“You may find that Aikido offers a new tool for cultivating your body and spirit, and continuing opportunities for forging new friendships.”
Aikido has been practiced in the west for more than 50 years. It is not the best known of the many oriental martial arts on the scene, but it does offer several unique advantages for learning self-defense, and can end up completely altering your world view on human interaction. In the paragraphs that follow, I offer a few suggestions about things to consider before enrolling in an aikido school.
Examine your motives for wanting to learn aikido
Before you start your search for a suitable aikido school, called a “dojo,” it’s worthwhile to carefully consider your motives for learning the art. In most cases, those who have seen a Steven Seagal movie and believe the action scenes reflect training in aikido dojos are likely to be disappointed.
Let me explain why this is so. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), was a martial arts master and also a devoutly religious person. He lived through the prelude and horrors of World War II and this cataclysmic event strongly influenced the modern form of the art that was popularized in the postwar era. Morihei was strongly against introducing a competitive element into aikido, or converting it into a sport as had been the case with the old jujutsu schools that were the forerunners of judo.
The founder regarded his martial art as a tool for bettering oneself through the culitvation of one’s body and mind, ultimately achieving a higher spiritual plane by going beyond fighting and conflict. He regarded the world as a single family and aikido as a unifying force.
Although there are many training methods and schools of thought about what aikido is, most dojos and aikido instructors are at least aware of the founder’s vision and sympathetic to his way of thinking.
Read up on the subject
Since the philosophical underpinnings of aikido are rather different from most other martial arts accessible to the public, it would be time well spent to explore the life of Morihei Ueshiba and the history of the art to get a feel for its principles and goals. The Aikido Journal Members Site has vast resources that will help you in your search for accurate information on the subject. There are countless other websites with information on the art–many of those associated with aikido schools–that offer all sorts of introductory articles that may prove useful.
After educating yourself on the subject, you may conclude that aikido is not really suited to your purposes, and seek elsewhere for training options. On the other hand, you may find that Morihei Ueshiba’s aikido will offer a wonderful means for transforming your life, offer a new tool for cultivating your body and spirit, and continuing opportunities for forging new friendships.
Assess your physical condition
It is very important to realistically determine your physical condition before beginning aikido practice. Aikido can be very vigorous, involve heavy physical exercise and falling, and progress must be gradual and according to your individual case. If you have any doubts, consulting a physician about your state of health would be a wise decision.
Most dojos are very accomodating for people in less than optimum physical shape since this is such a common thing in our present-day culture. It might also be appropriate to undertake some pre-training exercise to improve your body condition before actually enrolling in a dojo. An improvement of your flexibility and muscle tone would be a good place to start.
Be prepared to make the rounds
Like any other major undertaking, be prepared to spend the necessary time to check out any school in your area that you think might offer a suitable training program. You can start with a web search of your area, and consult the yellow pages of your local phone book. There is no substitute for visiting schools and observing training first-hand. You should determine the amount of travel you are willing to commit to, and focus your search on dojos in your area.
When I am asked about the best way to find a school, I encourage people to visit every dojo in their vicinity before making a decision. Sometimes, the character of the school and teacher will be more important to you than the particular style of aikido practiced.
Observe students carefully, especially the seniors
When you walk into a dojo for a visit and observe training, I would recommend that you pay particular attention to the conduct of the senior students. These people have been training for lengthy periods, and their attitude, skill level, and level of conditioning will give a good indication of what you might expect to achieve after spending several years training. You will also want to take note of how new students are treated, as you may very well be joining their ranks and will receive similar treatment.
I would also be alert to the amount of attention given to warming up and body conditioning in the school. Some instructors insist on a high level of fitness, while others may just go through the motions of warming up prior to practice. A good guide will be the level of flexibility and stamina of experienced students. In order to enjoy a long career in aikido, you will need to take good care of your physical well-being to insure your ability to continue practice as you advance in age. You must stay fit, flexible, and avoid injury.
Have a chat with the instructor
By all means, make it a point to sit down for a chat with the teacher, called the “sensei,” of the dojo. If the instructor is a busy person, see if he or she will be willing to set up an appointment for a private chat with you. If you have done your homework in reading up on aikido, and are favorably impressed with the “mood” of the school and the level of training, you will make a good impression and appear knowledgeable, and a good candidate to become a student. You will be checking out the instructor and they will be checking out you! A great new student is a tremendous asset to a school, while a bad student can set a poor example and be detrimental to the success of the dojo.
Google the teacher
If everything has gone well up to this point, I would defnitely suggest googling the name of the instructor. If this is a well-knowand aikido teacher, there is sure to be sufficient information on that person to confirm your assessment about their character and teaching skills. You may find that the teacher has additional talents or mastery in other disciplines that will help you understand their values and goals.
Understand the contract
Although some instructors may be a bit hesitant to talk about money matters, you need to understand the financial obligations you are undertaking should you decide to become a dojo member. This is for your protection and also important for the future of the school and livelihood of the instructor. Their ability to continue running the dojo business depends on attracting serious, long-term students.
I would strongly recommend that you first take a trial lesson, or even several, before joining. Most schools will allow this. Also, it is quite common for schools to offer introductory courses. You might be able to sign up for a one month or three month agreement before commiting to a longer contract.
Another point worthy of mention is that whatever the dojo may be or represent, it is also a business. It is often very difficult to keep a martial arts dojo operating, especially one offering aikido, since this art is a “niche within a niche.” Long-term contracts that are enforceable have become the norm in the last several decades in martial arts schools. This should not be off-putting to you since an aikido business must be built on a solid financial base. That is why I encourage you to sign up for a short-term or trial membership first to make sure that your new dojo is a good fit.
I will write more about the beginning weeks and months of aikido training on another occasion.