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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > June, 2004 - Aikido: A Brief Field-Guide to its Flora and Fauna
by Ross Robertson

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.

Breathing

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 training.

Stretching

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

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 given technique.

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 transformation.

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.

Blending Exercises

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.

Escapes

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.

Tai-Sabaki

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.

Tai-Jutsu

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.

Jiyuwaza

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

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 confrontation.

Kumite

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

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

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.

Henka Waza

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.

Kaeshi Waza

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 invincible.

Suburi

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.

Kumi-jo, Kumi-tachi

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 developed.

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 Waza

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 nage.

Shime Waza

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.

Pressure-Points

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.

Competition

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.

Aiki-Therapy

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.

Back Stretches

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 applications.

Seminars

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.

Misogi Training

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.

Aiki Games

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.

Oral Tradition

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.

Reading, Research

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 aiki road.

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.

Teaching

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.

Community Service

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 own eyes.


Conclusion

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.


Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
etaison@stillpointaikido.com

June 1996


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