Aikido: A Brief Field-Guide to its Flora and Fauna by Ross Robertson
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Aikido is a discipline that encompasses a great variety of principles,
techniques, and cultural transmissions. It affords the opportunity to
experience many different forms of learning, assimilating, and transferring the
knowledge and wisdom specific to this great art. To give some idea of the
richness of aikido training, I have attempted to compile a list of many of the
various topics that a student might encounter along their journey.
Of course, no such list should claim to be comprehensive, but the following
compendium should serve as an adequate indication of the breadth of the
subject. Similarly, it is to be doubted that any one student will gain real
mastery in all of the areas listed, or for that matter, even have any real
exposure to every single one. Different groups will naturally emphasize some
areas over others, and choose to omit entirely still others. However, it should
be remembered that aikido is a holistic discipline. Any one area of practice
inevitably informs all other areas, and so the omission of some is hardly to be
seen as a shortcoming. Concentration on even a few of the major categories is
generally accepted as the work (and joy) of a lifetime. As a friend of mine once
commented, "aikido is a deep, deep well."
There is no real significance to the order of this list, although I have made
some attempt to follow the sequence in which a student might encounter the
various areas. On one level, the areas are listed in the order that they might
appear in a typical class setting; on another, they may indicate subjects likely
to be encountered, if at all, later in one's overall development. Inasmuch as
this is necessarily artificial, it should not be taken too seriously.
Etiquette and Apparel
Each dojo will have its own set of traditions which function, in part, to provide
students with a sense of belonging and an understanding of appropriate
behavior within that group. Often a source of misunderstanding when different
groups meet, an awareness of both politeness and formality (they are not the
same) will provide the student with a greater ability to harmonize within a
broad range of aikido practice.
As with etiquette, how we clothe ourselves in the dojo (practice hall) transmits
certain traditions of the particular system within which we are working. Some
dojo will favor a system of colored-belts for ranking, others will not. The
hakama (traditional skirt-like pants) also is a great item for discussion. When
it is to be worn and by whom, and what are its origins and significance are
questions which are answered differently by different groups.
The study of breath, or kokyu, is vital to an understanding of aikido technique
and philosophy. There are a number of different breathing exercises relating to
health, relaxation, and meditation. Yet even without these, an awareness of
the relationship between breath and performance is an important part of
Most dojos have some sort of a stretching routine near the beginning of class
as part of the warm-up exercises, and frequently at the end of class for the
purpose of cooling down. In addition to preparing the body for the strenuous
treatment received during practice, the flexibility gained through stretching has
a number of health benefits. However, if practiced improperly, the stretches will
be ineffective at best, and quite harmful at worst.
Aiki-taiso, or "blending energy body art," are a set of movement exercises that
are often included as part of the warm-up routine for class. Although not katas
per se, these movements do serve the purpose of allowing the student to
practice some of the most basic of aikido movements. When executed during
actual tai-jutsu (empty-hand defense arts) practice, the aiki-taiso are generally
the components which will make up the form and convey the essence of any
Centering Exercises, Ki Development
Developing a strong and relaxed center of power in the hips and allowing that
power (ki) to circulate through the body and into the world around us is one of
the primary benefits of aikido practice. Some instructors feel that these
faculties of centeredness and ki-extension can and should develop naturally on
their own through the course of regular training. Others prefer to devote class
time to explicitly study and practice techniques for strengthening the hara
(center) and flow of ki.
Principles of Aikido
Robert Fripp once wrote that "music is the cup that holds the wine of silence."
Aikido has (or perhaps is) a kind of music of its own, with all of the elements
of rhythm, melody, and of course, harmony. These combine into the various
structures that can be manifested as techniques. However, like Fripp's wine
cup analogy, these structures are themselves empty vessels unless they contain
the vital spirits. Although these essences are themselves formless, we describe
them with a set of axioms which express something of their nature. A few wellknown
examples are "True victory is victory over one's self (masakatsu agatsu),"
"Return to basics (shoshin ni kaeru, or 'first mind'), and all of the implicit
principles governing such ideas as ki, oneness, circularity, our relationship
with gravity, and many others. Being universals, these principles are as
relevant to the student who is only interested in defending against an armed
assailant as they are to one who is solely concerned with personal
Ukemi (falling) and Shiko
Much of aikido is learned not only from defending against an attacker, but
from giving the attack and learning to harmonize with the ground at the
conclusion of a technique. Whether the gentle forward and backward shoulder
rolls or the more spectacular break-falls, taking ukemi safely is one of the first
and most important disciplines introduced to beginners. Many different
exercises have been developed for students at all levels to practice this skill.
Shiko, or knee-walking (Samurai-walking or duck-walking) also brings us close
to the ground and gives us an effective balance between stability and mobility
when moving from a sitting (seiza) position. It also teaches to move from our
hips, thereby empowering all of our actions.
Usually done in paired-partner practice, these movements are often dance-like
in their execution. They are done to facilitate harmony between two or more
moving bodies. Additionally these exercises teach nage techniques for leading,
while uke learns to follow nage with focus and commitment. Both learn how
interchangeable these roles are. Possibly the most well-known example would
be the katate-dori tenkan exercise, in which a circular blend is employed in
response to a wrist grab. Another example is ude furi choyaku undo practiced by
two people facing each other and revolving around a common center.
Before we can deal effectively with throwing or restraining, it is first necessary
to be assured of our own freedom from harm and control by others.
Maintaining this sense of freedom is vital to achieving the confidence required
when leading hostile or chaotic energies directed toward us. By becoming adept
at extricating ourselves from the various grabs, holds, and restraining type of
attacks without attempting to control uke, we reinforce the idea that all forms
of meaningful control come from self-control.
Extending this idea of the primacy of personal freedom (see above paragraph),
we learn a set of evasions from the more dynamic type of attacks (usually
strikes and punches). Tai sabaki, or body change, is the art of getting off the
line of force in the most economical manner while still maintaining balance,
focus. and range of effectiveness.
This is the category of all empty-handed aikido defense techniques that involve
unbalancing, throwing, and/or restraining an opponent. Typically, most of any
given practice session (keiko) will focus primarily on tai-jutsu. A set of
techniques which are virtually without limit, these arts embody the whole of
aikido in their movements and attitudes required for the successful
harmonizing of forces.
Jiyu-waza allows us to practice our tai-jutsu in more of a free-form style, but
still within some constraints. Generally, an attack is specified and one or more
uke deliver the attack while nage is given the freedom to respond with any of
the tai-jutsu in their personal repertoire, or to extemporize in a way that may
take nage beyond what s/he believes s/he knows. In the case of multiple
attackers, they are expected to keep the attacks flowing continuously but
usually do not attack simultaneously. There can be many variations on this
style of practice that are not limited to the examples given here.
Randori literally means "taking chaos." In aikido, it refers to the art of handling
multiple attackers coming simultaneously from all directions. Although there
still may be some constraints imposed on the type of attack or response,
randori picks up where jiyu-waza leaves off and usually extends the amount of
liberty given to both uke and nage. Within the confines of safety
considerations, jiyu-waza and randori allow the student to experience and
attempt to manage some of the unpredictability of an actual physical
With the strictly defined roles of uke and nage that are prevalent in aikido, the
practice of kumite, or hand-to-hand sparing, is seldom practiced in most dojo.
However, the more nage is allowed free use of atemi (strikes) and uke the use of
kaeshi waza (see below) in a one-on-one jiyu-waza session, the more blurred the
uke/nage distinction becomes. When practiced by or at least supervised by
experienced aikidoka who have an understanding of the hazards of such
practice, kumite can take its place with jiyu-waza and randori in extending the
measure of realism in training.
Hanmi Handachi Waza
In this form of taijutsu training, uke attacks as usual but nage defends from
seiza position and moves using Shiko (see above). In traditional Japan, where
seiza was such a prevalent posture, the warrior would have to be ready to
defend at all times and could not afford to waste the time required to jump to
one's feet. Nor has this form of training lost its relevance in modern practice.
In addition to the regular benefits of Shiko practice mentioned earlier, students
gain a greater sense of economy of movement by learning to defend from seiza.
In addition, hanmi handachi waza enables taller aikidoka to experience both
the advantages and difficulties that their shorter counterparts face.
Suwari waza places both uke and nage in seiza and all taijutsu is performed
with shiko. Again, movement is constrained somewhat requiring both partners
to keep their actions concise and to the point while at the same time
developing a stable center. As for learning to move from the hips, a gifted
teacher and friend of mine observed that shiko-related techniques increase the
odds from three-to-one to two-to-one that you will move from your hips: when
standing you can try to move from your shoulders, your hips, or your feet;
when sitting you can only move from your shoulders or from your hips.
Kokyu dosa is a special instance of suwari waza type practice rightfully given
its own category. With both partners seated in seiza directly facing one
another, uke grabs both of nage's wrists (ryotedori) and either extends force
directly into nage or else maintains an attitude of immovability. Since nage
may not employ tai sabaki to get off the line of force (in which case it would
become ordinary suwari waza), a more subtle means of harmonizing must be
employed in order to unbalance uke. This is accomplished by utilizing our
kokyu (life breath or vital spirit) which gives us the resolve necessary to
reconcile even head-on conflicts.
Katame Waza, or Ude-Osae
This is the art of restraining an adversary by using arm pins. While nage waza
(throwing technique) is certainly valuable, it does not in-and-of itself always
restore equilibrium to a conflict situation. To stop an attacker with throws
only, we may have to be prepared to inflict severe damage. Restraining
techniques allow us alternatives to the use of harmful or deadly force. In daily
life we can use the principles of katame waza in negotiations. On one level, an
adversary could be maneuvered in such a way that submission is their only
choice. On a more aiki level, katame waza could be thought of as simply "tyingup"
the details remaining in a successful win-win negotiation. The same
movements which can be used to dominate and restrain an unruly individual
can also be used as very effective stretching technique useful during massage.
Aikido is the medium in which martial skill is directed toward healing.
Occasionally nage will begin a particular technique and then discover that a
different approach would be more appropriate. Perhaps uke has resisted the
initial attempt by nage, or else nage's primary execution was flawed. In either
case, the path of harmony leads away from forcing the issue and towards
flowing with the immediate developments. Henka-waza is the art of changing
in accord with a change of circumstance.
As with henka-waza, kaeshi-waza introduces secondary techniques into the
execution of our tai jutsu. Unlike henka waza, kaeshi is done by uke to
counter the technique attempted by nage. Kaeshi waza can serve as a teaching
tool that we can use as to point out weaknesses in nage's technique. Kaeshi
waza also helps to remind us also that no single aikido defense is completely
We train with weapons in aikido for many reasons. There is a strong historical
connection between aikido and the Japanese sword and most aiki tai-jutsu are
in fact derived from sword arts. Also, training with weapons can exaggerate our
mistakes so they become more visible. In addition, we must be familiar with
weapons as part of a self-defense system in order to understand them and be
prepared should they be used against us. Suburi is the art of cutting with the
sword. Practiced without a partner, it can be a form of meditation and is often
regarded as misogi (see below) in that the sword represents the mind and the
will and as such must be used to cut away that which is impure. Training in
this manner is also appropriate with the jo (short staff). Related practice
includes tanren uchi, which involves cutting or striking objects rather than
simply cutting through empty air.
Jo, Tachi, and Tanto Dori
These are the arts of disarming an opponent. Facing an armed assailant helps
us to overcome our fear of such situations while maintaining an appropriate
level of respect for the dangers of such situations. We are required more than
ever to employ a holistic vision of the situation and not be trapped into
focusing on that which is most threatening to us. Instead, we must see the
threat as a part of a larger pattern and understand that a weapon is only the
tip of the force that we face. However, taking the weapon from an attacker is
usually sufficient to take the sting out of the attack, since most people allow
their center to get caught up in their tools and can be easily led through them.
Jo and Ken Nage
Practicing throwing with a staff or sword gives us a clear instance in which we
may explore the principle of katsu-jin ken, or sword which preserves life. The
employment of weapons requires all responsible beings to learn restraint and
wisdom in the use of force. Also, since most aiki waza were derived from sword
movements, jo and ken nage inform our empty-handed arts and make clear
certain lines of force and geometries that are otherwise not as apparent.
Finally, we learn to blend with our partners using these tools as the point of
contact. To do this well requires that we first become one with our implements.
The old Zen description of the ideal man who "holds the hoe but his hands are
empty" hints at this idea.
Jo and Ken Kata, Jo and Kengi
Although aikido is sometimes called "the formless form," it does in fact include
a number of pre-defined movements, or kata. The jo and bokken kata contain
prescribed series of movements which flow naturally from one motion to the
next. This fluidity is necessary when joining single movements together so that
there are no "holes' in the form, that is, points at which there is hesitation
and uncertainty leading to vulnerability (suki). Seidokan aikido calls these
movements "jogi" and "kengi" rather than kata. The founder of Seidokan, Rod
Kobayashi Sensei, believes that "kata" implies only an empty form, and that we
must practice each movement with fullness of purpose and intent, thereby
going beyond mere form.
It is also useful to practice set forms with a partner who has a prescribed
reciprocal role to play. Kumi-jo (jo paired practice) and kumi-tachi (bokken
paired practice) are choreographed confrontations between two people armed
with their respective weapons. Working in such close proximity to a whirling jo
or bokken develops calmness in action and heightens the ability to perceive
and direct the flow of forces (ki). The fact that these are prescribed movements
increases the safety factor so that control and precision can be realistically
Jo and Ken Awase
Essentially done in the same spirit as the kumi practice, these exercises
explore the relationship between sword and staff when set against each other.
Atemi is a strike performed in aikido taijutsu by nage on uke. Generally the
primary purpose is to distract the attacker in order to allow nage the necessary
advantage. Usually, inflicting damage is of secondary or no importance. A
strike toward the face need not even make contact in order to effectively
distract the opponent. However, atemi waza does include a wide range of
applied force, from striking without touching to striking vital points with the
intent of causing unconsciousness. Knowing the different effects that a strike
can have on the various parts of the body can enhance one's technique and
promote safer defense arts. For example, knowing a lethal strike from a merely
incapacitating one may give you the option to preserve life in a physical
confrontation. Otherwise, you may find yourself using lethal force without the
knowledge that you are doing so. Similarly, this knowledge can also serve to
help distinguish a real threat from a lessor one.
Ukemi (giving the attack)
Much of aikido is in-depth learning about giving and receiving. Most of us are
naturals at taking, and our practice usually represents this bias inasmuch as
we tend to emphasize the roll of nage, the one who takes the attack or gift of
ki. Nor does this seem unusual: we have come to aikido to learn self-defense
and self-development according to aiki principles. In uke's roll as aggressor,
s/he seemingly steps out of harmony in order to simulate a situation wherein
nage may develop. However, it is exactly this temporary side-step of one's own
agenda to help another that facilitates a great deal of one's growth within the
discipline. Although we must protect ourselves by correct falling, our actions as
uke tend to be less self-centered than as nage. Thus we learn to center
ourselves without becoming self-absorbed. Moreover, the awareness and
sensitivity required to be a good uke lead us to greater blending abilities. A
good uke must be able to give good attacks without sacrificing their own safety,
while providing the maximum challenge suitable for each individual nage's
level. Accordingly, it is often said that one learns more aikido as uke than as
Although choking techniques are more often thought of in connection with
judo, aikido students can benefit from having at least a working knowledge of
this skill. Not only does this increase awareness of how to deal with defending
against chokes, it can be added to one's repertoire of non-injurious techniques
for subduing an opponent. However, choking practice is often avoided because
of the inherent danger of misuse. Chokes can easily kill or cause permanent
damage and so should only be practiced under experienced supervision.
Kata, Tai Gi
Although most schools of aikido do not generally include empty-handed kata,
there are some exceptions. Kata allow students to work on set forms without a
partner, thus expanding the opportunity for practice. Students of aikido who
do not normally do kata may be surprised when attempting to execute a
technique without a partner. They may find that their point of balance has
changed dramatically because they had unknowingly been leaning on their
opponent at various points in the maneuver. Kata are therefore one way of
helping students to return to working from the center.
Tai gi are two-person kata developed by Koichi Tohei Sensei. A prescribed set of
techniques are performed in succession in a predetermined time range. This
facilitates smooth transitions between techniques and requires a heightened
awareness of the proper pacing of one's movements.
Again, this is an area not generally considered to be within the purview of
mainstream aikido. And yet, yonkyo (wrist/arm technique #4) is frequently
discussed in association with a particular pressure point on the forearm.
Similarly, there is a point on the inside of the lower leg to which a yonkyo-like
technique can be applied. Therefore, pressure points cannot be entirely
dismissed and indeed, some dojos incorporate a great deal of pressure-point
study into their curriculum. Knowledge of pressure-points increase one's
awareness of the connections within the body and provides for a more precise
type of manipulation of an opponent. Furthermore, there are many healing
applications associated with these points. However, some are more vulnerable
than others and may have unexpected consequences from improper treatment.
This is an area that should be practiced only under proper guidance.
Although some are quick to point out O'Sensei's prohibition against
competition, there exists nonetheless a large population of aikido students
whose particular styles have found value in incorporating contests into their
discipline. As long as concerns for safety and harmony can successfully be
addressed, then competition can give the student another opportunity for
receiving valuable feedback. Both the outcome of the contest and the opinions
of the judges may offer insights about one's performance that may be difficult
to obtain in other ways.
Also known as kiatsu-ho or aiki-ryoho, aiki-revitalization therapy is a means of
extending ki into an individual for healing and rejuvenation purposes. This is
very useful in training inasmuch as minor injuries can receive immediate
attention to lessen or counteract damage. Like shiatsu, the Japanese form of
deep massage, aiki-therapy applies deep pressure from the finger and thumbtips
into or around the treatment area. Aiki-massage differs from shiatsu in
that the latter utilizes pressure-points much more extensively.
Many of the aiki-waza arts lend themselves to paired-stretching exercises. For
example, tenchi-nage or sayu-nage can be applied as usual, but rather than
throwing uke to the ground, nage stops at the appropriate midway point and
supports uke into a back-bend. This practice is a wonderful way to make
manifest the fact that aikido is fundamentally a healing art. The very same
techniques which are used for defense purposes can be easily utilized for health
While aikido seminars can include a variety of any of the categories we are
discussing, the seminar itself is a special event deserving some mention. A
weekend or perhaps week of intensive practice with an instructor, usually an
invited guest-lecturer provides for a concentrated experience that often can lift
the student beyond their habitual limitations.
Purification practices are a part of most aikido schools. Breathing exercises
(see above) fall under this heading, as does chanting (misogi barai). There are
many other forms of misogi training, some of which are done at specific times
of the year. Some examples include immersion in icy water on a winter day,
running barefoot in the snow, meditation beneath a waterfall, or simply a
higher level of intensity added to regular practice. It has been said that misogi
is the final aim of all aikido practice.
The need to seek appropriate ways of teaching aikido to children has led many
instructors to seek out or invent games which exemplify the aiki spirit.
Although there is as yet no specific "tradition" in this area, a great deal of
enthusiasm and discussion concerning this developing field has already
emerged. Some have discovered that the games are appropriate for adult
practice as well. Games are an excellent way of taking the students' minds off
of the serious side of practice for a while. Not only does this open up some
space for freer movements and creative thinking, but it offers a vehicle for
developing a greater rapport among students.
A great deal of information and knowledge in aikido is transmitted mouth to
ear. This is by no means limited to the lectures that a sensei will occasionally
give, but includes any form of verbal exchange by anyone within the discipline
who wishes to discuss any aspect of the art. Students of aikido seem to love to
trade stories and personal anecdotes with each other and will often stand
around discussing aikido and related issues long after practice has officially
ended. When the rare opportunity to catch a high-ranking sensei in an
informal setting and in a talkative mood presents itself, a treasure-trove of
aikido's history and philosophy can often be discovered. While many teachers
adopt a strict "Don't talk, just do" attitude, others feel that immersion in the
oral tradition provides fertile ground for a student's gestation during the time
spent off the mat.
As with the oral tradition in aikido, the student can supplement training with
reading books, magazine articles, partaking in internet discussions, watching
videotapes, and endless other possibilities. The domain of inquiry can extend
well beyond aikido to include other martial arts, Japanese culture and history,
and various spiritual traditions. Certainly no one has ever learned effective
technique by simply reading a book, but acquiring a more global knowledge will
definitely augment one's perspective on the diverse terrain which surrounds the
Rank and Testing
Regardless of the relative importance one places on such notions as progress,
achievement, hierarchy and rank, it is a certainty that the presence or absence
of testing and rank does affect the nature of the aiki experience. A ranking
system can provide an index of skill levels and/or seniority among students,
but it can also mislead if the student expects the system to refer to any sort of
absolute values. Rather, testing is usually applied to students with a respect
for their individual capabilities and limitations, and adherence to exterior
standards are of secondary importance. The test itself provides an opportunity
for the examinee to intensify their experience both in the preparation phase
and in the actual performance, thereby viewing their training from a different
perspective. In this light, Testing can be seen as a sort of ritualistic trial by
ordeal in which the overall shape of the examinees' potential is revealed to all
participants within the given community. Also, aside from simply measuring
one's progress, testing also offers a kind of recurring rite of passage that
imposes a rhythmic framework to one's advancement, similar to the same kind
of temporal structures adopted by all cultures for the sake of regulating some
of the apparent formlessness of life.
Everyone in aikido learns from everyone else. Beginners seldom realize the
extent to which they directly contribute to the growth of their sempai, or
senior students. At some point, it usually becomes apparent that helping
others is a natural extension of wanting to improve one's own condition, and
teaching is one of the more obvious ways to accomplish this. Not everyone can
or should be expected to run their own class, but everyone should accept the
responsibility for what they will inevitably transmit to others.
The aikido dojo exists as a "place of the way," where individuals may come
together for the express purpose of learning about and sharing the experience
of traveling together on the road of harmony. The dojo becomes the group
center which enables individuals to function more harmoniously within their
societal and environmental structures. The aikido dojo has an implicit mission
to extend the spirit of aiki to the surrounding community and the world at
large. Simply training more balanced people is sufficient and a great
contribution to the world, but some of the more mature dojos (those with
adequate resources) have opted to make this mission more explicit by designing
community service programs. Target communities might be local or global, and
relate directly to aikido or not. For example, local activities might include
organizing food drives or helping with the homeless, or offering aikido
demonstrations to interested groups free of charge. Global activities might help
the aikido community at large (by publishing useful materials or organizing
networks) or alternatively be aimed more generally at all humans or the
environment (by making cash donations from the dojo to selected charities for
example). In all instances, the service comes back to benefit the individual
student by reinforcing basic aikido concepts such as extending ki and the unity
of self and other.
Application to Daily Life
In no way is it necessary to assume that aikido as an activity should be
expected to be the most important aspect of any one's life. However, few
disciplines offer such a self-evident vehicle for unifying all fields of endeavor.
As such, aikido can still serve a central role. Aikido would be nothing but a
hobby if it's principles could not be extended into any and every area of one's
life. How this is actually accomplished is perhaps the most personal aspect of
the student's training. While words of advice may be given, and certainly good
examples should be set by senior students, this is not something that can
really be taught. Eventually every student of aikido must find their own unique
way. This does not mean that we must someday reject our sensei, but rather
the lessons learned must continually be assimilated into, and then extend
from, our own center. Every individual has a unique perspective, a point of
viewing the universe which no other being can occupy. Therefore no other being
can say what is most appropriate for another's place in life. Aikido is one
vehicle which can enable the dedicated student to achieve a level of everdeveloping
mastery and continued understanding of one's own special
relationship with life. The moment of discovery of one's true nature brings also
a vision of the absolute unity of all things. It follows then that our personal
mastery on the path brings us closer to a heart of humility and compassion for
all other beings who must see the same universe as we do, but through their
It is my hope that the reader will now have a better sense of the beauty and
expanse of the landscape that can be encountered while traveling the aiki road.
Each of us will naturally be attracted to different features, but perhaps we can
all learn to avoid the tendency to stare at our feet as we place them along the
path. Each aspect of this terrain is a living thing, and recognizing this can
help us to maintain that sense of wonder that makes the journey such a joy.
Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
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