Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning 





In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.  Louis Pasteur


To beat someone of another art one needs to know their art, but that is not to say that one should fight according to their ways. In knowing one's opponent's art, one will be aware of their strengths and avoid them, one will be aware of their weaknesses and utilise them. Accordingly, the wise do not display their art.


(a) Hidden zanshin

This means that one is quietly alert, mindful of the aggressor but keeping such inside; the antagonist remains unaware of what awaits. Here, one feels no direct threat so nothing need be done. Indeed, there are times when just exposing one's zanshin could lead directly to trouble.

 * zanshin literally means 'remaining mind' and refers to that moment at the end of the technique where tori maintains focus on uke for a moment. However, I like to use it in a broader sense - awareness.


(b) Exposed zanshin

This is an obvious change in attitude where one confronts the aggressor in terms of silence, words, or action; the antagonist is aware of one's presence. With silence, the way one looks at someone shows them what one wants to say, words make it clearer, action makes it happen. If one is aware of these processes, one can develop and use them to advantage.


(c) Fighting

Musashi advises that the spirit of fighting is fire. Keeping a cool mind in the heat of onslaught is easier said than done, but to be successful, must be done. In order to practice overcoming hardship one obviously needs to find stressful situations and jump right in. The dojo exists to provide the means.


(d) Learning

For the average martial artist, more than fighting strategy, what is required is a strategy of learning. Various methods of practice have been outlined above but what is important is that the student discern a principle from the experience. Without a principle, nothing has been learned. Teaching according to principles, it is possible to give seemingly different lessons every class. Taking one principle, the teacher should be able to show it through various media; empty hand technique, bokken, and jo. And here, one principle does not mean one technique. One solid principle can be demonstrated a cross a range of different techniques. Often, a teacher may be doing exactly just this without explaining, rather leaving it for the students to sort out in their minds.

Ordinary technical based teaching often confuses the students due to the seemingly endless range of techniques presented in no apparent logical order. After the students become accustomed to the idea of learning principles, however, they will be able to pick up seemingly new techniques, or shapes, instantly. The shape may be new, but the principle is old hat and learning becomes easy. The students have become true vehicles of transmission.


(e) Self-training

It is impossible to learn everything in the dojo. In order to make one's art one's own it is necessary both to think and to act. Thinking means to analyse everything; to sort everything out and to put it all in order. This is especially important if one is to become a teacher. Acting means one has to act on what one has thought. While one may write down one's ideas on paper, what is really necessary is to imprint them in one's sinews, muscles, and bones. This can be done by repeatedly performing the techniques by oneself. With a partner no technique is the same, but by oneself, one can make it so and get one's body in order. Further, one can run through multiple techniques or kata sets in a short space of time, covering and repeating them many times over.

In the beginning one just goes through the various forms, irrespective of the effect it might have on an imaginary uke. Next, one has to see the imaginary uke through the inner-eye. Sometimes it may feel as though what is being done is wrong. Naturally, one needs a good sense of imagination and over time it develops to the extent that the imaginary uke might even resist or change direction. Better still, one can even imagine the real uke attacking a split second before they actually do so and be ready in advance. Training in this way helps understand Aikido much faster. Every Aikido technique can be practised like this and, on returning to the dojo, one will soon find that it translates into producing improved technique. Self-training can also be particularly useful in establishing links in movement between the empty hand techniques and those of the bokken or jo. Once a common movement is determined, one can practice it with say, the bokken, and the movement learned therein will easily transfer to the jo or back to the empty hand.

A strategy of learning

I have rationalised six areas that we progress through as we learn. If you understand and know these areas then you can practise them. If you do not understand or know them, then you will not be able to separate them to study efficiently.

Technical structure

1(a) The beginner spends a lot of time thinking about his own body structure: For shomen-uchi irimi-nage, tori thinks - "How do I stand, which foot moves where, and which hand grabs what?" This is completely natural and is the reason we have lots of basic movement exercises.

1(b) After the beginner begins to get his own house in order, so he slowly begins to consider the effects of his own actions on his uke. Thus, he begins to look beyond himself, and yet, it is still totally mechanical in approach. Now, tori learns to push and twist uke here and there using clever craft, and hopefully less strength via  more efficient levers. After a while he learns to combine his own movement with that of his uke. Some people never get beyond this method of training. Indeed, they are not even aware that this is what they are doing.


2(a) After considerable practice, tori now alters his training to incorporate harmony. In the beginning, it means getting out of the way of a fast shomen-uchi strike. But tori doesn't just avoid quickly, rather he learns to do so in perfect time with the attack. After that, it is usually the case that he then applies a technique as in 1(b) above, i.e. - not so much on harmony front. This is how I see the majority of people practising Aikido.

2(b) Next, uke should stay alive throughout the technique. For example, after tori avoids that initial shomen-uchi as in 2(a), uke should just stand up so as to recover his composure, but in a light kind of way. At this time, tori must again match his own movement with this new movement of uke and throw to the rear for say, irimi-nage. This kind of training can be a lot of fun but to only train at this level would be a huge mistake as you would almost certainly become overly dependent on a responsive uke. Of course, 1(a), 1(b), and 2(a) remain just as important. Remember, when I mention uke here - it also means you, they way you need to respond as uke. This will also help you learn as tori. Again, a lot of people get to this point and never move on - because they have no one advising them which way to go. Many quit without knowing why - it is partly because they can see no future and all they do is repeat repeat repeat. Only the active seeker really stands a chance of improving beyond this point.


3(a) Once tori begins to discover a bit of aiki (leading/controlling mind/movement), he realises that he doesn't really have to avoid much at all. In fact, he can almost walk straight through uke and his attack. Tori needs all of the above plus confidence, good timing, and to know the right place. His avoidance will be slight, with some of his avoiding movement transmitting into deflecting uke's attack a little while at the same time keeping focus on uke's centre. It is not just a simple parry. Here, tori is starting to mess with uke's energy. His purpose is to deflect and add a little energy to off-balance uke and then, again, most people resort to a 1(b) structural finish or a 2(b) harmonious finish. The trick is to really mess with uke's energy. If uke lets you do it, then he is not being 'messed' with and uke is still really in control. Worse is that you believe you are in control. This tactic is halfway to aiki, if only because you are just messing with uke's energy for half the technique. When you are uke - think! Did you let tori do it, or were his actions beyond your control?

3(b) Finally, tori controls both the attack phase and the technique phase by messing with uke's energy. In 2(b) above uke just stands up. Thus, here, uke is giving the cue to tori for what to do next so in a way, uke is dictating what happens. To fully control uke, as in say shomen-uchi ririm-nage, tori simply feints as if to poke uke in his eyes which causes him to stand up and the technique's shape itself just magically appears. Once uke is off-balance to the rear tori can push him over with almost nonchalant effort. And so it looks like aiki. But it is only aiki if it feels like aiki. It is quite easy for a couple of beginners to do this, but without the previous five levels of experience it would not have any substance.

Note 1: The above 6 phases were explained in terms of shomen-uchi iriminage, which is a kind of 'air' technique. Not much contact required - most of it happens in space. So, what you need to think about is how to apply those six phases to a solid contact technique - especially, how to do it in less of a structural way and more of a messing-with-the-energy way. One tip I find useful with solid techniques is that, if uke knows what you are up to, it won't work. You have to con them, which, if you think about it, is why I put it under strategy. For a senior student. a good training regimen would incorporate a lot of overlap of these six methods.

Note 2: Imagination is very important and I now believe that most of 'the good stuff' we learn is done when we train by ourselves. When we meet a partner - we are in fact testing out what we know; it is less of a learning environment (unless we have a really good uke that is way ahead of us to help us along)  as there are too many variables. I can honestly say that after self-training a certain aspect and internalising it for a while, keeping my mind on a certain idea, it seems to work much better when I find a partner.



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