“Keeping It With You: The Hardest Part of Training,” by Gary Ohama

“Keeping it with you; now that’s the hardest part of training. Not losing it. Having it there when you have to use it.”

This was the response from life-long martial artist Norman Carr (Shotokan and Doshinkan Aikido(1).) We were discussing the benefits of physically “hard” training, sort of reminiscently. The normative age of this Black Belt class was around sixty years old. Realistically speaking, throws and breakfalls are now a long-term disability should anything go wrong. (Plus, it seems to take quite a long time just to get back up!) As martial artists an injury directly jeopardizes our ability to protect ourselves and loved ones. We will have defeated ourselves in this primary aspect of martial art training. As advanced Black Belts we really don’t need to do the breakfalls, or the throws, whether practically speaking or symbolically.

Our martial art quest of “continually seeking” required that we maintain our effectiveness despite the natural aging process. We are still looking forward, and not back. Our path took us to what many proclaim as the correct way to go. We went to internal methods. Our dojo has gone to a more intense emphasis on internal and breath methods.

The training is no longer anywhere near as physical as in our younger days. Yet we are more effective, not less. We have proved for ourselves the adage of internal benefits: we are now faster, more balanced, and more powerful than before. (Norman still is doing no problem, full-speed Aikido against Tae Kwan Do practitioners.) The essence of what we have discovered is that “the forms are fairly easy to duplicate, the path of creativity is not.” (2)

In practice it is very rare to execute a technique at 100% speed, power, or technique. Practice training is done in a manner that permits a breakfall or a tapping out release to occur. In the dojo there isn’t the likelihood of an unexpected attack. Remaining in an alert “condition red” is easy to do for the few hours of a practice session. Plus the initial response to the fear factor of a sudden violent encounter/trauma can’t be duplicated in the safety of the training atmosphere and circle of training partners.

How can the learning, retentive, and reactive process take place?
How can we not “lose it?” (the training response)
Is there any assurance that the technique will even be there?

First, I believe it is mandatory to have prerequisite training in a very precise, fundamental oriented, biomechanical Basic Movement style that really works in a tactical martial art sense (such as the extremely forward focused Doshinkan Style.) If the techniques aren’t street effective, by definition it is not going to be there if you have to use it.

After completely learning the fundamentals, doing the technique at slow speed seems to be one of the tickets to patterning the technique into one’s instinctual response. The slowest speeds eliminate the use of the power of speed or aggression. The technique has to be the actual correct technique; and not poor technique executed with overwhelming power to create success.

Eliminating the throw and resultant breakfall seems to place more focus on patterning the technique into instinct. The throw often becomes too much of the object of the exercise. Focus on the nuances of the precision of the actual technique is easily lost. It is easy to become “incorrect result” (throw) oriented.

Getting technique up to fighting speed can be accomplished by doing the Basic Movements of the technique to rapid breath rhythm pulses. In Doshinkan Style, as well as Yoshinkan Style, there is a series of Basic Movements from which all technique originate. The speed created and breath patterned in Basic Movements translates into speed of technique. One method of placing speed and rhythm into breath rhythms can be accomplished by the basic Zensho (bokuseki) Calligraphy brushwork. Body movements (and sword movements) at the speed and freedom of a calligrapher brush’s start, stop, twists, and turns “from within rather than without” (3) are the ultimate goal. Start with brush movements, then transfer to body movement training, progress to the same movement with sword, and then translate into Aikido techniques.

Once the entire technique is patterned internally, responding from a relaxed hands down stance to a full speed attack seems to trigger a reflex to the “aggression/energy/focus” that precedes the actual attack. This develops an internal stimulus/response relationship. The internal stimulus/response imbeds the technique where memory does not have to be relied upon. This leads to a type of oneness of Ai/Harmony.

In Aikido, “Ai/Harmony” is fundamental. To maintain “Ai/Harmony” with others and with surroundings means always having a continuous “technique” engagement of “oneness” going on. There is nothing to remember as this status and connection is constant, ”24/7.” We “just do,” or perhaps we “just are.”

A critical vulnerability is that if the attack is done without aggression; the stimulus/response reaction won’t be triggered. Because we literally use the energy of the attack to create a lot of our movement; most of our speed is not going to be created for us. The worst part is that this is what will likely occur in the seriousness of a well-planned, close-up, concealed/subversive, gun/knife attack or mugging.

We have to “be there” when there is no outward aggression. In this case we have to be alert, and use our own breath energy/Ki techniques to create simultaneous evasive movement and energy dispersion techniques.

A perfect state of “oneness” will handle the situation.
Unfortunately, I am nowhere near that level of being.

(1) Doshinkan Style Aikido is the personal Aikido of Yoshinkan Master Yukio Utada, Doshinkan Aikido International, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Doshinkan Style movements, unbalancing, power, tactics, and technique are based upon Aikido as a martial art. Our dojo is an affiliate dojo of Doshinkan Aikido International.
(2) Nakashima, Mira. “Nature Form and Spirit”, Harry N. Abrams, NY. 2003.
(3) Stevens, John. “Sacred Calligraphy of the East.” Shambhala, Boston, 1995.


  1. Brilliant and incisive! I hope people understand and take aboard what you are imparting. Thank you.

  2. It would be a shame to lose ukemi. I suppose sometime I’ll have to give it up, but I’ll miss it. Of course it’s important to preserve the more fragile aging body. Maybe at some level of inspiration it will be possible to preserve the wellspring of technique found in ukemi.

  3. Jim Redel says:

    Sorry … to not take ukemi is to not understand akikdo.

  4. Obviously, ukemi will never become obsolete in practice. However, the undue focus on gratuitous ukemi all too often detracts from refining really functional technique and is often the main focus of the collusion which makes Aikido fake and incompetent. An hour and a half of spinal massage may be more that the natural biology requires to accrue benefit. There is more to bujutsu, Aikido included, than rolling and tumbling. Whilst it’s a primary of surviving breaks in an endless variety of real situations, in training, it may be necessary for oldies or those with chronic injuries to lessen leaping around for no good reason. There are many variables essential to good training. Gary makes a keynote when he states: “After completely learning the fundamentals, doing the technique at slow speed seems to be one of the tickets to patterning the technique into one’s instinctual response. The slowest speeds eliminate the use of the power of speed or aggression. The technique has to be the actual correct technique; and not poor technique executed with overwhelming power to create success.”

  5. Jim Redel says:

    Can you point me to where Ueshiba said that the purpose of aikido is the refinement of “really functional technique”?

  6. Jim,
    Next time you are attacked in the street, feel free to do one of of your non-functional techniques and see how it serves you.
    If you survive, talk to me then.
    As for getting off track it’s a cheap shot.
    What Gary writes here is valid and known to be so by anyone who is more interested in LEARNING FROM TRAINING than scoring points.
    How about we stay on track and show respect to the writer.
    We may even gain some understanding.

  7. Kim MacGregor says:

    I’m with Jim, I couldn’t ever imagine Osensei refining a “functional technique”. Blatant waste of time if you ask me anything. When are you people going to get it right? Strict Aikido is really Jazz Ballet & shouldn’t be messed with. I, myself, take much pride in the careful folding of my Hakama & pay the most astute attention to the majestic, fairy like flowing movement of the traditional floral Aikido movement. How dare any disrespecful, violent oaf interupt it by puching myself or any other self respecting Aikidoka on the nose? The hide of them. Downright impolite I say.

  8. Kim,
    I weep. What planet are we on?

  9. Now that we’ve all had our fun, please read the blog slowly and carefully Gary is saying something of value.

  10. An old world method of developing the aiki body was jyumbi taiso conducting core kihon waza as well as henkawaza, kaeshiwaza and various riai without ukemi.

    The younger, stronger and uninjured would then build up tempo and use valid ukemi where the kusushi was indeed effective, in oder to absorb the technique to avoid injury.

    The ladies and the extremely old, practiced as odori.

    No-one shirked because in those days discussion was not the paramount, but surviving the next real life and death battle was.

  11. In my dojo, ukemi are optional after age 40. Irrespective of ego and fantasy, nature’s processes have other ideas about bone density, tissue pliability etc. Notwithstanding, MOST people who are regular trainees continue to ukemi and refine the standard of their ukemi better that the rough youngsters who, because of collagen, can take a pounding (or give it themselves) sufficient to not worry about much. However, the oldies are very happy to take a break without missing training, on their bad arthritis days.

    Gary, thanks again. I hope your blog not only provokes thought, but also viable methods of training.

  12. Jim Redel says:

    Can anyone point me to a demo where Ueshiba’s attacker did not take ukemi? Is there any reason not to believe the anecdote of Ueshiba taking ukemi in his 70s? Are we free to take an art, pick and choose as we see fit, and call it the same art?

    Do as you all see fit …

  13. Tony Wagstaffe says:

    The trouble in thinking about ukemi when one DOES get older won’t be realised until one gets there…… just listen to ones body is the only way really….. regularly and intense when younger….. less so when one gets older….. its only natural….

  14. Dean Burns says:

    When I first started Aikido, rolling was the hardest thing to learn. I still have trouble with not making noise when I roll. I understand its importance and work with it in class. I imagine some of my problems stem from having stiff knees. I think my particle style of Icho-ryu emphasizes breakfalling a little more than I would like. But in the end, It seems well balanced in all aspects of the art. A little less spiritual and a little more emphasis on practical application. To each his own, I suppose.

  15. Vincent Murphy says:

    Have another read of Kim’s post. I’m pretty sure he’s agreeing with you by being ironic. I think “Strict Aikido is really Jazz Ballet” and “.. the majestic, fairy like flowing movement of the traditional floral Aikido movement” are priceless!

  16. Keoni May says:

    Ukemi is necessary for almost everyone, unless you have reached a certain level of disability, whereby one too many falls, will permanently shake loose too many joints.

    To practice Aikido with ukemi vs. not practice ukemi with Aikido, depends upon your medical health. There is also a difference with just being lazy.

    If an old person with a walking cane wanted to practice Aikido, would you allow that person to go full bore into ukemi? Would you do a case-by-case assessment?

    Why discourage people from practicing Aikido? It happens to be an old people friendly art.

  17. Gary Ohama says:

    I agree that taking ukemi is a vital study to understanding many aspects of the harmony of Aikido. Ukemi is one aspect of the essential learning experience that only comes from being a “receiver,” or “one who releases control.” This is an aspect of training that makes Aikido so unique, and so socially beneficial. Keep in mind that it is one part of the receiving process.
    I believe that Ueshiba’s attackers did not take ukemi, but were given it. The original techniques are breaks designed so it was impossible to ukemi in order for them to be effective against a competent opponent. On page 243 of “Invincible Warrior” by John Stevens there is a photo of Ueshiba cradling the attacker’s head to prevent over-rotation and a neck break. In our dojo we always cut short “one-step” techniques that are really difficult to get out of.
    Also it is important to consider that this article is a reflecting on a group of people that has considerable martial art experience and are older in age. (We are so old that after ukemi we often look around to see if there is anything else to do while we are still down there!)We have learned the lessons of ukemi, and hopefully will retain them. We still function as a “receiver” up to the point of ukemi. I am a believer that it takes a partner to be able to learn Aikido.
    Regarding the refinement of functional technique. The techniques are a reflection of our current state of being. So, they are always evolving as we evolve and develope. Techniques based on “truth,” whether physical principles or moral, lead to further truths. The Keiko aspect of training is to look to the truths of the past and continue them so our future will also be true, and in the future others will be able to build on what we have discovered.
    We both are big on refering to Ueshiba for the study of Aikido. Two good references are “Budo” by Ueshiba and “The Essence of Aikido” by John Stevens. The real fundamentals of Aikido are some really incredible, unimaginable things. The wonders of seeking the mysteries of life lead us to further discoveries. Finding another question is great. Finding only an answer cuts off further pursuit.
    A lengthy reply, and I believe you are serious in your comments.

  18. Gary,

    You make a perfect case for continuing to train until the very last day as did the Founder.
    Ukemi evolve into Kaeshi waza as a natural progression of age and skill.

    Thank you for a great article.

    Nev Sagiba

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