“When is Aikido Not Aikido?,” by David Lynch

“I have never had to use the physical techniques outside the dojo in 40 years of training, so I am not going to lose any sleep over that!”

From Aikido Journal #120

Arguments about the “martial effectiveness” of aikido are a popular feature of Internet bulletin boards. Unfortunately, many posts show an abysmal ignorance of the premises on which the art was founded by making comparisons with various systems of fighting.

Aikido is not a system of fighting, but a way of not fighting, intended not to protect or enhance the ego but, potentially, to eradicate it. Its value lies in promoting qualities diametrically opposed to those advocated for use “in the street.”

Speaking for myself, the day I have to face a life and death situation will be soon enough to prove the effectiveness, or otherwise, of my aikido. I have never had to use the physical techniques outside the dojo in 40 years of training, so I am not going to lose any sleep over that.

Certainly one should strive for improvement, and it is always a challenge to try and perform the techniques with a bit more smoothness and elan, but what is the point of raving on about the inadequacies of aikido, versus kickboxing, college wrestling and street fighting? There is quite enough material to work with in aikido as it stands, without resorting to cross-training, or worrying about which schools have lost the plot and left us with some watered down, ineffectual version. There is only so much you can learn from others, anyway, so you can’t blame the system for your own shortcomings.

Effectiveness is bought at a price and the more I see of those who claim to have achieved it in aikido, or in other areas of life, the more empathy I feel with ordinary people who have no great ambition to be superefficient or effective. At best this attitude is irrelevant, at worst downright destructive and depressing.

To be appreciated, aikido needs “space,” i.e., spirituality, psychological depth, aesthetics, compassion and enjoyment. Not to mention love! (There seems to be a tacit agreement not to mention love in the martial effectiveness arguments, which is curious in view of the importance O-Sensei placed on this, and his insistence that love was the essence of aikido.)

Not that aikido’s “spiritual effectiveness” is any easier to prove objectively than any of the technical arguments are. There are no guarantees, anyway. I am not convinced, however, that someone’s inability to perform a technique from, say, a strong Iwama-style morotedori grip testifies to a lack of spiritual development. The link between spirit, mind and body is more complicated than that.

The learning curve is a broad one, and one may reasonably expect to spend a lifetime working on oneself without being able to boast of full enlightenment, aikido or no aikido. This is no reason to abandon the effort, and practicing aikido with a spiritual goal in mind, rather than technical effectiveness alone, is a good start.

Meanwhile, the health benefits, mental as well as physical, amply justify serious, regular training, without the need to be fixated on martial effectiveness or intimidated by those who are. Since aikido is an individual pursuit, the school you choose is important only to the extent that it suits you and it is pointless attempting to pit one against another.

For myself, exposure to the contrasting teaching methods of Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, Kenji Shimizu and others during my prolonged sojourn in Japan virtually forced me to seek whatever common principles I could find. I have tried to keep the door open to new knowledge, without falling into parochialism or sectarianism.

But knowledge is not wisdom. Knowledge is derived by means of the senses, which cannot and were never intended to tell us anything about the truth of the universe. Chasing after more and more technical knowledge is likely to take one further from the goal of aikido, rather than closer to it.

I used to get a bit annoyed when I overheard people say that one or other of the various styles I was practicing was “not aikido.” (This seemed to be a common term of derision bandied around in Japan.) While I was willing to admit my own interpretation might leave much to be desired, it seemed incredibly arrogant for anyone to write off major Japanese aikido schools with this sort of flippant remark.

The major schools were established, after all, by masters who had each served a long apprenticeship under the founder, and who had devoted their lives to aikido. It became obvious to me after a while that the comment, “that is not aikido” was shallow and meaningless, and by the time I had heard it applied to every one of the major schools, it no longer bothered me.

Nevertheless, such a statement can easily discourage new students struggling to understand a particular version of the art, so I suggest they turn to O-Sensei’s words for advice on this:

“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something. Be grateful even for hardships, setbacks and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training.” (From, “The Art of Peace,” by John Stevens.)

In relation to O-Sensei’s own definition of aikido, it is probably true that what we are practicing is “not aikido,” irrespective of what system of training we follow. In this respect we are all in the same boat; we all have a long way to go, as is obvious from O-Sensei’s words (quoting again from John Stevens’ book):

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but only one summit—love.”

“As soon as you concern yourself with the good and bad of your fellows you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others will weaken and defeat you.”

“You are here for no other purpose than to realize your own inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.”

Senior aikidoka continue to criticize their fellows in other schools and to claim theirs is the only way to the top of the mountain, despite clearly not having reached the summit themselves.

I have found the different systems of training (which is all the schools are, since each individual must create his or her own aikido) complementary to a large extent, and I treat each as a piece of the greater puzzle.

For instance, Yoshinkan basics (kihon waza and kihon dosa) make a good foundation for the more movement-oriented training found in the Aikikai. In the Yoshinkan we used to do one technique for one hour and a vast number of solo tai no henko movements; there was no mention of relaxation, and ki was seen in terms of putting everything you had into what you were doing, without verbalizing this as a concept.

Uke was supposed to take “clean ukemi” and nage to perform “clean waza” and it was understood there was no competition, so that nothing would be gained by blocking or otherwise testing your partner. When individuals failed to heed this advice, things could quickly degenerate into an ugly trial of strength, as they could in any dojo when the principles of aikido were ignored.

I enjoyed training in the Aikikai Hombu for the speed, variety and relatively light training done there. Each of the senseis had a somewhat different approach, but overall there was more movement than in the Yoshinkan. When I first went there after my full-time stint in the Yoshinkan Hombu, people were running rings around me, literally! But after a while I got used to it and joined in the dance.

If it is true that Kisshomaru Ueshiba reduced the number of techniques that his father taught, then I am grateful to him, as there seem to be more than enough left. Kisshomaru Doshu could display a vast repertoire of different techniques in a single class. How many do you want?

While I can understand why some would consider the generally softer attacks and “token atemi” sometimes encountered in the Aikikai less realistic than elsewhere, I am not sure that argument would stand up to analysis. Who is to say that a powerful punch that would smash your teeth in if it connected is any more effective (in the context of dojo training) than a wave of the hand or a touch intended to alert uke to where the opening for an atemi existed?

One could certainly take issue, too, with the idea that a full-on “committed” attack was any more realistic than a softer version, given the fact that no competent attacker in the real world would advertise his intention and follow through with a single attack in such an obvious manner. He would be as devious as possible. Not that I am against training with “attitude,” it is just that powerful strikes seem ultimately no more realistic as preparation for reality than a wave of the hand—well, not a lot more anyway. (I make this point not to start an argument, but to illustrate the futility of arguing about such strictly relative matters.)

Kenji Shimizu of the Tendokan was fond of saying we should, “find the techniques within the movement” and that seems a sound approach too. The time spent concentrating on punching or gripping could be better spent learning how to move, if movement is your aim. But there is room for both approaches, surely.

Koichi Tohei’s “ki development exercises” I find excellent for warm-ups and improving balance and awareness. The almost complete lack of injuries in the Ki Society is itself a positive testimony to their method of training, unless of course you have so perverted aikido’s meaning as to count injuries as evidence of effectiveness. I don’t buy the criticism that Tohei’s teaching is superficial, as he was always telling us not to accept his principles intellectually but to work them out ourselves through training.

Those who ridicule ki training often have little or no experience of Tohei’s system, though I daresay his outspoken criticism of other schools (in which he is not alone) has invited much of the flack that is directed his way.

I recall an amusing incident at a dojo party when someone asked Tohei if he could move a teacup with his ki. “Certainly I can,” he replied and reached across to move the cup with his hand, adding that, “the mind and body are one.” To my recollection, he never claimed to be able to throw anyone with disembodied ki alone.

Of course, each system of training could claim to be complete in itself, and I am not necessarily advocating a blend of all of them. It is just that my own circumstances have enabled me to do this to some extent and I find that it works for me and seems to work for my students as well. No great disaster seems to have resulted in viewing each different system as part of a greater whole.

We need to try and see through the different personalities of the top senseis to appreciate where they are coming from. Perhaps one area in which we fall down in the West is in the amount of time we expect this process to take. The Japanese seem more comfortable with the idea that you would expect to spend a number of years if not decades in any one school before you could understand it properly.

It is just unfortunate when ranking and other “political” considerations force students to make a choice between the different approaches, rather than accept without prejudice what each has to offer. People should consider themselves lucky if they find the kind of training that suits their temperament.

A theoretical chart of “martial temperament” (Lynch’s ‘MT Chart,’ pat. pending), with “Mother Teresa” to the East and “Mike Tyson” to the West, might be useful to show the extremely different personalities and temperaments out there, and to help one decide where he or she fits on the line. But such a chart would be quite misleading if applied without reference to the philosophy of O-Sensei. It would be as one-dimensional and boring as most of the effectiveness theories. There would have to be an additional North-South line representing the human potential of the individual—a spiritual warp for the physical and emotional weft.

There is a Way to be followed if we are to approach the goal of aikido, which is no different to the goal of any of the teachings seriously concerned with man’s mental and spiritual evolution. The goal is a unitive knowledge of the divine principle, a direct intuition of spiritual reality and an awareness of the relationship of man and the universe. It is to find out who we are.

Of course the more there is of individual ego, the less there will be of this deeper understanding. Which explains why, wanting to be strong and to protect our egos, we make little progress in love or compassion. Instead of recognizing our ignorance of what really counts and making some effort, however small, to correct this, we spend our time arguing over technicalities, bogged down in materialism.

We look outside for more effective ways of fighting or defending ourselves, instead of inside for a more appropriate hypothesis, in keeping with the original rationale of the “Way of Harmony.”

In the end, we tend to get what we ask for.

Contact David Lynch in New Zealand


  1. Thank you for your article. Great points.

  2. Very well put Mr Lynch. A very interesting article indeed, encouraging me to cut away the chaff and ask myself why I train. To re-explore the real reasons deep down.

    Thank you osu.

  3. Sensei,

    Thank you so much for your sharing about Love in and through Aikido! The teachers I appreciate most are the ones that show me how to Love better in the world. Sometimes they do it through their kindness, sometimes through their effort and awareness directed toward me or others, sometimes it is the willingness to cut through whatever is standing in the students’ way of moving further in their growth, sometimes it is in encouraging community. There are so many ways (techniques) of Love. I suppose any art or sport can be used this way – any action really – we are just lucky that at times it is openly spoken of in one form or another. I appreciate so much your sharing. Namaste, Maria

  4. Excellent ,well done !!!!!!

  5. Brett Jackson says:

    Yes, lots of great points and the real key points are right on the mark. I agree so much that I would like to comment on one point that Mr: Lynch makes and turn it around a bit: “Speaking for myself, the day I have to face a life and death situation will be soon enough to prove the effectiveness, or otherwise, of my aikido. I have never had to use the physical techniques outside the dojo in 40 years of training, so I am not going to lose any sleep over that.”

    I would put it differently and say the fact that Mr. Lynch has not had to “face a life and death situation” (which I read as a metaphor for any physical altercation) perhaps already shows the effectiveness of his aikido. After all, Aikido at its higher levels has effect even prior to the outbreak of violence, maybe by a kiai, maybe by the calm presence of the aikidoist, maybe by the way the aikidoist calmly steps out of the way of the violence without engaging or retaliating, etc. Therefore, you don’t have to fight to show that aikido is effective. In fact, not fighting when others would resort to fighting, is a way to show the effectiveness of aikido at its higher levels. Effectiveness in promoting peace. This is not to deny that aikido can also be used in real fighting to create openings to deliver debilitating strikes or to control or incapacitate an attacker as it clearly can be.

  6. …about the “martial effectiveness” of aikido are a popular feature of Internet bulletin boards. Unfortunately, many posts show an abysmal ignorance of the premises on which the art was founded by making comparisons with various systems of fighting. Aikido is not a system of fighting…

    Aikido is lost in translation, maybe even in Japanese. Very simply, at least as I see it, fighting is a contest of strength in order to determine dominance. All sorts of animals do it with the objective of establishing social order and mating priority. Winning fights is done through forcing submission or, much more rarely, killing the opponent.

    Strategy is about avoiding fights by undermining and defeating your opponent’s ability to fight. MacArthur – “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” Patton – “Hold ’em by the nose and kick ’em in the pants.” Boyd – ‘Go through the observe-orient-decide-act cycle more quickly than the opponent’ and ‘attack asymmetrically’. Musashi disapproved of fierce fights on equal terms too. Sun Tzu most highly praises the strategy which defeats the opponent’s intent. The KGB was in the business (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gnpCqsXE8g ). All of these are consistent with aikido, at least in my opinion. Aikido may help its practitioners in areas outside physical conflict. To what extent it may help if it is ineffective within the context of physical conflict is a big question to me.

  7. I like this article very much. I have trained in an offshoot of the Ki Society, and I have trained under Shihan in different countries under Aikikai. I have had several teachers try to tell me what was Aikido, and what wasn’t.

    Personally, I like to refer to O Sensei’s rules for practice. ie Be aware and ready for an attack from every direction at all times, etc. So, a BJJ pin with me face down on the ground can be effective as a pin and a disarm, but there is a valid reason under O Sensei’s rules to say this type of movement does not belong in Aikido.

    Not remembering the first rule, Aikido techniques are potentially lethal so respect that fact and your teachers at all times – leads to very ignorant injuries. The guy that broke my arm had no idea why it happened. A focus on love should not come at the expense of a knowledge of physics, anatomy, psychology…

    When I started training, I was just out of high school and working in corrections and mental health. I had people who needed to be protected from themselves, and other inmates and I had to be protected from them and I had coworkers who needed to be protected. Aikido made claims about being able to provide a tiered response to violence with a goal of not harming the attacker – the attacker for me was usually someone who was in my CARE, and I took that seriously. Everyone else was also in my care and I was responsible for them too.

    My dad received death threats during his political career, and while I never had to fight to defend him I was genuinely afraid and not going to watch my father get hurt, not sacrifice him for my philosophy.

    The Shihan I had during this period respected my fears and my needs and helped me to learn. Years have gone by and I have changed my job and my needs, but I still feel gratitude.

    I am glad I did not get all my teachers telling me to be about love and not fighting. The people who did, they were right, but I needed balance. I am frustrated when “Aikido is Love” is used to chastise and, ironically, condemn. I cannot openly teach what my teacher, a direct student of the Founder, taught me without being told, “That isn’t Aikido.”

    I appreciate Mr Lynch’s advocacy for the whole spectrum and varying expressions of the different schools of our Art.

  8. Without a complete understanding of what is meant by love in different cultures could lead one to misinterpret O-Sensei’s meaning.

    I am not a scholar of Japanese and must concede I just don’t know, however, I do know that the varieties of love expressed in English are limited in comparison to many Asian languages and indeed within Greek and other European languages. For instance, Greek interprets love five ways, whereas Sanskrit adds a few more, and Japanese “ai” has several interpretation as well. Love is therefore a highly nuanced language.

    While this appears to be a semantic argument it goes much deeper, for what one thinks and how it is conveyed influences ones perception and understanding both personally and interpersonally.

    At the end of the day we as Westerners interpret concepts through the lens of many competing ideologies into which we have been socialised and these colour our worldview. Japanese philosophy and the concepts it conveys are likewise steeped in a rich cultural heritage that shapes the perceptions of the individual and the ideas they convey.

    Thus when O-Sensei says “love”, can we be certain that the nuances of the idea conveyed line up with our own understanding of the concept when understanding have arisen from vastly different understandings of reality.

    In consideration of other concepts such as “fudoshin” and “zanshin” which also feature in Aikido as a martial tradition, perhaps it is the case that an effectively executed martial technique gives love in the sense that you stop the “receiver” creating the “karma” that arises through violent assault. in doing so one extends love to society as a whole. Yes, by virtue of Zen Buddhist interpretations of reality the plot thickens.

    Ultimately, as I mentioned above I don’t know, but I think it is unwise to discount the philosophical underpinning of a culture and tradition when we adopt them as our own.

    The Philistine.

  9. Excelent! Thank you, Lynch Sensei!

Speak Your Mind