Aikido as Self-Defense: “Stuck in the World of Go and Sen,” by Stanley Pranin

“In the real world, when in danger, waiting to be attacked can be fatal.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninAikido is almost universally defined as an art of self-defense. If this is so, then understand that there are implications to such a view. One of the most important is that the aikido practitioner does not initiate the exchange with an opponent. The aikidoka waits to be attacked and responds in self-defense.

In the real world, when in danger, waiting to be attacked can be fatal. Responding to an attack after the fact is to place oneself at a huge disadvantage because of the greatly reduced time interval available to respond.

This view of aikido leads practitioners to train primarily under “go no sen” conditions. That is to say, uke takes the initiative, and nage then responds by executing a technique. This is appropriate for learning the basics of the art. It is not appropriate for higher levels of training. Nor does it do justice to the advanced concepts of strategy and martial goals that Founder Morihei Ueshiba was promoting.

How do you approach practice in your dojo?



  1. You are very correct and realistic. Yet, can we legally attack before we are attacked? Maybe reactive self defense is possible, but not the way Tai Sabaki is taught now. The way we do Aikido is not really realistic. There is a way of dodging that is more intuitive, a reflex that we already possess from birth, +/- Atemi, and very compatible with Aikido, yet most dojos do not practice it.

    Many police people with first hand experience will tell us that our Aikido is not effective.


    • My point is if you wait before responding in a dangerous situation you are more than likely to wind up dead. If you manage to survive, you can deal with the court system later, at least you’ll be alive to argue the point.

      • Death is a natural part of life. As my sensei once said: Living by a philosophy is great. A philosophy is greater than you and can be passed on to others and you will be remembered. If you stray from your philosophy in a fighting situation then all your time “living” by that philosophy will be for naught. I’d rather die living by my philosophy, than keep on living by something i do not believe in. I personally don’t think O-sensei was afraid of dying in a life/death situation. He considered himself as one with the universe. The aggressor is also a part of the universe, death is not something to fear.


        “shoot first ask later” is not a concept keen to my mind. As long as an aggressor talks to me, insult me, there really is nothing I can do about it but walk away, he has not physically attacked me. I´d prefer him to make the mistake to attack me, and then dealing with it even if it’s more difficult.

        Otherwise, I will be throwing the first punch/attack. If it’s about learning how to survive in an life/death situation you should practice krav maga or systema, systems that are being used today in military combat. I’m, not saying that Aikido is ineffective, it does work very well.

        Aikido a way of life, a purpose of life, not just combat. If you contradict that purpose when facing combat, could you really call yourself an Aikidoka?

        I understand that the view on what Aikido is, is many and of great variation.

        I would wait until the aggressor is about to move, then enter with irimi and atemi. I cannot know if a person will attack me before he ACTUALLY attacks me.

        I would rephrase “waiting to be attacked” as Mr.Pranin said to: waiting to see if he will attack.

        To comment on Pierre: “Yet, can we legally attack before we are attacked? ”
        No we cannot attack, there is no such thing as an attack in Aikido. 😉

        My view, my thoughts. The Aikido world is diverse! =D

        Happy keiko!

        • I would disagree on some points with you.

          I’m relatively young (19 years old), and I would be afraid of dying in a combat situation, I mean, even if you train your mind to not be afraid, your body and instincts will tell you the opposite, that you must survive, it’s natural the fight for life.

          Four times in my life so far people tried to rob me, always wanting my cell phone, none of those moments they did rob me, but it was a moment of tense, nor did I attacked them, I just talked to them saying “No, I won’t give you my cell phone.” Eventually they gave up. Luckily, I noticed before anything that none of them had a gun, and none of them tried to punch me.

          Even though externally I was calm, my heart was beating “1000 times per minute”, adrenaline had take my entire body and brain. Fear, fight for life, even if I did not physically fought.

          However, I do agree with your point that you can’t just go attacking everyone that tries to rob you. People should avoid fight as much as they can, none wins in a fight, but if you see the guy moving his arms, hands or legs in a suspect way: “Irimi nage!” – joking, it can be any technique of course. This way, you have to be faster to apply the technique, or to dodge the first punch (most likely to be the stronger) and then enter with your atemi.

          The only place I would attack first, would be when a guy take me to an alley and says: “Only one of us get out alive from this place”. Because the fight will happen, even if I don’t want to.

          • Carlo,

            Your insights are appreciated. If you reread my blog you will see that at no point do I say to attack the attacker. My point is not to leave the attacker with the initiative where possible.

        • If anyone should ever attack you with lethal force please break their arm and knock them out. Later, when they awaken in the hospital you can visit them, and with their eyes blurry and their arm aching in a cast they – and anyone else who cares about them – can thank you for saving them from facing a murder charge. After all, many young boys have suffered equal and worse injury in everyday sports. In that moment there is the very real possibility that you have not only saved your own life, but helped to redeem their life as well. If you are aptly prepared to handle such a situation then you can be a blessing to your assailant, their family and to your own family who will be grateful you had the good sense to stay alive. I suggest a broader view on how compassion can work.

          • Keith E. McInnis says:

            Sometimes compassion is applying the hot poker to the wound when only that will heal. Wish I could remember the author of that quote. Very well stated Philip. We are privileged to learn a martial art that is so powerful there are no competitions as they would dumb down what we do. A compassionate spirit is one which chooses, in the moment of engagement, to spare the attacker unnecessary harm.

            As a former uniformed patrol law enforcement officer I have some experience with effective responses to attacks and how to communicate with an attacker via techniques. Weak techniques encourage an attacker to resist and that leads to injuries. Be competent and the attack is interrupted before it becomes lethal.

            As for legal issues, do what is required… and no more. You will be fine and alive to discuss it. We aren’t held to the standards of force law enforcement is held to, but we practice them and that is a great defense if needed. Do what is needed and live to defend another day.

    • I am 68 years of age and, courtesy of a rather “interesting” youth, I have had more real street fights than I could possibly recall. Certainly more than most police officers will ever engage in. I’ve been hurt and I’ve done my share of the hurting.

      Fortunately I eventually woke up, matured mentally and emotionally as well as physically, and I stopped getting into fights and changed a lot of other things as well, ultimately for the better.

      A few decades further on and obviously I’m no longer as fit, strong, fast and capable of taking a hit as I used to be. But I’m not at all ambivalent about the possibility of dying or being maimed at the hands of a thug, so I’m even less inclined to cede any advantage now than I was back then. If there’s any dying or maiming to be done I don’t want to be on the receiving end.

      Awareness and experience will hopefully tell me when an actual attack is imminent, and if it seems advantageous to do so then I will definitely pre-empt. No attacks in Aikido? Get real. It’s a fairly simple task to impel an attacker into moving, and then take advantage of that movement. Aikido techniques work the same whether the attacker is moving of his own volition or involuntarily.

      Then there’s atemi. How often have I heard atemi described as nothing more than a “distraction”? Look carefully at photos of the old masters in action and take note of where they are striking. They are not waving their hands around indiscriminately. They knew about effective striking points and they used them. They were well rounded martial artists capable of engaging in combat and prevailing against real aggression. But it seems these days there are few Aikido dojos teaching effective striking.

      One big difference with Aikido as opposed to my old street scrapping days is that I no longer have to destroy someone to preserve myself. On the one hand I can merely subdue an attacker without any permanent harm coming to either of us. Or, if he absolutely has to be put out of action, perhaps while I face other threats, the same techniques can be carried through to the point of bone breaking or tendon tearing.

      Unfortunately practice at many dojos never proceeds past the Go No Sen level, not even for seniors. Lack of realistic combat training in dojos is, I believe, one of the main reasons that Aikido is often held in low regard as far as an effective self-defence or combat art. The potential is definitely there, but the practitioners aren’t conditioned to put it to use under pressure and against real threats.

      I’m very glad that I found Aikido, but it makes a lot of sense to me to enhance it with a knowledge of striking techniques à la Kyusho.

  2. dejan dj. says:

    Dear Mr. Pranin,

    I find myself in agreement with you. When it comes to self defence, sometimes the better option is to attack first. Waiting for your opponent to attack could be fatal. Especially, if you are facing somebody who knows how to punch and kick in a way not taught in most Aikido dojos, not to mention attackers armed with clubs and knives. I myself was attacked by a bully armed with a club.

  3. Uh-oh aikidoists never initiate??? What have I been practicing all these years? To think the gentlemen who told me they studied with the founder were leading me astray? One even told me there is a difference between self defense and Aikido and he gave seminars to federal agents. I am so confused…

  4. Dear Stan
    I also agree with you. I posted some new videos on YouTube under aikido arts institute which cover this and other issues you have written about. (Feel free to use them if you like.) The kotegaeshi part 2 shows the nage getting kicked in the head which is a total different look to why WE HAVE TO CHANGE THE KOTEGAESHI.

  5. As I’ve mentioned before in other comments here:

    whether you attack first or not can depend on the distance. Also, whether the attacker has a weapon will determine when and what range is appropriate to move first. If the attacker is inside the range where he can strike you without footwork, then you should be attacking first. Outside of that, you have options….

    Also, sometimes you are just surprised and not ready and HAVE to be reactive. So you should have at least some time training in these regimes. Some of everything is best. Training exclusively one way is limiting, whichever way you come down on this issue.

  6. Who said anything about attacking first?

    However, some sort of initiation is always required. It may come in the form of providing an opening, initiating an attack, adjusting one’s stance, offering your friendship, etc. This should considered in everyone’s practice of aikido no matter what level. As one progresses, the options one is comfortable to use will increase.

    These are all examples of timing and control which are fundamental aspects of aikido. The option to control/initiate a situation you choose is simply a reflection of the ideals you choose to follow, but it is all takemusu aiki.

  7. Dear Stan,

    I am in full agreement with you, that waiting for an attack to come should be avoided by all means. I do also agree that in most regular Aikido classes, the tori is waiting for an attack to come standing in the typical hanmi-position. This is a complete unrealistic situation. You can’t stand around in hanmi and say to some guy: Please, attack me. So what I am doing regularly in my classes is the following. Don’t start in hanmi in the first place but standing with both feet close together. When uke is launching the attack move from that position (kind of tadasana in yoga terms) into hanmi and immediately continue to move. So, students learn, that hanmi is only a fluid offering movement which invites uke. When students get an idea of this I ask them to move apart from each another, at least three meters better more than five. And then they start at the same time to walk approaching each another. The task is then for tori to initiate the attack of uke by closing the feet at the right moment at the right time and in a fluid shift move into hanmi and then doing either irimi-tenkan or taisabaki together with the technique which was given in before hand. And then practicing this for twenty minutes, sometimes with slight changes in the attack or technique.

    I got this idea when looking at the old films of demonstrations where O’Sensei isn’t standing still but moving all the time and the uke is always several steps away and has some distance to overcome before launching the attack.

    My idea in this type of training is that you move in a normal way thru the world but when somebody is approaching you move in such a way that you are always at the right distance and time this flowing closing feet, moving into hanmi, followed by irimi-tenkan or taisabaki, in a fraction of a second. It must become second nature that you do not allow others to approach you without this attitude of yours. Maybe this is what O’Sensei meant when he refused to characterize Aikido as sen-no-sen or something else. It must be over when the contact is there. And then, I believe, it is not a matter of who attacks earlier, faster, harder, but who accepted the offer to attack! And in such a situation – if you can explain this to a court – you are always the non-attacker. The other one is not forced to attack so it his decision and he must live with the consequences of his attack. I do not force him or give him the opportunity to be in the defender’s position.


  8. As someone who trains in the tradition of Shoji Nishio I’ll agree, you must never give an opening to your opponent. You gain control of the situation by being in a place where you can strike without being hit even before contact is made. That’s the essence of irimi. If you only react then it’s over before you know what hit you. The situation has to be decided prior to contact and what happens after that is simply closing the deal. The greatest fighters of all time had immaculate timing, spacing and angling.

    All that being said, I’ve always bristled at using the term “self-defense” to define aikido, even though we still use the term and it’s an implicit aspect of practice. If we were truly in the business of teaching “self-defense” to the general public then our training methods would look very different. We would emphasize far more raw physical conditioning, would focus entirely on scrappy techniques and would include modern firearm training for a start.

    Aikido is an expression of an ideal and in aikido we strive through the medium of martial art to reconcile a vision of humanity with some very real and practical considerations. You have to maintain high integrity on both sides of that equation to do what I consider to be aikido. If you abandon the humanistic aspects of the art then you may as well dedicate yourself to any number of competition based or military inspired training methods. If you forget the practical demands of the art then you’ve reduced it to a kind of partner yoga.

    The challenge that aikido presents is to reconcile the practical with the numinous and to compromise as little as possible in the process. In practice, both sides inevitably suffer because it’s just not easy to do. We strive to be more “practical” and we risk violating the directive to not cause harm. We strive to be more transcendent and we get hit in the mouth. As I joke to students, “Of course it’s hard. That’s why it’s called aikido!”

  9. Sensei Pranin,
    IMHO we often forget that bringing” harmony” to a situation isn’t always “harmonious”.

    My thoughts .. are we training with self defense in mind or are we just “dancing”? (Not trying to step on any toes here)

    Through the years I have trained with some groups whose concepts of self defense are directed only by what they have learned in the dojo. Nothing wrong with that, but most of us have never been assaulted in the dojo. As most of us have heard this line before “here’s what you do if you get punched in the face,” but then there’s no punch…maybe a slow grab. Not realistic.

    In watching the precious footage we have of O’ Sensei, I see he is initiating more often than not. It is very subtle most of the time. It is definitely sen sen no sen.( a change of weight across the feet, moving the head forward an inch or so to entice the shomen attack etc.)

    My Sensei emphasizes training at all 3 levels…go no sen, sen no sen & sen sen no sen depending on the student’s experience and rank. And yes, you do get hit when tai sabaki is incorrect. (if you are dan rank or above it DOES hurt)

    Last night in class my youngest son ( a baby at 6’6″ and 235 lbs) got hit very hard right across the nose with a padded tchobo in the kyu class , why ? He earned it, Poor tai sabaki !!

    But I am so thankful for realistic training, because on the street he would have been knocked out or worse.
    But guess what ? His tai sabaki was correct the rest of the evening… as was everyone else’s. 😉

    Gambatte !!


  10. Bob Smith says:

    Greetings Mr. Pranin,

    Firstly, let me thank you for what you do with this site and for bringing up these issues! I think that the concepts of Go No Sen, Sen No Sen, and Sen Sen No Sen and the relationships between them are a fascinating study, and are perhaps a more profound foundation for Aikido exploration than many realize. It also seems that there is always some controversy when discussing initiation of the attack, and perhaps it is semantic in nature.

    I do not believe that initiating a movement necessarily means that I throw the first haymaker, or even intend to enter with an atemi of any sort. Of course, it could I suppose, but I prefer to consider the concept a little differently. My teacher has a interesting explanation of “aiki” that has sparked my exploration of martial initiative. The application of aiki and the moment of contact with your partner’s ki is the moment that you shift the martial initiative from the attacker to the defender. Shortened, successful application of aiki can be described as the shift in the martial initiative. The timing of the aiki as preemptive or reactionary is simply when the shift happens, and the earlier the better, as far as I am concerned. And, to be clear, that shift can happen without physical contact (or before contact).

    I think to really explore these concepts requires a bit of a deconstruction and reconstruction of our basic technique. Wrist grabs are a prime example. How many times do we see instructors hold out a wrist, and a student is expected to grab hold for dear life, as if the intent behind the grabbing is simply to hold on, or be dragged around? If the instructor pauses for a moment or leaves an opening, the uke stops too unless he is explicitly expected to illustrate where a punch could be thrown. There is no martial initiative there, no intent. You cannot shift the martial initiative if there is none to begin with.

    One of the attacks I am very fond of these days is a bear hug or tackle. If nage waits too long, he gets grabbed, maybe tackled. It is a relatively safe (and fun!) way to deal with a great amount of energy and explore timing and shifting of the martial initiative, as uke has a green light to pursue a continued, powerful and energetic attack. You figure out very quickly that if you wait for it to get there, your challenge has become much greater, your timing has to be dead on, and you sometimes get tackled anyway. If you address the tackle earlier, in any number of ways, your choices increase in number, your timing has more flexibility, the sheer power required to execute a movement begins to go down, and can become close to effortless.

    Best regards, Bob Smith

    • Bob,

      Thank you very much for your insightful comments. I really encourage you to expand on these ideas and perhaps submit them as a blog.


  11. Bob Smith says:

    You are very kind! Thank you. I would love the opportunity to expand on these ideas, but submitting them as a blog is a bit of a foreign concept to me…I feel fortunate to have been able to submit my comment! I would be happy to put forth the effort, with a little guidance as to the execution.

    Kindest regards, Bob.

    • Bob,

      You can submit any blog through this interface. Just write me a note and I will personally read it. I can format it and publish it myself. It’s very simple.



  12. everything is governed by intent…the intent of the aggressor..the intent of the recipient..i have never seen aikido as defensive………….responsive , yes…….and in that ability to respond…a mental, physical, and a spirtitual posture is essential…as ueshiba said, let your spirit be your why is aikido now ,so often, demonstrated and taught without the basics of being prepared to respond effectively..through good mental, physical and spiritual posture……

  13. I hate it when people say aikido is defensive. I don’t even like the translation of budo to martial arts to self-defense. This is not to say that aikido should be offensive. The magic really is in aiki.

    Now, learning techniques is important too. Until your techniques are at about the same level of proficiency as, say, walking, timing won’t necessarily answer. It’s hard to teach timing as compared to technique. Basic technique is almost necessarily taught as responsive. In a certain sense, most people have a sense of timing, though. Much of the complexity of striking arts has to do with concealing timing. That is not to say that joining timing and aikido technique is easy. It does get easier as technique becomes more ingrained. Thus Saito Sensei recommended starting with static basics, moving on to fluid technique with the final objective of spontaneous technique.

    As to outcomes, please. If O Sensei said he left it to God, isn’t that good enough? Realistically people in a “real situation” are unlikely to take ukemi, despite Steven Seagal’s movies. So, they’re either going to take the hit (practice your atemi recently?), stumble away off balance, fall flat and painfully or some combination of the above. If they end up knocked out with a broken arm, it isn’t because you intended to do that. The wave doesn’t intend to wash the fisherman off the rock. In the dojo we learn to surf. It’s an uncommon skill elsewhere.

    As to “real situations”, until clearly shown to be otherwise, consider any real situation to be a multiple person freestyle. Bob Cornman was taken at a disadvantage breaking up a purse-snatch by simply taking out and pinning the snatcher. It worked out alright, except the purse was stolen in the end. Another thought about “real situations”, they are almost never fights. Fights are about dominance, showing somebody who’s boss. Real situations are almost never about that. If you have the mentality of fighting, that will be a disadvantage when the objective of the aggressor isn’t about establishing his place on the totem pole. There are any number of movie scenes where one actor declares victory in a fight, only to be taken out by the other party who never cared about winning, only killing, and plays his “hole card”.

  14. Sean Fitzzaland says:

    Could the awareness of a possible attack be considered taking initiative?

  15. Hello Stan,

    In all these comments, I don’t see anything about “sanso”, which Bernice Tom used to teach as “calling out the spirit”. I think Pat Hendricks may sometimes cover this as well.

    It needs to be like a reaching out that draws out a response that can then be used. If you do it too fast, you will be viewed as the aggressor. So it has to be just enough and not too fast. I don’t know for sure how realistic it is for real situations. It works OK for practicing.

    Another thing to think about is how fast is your practice? In the States, I have never seen anything up to the speed of practice with Nishio Sensei’s sempai. It was similar to the video that you have of Saito Sensei as a young man teaching class while O’Sensei watched. They were doing irimi nages in suwari waza at terrific speed. It looks like the film was speeded up. I tell my students, no, that’s the speed of practice in Japan. The students need a high skill level to achieve such speeds. Then it’s a matter of will they be willing to train at such speeds. I find the Japanese are. Not so much with Americans.
    This level of practice helps to speed up your brain. Have you ever heard someone describing a traffic accident they were in as, “Everything seemed to be going in slow motion.”? We have very little knowledge of how fast the brain can actually handle. I believe that if you practice at this really high speed, you can acclimate your brain to respond at a speed that can catch up to a non-professional attack. However if you are facing a professional thug, you can’t count on catching or being ahead of him.

    In a real situation where it’s you or him, I think you have to decide how ruthless are you willing to be. When I am being attacked, I’m throwing the peace and love out the window. I teach my students the “General Patton Theory”: “Your job is not — to die for your country….. Your job is to make the other poor dumb bastard to die — for his country.”

    Once you’re on top, then you can think about peace and love your enemy. How do you know the thug or thugs you are facing won’t do the same thing to others. (They probably will.) In that case, you are protecting greater society, by defeating the attacker/s.

  16. Talking about Go-no-sen, Sen-no-sen, Sen-sen-no-sen without going through that process is like talking about shu-ha-ri, wabisabi, etc… Just intellectual musing that leads nowhere.

    The serious study of Aikido starts with Jujutsu: Tehodoki and Nigirikaeshi (hand release techniques and exercises to induce Kuzushi at time of contact); Taisabaki that deal with Go-no-sen; study of Nagewaza (throwing techniques) and Newaza (ground techniques). It’s the level of Go-no-sen.

    Next after years of serious study and practice, Aikijujutsu: Timing has improved, techniques have become simple and natural. It’s the level of Sen-no-sen with the possible backup option of Go-no-sen if necessity arises.

    Years later it may evolve into Aikido (Martial Enlightenment?!) or the Sen-sen-no-sen level. It may be the level at which Ueshiba Sensei operated. Besides him, who does?

    The question here is: can we get directly into the Aikido level and still be able to use it effectively for self-defense without going through the hard path?

    Patrick Augé

  17. Karma Lhundup says:

    Thank you, Stanley Pranin, for a breath of fresh air and sanity in your discussion of Aikido “Go No Sen” training, and its role in the art. I’m so curious to know the level of debate and conversation around this kind of thing in the world of Aikido practitioners world-wide. I appreciate your thoughtful voice, putting things in perspective with the methodical precision of a true academic. I hope you are receiving the gratitude you deserve. Have you read Elis Amdur’s critique in “Dueling with O-Sensei”? I find it immensely provocative and insightful, and I am curious as to your response. In any case, having trained in many dojos over the last 20 years in Seattle and Portland, and having watched the rise of BJJ and MMA over the same length of time, I am shocked that there are those who consider using Aikido techniques in an actual fight to be a reasonable expectation for personal safety or protection. I personally find this kind of idea to be pure fantasy. In my view, it is best to forget every Aikido technique you have ever learned if you ever find yourself being violently, physically attacked.

  18. Tom Collings says:

    Stan, you initiated another important discussion which illicited many thoughtful comments, aikido needs more of these honest and intelligent dialogues. As I indicated in past comments and blogs, I have struggled (and sometimes succeeding) for the past 26 years in implementing the core principles of O’Sensei’s discipline on the mean streets and housing projects of New York City. I guess I am living proof of the validity, even brilliance of these tools since I just made it to retirement alive and well !

    Modern aikido is generally demonstrated and practiced as performance art, which is fine as long as students understand their practice to be for exercise and recreation only. In fairness, using aiki assertively with all the initiating options is very challenging, is unpredictable and less safe. While I prefer it – it is not for everyone, and is perhaps more accurately described as Aiki Budo.

    Regarding the perception of danger and the decision to act or wait – I highly recommend a wonderful old book on this subject – The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker.

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