“Training the Mind, Body, and Spirit in Aikido” – by James Neiman

O’Sensei was undoubtedly a person motivated by his spiritual ideals, and he spent a good deal of time engaging in meditation and prayer in addition to martial arts training. This has influenced countless Aikidoka ever since, and there have been many points of view offered with regard to the integration of character and spiritual development in martial arts training. I would like to offer my own perspectives on this, which are, by definition, one person’s experience and opinions.

I developed from a student into a teacher over many years, and can claim some expertise in martial arts training. So what does that qualify me to do as Sensei? Should I strictly limit my leadership to technique? Am I a mentor for character development? Am I a spiritual leader? How do I ensure that my students (and myself for that matter) become good citizens both within the Aikido community and within the larger community? Is that really my responsibility? What would qualify me to provide leadership in these areas?

What I Enjoy

I absolutely love going to seminars and, for a few hours or even an entire weekend, copying other experts to learn how they execute technique. Sometimes I retain what they have offered, thinking, this is really cool stuff! I have enjoyed many great books and articles on Aikido, especially those on the physio-mechanics of good technique and occasionally, some applications of Aikido toward interpersonal conflict resolution.

My Issue

I have attended uncountably many workshops and seminars, and have seen teaching ranging from pure technique, to religious chants, to praying to various gods and spirits, to spiritual breathing exercises, to offering religious certifications, etc. I have heard claims that one cannot possibly learn the true Aikido unless one engages in the same spiritual, meditative, and technical practices as O’Sensei’s. No offense to anybody, but if I want spiritual direction, I have my church priest, thank you very much. Personally, it makes me very uncomfortable to be in a seminar and be asked to engage in practices that violate the 1st Commandment in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a matter of fact, it is a cause for silent disobedience on my part (which may even include an impatient or angry internal reaction), which is anathema to a person who has spent most of his life saying “Hai!” to his teachers. It raises in my mind this question: Does the Sensei leading the workshop think that a faithful follower of another belief system cannot be a true Aikidoka? Some have actually explicitly said so! This makes me very sad, because I cannot avoid opining that it is ultimately a divisive thing to say to people. It is a fact, though, that some students love these types of teachers and flock to them. But is this really what O’Sensei had in mind when he wanted for all people to be reconciled in love? Did he walk on water, raise the dead, and heal the sick, or even claim to? What would he have to say about all this?

I have had many visitors to my dojo inquiring about Aikido and what their experience might be like if they joined. On many occasions, I have been politely asked whether this is a spiritual training place or whether the primary focus is on martial arts development (translation: Are my dollars going toward learning how to defend myself or wasted on your idea of spiritual practice?). This question shows that there is a difference in the minds of those inquiring. I explain that I love martial arts and physics, and that I do not consider myself morally superior to anyone or qualified to be anyone’s spiritual leader, and that every student needs to discover, mainly on their own, how to integrate the mind, body, and spirit in his/her training. That is just me of course, and I have met others who do feel that they are qualified in these areas. I don’t dispute this, but people deserve to know just what they are signing up for.

My Solution

When talking with prospective students visiting Shugyo Aikido Dojo, I go on to offer as complete a view as possible about my role as Sensei and how it fits with my humanity and theirs. I do believe that we all have a responsibility as human beings to live consistent, meaningful lives, and that we must find ways to integrate the development of our mind, body, and spirit. How one does this, however, is a deeply complex process, and goes straight to the heart of what it means to be human. For example, would a doctor, a healer, be able to live with himself practicing in a school that focuses on brutality? Not likely: that would be inconsistent to who they are. Would a person with a penchant for brutality be able to continue as a student in my dojo? No, but perhaps they are willing to let go of their brutality as they learn that Aikido includes compassion and desire for non-violent resolution (or at least a minimum of requisite violence in order to end the violent encounter). My point of view is that if people want to be like me in certain ways, they will observe something in me that they want to adopt for themselves, and will somehow acquire that either through their own internal process or by some interpersonal exchange with me – but it will never be explicitly or even implicitly required. Certainly modeling proper attitudes toward practice and martial development are what I try to explicitly do on the mat. I prefer to interact on this level and show respect for the spirituality and beliefs of all those training, allowing them to decide for themselves how to unify their training with their moral, spiritual, and character development. If there is guidance I can offer, I will offer it as appropriate just as might happen off the mat with non-students who may value my opinions, but it may often be more appropriate to refer people to their counselors or religious leaders.


  1. Robin Karlsson says:

    Masakatsu, agatsu, katsuhayabi

    Unless you let go of all attachment, in this world, and all of the worlds; in this realm, and all of the realms – you will never be free.

    Aiki is the divine way that connects the hidden, the manifest and the divine. God’s love, the holy light of all of creation is the true path.

    But strife must end also within, let go of fear, let go of the imaginary opponent called your ego, let go of duality. Grasp your own inner divinity, touch it, feel it, let it go.

    What others call gods, are all part of the infinite light of creation, it’s vibrations of aiki that they resonate with. Let them resonate, feel the vibrations, feel the surge, not of your imaginary opponent – let it go by the do of bu, look at the whole picture, see that everything has the same source. Love.

    There’s no need to protect love, it protects itself. You cannot kill energy, therefore it won’t get hurt.

    Ignoring the spiritual aikido is completely ignoring the aiki that is within the path, it is ignoring Masakatsu, agatsu, katsuhayabi. The only thing it means is that you have to pray and believe in love and yourself, as well as having the guts to face your own soul in all its nakedness. Then ask for whatever guidance you feel is appropriate to help you on this path, whatever you feel comfortable with. But let go of your preconceptions, they’re just a hologram of your ego.

  2. I would like to provide these clarifications to some private communications that were sent to me:

    1. Teaching proper etiquette and spirit of training is important.
    2. Encouraging students to learn the history, cultural practices, and attitudes surrounding Aikido is essential.
    3. There are outstanding teachers who do model their spiritual practices, but in a context of respect and invitation, without imposition or requirements for those observing what they do. I have great admiration for them.

    I have faith that all students will work on their spiritual development and discipline. They can fit the training into it. For example, dedicated practice with respect to senior students and teachers, with compassion and reverence for others, recognizing the responsibility that comes with power, can be reconciled with every religion and philosophy of which I am aware. I entrust this thought process to all students entering my dojo, believing they are each uniquely beautiful human beings who will work this out for themselves in the best way possible.

Speak Your Mind