, but it should serve to point out something you might not have realised: Maruyama Sensei teaches this all the time :)