“All martial arts have the same inherent conflict: Art is about beauty / Self defense is about survival – and real survival is rarely pretty or easy.”
In re-reading the 1992 article by Stan Pranin “An End to the Collusion,” I was struck by the timeliness and increasing relevance of his honest comments about the choreographed nature and artificiality of most aikido demonstrations and much of our aikido practice. Stan also has us confront the casual and sloppy manner in which aikido is often practiced. This increasingly popular “aikido lite” with lots of eye candy and sorry imitations of the Founder is supposed to be expressing harmony and non-violence.
I love the art of aikido as I know Stan does, and when lax, casual practice passes for harmony, and when training with effort and intensity is considered “violent” then we have surely lost the Founder’s Way. We have trivialized what is profound, and made superficial that which should have depth, the Founder’s earnest struggle to learn and understand, and find new possibilities in conflict. Our modern culture attempts to make everything light and easy, even O’Sensei’s work of a lifetime.
We have all seen the cooperative choreography Stan described in which uke does what is expected of him, and when in doubt – falls down. I am often (sadly) amused when old training pals who are now Senseis perform ultra subtle-seemingly effortless movements that send the uke flying! Their first attempt often does not work well or at all – but after that (when uke knows what he is expected to do) – it works like magic! Our capacity for self deception seems to have no bounds. If these fellows would admit what they are doing has nothing to do with self protection and is purely fun, play, art, and performance that would be fine. But it is presented as “traditional aikido,” which is dishonest and demeaning to both aikido and to the Founder.
I do not mean to oversimplify the problem. All martial arts have the same inherent conflict: Art is about beauty / Self defense is about survival – and real survival is rarely pretty or easy. Real fighting is ugly, violence is ugly, period. To make an “art” out of such a thing is a rather strange creation really. But God help us there is something about it we love. O’Sensei clearly struggled with this through much of his life.
Aikido is partly the study of how to make violent situations less violent, and each aikido class/every technique is a search for alternatives to fight or flight/kill or be killed. For this practice or demonstration to be so artificially easy and showy trivializes violence. Violence is a horror, it is life changing in the worst way. We have no right to trivialize violence. We should use the danger and intensity of authentic martial training to sharpen our awareness, self discipline and energy.
Another inherent conflict in martial art is between safety and reality. The more realistic the practice – the more dangerous the practice. My teacher in Iwama used to urge us to practice “dangerously carefully,” meaning do the most effective movements, and do them powerfully, but with full awareness of the profound consequences one lapse of judgement, one moment of inattention may have. Training in Iwama was intense, sometimes scary, but injuries were rare.
I have found that the more “real” and practical my practice, and the more powerfully I move – the more slowly I must practice, unless with a very advanced and trusted training partner. Yet even following these guidelines practice can never approach real combat. Those martial artists who believe their practice or competition is like “real fighting” are fools. In the projects of Brooklyn someone is often shot or stabbed in the first few seconds of a confrontation, weapons seem to come out of nowhere. The threat from the front is often a mirage, the real attack often comes from the rear.
So for every thoughtful student and teacher of the martial arts the tension between art and martial integrity will always exist. There is room for those at either end of the spectrum, but with martial intensity absent, reflected in lifeless or artificial attacks, light strikes, light grabs, and foolish demonstrations of “advanced technique,” dishonesty and self delusion pervades the practice. This gets people hurt in the real world, and for earnest new students believing they are studying a valid self defense art it is a misleading fraud. And to most outside observers, to the uninitiated, the emperor clearly has no clothes and aikido is seen as an obvious farce.
As I begin my 23rd year in law enforcement it’s not hard to understand why some degree of practicality in my aikido training has been important to me. But as I approach 60 years old I love my aikido training most for its affect on my body. With all the bumps, bruises and occasional sprains my body – especially knees and back are closer to that of the average thirty year old, I have no doubt regular intense aikido practice has given me that gift. I believe aikido to be the best and most powerful form of yoga ever invented, and I fully understand and respect those who do martial arts primarily for health.
But teachers whose only interest or skill is in the health, beauty or performance aspects of the art should be open and up front about it. If you do not know for sure if your technique would work outside the dojo, be honest and say so. If you are not clear which techniques are practical and which are purely training exercises, say so. If what you do doesn’t work when someone holds you tight or strikes you hard do not blame the attacker for being too violent and not having the right aikido spirit. No, thank them for showing you the truth. If aikido as you practice it is not really a martial art be up front about it, let your students know that, because that critical knowledge may save their lives.