Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning  ©





It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man.  H. L. Mencken


Aikido standard posture is forwards.

Posture is often thought to be the point of readiness before technique begins but this kind of thinking offers only a limited view into the nature of posture. Rather, 'posture' should be apparent at every point thoughout the technique.

Posture provides the basis of technical structure in Aikido. Each school varies slightly in hand / foot positions but all stress the importance. Only once posture is understood can one begin to experiment with no-posture. The following provides a structural look at various positions. In the beginning we will use, develop and fine tune our muscles as we learn techniques. Over time, we will figure out that the structure of the body when lined up with the desired movement creates less need for muscle.

(a) Kneeling

When kneeling in Japan it is customary for men to sit with knees apart, women with them together. The best way you can generate power in suwari-waza is to have the knees apart, which means if one is female, one should restrict tradition for polite sitting, and utilise the more efficient knees-apart position for practice. When sitting, the back should be straight, the chin back and pressed up, rearwards. When one rises, movement should begin from one's centre, thus the head will up rise at the same time, vertically. Initiate rising movement by rotating the hips forward and up, connecting the abdomen to the upper legs. Many people begin to rise by moving their shoulders forwards - this is incorrect. When knee-walking, one should make effort to maintain correct posture. If performing rolls from suwari-waza one should become upright, showing awareness, after each roll. One method to help develop a firmer seated posture is for uke to stand behind and gently push toriís shoulders or head in all directions. Of course, what is learned here internally, should be maintained when standing up. When knee-walking, try to walk in a similar way to how you walk when standing. Research it, think about it, merge the two. When knee-walking backwards do not shuffle backwards as it does not match your standing movement; turn your body slightly and take a large step, almost as if you are taking a forward step but in a backward direction, and then reverse your body-turn and step backwards on the other knee. Also, try taisabaki. Analyse how you do it standing up, and then alter and merge the ideas accordingly.


(b) Standing

Upright posture


When standing, the back should be straight, the chin back, and pressed up, rearwards, no different to suwari-waza or when holding a bokken or jo. This feeling is not unlike when wearing a collar and tie that is too tight, where one has to retract one's trachea from contacting the uncomfortable collar. The hips hang neutrally, neither being extended too far forwards (or up), or too far back (or down). When moving, it follows that this be maintained, though I prefer a slightly hips-tilted-up neutral position. When performing technique, the hips should be rotated forwards (or up) at, or just before, the moment of contact, with the feeling that one's hara is extending out to touch uke. This is very important and the odds are, it will rarely be corrected. The back should be straight, as though you are suspended by a thread from the top/rear of your head.

The techniques we have are, in a way, a challenge for us to maintain our structure while we move. Not until we have managed to add structure to our techniques, have we begun to learn.

(c) Hanmi / kamae

Hanmi Kamae


Hanmi means half posture and represents what tori shows to uke, half their posture. Half a posture is considered to be less of a target. Kamae literally refers to posture but is taken by some schools to mean full posture, where the hips are 'square on', facing uke. Here, if one extends one's arms out forwards, they reach the same distance. I interpret the main difference to be dependent upon foot positioning. In both types of posture the rear leg is typically straight. Weight distribution over the front and rear legs in hanmi is typically 70/30 or 60/40 respectively. In kamae it is anything from 70/30 to 100/0. In hanmi the weight is more centralised, the argument being that one is more flexible, being able to give (by pushing from the rear leg) and take (withdrawing by pushing from the front leg) more freely. In kamae the weight is further forwards, the argument being that, since one turns on one leg, one can turn faster because one is already there. Of course, in static stances it is easy to make such distinctions but when moving these two types merge.


(d) Starting positions

Jodan Chudan Gedan


Whether in hanmi or kamae one can adopt a high, middle, or lower attitude, namely, jodan, chudan, or gedan respectively. In hanmi, the front hand extends forwards about two hand lengths ahead of the rear hand. In kamae, both hands extend out equally. For standard posture both tori and uke begin with one hand in chudan and the other in gedan, as if holding a sword. The fingers are always splayed open and even when grabbing uke's arm, one typically holds with the two little fingers and half the middle finger, leaving the index finger open. I like to call this the yonkyo grip, since it resembles that technique, and I also like to use it when holding a bokken or jo.

(e) Meeting positions

Ai-hanmi outside Ai-hanmi inside
Gyaku-hanmi outside Gyaku-hanmi inside

Holding one's right arm out one can meet uke in four tactically different positions. First, one's right arm can be on the outside of ukeís right arm, second, just on the inside. Third, oneís left hand can be on the outside of uke's right arm, and fourth, on the inside. With two arms then, one has eight possible shapes. This could be systemised in terms of eight attacks, eight avoidances, eight grabs, eight techniques and so on. Or maybe one would require two techniques per position totalling sixteen. The same is true for the feet, of which Judo names the four techniques that match those positions, moving from right to left in like manner, as O soto-gari, ko uchi-gari, O uchi-gari, ko soto-gari. The way one meets uke in terms of these positions determines which techniques in one's repertoire will be called upon. Giving techniques names often complicates simple structural principles.


(f) Foot positions

Hanmi Kamae


The feet in Aikido, typically form the shape of a bow and arrow on the floor, forming an angle of some ninety plus degrees to each other. Some schools insist that the front foot point straight forwards all the time. Others insist that the front foot should be turned out as much as possible, enabling one to utilise one's full range of movement. Some place the heels along an imaginary straight line, others dissect the line with the mid-sections of their feet. Still others have no such firm rules. One important commonality however is that no Aikido school teaches turning the front foot inwards - although many a high grade instructor can be seen doing so from time to time. Another important commonality is that, by necessity, those schools that insist on hanmi tend to have the front foot pointing forward whereas those who prefer kamae turn the foot out. What is interesting is that if one starts in hanmi with one's front foot pointing forwards, and takes a step forward, then by necessity one turns the front foot outwards since it is soon going to become a rear foot, at which point one's hips momentarily become 'square on' - suggesting that rather being different postures they are both but different points along a singular Aikido postural continuum. Therefore, to engage in an argument of why this or that posture is better is really only confirming that neither knows.


(g) Walking

Ayumi-ashi and tsugi-ashi refer respectively to walking step and shuffling (or boxer) step. In Aikido, large forward or diagonal movements are made; in Judo they are much smaller and more swanking in nature - slower and more cautious. It is important to practice various steps in different directions varying the speed and power of movement while maintaining posture and awareness - but keep in mind that it is only really through doing the techniques that one can learn the meaning of the movement. Be aware that your line of power is between the line that joins the feet.  After a lot of practice, what one practices in the warm up will become the same as what one is doing in the techniques.

Knee walking, or shikko, isolates wobbly legs from the postural equation and in the long run, contributes to improved stability when standing up. When performing shikko, move with the heels together, as though tied. When the knee nears the ground, visualise it being the power fulcrum of the technique; even when walking backwards make positive powerful steps. Ayumi-ashi, tsugi-ashi, taisabaki and tenkan are all possible in shikko.

Once the posture is sorted, the real test is to maintain it while moving around. This does not mean you walk in a rigid manner akin to Dalek, rather, as you move back and forth or left and right you do so with continued skeletal alignment, which means in essence, that you could apply power at will should you wish to do so. The various attacks and defences of Aikido offer you the opportunity to test and refine your posture on the move.

For myself, every movement in every direction must be powerful with no gaps in-between. The power does not need to be used, but it must be extant, available, ready.



(h) More on movement

Judo Kendo Karate


There are many martial arts and each has their own way of placing the feet on the ground and moving. A wrestling based art, such as Judo, might tend to have the feet turned out, ball and heel planted firmly on the ground, a faster moving art such as Kendo typically has the feet pointing forwards with weight on the balls of the feet. Some sword schools advise to pull with the front foot as you avoid / and or make technique; the avoidance kata in Tomiki Aikido would agree with this.

In consideration of the fact that a horse has four gaits, the walk, the trot, the canter, and the gallop, and that all horses are the same, then I am puzzled why certain arts limit humans to one particular method. Do we not all walk, jog, and run? When standing still are our feet not turned out slightly? When jogging do they not straighten up? Is it not obvious that for different situations or speeds our body automatically adopts a more suitable, natural posture? It seems that it is not so obvious. In fighting should we not both wrestle and box, and become accustomed to both light and heavy weapons and the differences inherent within? Kendo practitioners always point their feet forwards, even though they do not move. Karate practitioners commonly practice in a sideways stance, both feet pointing to the right, or both to the left. Shodokan Aikido practitioners always keep the forward foot straight. Yoshinkan practitioners always turn the front foot out. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what happened to nature. Did a horse ever have the idea to change the natural positions of its feet? No, but man has the stupidity to teach the horse new gaits for fashion. Musashi, that infamous master of the Japanese duel, took no-stance as his stance, and gave it no name, claiming that it was no different from the way he walked along the path. In Aikido, the general rule is to move and turn on the balls of the feet although many a master will occasionally be observed using their heels. Obviously, the way we use our feet should be more according to practical realities than to set rules.

(i) Shizen hontai

Shizen-hontai means 'natural posture' and is a term more commonly associated with Judo than Aikido. Typically, it refers to a feet turned slightly outward shoulder-width apart legs ever so slightly bent neutral standing position. Aikidoka see it as a more advanced type of posture of no-posture whereas in Judo it is considered quite basic. Practising from a left or right posture for several years an Aikidoka might find it somewhat awkward at first, but will soon come to love it.

(j) The arms

Aikido posture takes time to 'acquire'. At first, rather than feeling natural, you have to learn to take what seems unnatural and train it until it feels natural. The various schools of Aikido all have their own 'take' on what good posture is and one point of confusion is how to hold out the arms.

  1. Firm arms: This method dictates strict posture with arms somewhat forcefully extended. It can be a useful starting point for beginners to get into the shape of Aikido from a mechanical perspective.
  2. Sword arms: Imagine holding a sword and stand accordingly to make posture. Naturally, it works a lot better if you actually train with a sword from time to time. Swordwork puts the posture and mind in order and contributes a lot to good Aikido technique. The problem is that some people fail to put enough extension in the arms when holding and too much when striking. However, even an expert swordsman will have problems understanding aiki extension so there is more to 'it' than simple swordwork.
  3. Floppy arms: Because Aikido is supposed to take little effort, 'floppy' thinking dictates you should raise your arms into posture with as little effort as possible. Confusing at first, it has merit in making technique. It helps development as people use the weight of their arms combined with speed of movement to make technique. It fails somewhat as people, intent on reducing their strength, tend to swing their arms rather than simply raising them thereby meaning they are sometimes not extended properly. Also, as people come to prefer floppiness so they often begin to ignore #4 below.
  4. Heavy arms: Developing 'heavy arms' is thought to be a source of strength or power in technique. This is fine, but some tend to overly concentrate on the arms and forget to apply heaviness to the rest of their body. 'Body rooting' might be a more appropriate 'feeling'.
  5. Extended arms: The arms reach forwards (or upwards, or downwards, or sideways), naturally, without becoming absolutely straight or over extended. Correct extension produces an unbendable arm. It can be gentle, to the extent of seeming floppy, or hard, to the extent of appearing stiff (from uke's point of view, but not so). For extension, imagine a short hose crinkled up on the ground. Suddenly turn on the water and it unravels its kinks and extends itself. Correctly extended arms offer a clue to the feel of aiki. Most importantly, all the techniques of Aikido can be done in this manner. Indeed, even the attacking holds and striking techniques use this same extension principle.

(k) The chest

When raising the sword high with elbows splayed outwards, the chest naturally expands. Breathe in, but not in a relaxed way. Rather, in the style of 'reverse breathing' one focuses energy in the abdomen developing power and expanding/contracting the chest slightly at the same time. Now take the sword away and raise the arms in similar fashion and try some techniques. Combined with rotating the hips slightly forward and upwards in sync with the arms one can fine tune leverage at the point of contact. One can also raise the posture up and down with slight movement of the knees and, at the same time, though not quite Aikido in style, scrunch your torso down a half inch, then raise it back up.  Of course this is made all the more easier if one's time and coordination are also in sync and that the aim is to destabilize uke and take their balance slightly rather than just steaming straight through each technique.

Another principle is to expand your chest outwards and become slightly taller as uke grabs. This 'expansion' should move your arms a fraction and uke will not notice, yet, it might be enough to destabilize him by an imperceptible amount. This little idea needs a lot of thought to make work. Reverse breathing at the same time will compound the effect. In addition to this, rather than thinking of relaxing your arms, as everyone often tells you to do, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together - on your back - and it will move your arms a little without activating tension therein. When you focus your 'muscle' attention to your back, you will forget about the arms and relax them without thinking about it. Of course, you have to practice it.

To think only one method to be correct is to rob yourself of ideas that might aid your development. Further, it is not only the arms, but the legs and body also need the same treatment, or 'extension'.

Join the dots: The keen student should look for key 'posture' postions within a technique and strive to join them together.



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