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There are no competitions in Aikido. How do we set training goals?
I have trained with past sempai and past sensei and find some of their technical skill even at 3rd dan not much different from when they were at 3rd kyu. Some are still grasping to find "their" Aikido at a level when they should be polishing and perfecting their basics.
In karate training, the pattern of training is based on a repeated cycle of kihon, kata and kumite. The difficulty and intensity of training increases at every cycle up to 2nd dan and then tampered off after that level. The emphasis of the training starts with form, adding on speed and strength at every kyu/dan level and then changing towards soft, subtle and flowing form. The progression in this percussion art is from hard to soft while stressing on perfection of form (posture and basics) all the time. Hirokazu Kanazawa sensei (10th karate and a leading taichi practitioner in Japan) always reminded his instructors and yudansha, "What's good for you is not good for your students". By this, he meant that we should always keep to the basics and teach the variations according to the understanding and the level of skill of the students. The maxim of martial art trainings is always to strive for "minimum effort, maximum effect"; lengthy and fancy techniques are just food for the ego.
What are the training goals in Aikido?
In Daito-ryu Aikijujitsu (the forefather of Aikido) it is said that there are three levels of training and within each level there are two groups or catalogues of techniques to master. These levels are:
SHODEN - the basic teaching that comprehends only the 1st and 2nd catalogues
CHUDEN - the median teaching that comprehend the 3rd and 4th catalogues
SOUDEN - the advanced teaching that comprehend the last catalogue and secret teachings (Okuden)
Pre-war students of O Sensei such as Minoru Mochizuki (Yoseikan Budo) and Gozo Shioda (Yoshinkan Aikido) also did maintained similar levels or stages of training in their systems. Other than Morihiro Saito sensei (a post-war student of O Sensei), I have not heard of any other Aikikai teachers stressing such levels of training to transmit the art of Aikido.
I excerpt from an article "Use of Resistance in Aikido Training" by David Alexander sensei (a long time student of M. Saito shihan) to describe the four levels of training put forth by Saito shihan for the Aikido training at the Iwama dojo. The excerpts are shown here within inwarded commas "..." :
Aikido is generally associated with KI-NO-NAGARE technique, and some persons train this way exclusively in an almost dance-like manner. I personally consider it unfortunate that a widespread public conception of Aikido is based on this image."
Unfortunately too, it is true. Indeed there are some dojo here that train this way, even the attacks are choreographed first hand by the instructor.
"It is vitally important to establish a solid foundation in KATAI technique before moving on to KI-NO-NAGARE, and to continue training KATAI to prevent losing touch with the basics. A person who is proficient in KATAI can easily learn KI-NO-NAGARE, but a person who has trained only KI-NO-NAGARE will often not be able to move at all if gripped strongly. KATAI training is what tunes a trainee into the reality of physical strength and how to overcome it under the worst possible conditions."
This is also very true. At the beginning of my aikido studies there had been many instances of frustration when I found myself unable to move when gripped strongly by the Uke. There was even a time when I behaved like a crybaby scolding my Uke aloud in class for gripping me with "excessive" strength. I have seen quite a number of students behaving like me even at 1st kyu and 1st dan level. Some persevere while some give up Aikido completely finding no martial benefits in Aikido.
"It is often said that Aikido techniques do not require muscular strength to perform, and that it is not harmonious to resist a training partner who is attempting to perform a technique. Although there is some truth to this statement, it is based on an incomplete understanding of the nature of physical power and resistance. Beginners in Aikido rely on muscular strength to overcome resistance. This is natural, and should not be discouraged because it is all they have at the time. As trainees progress, they become proficient in technique, and less muscular strength becomes necessary to overcome resistance."
From my visits to various dojo, training with past sempai (and even sensei) I find most of them are still using muscular strength to overcome even the slightest resistance. Have they not progress at all?
"In parallel, trainees develop KOKYU-RYOKU (abdominal breath power) as a direct result of their physical training. KOKYU-RYOKU is much stronger than muscular power, and eventually the techniques become almost effortless, even against strong resistance. After a number of years of hard and dedicated KATAI training, it becomes true that Aikido requires little muscular strength."
IMHO, the purpose of KATAI is not for the Nage to practice muscular power or speed to equalize or overcome opposing force or resistance (based on the equation of Force = Mass x Acceleration2) as put forward by another sensei. One might as well head straight to the bodybuilding gym for that. The mechanical equation of Force = Mass x Acceleration2 is advocated and applied in percussion arts such as karate and taekwondo where Tamashiwara (the art of breaking using hands and feet) is emphasized. On the other side of the scale Aikido is a soft and internal art and students should be taught to discard rather than to adopt this mechanical formula. On the contrary, Aikido students should be taught principles of intrinsic instead of explicit forces or energy.
The main purpose of KATAI training is learning to accustom with the strong grip of the Uke, the objective is not to fight strength for strength but to accept the strength offered by the Uke. This is the first process of blending (awase).
Continuing to practice KATAI to prevent losing touch with basics means that it is the perpetual role of a Uke to give strong (committed and constructive) grips at all time. The Nage should learn to relax with every strong grip. Eventually his body would accept that a grip is just a grip and his mind would not be at least disturbed by the grip. Similarly, training weapons in class does not mean that you carry a weapon with you at all time for protection. It trains you to be spiritually prepared when faced with an armed attacker on the street or at home. Eventually KATAI training will take you to the second level -- YAWARAKAI (resilient). You would know that you have not reached this level when you find that you still cannot handle strong grips and attack and have to resolve to the use muscular strength to overcome the resistance/attack.
At YAWARAKAI level you would have learned to relax and not fight the Uke's strength; you would offer minimal resistance to the Uke not allowing him to connect to your center -- your mindset remain passive until Uke completely loses his balance and once that happens you take control (your mindset changes to active) and the choice of being vicious at that point is yours to make (and of course, it will reflect your humanity).
As your skill and confidence progress at YAWARAKAI level, you become less and less concern with the Uke's strength, commitment or lack of commitment in the attacks. Mentally/spiritually, there is only you, the attacker becomes part of you and cease to exist. As your mind is the least disturbed, your Aikido becomes more flowing. You lead the opponent (the Uke), his attack becomes your attack -- this is the level of KI NO NAGARE (let the KI flow).
"After a number of decades, it is possible to enter level 4 (KI) which is much stronger than KOKYU-RYOKU. However, beginners should not think about this, because they will only become frustrated."
It does not take the number of decades to learn Ki. Koichi Tohei (10th dan)'s brand of Ki-Aikido is formulated so that students start to learn and apply Ki from day one and that does not take decades to acquire. The KI level indicated by David Alexander described more aptly the mindset (spiritual being) of the practitioner tuned by years of training and polishing of his skill. At this level, one can be centered, focused and in control, yet properly relaxed in all situations -- mind and body is one.
Most people train without knowing these four levels of Aikido and it become quite frustrating when they do not know exactly how far they have progressed. Equally frustrating is when they cannot comprehend why techniques that they can do so well in their home dojo are easily resisted by others from another dojo. Aikido is intrinsically a kinesthetic art -- without the ability to feel our partner's body and, more importantly to feel our own body, progression in the art is very difficult if not impossible. KATAI is the first level availing us the opportunity to feel and to progress.
Ironically, Tai Chi practitioners view Aikido as the equivalent of their Pushing Hands (a simplified form of sparring). Tai Chi teaches the Push Hands combatant to use a minimum of energy, for an excess of energy can be exploited by a skillful opponent. Circular motion is used to divert attacks from the critical center of the body. The body must be relaxed - if the body is tense or stiff, the center can be influenced from any point, while if the body is relaxed, energy can easily be dissipated or diverted. Awareness and reaction often triumph over force and aggression. For the Aikido practitioners we perceive our art as non-competition and yet others see it within their own art as a competition and a test to gauge their skill. No wonder there is so much egoism in Aikido. Yet with so much egoism, most of us have no training goals. We train aimlessly - seeking new fancy techniques rather than the polishing of core basics -- meaning we have not arrived at one level and then we would hastily jump onto the next and the next. Some of us even take a BIGGER leap -- we become instructors and then instruct others aimlessly.
Let's start with KATAI again. Let's give each a strong firm grip -- a handshake ;-)