Aikido: The Way of Harmony
by Shawn Lankton
Aikido means “The Way of Harmony.” Aikido is a non-violent form of martial art in which attacks are neutralized rather than blocked forcefully and countered with equal wrath. Aikido is a great martial art for self-defense and self-improvement.
What is the History and Future of Aikido?
Aikido was founded by a man named Morihei Ueshiba who is now referred to as O-sensei. He was born in 1883 and trained with many great masters of more traditional martial arts. He became a master himself in Jujitsu (unarmed combat), Kinjitsu (sword combat), and sojitsu (spear combat). Because he was not totally satisfied with brute strength and physical prowess, he also studied philosophical and religious material.
The actual origin of Aikido can be traced to a duel between O-sensei and a naval officer. In this battle, O-sensei evaded blows that the naval officer made with a wooden sword. Eventually, the other man collapsed in exhaustion. O-sensei said, upon recalling the duel, that his enlightenment began there.
O-sensei later taught that “Budo (the way of defense) is not felling the opponent by our force; nor is it a tool to lead the world into destruction with arms. True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect, and cultivate all things in nature.” He taught what he then named Aikido for the rest of his life. In fact, he was still doing demonstrations four months before he died in 1969 at the age of 86. Almost commensurate with his death, Morihei Ueshiba was declared a Sacred National Treasure of Japan by the Japanese government. To put this in some perspective, in the United State, National Treasures include such things as the Grand Canyon!
His son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba is now the leader or “Doshu” of the way of Aikido. He, along with many other Aikido teachers, now teach Aikido in over 50 countries to hundreds of thousands of students. It is quite unique to Aikido that rank promotion is slow. Aikido masters and students are not willing to commercialize the learning. As a result there are no Aikido competitions – Aikido is not to be considered a sport, but rather a “way” in the true sense of Budo. Rank promotions require more time and accomplishment than in any other martial art and, basically, there are only two colors of belts: White and black. This is done in large part to keep the vanity or ego out of the practice of Aikido.
It should be mentioned that many dojos do also recognize a brown belt, however. Within each color of belt there are, indeed, ranks. These vary somewhat between forms of Aikido, but basically there are five to six kyus (ranks) of white belt, with the last two of these being recognized as brown belt in some dojos. As with other martial arts, the ranks within black belt range from one to ten. To keep perspective on this matter of rank, it is not at all uncommon for a practitioner to require twenty years to accomplish third degree black belt — and thirty to accomplish fifth degree black belt. But these ranks are de-emphasized to highlight instead the learning of the art.
Why Am I Studying Aikido?
The path that led me to Aikido is a long one. Since I was a small child, my father told me about a friend of his who practiced a form of martial art called Aikido. He told me his understanding of its basic concepts and ideas. This got me thinking that Aikido was a very desirable thing to do and that it was fun and exciting. At that time, however, I was in TaeKwonDo, and didn’t have time for anything else. After quitting TaeKwonDo (with the equivalent rank of brown belt in most schools of TaeKwonDo) and being without a martial art class for some years, I became restless and decided to go looking for a new place to train. Of course, Aikido was a big contender.
My father was also interested in returning to a martial art, so we went searching. We checked the phone book, and quickly located the local Aikido school or “dojo.” My father and I went to watch a class and saw a relaxed environment, good teachers, and some cool techniques. The very next day, we were training in sweats. After about a week of this, we decided to get the proper training gear. We each bought an Aikido uniform, or “ge” (about $45 each) and began to attend regularly. Shortly thereafter we invested in the traditional pants called “hakamas” (about $60 to $150 each) and also purchased the training weapons: wooden swords and “jos” (another $40-$120 each). After about six months of nightly training practice we decided to also purchased katana swords (usually $300-$550 but even up to $6000 or more each) for still more serious practice.
The answer to “why Aikido?” is more than how the events happened. It is also about the philosophy, exercise, practical application, and the joy of Aikido. The philosophy appealed to me from the beginning as I have mentioned above. The idea that an attack can be neutralized without force or resistance, and without hurting either party seemed like a very harmonious and correct way of thinking and living. The practical defense application is also very real. The joy of Aikido is just that it is a lot of fun to have a place to go and have a good workout with friendly people.
What Will You Learn from Aikido?
Everyone trains together. There are no beginners’ classes. It is thought that training should be a mixture of people with different skill levels. The general flow of a class looks similar from one night to the next. There is a practical matter of “suiting up” in the training gear, bowing with respect as you enter the mat, and bowing to the trainer, etc., to show respect for his or her position. Classes always begin with a physical warm-up and breathing exercises. The trainer then chooses a student and demonstrates, briefly, a principle or technique. Following that, students quickly select a partner (a different one for each new exercise) and alternate practicing what was demonstrated.
For instance, the designated attacker might throw a punch to the partner’s chest. In response the partner moves in the designated manner shown. The result is often that a “throw” or “pin” is delivered and the attacker takes a fall. (By the way, the first several months of class for new students emphasizes the art of falling and rolling harmlessly so they can participate safely). After a few attempts at the technique of principle, the partners switch roles, and the previous defender becomes the attacker and receives the throw. Unlike karate, all learning is done with another person. There are no Katas, or dances, or “one-step” blocks and defenses to learn as done as there are in other martial arts. In Aikido, there is a great emphasis on the co-actions between individuals.
Basic Ideas and Concepts
Aside from many techniques (that I could only share with Japanese names that would probably mean nothing to you), you will learn the basic ideas of Aikido. The concepts of non-violence and non-resistance are major principles of Aikido. The fact that an attack can be neutralized without force or injury on the part of the attacker or the defender is a major part of Aikido’s philosophy. But this should not sound like an old familiar discussion of Judo. In practice Judo actually will appear to emphasize throwing attackers to the mat – usually hard – by the use of muscular effort (combined with the energy of the attacker). Aikido is noticeably absent of this effort (outside of Steven Segal movies, that is).
Along with that aspect, there is another basic principle of Aikido. The flowing and circular nature of this martial art is complex and hard to understand. You will be learning about this concept from your first class until your last. Another important thing you will learn in Aikido is the power of the harah (moving from your center and always from the hips).
The real power of Aikido comes from using the distance, motion, speed, and projection of the attacker and adding you own blending, spiraling, extension and movement. Part of the real power in the movement of Aikido techniques comes from keeping your centeredness and always initiating action congruently using your hips. This is one of the most important principles of movement in Aikido, and the one of which you are most frequently reminded. In western society, we tend to use muscle and upper body strength to make all things work. In Aikido, you must forget that or you will always fail. The difference can be felt in class when you struggle with a technique for fifteen minutes and your arms are tired and you are sweating bullets, and the instructor comes over and says, “No, no. Relax. Use your hips.” Then you try technique and it works seemingly without effort.
The spiraling, flowing, circular motions, and extensions of Aikido can be explained by looking at the entire universe. All things are spiraling: hurricanes, planets, solar systems, galaxies, the entire universe, and even the electrons in a single atom. Obviously, there is something more to the power is in the spiral than coincidence. In Aikido, everything is fluid and flowing. If not, we are tempted to tense up and use muscle to make the technique work.
You will also learn the principles of non-resistance. This means that enemy blows are not met with force, but rather with relaxed redirection and nudges. There are three types of non-resistive techniques. These are known as leading, blending, and controlling. Leading basically means guiding the extension of attack, whether it be a hand, foot, or sword past the point where the attacker desires it to stop. This leaves the attacker off balance and the attack neutralized. Blending consists of moving with the attack so as to both evade the attack and lead the attacker to an advantageous spot for you, but not for them. Controlling means controlling the situation and yourself. One of the most amazing things to learn about this control (you have to learn over and over) is to place your center at the center of the attack. This requires moving toward attacks, and doing it in a relaxed posture, quickly.
It is a difficult learning to come to trust, as it seem to go against the grain of the Western mind: people have learned to either move away, or move toward an attack with muscular tension, strength, and force. But the true power comes from matching the yang of the attack with the yin of your ease. It is a hard and fascinating lesson to learn — and, it basically accounts for why it takes years to become truly proficient in Aikido.
Continuing with the non-violence concept, O-sensei was once quoted to say “I am not teaching you martial techniques, I am teaching you non-violence.” His meaning was that, although many of the techniques have martial applications, that is not the intent of Aikido. In fact, most of the techniques in Aikido can be found in Judo or Karate, but what separates Aikido is the non-violence of their application. Some teachers teach how to convert the techniques into painful and destructive strikes and blows only so that the student has the option to use them, or not.
The future of Aikido is uncertain. My prediction is that this art form will grow in popularity. Its passive teachings of harmony, non-aggression, and non-resistance are good lessons for everyone to learn. The way may be difficult because western civilization has become accustomed to the false belief that fighting hard with punching and kicking techniques is the only true martial art. We since irrevocably convinced us that macho is the way to be.
It is fair to say Aikido is for everyone – or it seems that it should be. If done correctly, it requires no more muscle than that used to lift your arm, and the self defense value is invaluable in today’s society. It also provides a good workout and allows you to get more in touch with your body through practice movements and a reconnecting with your “center” or harah. The cost is usually from $25 to $50 monthly. There are no Aikido dojos that require a “contract” for training as found in karate. It is fascinating, and in many ways may hold the keys to the future of how people come to respect each other and the world around them.