“Styles Don’t Work” by Nev Sagiba

“Training methods are for the development of living skill, not mere habits
that are predictable. Strategy must be unpredictable to the opponent”

Styles don’t work. You don’t bring a style to a fight or any emergency.

Styles are for fashion shows. The catwalk, no less. Training methodologies vary. Each and all, in proper context, have some merit and degree of efficacy based on a practical application. If even albeit often forgotten. Touting these training methods as “styles” is a meaningless and deceptive exercise.

Training methods are for the development of living skill, not mere habits that are predictable. Strategy must be unpredictable to the opponent.

In a fight, you do what needs to be done, whatever that may be, often drawing heavily on training. All that does is to provide some measure of unpredictability for the opponent. But there is also a large measure of unpredictability present for you too. Or that’s what the opponent will be trying to effect.

The file paths of consciousness and action can only develop in active training.

If it’s not practical it’s not “spiritual,” and its definitely not Aikido, or for that matter aiki anything. The reason the Aikijutsus were embraced for a thousand years or more is one: THEY WORK AND THEY WORK WELL.

But not as an intellectual exercise. Bring your intellectual capacity to a fight and you will quickly get is shut down, particularly if it starts spouting through the mouth.

Action wisdom uses an entirely different part of the body-brain mechanisms than does, for example, making a shopping list, philosophizing, talk-osophising, working out sums. They are related but as distant relatives, having their own unique purpose.

Strategic thinking is a natural survival mechanism that bridges the gap between the primitive instincts and acquired conscious skill. It takes work. Lots of it. Often. Good training augments this gift of strategy.

You don’t do logic with a hungry raptor. You can try but it won’t work. For one, he does not speak your language. For two, he’s faster than you. And.. you catch my drift.

The other day during a talkfest, one of the quiet students quietly mumbled a comment, “Those that talk don’t know and those that know don’t talk.”

That’s pretty much the all of it. You can’t do and describe with optimal practical functionality, at the same time.

Training has to be worked. Floral descriptives about technique do not serve to teach. They may inspire, but unless the physical action of attempting, doing, struggling to get it and repeating are enacted with impeccable regularity, do not expect to see changes or to gain any measure of meaningful understanding. Floral descriptives may enthuse, but they also confuse.

How easy it is to watch a master sportsman or a musician or an actor or anyone skilled in their art, and as an instant expert, make executive comments based on nothing. That’s what opinion is worth unless you have trodden the path and are better in practice, not merely ideas about opinions.

That’s probably where “Put up or shut up,” or the gambler’s provocation, “Put your money where your mouth is,” comes from.

Or the quiet but deadly, “Would you like to ride this horse?” Many have died from that one. Following the middle ages, “en garde” was the one quick warning. Or the more “gentlemanly” folly of a slap across the face with gloves or in some cases, done ignobly with heavy metal gauntlets, which put paid to the duel in advance.

Style. I hate the word. It is deceptive. It blinds. It generates inertia. It kills exploration. It distorts clear thinking. It murders initiative.

When you take something that is alive and cram it into a square box with no air and no variety of life or challenges, first it stops growing and then it dies.

Attachment to a style is like the Zen concept of detachment which some quasi-zen, quasi-intellectuals get attached to and thereby miss the oxymoron of it. Who cares? Life is here and now as it is.

My advice is this: Chuck out the styles. Instead practice with a clear and noticing mind giving clear thought to how you would use what you do to SURVIVE.

Then take it to the dojo. Test it safely. Reconsider. Edit. Refine. Edit again. Refine some more. Let it go and then return to practice some more, always training with a feeling of joyful respect.

If the “styles” or training methodologies you use do not lead you to discover a practical ki no nagare that starts to unlock its infinite potentials, it has failed, and they are either useless, or it is you who are simply being lazy and not training enough or sincerely.

Put the work in first.

Nev Sagiba


  1. bruce baker says:

    There is no particular style to success.

    The ability to adapt, to change, to see the situation for what it is and be able to act based on the information of that situation is what, I think, Mr. Nev Sagiba is talking about.

    The nature of most fighting “styles” is to influence the set of events before them to come within the familiar movements they have trained. If someone can evade those parameters, then one must find another way to deal with the situation.

    What I am saying is that for any particular situation you probably will never be the one in the spotlight of attention, or the one who needs to fight.

    Will you know how to play your part for part of crowd?

    Will you know how to play your part as an citizen reading in some news media or hearing about circumstances that are terribly unjust?

    Will you know how to play your part as a stranger, or a friend, talking to another person as “your being you”, that is … just by being alive doing what you do everyday, changes their lives and yours too?

    Are you aware of the chain of small events that cause the circumstances of any particular situation and how one small event, or word, can change everything?

    It is not always fighting or physical skills, but sometimes just being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. There was no Aikido in 1920. Fact is, the Aikido we know today is an evolution of training techniques put together and practiced after World War 2.

    Don’t get stuck in a mindset of style, but realize Aikido is a style of practice that maintains a certain approach to learning a set of skills. Depending upon your point of view for education, it can be a foundation, or part of your education for something that can help you to be a better human being.

    In my opinion, it will certainly improve the quality of life you enjoy, so it is certainly worth exploring and incorporating into your journey along the road of life.

    I think that is the real point. Incorporating your study of Aikido into the fabric of your life is a good thing. It is not the only thing, or the center of the universe, but it is good on so many levels are part of who you are and who you will become over long long road.

    Too often … we see the good points of a style of practice, and we don’t see the harm. We should not be blind to the good and the bad. Seeing both is what nature is all about. It takes both to understand, and we need a understand for every positive there is a negative. This is the nature of the universe around us.

    Question is … will you take the time to study what is around you in a way that lets you see the bigger picture in terms you can grasp and understand?

  2. Brandon Clapp says:

    Well said, much to consider here, thank you.

  3. Jerry Wang says:

    Dear Nev Sagiba & all Aikidoka,

    I partially agree with your “philosopher vesus practitioner” metaphore. “The barking dogs don’t bite and the biting dogs don’t bark” saying or the saying that “an addict can’t be a good drug dealer but a sober person would not want to deal in drugs” are true some of the times. I am not sure of your standards but known figures like Steven Seagal seemed both loquacious and biting.

    Saotome sensei’s book lured me to Aikido around 1995. I came to it for the philosophical aspects but after 13 years, I have studied in numerous dojos and visited Abe sensei on a pilgrimage to Tanabe led by Matsuoka sensei. I was told to test a few times but felt no incentive. I guess I am the talking type and not the hardcore type even though for years I took 11 classes a week at Tenshin Dojo in West LA.

    I lost interest partially because some dojos shut down or moved. While I loved Aikido, I “felt” or “experienced” much non-Aiki practiced in daily dealings in the dojos I trained in. I experienced the notion that “Horses are made to run, birds are made to fly, fish are made to swim, and people are made to think”. My Aiki path dead-ended.

    In the last 7 years, I had “philosophized” with Bob Ito (the lab technician in Quincy who holds 5th dan from Nishio Sensei’s school via Shibata Sensei at Venice Japanese community center). With Bob I basically stand there for 1.5 hours a week, in business casual attaire, experiencing Tohei Sensei’s 4 principles and etc. This I have found to be astonishing and “spiritual” in that universal principles do work in spite of our humanity??!!#@$%.

    My approach to Aikido can be seen during our vacation in Kona for 2009 New Year. Our friends grimaced as I ate the cold leftover fish and fries from the night before. I responded that the nutrition content of the cold fries is about the same as when they are hot. I came to Aikido to acquire skills that will improve my marriage and work life (i.e., I was looking for Aiki nutrients because at the Spectrum club, there are lots of Pilates, Zumba, Latina Fiesta, Cardio Kickbox, Yoga, Tai-Chi, Spinning, NIA, and other classes that taught skills, conditioning, strengthening, flexibility).

    Luckily I found Aiki nutrients for myself and I do need to practice but like you said, the phiosophers have no disciplne. I do take up to 10 classes a week at the Spectrum club in Culver City, CA. I woudl take more classes but on weekends, we are busy wiht our daughter’s gymnastics and other family matters. I have been teaching security guards at my work the “Harmony Versus Coercion” principles. The class is geared 50% toward daily life and 50% to save yourself when attacked (i.e., survive).

    As far as all the talk about fighting skills and etc. My personal feeling is that the male dog syndrome will last as long as there are male dogs. Tom Cruise in the Last Samauri showed the time when sword carrying became illegal in Japan. My buddy Mike who served 5 years in Iraq, Afganistan, and various African countries never had to survive a fist fight though he did fire a few rounds not knowing if anyone was actually hit.

    In this day and age, my humble personal take is that the ordinary people on average never has to have a fist fight. The cops and the security guards are armed and I can’t see why they woudl want to brawl. Contrary to my White Lotus Kung Fu and Korean martial arts practiing in-laws, I believe there is very little chance one would need to break someone else’s face, even the face of a drunken homeless person hanging around Santa Monica promenade. I feel all that huffing and puffing is fear mixed in with the male dog (note, I guess there are feisty dogs in all genders) syndrome where being dominance and right is always an issue.

    The reality remains that Win-Win is impossible when you are the sure loser. It is important to stay fit and be ready for the “what if’s” but all that hardwork in the name of self defense, in my opinion, is more imaginary than real unless civil war or foreign forces invade the continent US. Even then, unlike Tom Cruise, we will most likely not fight with a sword or empty hand.

    As in the personal truth principle, what is true for anyone is true for that person. I am expressing myself freely while respecting that others also believe their beliefs are true. So, I offer some principles of truth for everyone’s consideration or dismissal without preferring acceptance over rejection. A universal truth such as gravity is true even if no one beleives in it. Opinions and values are like armpits, everyone has at least two and you have seen my (-:

    Create 2009 as Your Best year Ever!

    Many thanks for your precious time and Best wishes,



  4. Rafael Martinez says:

    I respectfully disagree. I think that all styles are important at a basic level. Otherwise why bother with teaching or learning them? A style serves as a way of getting the basics under your belt. From there we can go on to expand our individual art. Keep in mind that not all people are creative artists. Some of them will be left behind, unable to grow beyond their art. However, a well thought out style will take this into account and still provide an adequate form of self defense.
    We begin with technique but we exit from it in the end. We can’t all start out as masters such as yourself. Additionally, I think you give the bad guys too much credit. I’ve seen low level practitioners of an art fight their way out of situations they would have lost had they not studied a fighting art form. Not all bad guys are skilled fighters. I speak from direct experience.
    While I understand the point you are making, I think it does a disservice to those who are beginning their martial arts career. Are you suggesting we should study no style at all?
    It seems to me that you also have a style, perhaps it is unorthodox, but nonetheless it can be classified as your style.

  5. Styles are easy to see. Mistakes are easy to see. Could it be that training styles are the mistakes that are left over in a particular pattern of practice? Could style be simply a distillation of mistakes which aren’t particularly fatal to completing the technique and therefore persist? Almost anybody with some degree of skill can imitate a style, but isn’t it difficult to actually imitate a good technique? Maybe techniques are like Platonic ideals. Nobody can draw a Platonic line. Any attempt reflects a style of drawing.

  6. Sensei had brief responses to various things. Among these were the following:

    When people apologised when they imagined they failed, he would say, “Not wrong, different.”

    When asked about other arts, “All same thing.”

    Regarding stylistic differences, “Similar but different.”

    Regarding what makes a big difference, “Notice small things.”

  7. So much certainty … so little time

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