Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning

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I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.  Abraham Lincoln

 

People often wonder why O Sensei decided upon which techniques to include in Aikido. Certainly, his experience was broad and his Aikido never remained static. Did he tire of traditional kata based teaching and switch to an aiki centred one? Did he have a fixed syllabus in mind at each stage of development? Or did it just evolve, as techniques were added, or devolve, as superfluous movements were excluded? Did he catch the peace bug after Japan’s loss in the War? Was he somehow freed to go his own way after the death of his mentor, Takeda Sokaku? This curiosity is no doubt felt by many and fuels their quest in studying O Sensei and the arts he studied, most notably, Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu.

 

(a) Searching for the source

In the past, few Aikidoka considered Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu in relation to Aikido. In more modern times, the revival of ancient Jujutsu arts owes a lot to interested foreigners, many of whom have been curious as to the roots of Aikido or Judo. Some have come to believe that what they lack, even after years of training, can be found in the more traditional arts. What is good is that they search, what is unfortunate is that what they discover might not increase their chances of finding what they seek. This is because they expect to be taught, yet what they seek may only come from within.

For Ueshiba, Aikido was progressive, he changed it as time moved on and as such, his Aikido “developed.” The methodology of Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, as a traditional art, is that it is static; it preserves the ancient techniques in the form of unchanging kata. There is, however, speculation that Takeda did not even train in a strict Ryu and that this art may have been codified later on. Anyway, in a traditional school, everything is transmitted from the all-knowing master. On the other hand, while Aikido is progressive, it nevertheless has very strong, yet perhaps hidden, foundations. For example, some learn it in Europe, others in America, yet when they meet they find themselves to be doing almost exactly the same thing. Now that is remarkable for a progressive art and just shows how non-progressive in essence aiki principles must be. In a learning environment, an approach that places responsibility for learning in the hands of the keen thinking student stands a better chance of transmission in the long run.

I argue then, that if one learns and discovers one is more likely to understand the essence and be able to pass it on. To its credit, many Aikido dojos have an element of freedom that allows students to rediscover for themselves. But this is not a criticism of Daito-ryu aiki-jutsu or other arts. When considering the 'old' one has to be aware of the immense human inventiveness that went into such discovery. The best minds of old were no less than the best of today - it is just that the world that looks a little different. Anyway, looking for the roots of Aikido in Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu is not useful - they are of a different age. For the roots of modern Aikido one ought look into Ueshiba the man; while his main background may have been Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, in the post-war years he rejected set kata as a teaching methodology and went his own way.

 

(b) Aikido styles

Judo, Karate, and Aikido are all quite different arts with separate histories having no apparent connections. It is almost as though the heads of each school got together, decided their particular territories, and determined that they would not trespass – I have even heard this said. There are several schools of Judo and Karate, and Aikido is no different. But analysing the differences in Aikido styles is of little use; it is the similarities that make them all Aikido. For example, aiki, as a fluid feeling that exists between two practitioners can be found in many arts, not only Aikido. But Aikido names it and practices it; no matter what the style of Aikido, all aim to develop an aiki feeling.

Style is no different to tradition, some people do it one way, others another. The defining essence of a style is usually found in its head teacher - it is personal - and to some extent all develop a cult of personality around this person. Even within a style, each individual teacher will have their own idiosyncrasies that give definition to their club. Some of these differences are apparent in capability, personality, and purpose. Teachers will always tend to concentrate on what they do best and thus their capabilities define their form. For example, flexible teachers will have lots of stretching exercises. An athletic teacher will have a vigorous warm-up. Shorter teachers might incorporate more hip throws. A teacher's personality will also reflect in their teaching; some may be meek and polite in nature, others may bellow and pound their uke's into the tatami. The purpose for which a given student trains could be anything ranging from boredom, fitness, stress reduction, weight reduction, self-confidence, or self-defence. The teacher's bias will likely give direction but may be moulded somewhat by their student's perceived needs and the local environment. All these differences add up to one teacher being slow and meticulous and another fast and furious. This can be the case even though both of them studied under the same teacher previously.

 

(c) Comparison with other arts

Who would win, a table tennis player or a tennis player? And what if they play with a shuttlecock instead of a ball? And who would win if they played badminton instead? We should not worry too much about comparison. We need to concentrate on developing the self and the method of choice is vigorous martial training. There are many martial arts and some are more rigorous or realistic than others. In sport one trains to win and the path is narrowed by rules. In Budo the path is broad, encompassing the whole experience of life and death. The one who survives the day is the one who trains in the most appropriate way. Today, in my country, there is no war, so I train accordingly. If war is imminent, I will train accordingly. If war is upon me, I will act accordingly.

 

(d) Visiting other aiki arts

The first thing many students encounter when visiting or joining another style of aiki dojo is resistance. What seems to happen is that one is viewed with suspicion, the seniors try to resist and only allow the technique to work if it is done their way. Different dojos, sometimes even within the same organisation, seem to go through this routine. The obvious question is whether one’s techniques really work at all. The answer is that one has to make them work and such a path is far from easy. This process of humiliation and false enlightenment needs to be experienced and overcome.

 

(e) Studying other arts

People study additional arts because they find something lacking in their own or find something interesting elsewhere. As Aikido does not place emphasis on kicking or punching, it is only natural that the curious mind seeks the answer in another place. People seem to make two kinds of choices. The majority seem to choose an additional art that adds something new yet at the same time offers to improve their overall ability. These people might choose Judo to improve their throwing skills, Kenjutsu to improve their sword skills, or Taichichuan to improve their balance or develop their Chi, or Ki. Others might choose something completely different such as Karate, or Kung fu. I too have been down these roads studying a mixture of these arts. At first, it was simple curiosity. Later, I was seeking to improve my Aikido. If one goes down this road, what is important is to keep the arts separate. On cannot enter the Aikido dojo and use a Kung-fu stance. And if one has learned to box, one should not chide fellow Aikidoka with the dumb "What would you do if …" type of question. If they want to know, they have to ask it to themselves. If one has practised other arts it may be that one has asked oneself this very question and has done something about it to find the answer. After much training though, one comes to realise that there are many inconsistencies between movements within different arts thus necessitating a decision - one may eventually quit certain arts, or modify what one does within the preferred art for oneself. What is important here is that if one comes to teach a particular art, one should teach it as it was taught, not with one's personal modifications, otherwise the tradition will be lost and the students will likely be confused. One's own personal methods are based upon one's own personal experience. In this sense, rather than teaching a certain 'move' from say, Jujutsu, it might be better to encourage the students to take classes in Jujutsu, just as you did. Or, if one is capable, give a whole class in it from time to time so as to let the students know just what it is. Variety can add spice to life but what one needs from the other arts are principles that match those of Aikido to steal and make one's own. It is the similarities that determine the strength of the principles, not the differences, which could sometimes be interpreted as being mistakes.

 

(f) Giving a class to non-Aikidoka martial artists

Give a lesson that shows the totality of Aikido to make sure they get the whole picture. A possible lesson plan might be to start with a couple of simple kokyu-nage covering the concepts of irimi and tenkan. Show most or all of the basic techniques, and if possible, do each one from a different attack. Then explain how each of them can be done from each attack, perhaps giving a short demonstration. Do kokyu-nage again and explain how the method of training can be used as a bridge to make the techniques more effective. At the end, allow the students to ask questions, and answer honestly. If one just goes in with the one-technique-per-lesson is best I-am-God approach then do not expect a second invitation. The mistake here is assuming that one could actually teach them anything in just one lesson - such is impossible. Instead, giving a brief insight into a more total picture of Aikido might spark natural interest. And even if it does not, at least they will be better informed.

Caution must also be taken when approaching more competitive arts as their students will naturally be keen to test your mettle. Starting with suwari-waza techniques may give advantage in that they will likely encounter great difficulty. If answers to questions are lacking then doubt is created and the whole process is wasted effort. Students with good etiquette may still show respect, but the doubt will be sewn nevertheless.

 

(g) Giving a demonstration

Spectators view demonstrations as entertainment and Aikido demonstrations are usually awful in that respect. Worse, they are often placed amidst demonstrations of other arts that audiences find far more appealing because of the violence unfolding before them. That being said, if a demonstration is to be done, then it ought to provide an audience with an idea of what Aikido is. Equal emphasis should be given to the more 'boring' aspects such as etiquette. Boring to the ordinary spectator perhaps, but such attention to detail can spark the interest of the right kinds of people - parents who want to inject their teenagers with some discipline for example. Techniques look pretty much all the same to the average spectator so a slower methodological demonstration coupled with an explanation would inform the more intelligent listeners of what Aikido is, and show that you do, indeed, know what you are talking about. The finish might be more dynamic in nature but not overly so. Keep it simple. Sword taking, suspect at best, ought be kept away from demos. Likewise, throwing five ukes on top of each other is fun in the dojo but can look ridiculous in a demonstration to eye of the critical spectator. The simplest rule is to never show what you cannot do well.

 

 

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