“A Consideration of Aikido Practice within the Context of Internal Training,” by Ellis Amdur

Ellis Amdur

Then he said, “Before you go, is there anything you want to ask me?” So I said simply, “O-Sensei, what is aikido?” He responded by saying, “Well, let me write it down for you and someday you can read it and understand.” What he wrote were the words: “intellectual training, physical training, virtue training, ki training-these produce practical wisdom.” He added that it wouldn’t do for even one of these to be missing, that lacking any one of them would render everything for naught and inevitably slow one’s overall development. One must, he told me, always maintain a harmonious balance among these.

Interview with Mariye Takahashi, Aikido Journal #120

My First Encounters with the Subject of Internal Power Training

Morihei Ueshiba

As I have written elsewhere,1 my first view of aikido smacked me between the eyes like a bolt from the great beyond: first, because it seemed to offer a moral vision, appearing to be an embodiment of the resolution of conflict; secondly, it seemed possible that through the practice of aikido, one could possibly acquire almost superhuman power. Both of these “promises” seemed to be proven by accounts of the life and translated sayings, as well as photos and films, of the warrior-sage, Ueshiba Morihei. This led me to five years of training an average of six hours a day, including a stint living on the mat of the Bond Street Dojo. However, although I encountered some superlative martial artists, both in America and among the aikido shihan in Japan, none whom I personally met displayed the kind of power, referred to in Japanese by such terms as nairiki or aiki, and in English as “internal strength,” that was attributed to Ueshiba. Although many of these shihan were far more highly skilled than I would ever be, all of their techniques were “physically understandable;” they simply were better athletes and in some cases, better fighters than I was, the same as high level judoka and kickboxers among whom I later met and trained.

I did encounter the teachings of Tohei Koichi, and trained at his dojo in Honolulu. However, the four basic principles seemed, at the time, to merely be ways to relax the body to allow the flow of “ki” which, in every discussion I heard, was a kind of etheric “substance,” like some sort of electricity that one directed at will through one’s body. I never did meet Tohei (perhaps my loss), but at any rate, I found nothing exceptionally different from other aikido teachers among the leading lights among his disciples whom I did meet, nor did anyone seem to offer training which provided an avenue to the acquisition of that kind of power, even at aikido’s headquarters dojo. Eventually, I met with Osawa Kisaburo and formally resigned my training in aikido and concentrated on other martial arts. 2

Wang Shujin (1904-1981)

I was later fortunate to meet several teachers among Chinese martial artists who had very high levels of internal training. I didn’t know if what they were doing was the same as that of Ueshiba, but I did know that it was remarkable. Internal strength was not merely a matter of legend or fantastic stories: it was real. Among the first was Wang Shujin. I saw Wang, then terminally ill with cancer, drop a Kyokushinkai karate champion to the ground by stepping inside his attack and hugging him. The man fell, boneless, wheezing for breath. (Now, looking at films of Wang, I can see the wave of force travelling through his relaxed body from his feet, amplified with his spine. In addition, close observation of his legs shows that this “belly punch” was just another version of what is regarded as xingyi ch’uan’s most powerful technique, called beng ch’uan, his belly replacing the fist we usually see in this technique).3 All he seemed to teach, however, was a t’ai chi form where, without any instruction, we tried to follow along as best we could. Unfortunately, I did not realize that the simple “warm-up” exercises with which we started each class were actually the heart of his skill and power, something I later found out he did many hours a day. I missed several other similar opportunities in subsequent years. None of those teachers explicitly stated that “internal power training is done ‘this’ way,” but in retrospect, they presented their personal training methods right in front of me. I didn’t realize that they were throwing down a gauntlet, and had I picked it up, I might have been invited “inside the door” a long time ago. I, too, have experienced the phenomenon of overlooking something “hidden in plain sight.”

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  1. Thank you for the O Sensei quote. I see many people who think they’re doing internal training and are mostly fooling themselves. But self-delusion is common. There are folks who do “external training” and think there’s nothing else.

  2. Check out Aiki-Web for Dan Harden and Mike Sigman on their postings on IP.

  3. Excellent article…

  4. Tom Collings says:

    This is a wonderfully thoughtful essay by Ellis who explores issues with his refreshingly provocative and serious outlook supported by extensive study and personal practice. He is absolutely correct that deep internal practice holds little interest for most aikido students and teachers. This is partly because aiki arts are inherently “external” in their roots, originating from combat and interaction with the “outside” world. This also explains the progressively more “embu” or presentation orientation where appearance trumps substance and acrobatic-dramatic demos with great correography (“good ukemi”) overshadows serious study.

    Chinese arts I would submit are inherently “internal” because their roots are primarily systems of health, i.e. Chi Qong, where the exploration and freeing of energy may be adapted for combat, but is not the foundation for the discipline. Chinese practices are basically solitary practices and like all forms of serious meditation take the individual deep inside the workings of mind and body. Aikido must be more interactional rather than internal.

    As Ellis points out, they require many hours and years of repetitive, lonely and sometimes boring focus which few “action” oriented martial arts students can handle. Lets remember we are living in the age of instant breakfast, fast foods, and hyperactivity – Tommy the 15-year-old who came to karate wanted to kick ass – and Tom the 21-year-old who found aikido wanted the thrill of tossing bodies through the air. Only Thomas the 60 year old has the patience (interest) to sit or stand still with his breathing for a hour.

    As Ellis points out, even most schools of Chinese martial arts have abandoned or de-emphasized the internal solitary exercises which are their roots. But it is still practiced in a variety of quiet wonderful ways in many parks in China, some Chinatown parks in the US, and the backyards of the 500 or less lone aikido people Ellis recognises, who are hungry for something more, something difficult to put into words that can only be found in the stillness and hardship of shugyo.

    Can the fantastic and magical powers attributed to Morihei Ueshiba and other legends be duplicated today? In my teens, this possibility drew me to martial arts, but these days, it holds little interest for me. Yes I practice many internal Asian exercises of breath, movement, and meditation, but it is for physical and mental health, mental clarity, and to touch levels of sensitivity and relaxation that are life changing. If once in while some unusual energies or capabilities arise I follow my old meditation teacher’s advice and ignore them as amusing distractions and nothing more.

    Taking internal or solitary meditation based skills into the interaction of martial training is very challenging, but makes the practice richer and far more interesting. But, I would suggest that the unique nature Ueshiba’s creation is in the dynamics of interaction between two (or many) people and how these dynamics can be influenced, and less about what special energies one individual may possess. The ability to lead aggressive energy, to lead the mind of the aggressor, is a powerful skill which O’Sensei concentrated on and honed to a fine art. It is without doubt an extremely effective self-defense tool in many situations.

    At the risk of deflating much martial mythology, I suggest that this lone skill of leading the mind and creating illusion is responsible for most legends of magic in the marial arts as well as the vast wealth of heroic mythology in all cultures. Saito Sensei told me that in 23 years living and studying with O’Sensei he never witnessed any magic, just very good instruction. The power of mind, which includes hypnosis and the power of suggestion is enormously powerful and “real,” the illusion of magic and supernatural energy is not. In my humble opinion, the power to harness the mind and the high energy of highly motivated diciples is what creates the spectacular interactions seen in the old films of O’Sensei and other masters. To think it is the magical power of one individual rather the special connection between 2 people misses the essence of the art ! Unfortunately, this powerful mind factor is also what creates the illusion of martial effectiveness in a lot of poor aikido and aiki-jujtsu practice, demonstration and instruction.

    Although I dismiss the need for magical powers in martial training I have an ever increasing attraction and comittment to what Ellis refers to as “internal” disciplines. These will never be popluar or mainstream practices of any martial art, aikido included, just as most of the Founder’s shugyo was personal and largely ignored by his students. But for the few of us who persist this training may help keep some balance between the “heart and appearance” of the arts and more importantly enriches our lives.

  5. Always a thought provoking read.
    Once again, compliments and appreciation.

  6. Great article… many thanks!

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