“What is Aikido?” by Alister Gillies

“Aiki can be broadly and inadequately defined as unifying one’s energy or intent with that of one’s partner within the framework of prescribed forms…”

When I went to Japan in 2007, I learned that one must find one’s own way in Aikido, regardless of style, affiliation, or teacher. Two teachers confirmed this, one ancient (85), and one relatively modern (53), each separately affirming what the other said without any collusion and without ever having met. I did not ask them a direct question, but they seemed to know what I was looking for.

Now it makes much more sense than it did at the time – I seem to learn the important things by a sort of slow release process, in contrast with my cultural disposition and desire for everything right now. My own few students are always (the few that I have) asking questions about things that they will not be able to understand for a while, but this seems too patronising to say to them, so I try my best to answer their questions in the full knowledge that it won’t help them. When they do understand, they will not even remember what I said.

Aikido is made up of two elements, and not three, as is commonly supposed in translation – ai-ki-do. It is ‘aiki – do’. The two elements are confusingly both separate and unified simultaneously. They are not, in the language beloved of sociologists and psychobabblists ‘interdependent’, or ‘symbiotic’, or any other pseudo-scientific or pseudo-ancient term.

In a sense, the way that the terms have been used from 1969 onwards pretty much sums up the history of Aikido. While O Sensei wasn’t much bothered about what it was called, he agreed to settle on the name Aikido – it seemed reasonable at the time.

At the time of the big schism – two guys arguing about the one thing – the agreement was to go their separate ways with their separate understanding. The ai – ki – do side, almost sounding like the tapping of a sculptor wielding a chisel, was castigated by the other ki side as being stiff and unyielding. The ki side talked about aikido as soft, smooth and flowing, and this seemed so ethereal to the other side that, as realists, with the true blood connection, they had to question its authenticity. What developed subsequently was a marketing war, and as we know, some you win, some you lose.

Aiki was really the thing, though, but only one could use the term. But you had to practice forever before anyone would reveal it to you! The ki crowd were teaching aiki too, but they called it ki, because it was different? Again you had to practice for ever to understand it, because it was claimed that no one could understand it?

(As a side note, we now know that aiki was being taught by other schools not connected to Aikido, so there’s really no foundation for treating it as exclusively the possession of anyone style within Aikido)

So there you have it, the oversimplified history of Aikido: two groups of people arguing about the same thing, which neither could understand, and even if they did, were not going to tell anyone about it unless they knew them for at least a whole lifetime. And people wonder why no one takes Aikido seriously!

Aiki, although the subject of infinitely variable definitions, can be broadly and inadequately defined as unifying one’s energy or intent with that of one’s partner within the framework of prescribed forms. When sufficiently aiki adept at those forms, then one is able to practice at the level of Takemusu Aiki, or spontaneous creation of technique – the implicit assumption being that if one can internalise the principles contained within the kata, then there is no technique, no posture and no mind. This can lead, or at least put one in the right direction to, the ‘way’, wherein one can find both the source and reason for existence (http://buddhismtaoism.suite101.com/article.cfm/reason_for_life).

Teachers cannot give this to their students, but can act as guides for students to find it within themselves. Not all teachers are able do this and some that can purposely withhold it in order to keep their dojos or organisations full. With aiki, quality is the keyword, and not quantity. In order to teach it effectively, it requires considerable one-to-one input from a teacher. This naturally obviates against large classes.

The principle of Shu-Ha-Ri inevitably entails students moving on and starting up on their own. Teachers that are unable to guide their students in the aiki way are often heard espousing the value of basics ad nauseum. They are like builders who can only construct foundations, but not houses, or like a music teacher that refuses to go beyond the basic scales and exercises – their students will never make music of their own.

The do element is a highly subjective one. It is one’s life, and although linked to Aikido, in the sense that Aikido can help prepare one to find one’s way in terms of helping to develop an aiki sensibility, Aikido is not ones life. For some the opposite may be true, but that is a type of attachment and is placing the cart before the horse.

The aiki forms, or techniques designed to elicit aiki skills, are a kind of objective correlative. They reflect one’s subjective condition or mind. In the same way that a teacher of calligraphy can tell a student’s condition by their brush work, or a Zen teacher by someone’s posture, an accomplished Aikido teacher can see more than just a shihonage.

The aiki element is where a teacher can help as a guide; the do element is where the student is on their own working with the teacher within. An insightful teacher understands when the two diverge and can marvel at the wonder of human nature.


  1. Would you clarify the contradiction I perceive?

    You appear to me to begin by making light of the aiki-organizations politics. Then, you seem to enter the fight with your comments on teachers who focus on basics to a degree you consider counter-productive.

    What is my misunderstanding?

  2. I’m sorry the author doesn’t seem to have much appreciation of technique. Aikido really DOES have some subtle technical stuff. Granted not all technicians teach it, nor is it completely easy to learn, but it yields a certain amount of fascination and satisfaction as we train the years away. Saito Sensei, the elder, was humble and generous enough to pass along the material that’s necessary to start that exploration.

  3. There is a degree of absurdity about politics, Aikido politics included. But I am not criticising basics, they are fundamental to any improvement, technical or otherwise. What I am poking fun at is teachers who make a virtue out of their unwillingness to go beyond basics, or take on board their own limitaions, and thereby limit their own and their students’ potential for development. Even teachers need to be taught and that requires a willingness to have a beginners mind, get out of your comfort zone, humility, whatever…

  4. It seems to me that aikido politics, like any other type, is rooted in individuals’ inability to overcome their baseness. Poking fun at it, like laughing at a child with cancer, doesn’t help people. Politics are a symptom of pain.

    Further, I believe that students come and go according to how the instructor meets their needs. If a student accompanies an instructor and the instructor is well intentioned, then good comes from that relationship. It may not clearly be Aikido, but if it’s good and it’s what the student needs, then it’s a good path that I think we should celebrate rather than degrade.

    It’s a good article. It pushed me to think.

  5. Thanks, Adam. I’m glad you got something from the article. It’s not my intention to degrade or belittle anyone, just to provoke thought and discussion.

  6. I can see that and also recognize that I’m likely over-analyzing.

    I wasn’t clear on calling it a good article. I found the topic highly relevant, well articulated and refreshingly direct. Very enjoyable.

  7. I find the politics in aikido, and especially the big splits right at the early trunk of the aikido tree to be fascinating. It if you look at the “tree” of aikido, it followed the pattern of trees such as the Japanese Crepe Myrtle and Japanese Liliac. They are some of the worlds fastest growing trees; providing for a large area coverage in a short amount of time.

    Ueshiba was into farming. And he also wanted for aikido to spread to the world. Don’t think the man didn’t know what he was doing. Those splits were part of the design. It also allows for a relatively rapid stages of shuhari. Which, in turn, more splits, further growth and greater coverage.

    Look familiar?

  8. Nice tree analogy, but let’s not forget the bonsai, the only tree that grows downwards! The process is cheerfully aided by binding its roots and clipping its branches and twisting them out of their natural shape with wires.

    But let’s not dwell too much on the analogous mangled bodies and tortured souls found in aikido, as everywhere in this imperfect world, and look rather for the fruit from which we may tentatively judge the tree.

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