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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > September, 2005 - Aikido - What It Is and What It Isn't

Aikido - What It Is and What It Isn't by George S. Ledyard


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I took the summer off from my writing responsibilities. What was on my mind concerning Aikido and my own practice seemed far from the interminable discussions about mixed martial arts and Aikido, whether a particular ryu did authentic Aikido as done by O-Sensei (always with the inference that others are not), does Aikido work in a real fight, whether one should or should not hurt an attacker in a street confrontation, etc. So much of theses discussion that takes place concerning Aikido exhibit such a lack of understanding about what the art is that it's almost impossible to engage in discussion without seeming to attack other's most cherished beliefs, resulting in just more conflict and certainly no increased understanding.

I attended the Aiki Expo again this year and had a wonderful time. I came away both hopeful and pessimistic for the future of Aikido. I saw Aikido presented by high level, recognized teachers that bore so little resemblance to what I see as the essence of the art that I hesitate to use the same term to describe what we're doing. This goes beyond just alternative interpretations or styles of Aikido... It's at the point where I have to say that some of what I'm seeing isn't just a different approach but is simply bad Aikido. When there is no aiki, how can an art be called aiki-do?

Toby Threadgill Sensei taught one of the best seminars we've ever hosted this summer at my dojo. It allowed me to gain a view point on exactly how our technique evolved as it moved from martially oriented to spiritually oriented I had extensive exposure to Ushiro Kenji Sensei at Rocky Mountain Summer Camp in August... I also had the chance to talk with Saotome Sensei about what I had noted during this training. At one point I told Saotome Sensei that taking ukemi from him and taking ukemi from Ushiro Sensei "felt" very much the same; that before I ever touched either of them, they had already moved my mind (as in kokoro) and thereby defeated my physical movement. He replied that this was because they were both using aiki; that in his thinking Ushiro Sensei was doing Aikido despite the fact that his art was called Karate and emphasized striking.

Saotome Sensei has always maintained that there are no "styles" in Aikido. There may be different approaches by different teachers but the art itself is infinite and can't be narrowly defined without becoming something less. This led me to evaluate what it is that I think Aikido is and what it is not. I feel that I have been given an incredible gift. I have trained with many of the finest Aikido teachers in the world. Additionally, I have been fortunate enough to also train with and have substantial exposure to some of the top teachers of various other martial traditions, Japanese and non-Japanese. I strongly feel that it is the mission of my generation of teachers to pass on, as widely as possible, as much as we possibly can of what we have been given by our fabulous teachers before it is lost entirely. We are the last generation to have been trained by students of the Founder of the art.

Proper transmission of the art goes far beyond how one holds his hands for application of nikkyo, where on the neck or shoulder one rests ones hand for irimi nage... Those are technical details and often make little or no difference in how the technique actually works. A teacher must be clear about what elements form the essence of the art he teaches. He can then direct the practice of his students towards the acquisition of those particular essentials. As I have struggled to arrive at what I believe are the essentials of our art and develop ways of passing these essentials to my own students, I've come to a few conclusions. I've had to become clear about what I think Aikido is and what it is not. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

First of all, one can't remove the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, from the art and still maintain that the art has anything to do with the art he founded. After WWII a series of decisions were made, for reasons that made sense at the time, to secularize the art to be transmitted to the world as Aikido. Shinto was out of favor at the time, O-Sensei's rather esoteric version of Shinto seemed anachronistic. So when his son, Kisshomaru, published his first book on Aikido in the nineteen fifties its section on the sayings of the Founder contained a hodge-podge of wonderful sounding aphorisms taken completely out of context, stripped of all overt Shinto reference by Kisshomaru, Arikawa Sensei, and other senior instructors at the Aikikai. These sayings went on to become virtually the sole perspective that foreigners had about the philosophical / spiritual underpinnings of this new art.

I think it is crucial that O-Sensei be put back into the Aikido equation. A better understanding of his meta-physical world would go a long way towards disabusing many of the well-meaning but misinformed New Age aikidoka of their overly simplistic and naive interpretation of what the Founder actually believed. This is important because it shapes the direction many people go with their training and what they choose to focus on. The depth of the Founder's spiritual vision must be investigated and disseminated. This isn't just to effect how Aikido develops as a spiritual practice, but also how it develops as an actual martial art. In his article Hidden in Plain Sight appearing on the Aikido Journal website, Ellis Amdur Sensei poses the hypothesis that what separated the giants of the martial arts like Morihei Ueshiba from their later students of more pedestrian ability was their internal practices.

In his lectures The Three Pillars of Aikido, Stan Pranin, talks about how crucially important to the Founder's development was his time at the Omotokyo Headquarters before the sect was purged by the Japanese government. His closest student of the time was his nephew, Inoue Noriaki who went on to teach his own version of the art, Shin'ei Taido. Inoue Sensei was an ardent follower of the Omotokyo and it's practices and principles informed his practice. Interestingly enough, he is considered by many to most resemble the Aikido Founder in his movement and the sophistication of his technique. Could this perhaps be due to the fact the he also participated throughout his life in precisely the same types of internal exercises practiced by the Founder? Amdur Sensei does an amazing job of exploring this topic in his article Hidden in Plain Sight. So I will move on to the other areas I consider to be central to Aikido practice.

To really be considered Aikido, one must be using aiki rather than simply mechanical advantage in ones technique. An art which simply uses efficient mechanical technique is a form of jiu-jutsu but isn't an aiki art. What characterizes aiki is complete relaxation, lack of tension, absence of muscle power. It is the dimension in which the opponent's mind is effected in order to achieve a change in his physical state. Certainly, one could observe that there are direct students of the Founder whose technique does not seem to embody these attributes... I have come to the conclusion, heretical to some I am sure, that these practitioners are simply doing relatively poor Aikido, just as in my own generation of teachers, some have been relatively successful at approaching their teacher's ability, and others stopped short, whether due to lack of ability to attain their teacher's sophistication, or from lack of the deep commitment it takes to make the jump to the highest levels of technique.

Our training methodology often tends to interfere with the kind of relaxation required to allow technique to start functioning on the more energetic plain rather than the physical. Many teachers instill fear in their students, physically hurting, even injuring them. This is done in the name of Budo on the mistaken assumption that since combat is brutal and frightening, practice should be so in order to inure the student to the emotion of fear. This is wrong! It may serve to make the teacher look good by creating an atmosphere in which the students concede to their teacher out of fear but it produces bad martial artists. This process of de-sensitization produces tension rather than releases it. It creates a mindset which focuses on the need to defeat and control rather than accept an attack and allow technique to manifest itself based on how the two persons involved come together.

Rather than immunize the student from fear, this mode of practice internalizes fear. If ones training environment instills fear and causes de-sensitization, when an actual encounter occurs the practitioner will access the very same emotions which his body has learned to associate with the motor skills being utilized. Therefore, it is vitally important that training be done in a progressive fashion which teaches the student how to handle greater and greater incoming energy with increasingly strong intention without causing tension in their minds or their physical technique. Only then can the students discover the functioning of the principles of aiki in their technique. Their body / mind must be retrained to believe that relaxing is the way to be safe when attacked, not by responding with physical tension and fear.

The next aspect I consider to be central to Aikido is that it is a form of Budo. It requires a deep commitment to master. Training should be a life and death matter, not because one is at risk of being killed during training, but more because the student should be conscious that simply by enrolling in the training he has committed to giving his most precious and limited resource, namely, his time to doing Aikido and not some other activity. Every moment spent doing Aikido is a moment spent not spent on your work, not spent with ones family (unless you are lucky), not sailing, playing tennis, practicing the guitar... If one isn't passionate about ones practice, one should quit and find something else to be passionate about. There's little or no benefit to be had from training sporadically, being on the mat half heartedly, making less than a committed effort to master the art. Sure it's possible for someone to like being at the dojo, perhaps the fellow students are great folks to be around, perhaps the teacher is an inspiring character. But no one should be under the misconception that what is being done is anything more than Aikido-Lite.

Whether one is facing an external enemy or ones own demons, preparation for the "live blade encounter" of real personal transformation requires great effort and does not come easily. When practice is merely fun and enjoyable all the time, one isn't pushing ones limits. In an effort to make Aikido accessible to the greatest number of students, much modern Aikido has been eviscerated. No one is forced to face their fears, break through their internal blocks, develop the warrior attitude that is the mark of Budo. Everything becomes about affirming the worth of the student, telling him he's ok no matter what. No one fails their rank tests because that would make people "feel bad". Any level of technical performance on a test will be ok because everybody has different ways of contributing...

This is not Budo. Budo training acknowledges that it is possible to fail and that only by hard work and commitment does one succeed. Being a nice person isn't enough. Nice people die everyday. In fact Budo training is really about the recognition that no amount of training will make us "safe", that we are all going to face our end eventually and we don't control when that will be. So the real goal of Budo training is to help us decide who we want to be during our limited stay in this life. Do we want to face this life like warriors, head on, with strong spirit, committed to leaving things just a bit better than when we arrived, or are we hiding out, pretending we're immortal and that we have all the time in the world, arriving at our end feeling ripped off because we didn't have enough time to do what we wanted.

It is the martial side of Aikido training which forces the individual to come to terms with his own blocks, to face his fears. Feedback is immediate and impartial. The technique that isn't right, doesn't work. Your irimi either works or it doesn't. When it doesn't you know because you got hit. Of course this must be done in accordance with the principles of not injuring and not instilling fear as outlined above. This doesn't mean I suck the life out of the technique by weakening my intention as uke. If I am doing a strike, I strike with 100% commitment to place my hand precisely on the spot where I wish to strike. I do this with all the speed and power which a real strike would have but I adjust the ma-ai in such a way that the focus of my strike is on the surface of the target rather than penetrating deep through the target. Up to the point of contact the attack is full speed and full power. At the moment of physical contact the attack becomes harmless because there is not intention to injure and the space is adjusted so that the physical power is dissipated although the intention to strike is strong.

One can find whole dojos where there is no intention to strike. Ukes merely extend their arms towards their partners "as if" they were striking. Training this way, after the very early Beginner stage, isn't just not beneficial to the practitioners, it is actually detrimental. Uke develops no intention, remains weak in his attacks, has no ability to strike with any power and speed. Nage imprints a completely false set of associations about timing, power, how to blend with an attack, etc. I was at a seminar in which Ikeda Sensei asked the uke to punch him. The uke was unable to get himself to do the strike, despite Ikeda Sensei's repeated requests. Finally, Ikeda Sensei had him sit down without doing any technique on him. There is no technique when there is no attack.

Both people in the Aikido training interaction are doing Aikido. Many people train as if it is only nage that is doing the Aikido and uke is just some moronic attacker whose job it is to initiate an ineffectual attack and then fall down so that nage's technique can succeed. Non-resistance, the hallmark of both uke and nage's technique, is interpreted as a form of collusion to allow nage's technique to succeed no matter how ineffectual. No real learning of any depth can be done in this manner. The intention is false, the physical energy is false, and therefore the technique, no matter how much it resembles an aikido technique, is bogus as well.

The uke's job is to initiate the interaction with a committed attack. If nage's movement makes that attack difficult or impossible, uke moves to align for a better position to launch the attack. If nage effects the balance of the uke, the uke will move to restore that balance and continue the attack or, if that isn't possible will go with the force being applied, looking for an opening to reverse the technique. Even when, as in basic practice, it isn't appropriate to perform a reversal on ones partner, the uke moves as if that were his intention. So the uke either continues his attack or performs a reversal. What neutralizes the attack and prevents a reversal is effective technique on the part of the nage. Uke is expected to move in such a way that he does not increase his own vulnerability at any given moment. He is allowed to defend against an atemi but is not expected to simply stop nage's technique. Stopping a technique is martially invalid. Simply stopping a technique leaves one open to counter attack. A reversal on the other hand places one in a safe place relative to the attacker and represents a correct response to an ineffective technique.

Many people labor under the misconception that in order for an uke to be attacking in a martially valid manner he should be attempting to stop nage's technique. This is wrong. Uke's job is to complete his attack and cover his openings at the same time. If he needs to take a fall in order to protect himself he will. If his balance is broken he will move to recover it. Simply hunkering down and acting as if some great attack has taken place is silly. The non-resistant aspect of ukemi is designed to train the uke in precisely the skills it takes to set up a reversal. A good uke will not reveal that he is going to do a reversal until the instant that he performs that reversal itself. So he needs to be completely relaxed and flowing until the instant when he changes the direction of the energy and becomes the center of the technique.

My next essential principle of Aikido is that it is not fundamentally an empty hand art. The discussions comparing the fighting effectiveness of mixed martial arts like Brazilian Jiu-jutsu show that even practitioners of Aikido misunderstand the nature of our art. The derivation of Aikido technique comes from techniques used by the Samurai as part of their defensive systems which assume that both partners are armed. The whole logic behind the types of attacks we use (heavy on grabs to neutralize drawing a weapon), pins which are more temporary neutralizations rather than submission techniques (allowing one to access a backup weapon and finish the attacker), the lack of ground fighting technique (great for single attackers but disastrous in a multiple attacker situation when a second attacker can finish you off as you "submit" the first) all derive from a system that assumes both parties are armed and that there are probably more than one attacker.

As I have pointed out before, the mixed martial arts are sport. They are not combat. The fact that such a huge emphasis is placed on developing tremendous physical strength and such a strong requirement exists for a competitor to be able to absorb physical punishment and keep fighting indicates that we are not talking about an armed system in which a completely different body type and mindset would be optimal. Give the two opponents knives and bench pressing three hundred plus pounds would be no advantage. The ability to absorb punishment in the form of blows means nothing when an artery is cut. Knife fighters need to move fluidly and evasively. Being over aggressive just gets one killed quickly. Mixed martial arts is by and large single combat sport fighting. Aikido is much closer to an actual combat art in its essential logic although there is much in the practice that is simply not geared for fighting at all.

Weapons training is important in developing a deep understanding of Aikido. As I stated above, the logic of Aikido interaction assumes an armed attacker and an armed defender. That doesn't mean that technique cannot be applied in an empty hand situation but the conventions of movement and positioning really only make sense if one assumes weapons are a factor. In the 1930's O-Sensei adopted Nakakura Kiyoshi and designated him as his successor. Nakakura Sensei was one of the giants of modern kendo. When asked why he had picked Nakakura to succeed him, O-Sensei stated that Kendo was closer to Aikido than Judo. I wonder how many Aikido students would say the same thing. If one looks at the example set by the Founder during his lifetime, one sees that his own martial investigations focused largely on weapons after the early years of his training. Virtually all of his empty hand training in jiu-jutsu and aiki jujutsu took place towards the beginning of his career. As he continued developing his art he continually went out of his way to get exposure to different weapons systems. He trained with yari, juken, and ken. We know he had exposure to the techniques of Kashima Ryu kenjutsu although he held no license and simply used the techniques within an Aikido context rather than mastering them in their proper Kashima context.

Saotome Sensei told us that whenever he asked O-Sensei a question about technique he was, more often than not, inclined to grab a bokken and demonstrate what he meant from a sword perspective. This is the way he envisioned what he did, yet we find that in much of Aikido, weapons training is either absent or only slightly emphasized. Yet if one looks at the uchi deshi of the Founder, the real standouts were the ones who had extensive exposure to weapons work. Shirata, Hikitsuchi, and Mochizuki Senseis all had sword backgrounds and knew how to handle a blade. Tohei Sensei had extensive training with the jo. Of course Saito Sensei did more to systematize the weapons work of the Founder than anyone and was known for his emphasis on weapons training. Of the post war deshi one can see the effects of extensive sword training in the Aikido of Saotome, Imaizumi, Chiba, Tanemura, Nishio, Kanai, and so on. If you compare the techniques of the uchi deshi who had significant weapons training with those of the deshi who did not, one can clearly see that overall the students with a weapons background move in a way that is sharper and more precise than those that lacked this exposure.

The amount of physical injury in Aikido is unnecessary. When I look at most of my peers in Aikido, those who have been in for thirty years or more, I see a group of folks whose bodies are worn out. Very few can take ukemi any more due to knee, neck, back, or shoulder problems. I compared this to the folks I knew from various other arts like aikijutsu, kenjutsu, even Systema (a non-Japanese aiki tradition). Their senior practitioners were almost all in better condition than their peers in Aikido who were mostly damaged to some extent or another.

Some of this is caused by abusive and just plain incorrect notions that it is somehow part of ones training to be injured by ones teacher. A senior Aikido teacher was heard at the Aiki Expo explaining that one didn't injure ones students out of any kind of malice or ill will but rather out of love for them. This is the kind of dysfunctional thinking that abusive family members use to justify their actions. Abusive teachers develop abusive students. As this area has been explored extensively by Ellis Amdur Sensei in his book, Dueling With O-Sensei, I won't go into it further. Suffice it to say that, if you are training where the teacher regularly hurts his students, run away, run away!

The real cause for injury in Aikido is two fold. First, is the mistaken idea that uke should resist nage's technique if one is being "martial". Actually, aside from being martially incorrect, as we discussed earlier, the resistance puts incredible stress on the body. The back especially takes huge stress when an uke who has generated a large amount of force via his attack, tries to stop his partner from executing his technique. Resisting, as opposed to reversing, a technique causes the energy of the technique to be caught in the body rather than being dissipated through ones movement. This also true when someone studies one of the more physical Aikido styles. There is quite a bit of Aikido around which can only really be done by muscular students of large bone structure. Attempts to do these styles by people of smaller stature result in far too much stress on their bodies, especially their backs. So resistance is incorrect martially and unhealthy to boot.

The second cause for the deterioration of the physical health of many Aikido students comes from the continued heavy impact of taking hard ukemi for many years. I believe that this is completely unnecessary and derives from the fundamental misconception that throwing hard has something to do with being "martial". Actually, it is largely atemi waza that makes technique martial or effective from a fighting standpoint. In a fight, large throwing techniques are counter productive. They allow an attacker to disengage and then re-engage thereby renewing his attack. In a real fight a throw is designed to take the opponent straight down into a position in which the defender can apply a pin or immobilization and deploy a finishing blow (with or without a weapon) to finish the encounter decisively. The fighting versions of many techniques are merely setups to apply atemi waza to the attacker's vital points. They are not throws at all in actuality although we practice them as such most of the time.

As I work on developing less physical technique and move towards the energetic, I don't find myself throwing hard at all, normally. Instead, I apply a technique which effects kuzushi on the partner, placing him in an untenable position in which I can strike him at will and he cannot effectively stop me. In training he responds by vacating the space and taking a roll. In a real fight against an untrained attacker, the technique would largely be a variety of atemi waza followed by a takedown designed to place the attacker at a tactical disadvantage where more strikes could be applied to finish off the attacker, or a pin applied to end the confrontation without the need to further injure the him.

It is positioning and the proper use of atemi which makes technique "martially effective" not throwing the attacker hard. Training in this manner develops the sense on the part of the uke that ukemi is defensive, designed to remove him from space which is already controlled by the defender. It also encourages the nage to stay relaxed throughout his technique in order to be ready at any instant to apply atemi waza or defend against atemi from the attacker. Attempting to artificially throw hard simply introduces tension into the movement of the defender and should be avoided. If one trains in this fashion the number of bone jarring, healthy deteriorating falls taken by uke is very small. It is both martially effective and far more healthy to train this way.

The best Aikido in the world is being done outside of Japan. As the older generation of the uchi deshi are rapidly passing away they are not being replaced by teachers of anything like their stature. The Aikikai Honbu dojo is systematically promulgating a form of Aikido from which virtually all of the aforementioned elements are absent. Many of the teachers who are attempting to carry on the tradition as handed down by the Founder and the senior postwar deshi find that their most experienced and serious students are over-seas, whether in France, Europe in general, Brazil, or the United States. Many of the finest post-war teachers like Tamura, Chiba, and Saotome Senseis have never returned to Japan to teach and the Aikido in their homeland bears little resemblance to what they have been teaching to their own foreign students.

These ideas about Aikido are my own, of course. I am sure that there are folks out there who disagree with at something I've said and some who disagree with almost everything I've said. Be that as it may... these are the guiding principles I amusing to train my students and those that attend any seminars I conduct. I judge my own ideas by their results. So far in this big experiment I am very happy with the results. I have a number of students who are well beyond in their skills compared to where I was when I had trained an equivalent amount of time. Only time will tell.


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