“Understanding our ‘obsession’ with O-Sensei,” by Stanley Pranin


“It is rather the teachings and works of a number of Morihei Ueshiba’s students that have become regarded as today’s technical standards. O-Sensei is effectively left out of the discussion.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninIn recent years, we often present aikido techniques the way they were taught by Founder Morihei Ueshiba and contrast them with later practices that have become the norm in modern schools of the art. Some readers have drawn the conclusion that our intent is to fix Morihei’s method of doing this or that technique as an absolute standard, and that any deviation from this form is incorrect and therefore to be summarily rejected.

This is not the purpose of these exercises at all. First, let me say once again that Morihei Ueshiba’s technical evolution has been poorly documented. It is rather the teachings and works of a number of his students that have become regarded as today’s technical standards. O-Sensei is effectively left out of the discussion.

Our source materials are photos, old films, testimonies of O-Sensei’s close students, and scattered fragments of information that by themselves would be meaningless. We end up having to meticulously assemble diverse bits of information and attempt to come up with intelligent observations that will be relevant to today’s practitioners. To that, add a lot of reflection and the input of readers who provide new insights that allow us to expand the conversation.

It is precisely because of the fact that Morihei’s techniques and methods are so little understood that we go to extra lengths to bring him into the spotlight when discussing the merits of doing aikido techniques in this or that way. Should not the genius who created the art become a genuine voice in today’s dialog on the execution and intent of aikido techniques? We think so. After all he was rather good at what he did! Please watch the video below to see what I mean.

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The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.


  1. jose carlos escobar says:

    With all due respect I think deviations from the Founder’s Aikido elements that should be used in practice are in fact a deviation from a good and profound Aikido practice. And arguments like the one we can read maybe just can serve to justify the lack of right instruction but they should not confuse us.

    Many practitioners around the world don’t understand what developing human energy or a harmonious culture through Aikido means and perhaps they don’t use or understand important elements like seika tanden — which used even when bowing at the beginning and ending of a practice session — either. But since there are not many people interested in understanding Aikido before they attempt any changes or further development of the art it is rather useless to try to change what bad instructors and deficient teachers have done to unconsciously harm Aikido throughout the years.

    It is a pity but those who make big bucks or feel important in the Aikido world will never admit they don’t know Aikido. There are many who claim the Founder’s words were so obscure that they needed to make up their own explanations of the art, Thus they justify their lack of knowledge, understanding and commitment of looking for more understanding. What is in the end Aikido’s philosophy? Nobody seems to care. Is a martial art really relevant in today’s world? I don’t think so, we need an art to change our old culture and develop a new, non-violent, peaceful culture… the Founder’s ideal.

    • I agree with you!
      Aikido is not about techniques, it’s about the true meaning of “Aiki in the Do”.
      Without Aiki, there is no technique.
      People can’t understand the true aikido, then they use their poor muscle art to say it’s matrial art.
      Ones again! ” No Aiki, No technique.”
      This is what O-sensei really wants us to learn to realize and to live in this world. A love world.

  2. I am focused on O Sensei, through his long-term student Saito Sensei, because I came into aikido for a practical martial art. O Sensei was reputed to be invincible. I don’t pretend to that but would be happy for Yagyu’s 7 out of 10 in my favor.

    Now, on the road to understanding these techniques I have gotten lost in how the details make the flow. It’s fascinating and has involved about 40 years of my life now. In the process I wake up this morning and find I’m not a young man anymore. Now, whether that’s the deciding factor or not, I find that I’m much less interested in wreaking mayhem, and further, that in my fairly lengthy studies I haven’t wreaked much.

    Hmmmm…. changing a culture one person at a time? After all, what business do I have, even in O Sensei’s words, telling somebody else what to do. If O Sensei helped me live a better life than I might otherwise have done, maybe that’s worth considering.

    Jesus didn’t have a large numeric impact in His lifetime, but His message stuck. The ripples spread. Christianity is now a world religion. We could argue about what that means, but, on the whole I think it beats some of the alternatives. I was amused at the Mexico City demonstrations in 1992 protesting Columbus. I bet the Aztecs would have had a short answer to a mob of trouble makers. Their god was always hungry.

    This is not to argue for any particular religious component to Aikido, but O Sensei was a very religious guy. Technique is not the only part of his practice that has fallen out of fashion. At least when I started there was a sitting meditation class on Sunday morning.

  3. What kind of teacher was Ueshiba Sensei?

    Did he put together a program with basics and progressive levels of instruction and practice for his students to develop or did he teach according to his present level at the moment new students started?

    Was he in a hurry to pass his most advanced teachings onto all students, expecting them to learn the basics from the oldtimers after his passing?

    What are your thoughts on that?

    Patrick Augé

    • I see no one has been foolish enough to comment on your excellent questions. Q1: What kind of teacher? From all I have read, OSensei was not a teacher. He had something precious to transmit so he demonstrated and expected those who were interested to “steal” the technique if they could. He apparently did teach Shinto cosmology. Q2: Present level. When I began my major sensei said, in effect, that beginners simply step into the flow of the stream. Worked for me Q3: Obviously, yes to the first part but I have no idea about the role of oldtimers.

      It seems to me that we owe a great debt to the first and second generations of teachers who, for all their differences in emphasis, made possible our appropriation of at least some of the indefinable wisdom of OSensei.

  4. Aikido is change of ourselves and our technique to a better level. I know I have improved my art to a more dynamic and efficient techniques while still holding to O Sensei’s principles. I say this with humility and with 50 years on the mat I have at last reached the level of beginner. I totally agree with what your have written, Stan. Keep up the great work.

  5. Well, here we are another year down the road. I am minded of the saying, “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment carrying water and chopping wood.” I work on technique daily. I’m very thankful that Saito Sensei spent his life and teaching career preserving and promulgating the techniques he learned from O Sensei. Is technique the end of the line? I don’t think so. I think it IS the line. So, if you’re teaching, what will you teach? Will you teach what you’re working on or will you teach the basics you’ve been taught? I hope the latter as long as you haven’t established your own art. Just imo the really advanced stuff is all dependent on the circumstances from which it arises and probably as unique as fingerprints. Trying to teach that… I like the translation of Ecclesiastes in which “all is vanity and a striving after the wind”.

  6. Barbara W says:

    My opinion for what its worth is that the evolution of aikido is just that. O Sensei didn’t teach ‘kata’ perhaps because he didn’t want to limit the evolution.

  7. Interesting that those who practice Aikido that bears little resemblance to what O Sensei taught cite “evolution” as a reason why their technique is “better” than his.

    This shows little understanding of evolution. Evolution proceeds by making a multitude of variations, the vast, overwhelming, majority of which are failures.

    I can’t help but note that every single one of those variants make an untested assumption that their variation is the successful one. Statistically unlikely.

    If you are going to use the evolution argument, then you should also note that some of the the most successful organisms were so perfectly suited to their purpose that they have remained basically unchanged for millions of years.

    But I think this is the wrong way to think about it. Variation in techniques are not made because one is better or worse than another. The reason we create and practice henka is that reality is not digital, this or that, kihon, deterministic. Reality is analog, ki no nagare, flowing, constantly variable. So technique must be flexible in order to adapt to, to blend with, reality, to ultimately become not really “technique” at all (or so I understand).

    But you can’t learn anything by jumping into a sea of ambiguity, you have to start from a structured base. This is what our various “styles” give us. We differ in what we consider that “base” should be but we are all, I believe, heading in the same direction, the path that O Sensei showed us.

  8. Evolution also implies selection. In the bad old days that was simple. If you lived, your stuff worked. If you lived to maybe 40 or so, people might become curious as to how you survived and you would attract students. Thus martial arts retained their martial character. Selection today probably has more to do with entertainment value. Nor is that new in times of general peace. Musashi regretted it centuries ago.

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