Reach for the center. Reach right through the center. Stay relaxed, keep your eyes open, body unified, and extend through your partner.

I hear myself giving tips like these to students when we do our closing exercise, kokyu dosa. Translated as breath movement or breath exercise, kokyu dosa is an extremely subtle moving partner meditation. It’s about taking our partner’s balance using just our ki, without striving, muscling, checking out, or giving up: all attributes that we’re cultivating in a more overt way during the rest of our time on the mat.

To do this, we much reach for our partner’s very center: a mass of energy that is (usually) undeniably present and must be moved if their balance is going to go. Reaching into that place, one will likely encounter resistance: not from their partner’s fighting, but rather from encountering that true, immovable, grounded part of them. It’s a feeling distinct from stubbornness or push-back. For me, it’s like hitting a membrane of sorts. Hard to define, and everyone’s center has a different quality.

We all have different reactions to this energy. We might try to go around it; try to push through it using our strength; back up, regroup and try again; stay just at its edge not daring to go any further; employ some twisty maneuver to trick our partner into falling over.

None of these strategies work; in fact, we usually find that we sacrifice our own integrity when we attempt stuff like this. As with everything in aikido, the learning gets more and more subtle as we progress.

We are forever doing kokyu dosa with the work that is in front of us, with the things that are calling to us. I know I do, anyway. My writing, for instance—the thing that’s right in front of me, that wants my attention, that needs me to move in much more consistently and powerfully than I’ve been doing. Instead, I’ve been sliding around it by finding anything—anything else to do. Whenever there is a free moment during which I can write, I immediately find another task. Work, chores, online whatnot … stuff that somehow feels productive and yet is false. I’m moving, yes (kind of), but I’m not accomplishing the work of my soul. Even while writing this, if I hit a stuck point I find another place to put my attention for a moment or more: checking email (which I’ve done about 900 times since beginning to write this), walking the dog, looking out the window … My attention is scattered, my being decidedly split. I’m doing anything but reaching for the center. I’m slipping around it.

Recently my Sensei described kokyu dosa as the hardest thing we do in aikido. The challenge is to stay with the movement, with our partner, with the flow, regardless of how stuck we feel. Keeping our energy directed toward and through the center (the task, the work, the growth, the calling), even if it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. Remain focused, relaxed, and committed. Don’t assume this is the wrong art, the wrong dojo, the wrong partner, the wrong anything. Don’t go to a place of “I suck at this” or “this person is a jerk” or whatever we do when we find ourselves in a tough spot.

Reach. Stay unified. Don’t divert. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes open. Stay present. As with much instruction I give, I say this like it’s easy; like it’s something one can just decide to do.

It’s the hardest. I do kokyu dosa with sensei and get shown again and again that my body still has no idea how to take a powerful center. And goodness knows I have a long way to go off the mat. We all do. There’s always an edge.

Mysterious and frustrating as it is, kokyu dosa gives us a felt-sense opportunity to observe our habitual behavior when we’re in the face of something difficult. For instance, I’ve been noticing my tendency of late to strain to the point of near-pain rather than give up, and then when I have zero left to give, surrender dramatically and get knocked over. When the thing to do is relax, relax into that resistance, surrender the outcome, pay greater attention to the feedback I’m getting, not work so hard … all that good and graceful and advanced stuff. I know it’s what I need to do: I’m writing it so clearly part of me understands it. But often, so often, my body does something different. Horribly frustrating. Wonderful learning.

So, in addition to enjoying the delightful bafflement of kokyu dosa (and/or reveling in the fact that you’ve made it through to the end of another tough class), you might challenge yourself to watch—really watch—what it is that your body is doing in response to what’s in front of you. Our entire practice is an opportunity for this but kokyu dosa doesn’t carry with it the technical choreography or ultimate object of throwing your partner. Nobody’s flying at you in an attack; you get to sit there and check out whether you’re sliding away, retreating, fighting, using too much or too little energy, closing down, blaming our partner for being too [fill in the blank] … these are a few of infinite ways our bodies try to deal with confusion and difficulty.

And you might then go a step further and explore how this response translates to the most challenging aspects of your broader life. I know, yeesh. But this is why we do aikido. One can argue that kokyu dosa is kind of the point of it all. The more puzzling something is, the greater the gift.