Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meditations on Aikido

I've got Aikido on the brain.  Here's some of my opinions on this fascinating art.


My last post touched upon the effectiveness of Aikido.  I’ve always been a fan of good Aikido and it’s been a significant influence on my own martial journey.  In many ways, the early movies of Steven Seagal kicked off my fascination with this type of art, and in no small way helped lead me to my now two-decade study of Jiu Jitsu.

Each time I post on Aikido, I invariably come across great videos of Aikido in action.  I also come across some not-so-great examples.

In many ways, I believe Aikido is one of the least understood arts out there. 

Morihei Ueshiba founded this style as part martial art, part philosophy on life.  More accurately, it was his vision of peace and harmony that contained martial elements. 

I am speaking in general terms, as I am in no way an expert on the art and its history.  I am, after all, first and foremost a student of Jiu Jitsu.  Having said that, it can be argued that Aikido came from Jiu Jitsu.  Morihei Ueshiba was a student of many martial arts, notably Aiki Jiu Jitsu, or Jiu Jitsu (personally I see these two titles as interchangeable), before he founded Aikido.

If you accept or agree that Aikido is as much a belief system, or philosophy on living and harmony as it is on a combat skill, there’s little wonder why the quality and nature of its instruction can vary so greatly.

From my perspective, no matter how noble one’s motivations are in a martial art, there still needs to be an understanding that you are learning how to engage in combat.  Even if your ultimate goal is to avoid conflict or violence (which it should be), you are gaining the fighting ability and skills to build the confidence to walk/get away. 

To my mind, it is very much a case of “Si Vis pacem, para bellum” – If you wish for peace, prepare for war

My major issue with the state of Aikido today?

A lack of understanding of the combat applications of the techniques.

Aikido, being a system based on the concepts of peace and harmony, a system in which many techniques are designed to ‘not’ injure your opponent (or to minimize injury) can be quite challenging.

Where I think some of the problems lie is with an incomplete knowledge base of techniques that actually cause damage and injury.  As I mentioned, Morihei Ueshiba was a student of Jiu Jitsu long before he founded Aikido.  He knew lots and lots of nasty techniques capable of causing extreme injury.  From this knowledge base, he worked on moderating, or adapting his techniques to be more in line with his belief system. 

I once heard Aikido described as Jiu Jitsu with all the nasty stuff taken out.  While not completely accurate (there’s still lots of nasty stuff in Aikido), it does have a kernel of truth.

A while back, I discussed the paradox of the martial arts and how in order to keep what is useful and discard what is not (a central component of Bruce Lee’s philosophy on martial arts); you first have to properly learn the technique before throwing it away.  If you only have a partial understanding of a technique in the first place, how can you know if it’s of value or not?  So you have to learn it before you can un-learn it.  Read the original post here for more details.

My theory, [once again, these are based on the general trends I have seen and don’t apply to all schools and teachers], is that the original knowledge base or understanding of the ‘original’ techniques from which much of Aikido has been based or adjusted/adapted from is not robust enough.  Some have even forgotten that atemi, or disruptive strikes were very much a part of Aikido.

The less injurious techniques of Aikido are very much a choice of the practitioner when applied.  The skilled student of Aikido chooses not to hurt their opponent, but this is not to suggest that they couldn’t. 

This is an important point to consider and an area that I suspect may be part of the problems that I see.

If you never learn the ‘nastier’ stuff, it is more challenging to fully understand how and what it is that you are doing.  I’d far rather know how to do more damage and then choose to do less than be unsure what options were available if the situation forced me to consider a more severe response. 

This applies to all combat arts, by the way, not just Aikido.

So, if a teacher lacks the depth of knowledge, so too will the student suffer.

As for students, who is attracted to Aikido?  Could the type of person who is drawn to Aikido play a role in the understanding and application of effective technique?

People are drawn to Aikido for a variety or reasons.  Some are drawn to it more for the technique and some more for the philosophical aspects.  For most, it is a combination of both.  Either way it is a worthwhile pursuit.

I would suggest that the motivation of the student directly affects the combat effectiveness of the techniques.  Not every student, or teacher for that matter, wishes to learn the dark side of Aikido, focusing far more on the intrinsic value of the “way of harmony”. 

I’m ok with that, but it can water down an art into a far less effective option for dealing with real violence. 

Ideally, you should be striving for both harmony and martial skill.  One without the other compromises the study of this fascinating art.  Aikido is a martial art of contrast.  It is this very contrast which makes me such a fan. 

When you find a teacher who has the knowledge of the nasty but the mindset of the peaceful warrior, you get something very special indeed.


  1. You make some very good points. I particularly like your 'if you wish for peach, prepare for war.' You are seriously keen on your stone fruit.

    You make a good chicken-egg point in that the people who are attracted to the art then may tend to shape it.

    I see aikido, like jujutsu, as being a generic term to refer to disparate activities. There is the harder aikido and the more philisophically inclinded aikido. To talk of aikido as a homogenous activity can, now, be a little misleading.

    It is interesting to note that Mochizuki, the founder of Yoseikan aikido, did not consider aikido to be an effective fighting method. I won't be drawn into the argument, but this legendary authorities opinion is interesting if nothing else.

  2. John,

    Thank you. I agree that a simple label of just Aikido or Jiu Jitsu is too limiting. Students, teachers, interpretation, focus, attitude, and philosophy all change the look and feel of a particular style. Of course, there should be certain themes or central ideas and techniques common across schools, but their instruction and application vary greatly.

    That's interesting about Mochizuki's opinion, but it certainly is an interesting position on Aikido. I'd be curious to see if his stance (no pun intended) was because he felt Aikido was ineffective or if it was because it is meant as a way of peace, of 'not fighting'. I guess I have some homework to do there.

  3. To throw my own two cents into the pot, is it possible that those who espouse aikido as having little to no combat value have not learned the lessons the art has to teach? Keep in mind, Ueshiba was a serious artist during years when travelling through rough country required obscene luck or a strong martial background. I think it is safe to say originally aikido was not an art for harmony alone.

  4. Very informative post.

    You make the distinction that one must understand a technique fully before they can decide whether it is useful or not. I agree with this, but it does present us with a problem: one may have to practice every technique 10's of thousands of times before they really understand it and, regrettably, our lifetimes just aren't long enough.

    This, I suppose, is why the arts are passed down the generations, but then I run the risk of throwing away a technique that wasn't useful to me (due to size/strength/injuries/other limitations) but would be perfectly suited for someone else.

  5. Yamabushi,

    You make a good point. Ueshiba was a force to be reckoned with. Having said that, he studied Jiu Jitsu (and other arts) before he founded Aikido. There are definitely combative elements and influences that remain in Aikido today, if you know where to look.

    Strongest Karate,

    It is problematic. Perhaps mastery should not be our goal, just a deeper understanding. Too often I see martial artists throw away a technique without exploring it at all. It's far too easy for some to toss a technique in the trash because it's hard or they feel awkward doing it, all under the guise of being a 'smarter' artist who knows what's worthy of their time. You make a good point about putting some faith in your teachers and the art itself. I look at my own style with a critical eye, yet I realize I am far from knowing exactly what techniques will end up permanent tools in my toolbox as time goes on. I have learned a few techniques that, at the time, I thought were of little value. Years later, some of those very same techniques are now my 'go to' techniques. Sankyo comes to mind.

    As a teacher, it's a tricky thing to introduce a technique that doesn't work for you, but might for your students. This is a strong argument in favor of 'traditional' styles of marital arts. Much can be lost if you only teach what you like, or what works for you.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion. Great points, all.

  6. For anyone who noticed the typo I had in my post, thanks for not making too much fun. "If you wish for peach, prepare for war" Peach? Or apples, I guess.

  7. Im no expert, but I believe you just made an excellent point. You certainly fully understand what youre speaking about, and I can truly get behind that. aikido dojo