View Full Version : No Pain, No Gain

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Stefan Stenudd
07-23-2009, 10:14 AM
Usually, aikido students have a very modest impression of aikido as a martial art. Many would say that it's not that martial at all, but more like some kind of dance. In the other arts, proud to call themselves martial, students struggle to make themselves fighting machines, sparing no effort, training so hard that the ideal of the Spartans comes to mind. But aikido people move in joyous circles, dressed in what seems to be skirts. Not exactly the thing that would attract a warrior.

Nevertheless, there are ingredients in the gentle art of aikido that others find surprisingly straining, when actually trying them, while aikido students just go on without giving it a thought.

The continuous up and down is one of those things. In senior high school, our physics professor told us that in physics, only vertical movement is regarded as work. The fight against the gravitational pull. Sports that only move horizontally don't prepare for it, so even well-trained students of such sports are surprised at how the up and down of aikido ukemi fatigues them.

Another thing that some martial arts are unused to, sometimes even intimidated by, is the lack of safety distance in aikido, when dealing with strikes and kicks. The aikido taisabaki evasive movement needs to be practiced at proper distance and timing, so the attacker is supposed to aim correctly. One has to get out of the way in time. Again, aikido people don't think much of it.

Nice guys?

Most of all, the element of pain is far more present in aikido than the students acknowledge. Certainly, we get kind of wary after a number of nikyo or yonkyo, but we have forgotten the level of pain involved. We are used to it. Only when we make such techniques on inexperienced people do we observe their effect on those who are unprepared.

There is a lot of pain involved -- in nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, also in kotegaeshi and several of the end pinnings. Well, depending on how the techniques are executed, they can all be painful. How did we ever get used to that?

Weren't we supposed to be nice guys?

The frequent use of pain seems quite out of place in the friendly art of aikido, which is otherwise focused on softness, gentleness, and an outcome where nobody should feel like a loser. When the attacker is struck with pain, it doesn't matter much that it's done with an elegant movement, nor is it neutralized by the fact that there is no damage done. Pain is, at the very least, an alarming threat of damage. Therefore, it is always a provocation, if not to say an aggression.


It cannot be the perfect aiki solution. Pain triggers a response, and so a battle of sorts is commenced -- even if it is won immediately following the pain, or by what it causes. So, for tori the lesson of the pain is ultimately how to avoid using it -- at least how to minimize it.

I've tried that some. The techniques that cause pain can be modified so that they are quite gentle, unless resisted. Maybe that's how to solve the riddle of making it aiki? Uke is led into a path where pain only occurs when he or she insists on deviating from it. Then the aikido technique becomes kind of Pavlovian. Pain is the signal that makes uke stick to the path.

This could also be described in fancy terms of principle. Taoism at gunpoint. Relax, accept, and all will be fine. A body is quick to follow such directives, quite by instinct. A mind may find it more difficult to conform. So, the lesson is mainly for the mind. The aikido technique shows the gentle way to get through the situation, the narrow path that causes no pain at all.
Sort of "surrender or else" -- without any insulting rhetoric.

Then tori must strive to make the technique show very clearly how uke should comply. Instead of hurrying to apply the painful wrist twist, or whatever technique is used, tori must make the movement so that uke can easily find the painless way through it. Tori should create directions possible to follow intuitively, as if by reflex. It should trigger a natural response from uke, which is such that pain is avoided.

The aikido technique is tori's way of showing uke how to avoid pain.

Uke's lesson

But aikido is the polarity of tori and uke, where both have something to study in each technique. So what is the lesson for uke, dealing with all this pain? It can't just be learning to take it. That would be like letting your dentist drill your teeth although they have no cavities.

And pain is not really cured that way. We can get used to some specific pain, simply by repeating it until we stand it. But it works only on that particular pain. Another pain will be new to us, and would demand the same training to resist. We don't get immune to pain as such. Neither our nerves nor our brain would allow it.

I am sure that some familiarity with one pain or other makes us a little bit more prepared also for other kinds of pain, but not to the extent that it's worth repeated training several times a week, year after year. No, it's not a fakir thing.

Then the lesson for uke must be found in how to avoid the pain. Much like the lesson for tori. The former should find the way to avoid pain, the latter a way to avoid causing it.

Uke's exercise is to smoothly follow the lead of tori. Thereby they both participate in a kind of ritual representation of finding the path through a complication, where there is no pain, no suffering. An ideal world, hinted in an aikido technique.

That's the gain from pain.

Stefan StenuddStefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido

07-23-2009, 12:29 PM
Mr. Stenudd,

Thank you for this essay.

Train well,


07-23-2009, 12:31 PM
Osu Sensei.

I often watch the reactions of new students. If the first time they receive nikyo they are frustrated, they just may not make it. OTOH, if their first reaction is a grin and a wondering how to do that, they just might gain from the pain.

Rei. Domo.

07-23-2009, 01:56 PM
I agree that feeling the pain is important in uke's learning how to go to the painless place, ideally resulting in uke's submission via pin or throw. Uke's natural reaction also tells nage how to induce pain, and what the thresholds are among mild, moderate, and severe pain. Now, every uke has his or her own thresholds, but the variations here usually are not major. I like your allusion to classical conditioning (CS, CR, UCS, UCR), but I think operant conditioning (Skinner) may be relevant as well. A rat (so often used because their brains are so similar to that of humans) placed on one side of a cage, learns to press a lever on the other side to get a food reward. When an electrified grid is placed between the rat and the lever, not even a starving rat will cross the grid for its food reward. Setting up the cage differently by inserting an electrode into the rat's brain pleasure center (hypothalamus), and setting the lever to shock and stimulate pleasure, behavior is different. Not only will a rat cross the painfully electrified grid to get to the lever, but it will press it hundreds or thousands of times a minute.

The pain I've felt in paired practice has been mild-moderate, and it's usually quite temporary as long as I don't fight against nage's guidance. The pain we endure in the dojo reminds me of the rat's electrified grid. Most Aikidoka find frequent but abrupt discomfort to be well worth the pleasure of not only endorphins, but just as importantly the sense of accomplishment derived from doing our best and advancing one class at a time, one lever press at a time.


Janet Rosen
07-23-2009, 03:04 PM
Thank you for an excellent essay on the role of pain in training and finding the pain free path.

Personally, I credit learning to relax into nikkyo with teaching me, off the mat, to relax into and cope with "benign pain," that is, transient pain that is not signaling tissue injury, as well as to relax and cope with pain that cannot otherwise be immediately treated (because anxiety does increase our experience of pain tremendously).

07-27-2009, 02:32 PM
if their first reaction is a grin and a wondering how to do that, they just might gain from the pain.
LOL that's me. I kinda like the pain. Not that it often happens to hurt much. I have very kind Sempi. :D

Last night we did nikkyo and I was so busy examining what I was feeling I forgot to tap out much to the consternation of Nage. Got a bit of a lecture for it. :p

Stefan Stenudd
07-31-2009, 03:45 PM
Last night we did nikkyo and I was so busy examining what I was feeling I forgot to tap out much to the consternation of Nage. Got a bit of a lecture for it. :p
Nikyo got me started with aikido, long ago. A friend practiced aikido, and I had no idea what it was, so I asked him to show me something. He demonstrated nikyo on me. I fell to the floor and started digging to get to the floor below. It was quite painful, but more than that it was amazing. Like magic. So, I had to learn it.
No pain no gain :)

By the way, Janet Rosen talks about "benign pain", which is a wonderful way of describing it. There most definitely is such a thing.

Janet Rosen
07-31-2009, 04:33 PM
By the way, Janet Rosen talks about "benign pain", which is a wonderful way of describing it. There most definitely is such a thing.

Thanks, Stefan - I cannot take credit for it; it's just part of the health care professional's jargon!