Lulu Hurst and the physics of aikido

I recently read an interesting article in Atlas Obscura, a site which contains many interesting and unusual articles.  This specific article, The Victorian Teenage Girl who Entertained Crowds by Overpowering Men, introduces us to the story of Lulu Hurst.  For a couple of years in the 1880s, she had an act where she used the principle of the lever and the fulcrum to defeat much stronger people.

The reason I find this whole episode as fascinating as I do is not that it is an example of a simple physical principle being dressed in the guise of a seemingly impossible feat of mysterious power, though I do have a great appreciation for that, and for the inability of so much of her audience to recognize or understand the physics of what she was doing.

Rather, it’s because of the applicability of the principle of the lever and the fulcrum to aikido.  I have seen demonstrations which are equally as mysterious as those ascribed to Ms Hurst, and even though I have some experience of aikido at this point, I am not able to reproduce or even to provide a sufficiently good explanation of what is actually going on.  This last point is relevant when I find myself teaching.

There is a tendency among some to ascribe a greater or lesser degree of mysticism to aikido, which is not the direction I want to take.  Rather, we are physical beings operating in a physical universe, and I wish to find the physical explanation of what I’m doing and the effect I’m having on others on the tatami, and the effect they’re having on me.  That’s one reason I find the story of Ms Hurst so fascinating.

It does raise some questions, though.  I wonder for instance how she came to her power.  From what little I’ve read, it seems she taught herself, and I would have loved to hear from her the story of how she started that journey of discovery and her experience of travelling so far along her path.

I’m not claiming that a knowledge of physics is necessary for the understanding of or fluency in aikido.  But I do think that if we pay attention to what we’re doing on the tatami, and in particular the things we’re doing that we don’t need to do and the parts of things that are actually the effective parts of what we’re doing, then we learn a lot about physics.

But the body is a massively complicated mechanical system, the workings of which are often hidden by clothing and the skin, and it’s hard to figure out what’s going on just from experiencing the effect of it.  This is I suspect part of what Ms Hurst used in her act, the difficulty of sufficiently clear observation on the part of the audience to figure her out, along with our not being nearly as attentive as we think we are.

But this week and in future weeks, as I’m either student or teacher on the tatami, I’ll bear Ms Hurst and her act in mind.

~ by Jim Anderson on 23 April 2017.

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