Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning





All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.  Lao Tzu


If there is no sweat there is no heat. Warming up the body is prepares for stretching the limbs, which in turn prepares it for safe work. If designed well, it also prepares the mind for Aikido.


(a) Preparation

Do not eat a large meal before training. Do not eat anything at all, except a small drink, thirty minutes before the class begins. Hard training or a sudden shock can cause one to feel or be sick. Also, try to go to the bathroom before class begins.

On approaching the dojo one typically begins to think about Aikido. The posture straightens; one automatically seems to stretch the limbs in anticipation. Avoidance movements and techniques may flash through the mind. We regulate our breathing. We become more alert. The modern tradition requires that students typically train in the evenings - the end of the school or working day. Instead, try training in the mornings in preparation for the whole day. If no Aikido class is available, what one can do is to warm one's self up with lots of aiki exercises for at least half an hour, and if one has the time, run through a few techniques on one's own with an imaginary partner. This is excellent preparation for the day, a kind of physical and spiritual breakfast.


(b) Purpose

Warm-up exercises, whether at home or in the dojo, should all be martial in nature and related to Aikido. Breathing, postures, footwork, taisabaki, torifune, and ukemi all prepare the body for training, both spiritually and mentally. Whether doing a gentle or vigorous warm-up, make sure that one's breathing matches the movements. Concentrating on breathing in rhythm to movement in the warm-up exercises will eventually, naturally, transfer over to the techniques - but for beginners it needs a certain amount of conscious thinking to get the process started, after which, it is often best to forget about it and let it happen naturally.


(c) The basics

Everyone knows we have to practice the basics, or kihon, but what does this really mean? Kihon usually refers to postural, footwork, or avoidance exercises done just after the warm up. Most dojos seem happy to get them out of the way as soon as possible. Reality reveals, however, that it is not until you actually begin to find the basics interesting that you really begin to learn. Further, the dojo environment is often not conductive to practising them. What one has to do is to go over them elsewhere in your own time until they feel right. And by the time you think they are 'right', they will have become interesting. Soon one will find new minor variations that can ultimately reveal themselves in modified techniques. And just when one has finally understood, one discovers something else new - an endless process of self-discovery. A problem in many dojos is that what is learned in their basics does not seem to be being shown in their techniques. Do not fall into this trap. If one's basic training is not useful in one's techniques then one is certainly barking up the wrong tree. It goes without saying that one needs to practice basic movements with repetitive vigour until they become ingrained in muscle and sinew memory.


(d) Flexibility

Flexibility is important for safety and for health. Training for flexibility should never be done until the body is warm as injury could result, and the older the person, the longer the warm up and the gentler the stretching should be. When training slowly and gently one can work at the extremities of flexibility. In Karate working at one's limit might mean slowly stretching a kick to head height. When training with more speed and power one should stay well away from the extremities lest injury be invited. A Karateka adding power to a sidekick at his limit is more likely to hurt himself than his opponent. Obviously, the more flexible one is, the more range one has within which to work and the safer one's practice will be. Gentle flexibility exercises in co-ordination with breathing also help one to relax, perhaps being conductive of a more flexible mind. The main rule of thumb is to stretch and hold, not bounce. Bouncing at one’s extremity causes the muscle to involuntarily contract, the opposite of what is desired.



(e) Twisting the limbs

Nikyo twist Kote-gaeshi twist
Sankyo twist Shiho-nage twist


There seem to be hundreds of techniques. One way to rationalise the mess is to forget their names and to look at the shapes the body makes. If one extends the arm out forwards, it twists in only two directions, what I will call inside and outside. On bringing the wrist close to the chest, twisting it inwards produces nikyo, outwards produces kote-gaeshi. When extending the arm outwards, turning it in produces a twist similar to sankyo, outwards produces a twist similar to shiho-nage. So, here are four techniques with four tricky names that boil down to twisting the arm or wrist in or out, far or near, and a lot of Aikido is based on these twists, which is why they are included in most warm-up routines. The legs also twist in and out and looking, or feeling, what happens as one twists one's legs gently to their extremities will offer insight in analysing how to move in Aikido. For example, a typical warm up exercise is tenkan-ho, turning by oneself or with a partner. Doing it by one's self one can feel the legs being twisted naturally. Personally, I like to pivot placing all the weight on the front foot. The smart learner will also turn in the opposite direction - often not seen in an Aikido class - but such movement exists within many of the techniques and practising it will lead to better understanding. These turning exercises can also be performed with a bokken or jo, adding further insight.


(f) Aiki yoga

As a warm up, partners can perform techniques in a kokyu-ho like manner. What this means is that tori takes control of uke as in say, tenchi-nage, but does not throw. Instead, uke is stretched over to the rear and uke holds in that position for about five to ten seconds. Tori does not support uke, nor does uke hang from tori's grip, rather, uke simply maintains their position making slight effort to raise up. Another example is where tori takes ikkyo and stops midway, giving uke a pleasant stretch that is held for some time, or until uke signals tori to stop by tapping. When practising like this one emphasises the slow and careful. Thought is given to both posture and matching breathing with movement. Here, tori and uke both benefit at the same time. Of course, this is not really yoga.


(g) Torifune

This stand-up 'rowing the boat' exercise is unique to Aikido. Its purpose is to train one to push forwards and draw backwards strongly using the body, not the arms, thereby developing the feeling of moving from the centre. Note the use of the word 'draw' as opposed to 'pull' - Aikido people often dislike the word 'pull', associating it with using unnecessary arm strength. While performing torifune some people lean slightly forwards and slightly backwards, aligning their spine with their front or rear legs while moving to and fro. Others just stay perpendicular. The method of torifune will be apparent in the techniques these people perform, if not, it makes no sense. Both have merit since there are times when performing techniques that a slightly forward leaning posture is useful, other times it is more efficient to be straight. Clearly, if what is being done in torifune is not reflected in the technique then something is wrong. Other kokyu exercises can also be included in the warm-up.

 (h) Twisting

One relaxing exercise is to swing the arms left and right while standing on the spot. Look at your mid-section and while twisting from left to right you will probably notice a 'hiccup' in the middle of the movement. While your arms swing once, your mid-section swings-stops-swings. This start-stop-start movement can be transferred through your arms to uke - with interesting effect - when performing say katate-dori techniques. Twist the mid-section slightly, stop, and twist again and uke's grip is lessend - ready for technique.

Note: If your mid-section does not react as stated above, watch others - at least half a class of people typically do this naturally. It can be learned.



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