I would very much like to thank Stan Pranin Sensei for his thought-provoking article on the Virtues of Aikido. The article first appeared in 2002 but it took seeing it again recently to inspire me to write. Stan listed many attributes of aikido practice. Additionally, he devoted a considerable portion of the article to the lack of martial spirit that is prevalent in aikido practice today, why that is the case and made suggestions for improvement. The issues he brought up about the state of aikido practice are what I will address here, in my response.
Stan’s comments shine a spotlight on the need for serious aikido students and instructors to emphasize martial effectiveness. He goes on to say that focusing on stronger attacks and doing some cross training to learn more effective ways to punch and kick would help the aikido student to practice more realistically. Mentioned in the article is the need for nage to practice kiai, atemi, and taking the balance of the attacker. Stan explains how a martial atmosphere in the dojo brings not only effectiveness of technique but also a heightened consciousness that follows the practitioner off the mat and into daily life. I agree with these points as well as the recommendations for how one can improve one’s practice.
The striking attacks in aikido such as shomeuchi, yokomenuchi and tsuki come from Japanese sword traditions. These types of attacks are classical in nature and when practiced with commitment and intent build strong conditioning, timing, responsiveness and most importantly enhance the kokyu-ryoku, the vital life force energy of both uke and nage. It is a good idea to train one’s skills at these attacks, however, it’s important to keep in mind that the classical aikido attacks have been adapted from swordsmanship and reflect an ancient paradigm of the samurai who fought on the battlefields of feudal Japan. How they trained and fought were influenced by bushido, the ancient Japanese code of chivalry. The type of attack that one may encounter today, in a dark alley is very different. This leaves the aikido practitioner the task of spontaneously adapting their classical training to the situation at hand. It is of course possible but it takes a very talented person to be able to connect the dots in the heat of the moment.
In an effort to adapt aikido training to modern day self-defense situations I have changed the aikido test requirements at Tenzan Aikido. It is only the beginning and is a work-in-progress. I am taking small steps because I don’t want to lose qualities that are unique to aikido. I train my students in basic boxing skills and I teach four classes a week in Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). One way that I integrate BJJ into the regular aikido classes is to work on shooting, a skill that BJJ fighters use to close the distance while minimizing the chance of the opponent’s strikes landing. Once in close, I teach how to apply an aikido technique. I still have my students drill the traditional aikido techniques until they gain command over them. This is what helps the aikidoist to tap in to core power and glean the benefits that I mentioned above. Perhaps10 percent of the time I have them applying aikido principles to techniques borrowed from other martial arts. My goal is to impart strong self-defense skills to every student who reaches the level of black belt at Tenzan Aikido. You may see the test requirements by going to the links page at tenzanaikido.com
I agree wholeheartedly with Stan when he suggests that instructors get back into training again and that they should consider taking a little ukemi. Aikido teachers tend to stop taking regular ukemi when they reach the rank of 4th Dan. There are many reasons for this. Some are simply lazy. They start putting on weight as their bodies start to weaken from lack of activity. Then they get injured on the few occasions that they do take ukemi because they are out of shape. This combined with poor personal habits such as overeating, smoking and heavy alcohol consumption only make things worse. Now that the instructor has real injuries, he winds up doing even less, which only strengthens this debilitating cycle. I’ve seen this syndrome clearly apparent in many of the most prominent aikido teachers in the world. This becomes a legacy that one generation passes on to the next. On the bright side, I understand that Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei still regularly takes ukemi from his students. I remember visiting his dojo years ago and seeing him taking ukemi in his class. Since he is one of the foremost aikido teaches in the world, he serves as a brilliant example of humility and someone who genuinely loves aikido.
I’ve observed especially among the professional instructors the tendency to think of taking ukemi as undignified. Some refer to it as sempai ukemi (the ukemi that those senior to us take). This is where the senior student or the teacher ceremonially delivers an attack, becoming very heavy, disengaging from junior nage and falling slowly, by himself, making it clear to junior nage and anybody watching that he really didn’t have to fall. Then when it comes time for junior uke to take the fall, he is expected to fly around as if senior nage had magical powers. This kind of practice leads to egos that far surpass actual ability.
Every encounter on the mat does not have to be a life–and-death situation with people resisting each other all the time. In fact a good amount of the time there should be a mutual cooperation between uke and nage where they find the balance between too much resistance and not practicing with enough martial intent. My position is that wherever students find that balance point to be, it is important for both practitioners to respect each other and be sensitive to their physical limitations.
I remember a friend of mine practicing at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo in the late 70’s. I don’t wish to reveal his identity so I will call him Sam. The senior teacher strolled around the mat, stopping where Sam was practicing and beckoned him to grab his wrist. Sam was not trying to resist but held firmly. The teacher made some kind of a move that Sam could not follow leaving Sam standing there, not realizing that he was suppose to fall. Sam spoke fluent Japanese and understood every word as the teacher turned to the class. He criticized Sam for having bad ukemi and said that he would be better off quitting aikido. Sam felt terrible about not knowing how to take the ukemi. Before he took this teacher’s class again he decided to first drink a beer and eat a pastrami sandwich. He thought that the beer would help him with his fluidity and relaxation while the pastrami sandwich sitting on his gut would remind him of his center. This time, after grabbing the teacher’s wrist, Sam hit the deck with the slightest movement of the teacher’s arm. The teacher exclaimed at how much Sam’s ukemi had improved in such a short time! I can only wonder at what the teacher was trying to get across to Sam regarding his ukemi.
I fully realize that some students struggle with physical ailments that prevent them from taking ukemi. And of course they need to be careful. Also, people need to practice ukemi that is appropriate to their age. It used to be said that those who are 40 or older should not take high falls. I think that it depends on the individual, but high falls are not necessary. Ukemi comes from the root word ukeru, which means to receive or absorb. When practicing aikido the uke absorbs the technique and gains a deeper understanding of the waza. The act of absorbing the technique is the necessary quality to good ukemi. At age 50, I still take a fair amount of ukemi, including high falls and feel pretty good. My dear friend, an aikido instructor, tells me that when I hit 54 I’ll be paying the price. Every decade he’s been telling me about what’s going to happen to me when I get to be his age and he hasn’t been right yet! As Stan says, by participating in the give-and-take of training, a person could add another 10 vital years to their mat life.
I put conscious attention toward following a healthy lifestyle. Over the last decade I’ve integrated yoga into my aikido classes. Yoga not only provides stretching exercises but also helps us to focus on channeling our internal energy. According to the teachings of Patanjali, founder of yoga, the postures were meant to prepare people for meditation practice. That’s ideal for aikido since it is an art that gets people to look inward. As an instructor, I have made going through the yoga routine, part of my job thereby establishing a built in mechanism to work on myself as I teach others. With the help of my wife, Colette, I eat a very good vegetarian diet. Although Colette is a complete vegetarian, I occasionally eat fish or chicken. No alcohol or tobacco. I’ve also found that regular acupuncture boost the immune system. Each day meditation is a part of my life. Getting out into nature is also helpful to remember what’s important in life. We are bombarded with so many modern distractions that it is imperative that we make our physical, mental and spiritual health a priority.
Stan mentioned that the less realistic nature of much of the aikido in the world is due to the restraints put on the martial artist during the American occupation of Japan after WWII. That certainly seems like a plausible explanation but leads me to wonder, for example why was it that Japanese karate did not lose its combative element? I know that karate does not have the long history in Japan that the ko-budo arts do but it was around before the war. I just read a biographical sketch of Mas Oyama, founder of Kiyokushinkai Karate, who was noted to have participated in a karate tournament only two years after the war ended. Those taking part in the tournament must have been practicing in the year or two leading up to the event. If a martial art as combative as karate was allowed, why would aikido practice be so restricted? Perhaps it is my shortcoming but to me the intent of the ukes in the prewar films of O-sensei didn’t look any more martially intent than did the post war ukes. My theory is that O-sensei often would show only the gesture of a movement and leave it up to his students to fill in the rest depending on their individual interpretation.
O-sensei was known for keeping a small group of uchideshi close to him, giving them severe training and offering the rest of the membership a gentler version of his teachings. This allowed a place for the mainstream person to practice in the dojo while O-sensei continued to evolve and pass on his art to those who were most committed. I believe that O-sensei created aikido to have broad appeal. O-sensei wanted to reach not only martial artists but also people who might not be inclined to do a martial art so that they too could experience the peaceful message of aikido. Of course this would make the Aikikai organization more financially successful, a concept that I am sure was not lost on O-sensei (or Kisshomaru Sensei). Keeping practice gentle and perhaps a little diffuse may have been intended to make aikido something that would be palatable to a cross section of modern society.
O-sensei created a mystical martial art and a dojo culture that provided a space for everybody – hardcore martial artist, spiritual seeker, fitness buff – regardless of age, physical condition or cultural background. His work was of the type that others could template from in setting up their own dojos. I was fortunate enough to first be exposed to O-sensei’s work through Yamada Sensei at the New York Aikikai as a young boy. That’s when it became clear to me that O-sensei’s concept included a place for a troubled 12 year-old from the streets of Greenwich Village. It is those early impressions that remind me that martial intent, technical skills of ukemi and that the overall atmosphere in the dojo must always be tempered by sensitivity and compassion.
Again I thank Stan for his article and in general for the immeasurable service that he gives to the aikido community through Aikido Journal.
August 29, 2008