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Is it time to revisit the traditional aikido training methods?

It is an incontrovertible fact that the popularity of aikido is waning. The art receives a barrage of criticism from MMA and the cage fighting brigade. But the founder Morehei Ueshiba (O-sensei) was feted as the leading martial artist of his day, unable to be bested by anyone regardless of their level of skill, strength or technique. And yet the public perception of aikido is that it is ineffective for self defence. What is it about aikido that encourages such disparagement?

There are three main reasons why aikido is seen as being ineffective.

Firstly, many aikido practitioners do not do aikido for self defence reasons. The founder maybe partly responsible for this as he regularly described aikido as a means of self improvement and an art of embodied love. It has been promoted as a discipline that is non-aggressive and requires neither fitness nor strength therefore open to all sexes and ages. Taking the founder’s message of peace further there is now a proliferation of aikido styles that forswear the use of strikes (atemi), which I understand O sensei used to say comprised 90% of aikido, or weapons. Admittedly there are some styles that are much more aggressive and I suspect these attract a younger clientele. But it seems to me that some of these schools lack the defining element of aikido, which is mercy.

Secondly the situation is made worse when certain aikido practitioners abandon and decry aikido because they have failed to successfully apply aikido techniques in “tests” with other martial arts. Although the idea of testing aikido techniques is laudable, the problem here is that in accepting what is effectively a sporting challenge aikido is being set up to fail.

O sensei defined aikido as budo and stated that one should train as though one’s life depended on it. He was reluctant to give a demonstration to the Emperor because he felt that in showing the “true aikido” appropriate to such a high status individual he ran the risk of injuring or killing his training partner. A sporting challenge on the other hand means accepting rules of engagement that shackle the aikidoka’s options. Additionally the nature of such a test implies that the opponents are not seeking to injure or kill each other but rather testing and seeking opportunities for advantage. In other words they are not engaged in a fight to the death where such single minded intention and commitment provides the energy from which aikido gains its advantage. It is perhaps for this reason that O-sensei decried competition in aikido, it is not a sport!

Thirdly come the external criticisms of aikido. These mostly relate to the following:

  • Technique is never tested in a competition with non-compliant attackers

  • Attacks provided by training partners are not realistic

  • Demonstrations in aikido are choreographed.

  • Cooperative training leads to ineffective technique

Lack of competition

It is true that Osensei did not approve of competitions in aikido. This would make aikido a sport rath r than a budo, Also, in a competition there are winners and losers. The activity plays to the ego of the participants which O-sensei would see as a barrier to goals of self-development.

However, the lack of competition is not necessarily a hindrance to the development of effective technique. Increasing levels of speed, attacking strength and resistance by the attacking partner in the dojo can equally well provide this and, more to the point, in a safer physical space. I don’t see the presence of motivation to win a competition as a prerequisite for an effective, realistic attack. With the right mindset a training partner should be able to provide a level of attack which is realistic to the extent of potentially creating panic and disrupting technique.

It is true that there are some martial benefits from “full contact” training. These include being able to deal with a heightened adrenalin response and improving resistance to pain and strikes. Whether these benefits are a precondition for the development of combat-effective skills in aikido is arguable.

Attacks are unrealistic

The formal attacks used in aikido training mostly derive from Japanese martial history. Wrist grabs probably derive from attempts to prevent the drawing of a katana or tanto, overhead strikes derive from sword cuts. There is very little in this catalogue of formal attacks which resemble any likely modern day attack.

Maybe the reason why the wrist grab has continued as a favoured attack in aikido training is because it gives the student the opportunity to develop technique skill without stress. Aikido demands a relaxed response to aggression and this is difficult to for a student to achieve when under stress. However the nature of this type of training does lead to problems in developing effective technique. A particular problem is that technique practice often starts from static. Although this gives the practitioner the opportunity to understand directions in which the attacker is weak it does not help to create a martial response.

Choreographed demonstrations

Bearing in mind O sensei’s reluctance to demonstrate aikido in front of the Emperor for reasons outlined above, it follows that demonstrations in aikido must be adapted to allow the training partner to take a safe fall. In this sense there is clearly an element of choreography. This leads to the regular criticism of demonstrations that the attacker has “thrown themselves”.

In demonstrations to non-aikido audiences we should make clear the nature of ukemi and the need to accommodate safe falling techniques to prevent injuries. A throw is often not a throw but a protective response by the receiver, so yes, they may be throwing themselves.

The co-operative nature of training

I have become increasingly aware that the style of our training can result in justifiable criticism of our techniques. Both Tohei sensei and Chiba sensei among others have referred to the danger of complacency, self-delusion and misguided confidence resulting from the co-operative nature of training.

Many people come to aikido because they are attracted to the ‘non- aggressive” nature of the art. Indeed aikido is regularly promoted as “the non-aggressive martial art” or “the art of peace”, suitable for all ages and sexes, requiring neither physical fitness nor muscular strength. It therefore naturally attracts a cohort of people pre-disposed to non-physicality. When faced with a martial application of technique probably including a physically and psychologically disruptive atemi I can hear them saying “but this is not aikido!” For these people the budo root of aikido is either lost or irrelevant. This isn’t to say that they should not be practising their way of aikido, but they should recognise that their interpretation, although wonderful for training body, mind and spirit is not effective for self-defence.

The nature of our training, especially at the beginner levels unfortunately tends to reinforce a lack of martiality. Early training often starts with a more or less static grab of a wrist. This has become such an accepted element of training that even in high level public demonstrations this “unrealistic” wrist grab attack is still used.

For a beginner at least a static grab does not create a state of anxiety and allows the student to focus on the essential mechanics of the technique. At this stage the opponent has to be compliant in order avoid the student applying physical effort to make the technique work. Unfortunately after a time this establishes an expectation which results in tori often waiting until a grip has been applied, then considering their response and then, finally moving. If this happened in reality the situation would already be lost. From a budo point of view this is unacceptable. The overall shape of the technique may have been learnt but the principles by which one sets up the conditions for a successful application (for example blending, leading, disrupting, unbalancing, in which atemi may play an important part) are lost. The real problem comes from practitioners continuing to practice in this way throughout their aikido career.

When O sensei sent Terry Dobson back to the UK he told him to “teach the aikido that is not seen”. O sensei also said words to the effect: “if you focus on the outward form of technique you will not understand the essence”. I believe this referred to these other principles together with the skill of driving all movement from the centre through a relaxed and co-ordinated body.

Perhaps we need to be thinking about a much earlier introduction of those elements that lay outside the mechanical application of technique; an earlier move towards awase (combining energies) techniques, less focus on static attacks and wrist grabbing and more testing of technique with non-compliant partners. Without a more self-critical approach to training protocols the budo roots of aikido will slowly disappear and the popularity of aikido, especially with the younger generation will continue to decline.

Notwithstanding the above we should remember that aikido is more than a martial art. A key element of the training is for the student to improve themselves and to seek a virtuous connection with all things, including an aggressor. As O sensei famously said, “true victory is victory over oneself”.

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