What is this Aikido that everyone is talking about?
Aikido the Martial Art
Aikido is a modern Japanese Martial Art that has a harmonious philosophy. It is probably one of the most ironic martial arts in the world because it teaches an effective self-defence system yet its aim is harmony, good citizenship and even peace. Not a lot of people will get this concept, that’s why I believe Aikido is beautifully unique.
The tale of the peaceful warrior
There was an old Samurai tale. Long ago in Japan, a young Samurai warrior asked his old Sensei (teacher) a question that has been bothering him for years.
“For years you teach me the warrior’s martial arts and every day you show us how to fight, but you talk about peace and harmony with the universe. How do you reconcile the two?”
The old Sensei replied…
“It is better to be warrior in a garden than a gardener in war”
During WWII, Morihei Ueshiba Osensei (‘Great Teacher’), the founder of Aikido retired to Iwama Ibaraki disgusted by the violence of the war. A dojo (‘the place of the way’, aka training place) was built there for Osensei.
Iwama was a little farming village. Osensei lived there from 1942 until his death in 1969.
The land on which the dojo and shrine were built was first purchased in 1940. In 1943 the first part of the current Aiki Jinja and an “outdoor dojo” where he lived a life of “Buno Ichinyo” (the union of agriculture and Budō).This dojo was completed in 1945 and was originally called “The Aiki Shuren Dojo” (合気修練道場, lit. harmonising drill dojo). The first ‘Aiki Shuren Dojo’ was born and many Iwama Ryu dojos around the world followed this suit and named their dojos ‘Aiki Shuren’ after Osensei’s first dojo.
At first, the dojo did not include tatami mats, and students received training directly upon the wooden floor. If you can appreciate this is hard training, falling on wooden floors is not easy in the body, doing shiko (knee walking) on wooden floors is not easy on the knees. Eventually, 24 mats were installed. The dojo was later moved to the present day location (across the road) and expanded to 60 mats. When the founder formally established the Aikikai for the promotion of Aikido in 1948, the dojo served as the world headquarters for the art and remained so until the opening of the new Aikikai Hombu Dojo in 1956.
In Iwama, Osensei fused all the martial arts he knew, broke off his ties with Daito Ryu, called his martial art and his masterpiece Aikido.
Aikido was born in Iwama. Osensei’s Aikido in today’s terms is now known as Iwama Aikido.
Osensei’s Aikido Dojo in Iwama
For the history of Aikido please read the work of the Aikido Scholar Stanley Pranin here.
At North Sydney Aikido we practice Osensei’s Aikido that was organised by Morihiro Saito Sensei.
Aikido can be broken down into the following curriculum:
1) Bukiwaza (weapon techniques) 50%
I) Aiki Ken
II) Aiki Jo
III) Tanto Waza
2) Taijutsu (body arts aka empty hand techniques) 50%
I) Osae Waza (pinning and control techniques)
Ikkyo, Nikyo, Sankyo, Yonkyo, Gokyo, Rokyo
II) Nage Waza (throwing techniques)
When friends or lovers come together to talk, play, dance, or whatever, harmony arises from the mutual interest of the participants. When a couple dances together, there is a desire on both sides to move with the music, follow the tenants of a particular style of dance (waltzing, tango, two-step, etc.), and mutually enjoy the experience.
Conflict, on the other hand, happens when the interest of one party is being imposed on another. Violent conflict occurs when one person attempts to harm another using an unarmed attack or one involving a weapon. (Violent conflict can also extend to verbal abuse, emotional damage, etc., but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Aikido is the study of martial techniques that can be applied in situations of violent conflict. This is an intensive or an extreme way to learn because from we are learning how to achieve harmony and calmness via conflict and stress.
Read about the Aikido Mind here to understand the five minds of Aikido.
Before harmony can begin, there needs to be awareness. The signs of a potentially violent situation are there for anyone open enough to see and understand them. There are many aspects of awareness (including emotional climate, verbal language, body language, past history, environment considerations). The point is that you need to be aware of what’s going on around you at all times, especially in situations where violence might occur. Awareness is the start of harmony.
With the awareness that violence has been initiated (or will be soon), blending is the art of aligning physical motion, energy, and spirit. Blended alignment is used to gain control of the situation so that it can be neutralised. If a person tries to punch you (tsuki) fall back (or move around it). If they grab and pull, move forward with them. Once alignment starts, control of the situation can flow from the attacker to the defender. This control is what Aikido technique is all about. Blending requires long, hard practice. There are so many variables to consider it’s difficult to even generalise them. However, over time, the aikidoka (student of Aikido) gains an understanding of basic attacks and how to blend with them such that a defensive technique can be applied.
Aikido technique presents the possibility of gaining control over a violent physical attack. The question then becomes: what will you do with that control? Several resolutions are possible:
- escape – create an opening in which to leave conflict behind.
- meta control – neutralise this attack so that others can be dealt with (usually in multi-person situations).
- immobilisation – physical restraint of the attacker, creating the possibility of verbal resolution.
- end of the conflict – create an awareness in the assailant that physical attacks will not be effective.
The Spirit of Aikido
Please Note: Before you try and understand the effects of Aikido, spiritually and philosophically, let me remind you that Aikido is a martial art first. You need to practice Aikido the martial art (budo) to understand the spirit of Aikido. One cannot use the power of Ki to magically defend him or herself from physical violence.
The concept of Ki (or Chi in the in the Chinese traditions) is that energy flows through your body (and the universe at large). Speaking from a purely philosophical perspective, this energy represents power and the ability to influence both your inner self and the exterior world. It is a very useful concept that allows the student to visualise control and influence in dynamic situations. In Japanese, the character KI, (Ki), can be associated with energy, breath, or spirit. These aspects are all useful to understanding ki.
Ki is often explained as a kind of energy that can be gathered, concentrated, and applied in an Aikido technique. Koichi Tohei Sensei (founder, Ki Society) talks about ki being present all around us – it is light, gravity, motion, and so forth. – the very essence of the whole universe. Others, such as Minoru Inaba (Shiseikan Dojo, Tokyo), teach that ki is generated in the body as a product of metabolism and strength of spirit. Most are in agreement that ki can be gathered into a person’s centre (Hara) where it is concentrated and then directed as needed. Ki can be used to resist motion (unbendable arm), enhance motion (the sword cut), or effect control in a blended situation. It can be used to verbally shock the attacker (ki-ai). Outside of violent situations, it can be used for other purposes, such as healing (Reiki and Ki-gong are examples).
In some traditions, practice with ki is the start of training. Sitting, standing, and in motion, ki is the force that makes Aikido technique work. Ki practice exercises take many forms, including centring, unbendable arm, Kihon-waza forms, and weapons forms. Regardless of when it is introduced in the curriculum, ki as energy is a very useful concept that can aid visualisation and understanding of the very subtle effects that can occur in Aikido.
Traditionally, ki energy was conceptualised as breath or breathing. Regardless of an eastern view of drawing in the energies of the cosmos or the western view of oxidation being vital to the metabolic release of energy in the body, breathing is an important part of Aikido practice. Many schools of Aikido teaching abdominal breathing where the breath (kokyu) is drawn deep into the belly (often through the nose) and expelled in a controlled or forceful manner (often via the mouth). Breathing is another way to visualise ki entering and leaving the body.
Beyond breathings a metaphor for ki power, breathing is an important part of practice. Control of breathing is an important way to control your own body. Only by maintaining control over yourself (starting with breath) can you hope to blend with your opponent and harmonise with him (or her).
Beyond being seen as a form of energy, many aspects of ki are spiritual in nature. Aikido students are taught that their spirit matters. Spirit includes willpower, attitude, concentration, awareness, self-discipline, and belief. Some of these have terms associated with them: mushin (no-mind) or zanshin (focused concentration) for example. Others are described in more general terms or by the effect it will have on technique. Students are encouraged to have a “martial spirit”, to give strong attacks, and apply defences as if they were real situations.
Osensei Ueshiba often taught Aikido as a spiritual exercise. He drew many examples from Japanese mythology (such as those told in the Kojiki ( and from various philosophical beliefs, such as the Kotodama. As a deeply spiritual person himself, he felt that the spiritual aspects of Aikido were essential to understanding it.
Why take up Aikido
‘Do’ Following the Way of Aikido
A Personal Journey
Like many other martial arts, Aikido is considered a “way” – a spiritual path to enlightenment. It is a personal journey that starts with the decision to study it and ends … well, some say that it never ends. Along the way, the student encounters many personal challenges. Some of these are physical (the strength to perform some move), motivational (it takes a long time before even basic proficiency is reached), emotional (political conflicts within a school), and even spiritual (bowing to graven images of the founder). The challenges lead to a deeper understanding of the art, but there are also many positive moments as well. Finally grasping a basic technique, passing a test, making friends; perhaps finding the strength you didn’t know you had.
There is no special path up the mountain. Some are recommended over others. Some have been blazed by other students and teachers. Other students may be a bit further down the road or trailing behind you, but there is a comfort knowing that all are on the same journey.
In the early days of Aikido, there was no rank system. You trained, you practised, you did what the instructor told you to do. Over time, you were acknowledged as an intermediate student, an advanced student, or perhaps even encouraged to teach yourself. Rank systems serve two basic purposes: they motivate students to strive for deeper understanding and they define a measure of accomplishment. Classical studies have shown that learning is enhanced when rewarded. Recognition of rank advancement is one way to acknowledge that a student has mastered certain aspects of Aikido. Rank can also be used to foster safety in the dojo. Students close to each other in rank often practice together. In situations where there is a large difference in rank, the more senior is expected to tailor their responses appropriately to the level of their partner.