Aikido FAQ

Basic Aikido FAQ

 

 

What is Aikido?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba (often referred to by his title 'O Sensei' or 'Great Teacher'). On a purely physical level it is an art involving some throws and joint locks that are derived from jiu-jitsu and some throws and other techniques derived from kenjutsu.

Aikido focuses not on punching or kicking opponents, but rather on using their own energy to gain control of them or to throw them away from you. It is not a static art, but places great emphasis on motion and the dynamics of movement.

Upon closer examination, practitioners will find from Aikido what they are looking for, whether it is applicable self-defence technique, spiritual enlightenment, physical health or peace of mind. O Sensei emphasized the moral and spiritual aspects of this art, placing great weight on the development of harmony and peace. "The Way of Harmony of the Spirit" is one way that "Aikido" may be translated into English. This is still true of Aikido today, although different styles emphasize the more spiritual aspects to greater or lesser degrees. Although the idea of a martial discipline striving for peace and harmony may seem paradoxical, it is the most basic tenet of the art.

We could attempt to pigeonhole Aikido into a synopsis of X number of words, but that would not do it justice, so we leave the practitioner of Aikido to find out what Aikido is for themselves without any preconceived notions.


What are the different styles in Aikido?
Aikido was originally developed by one man, O Sensei. Many students who trained under O Sensei decided to spread their knowledge of Aikido by opening their own dojos. Due, among other things, to the dynamic nature of Aikido, different students of O Sensei interpreted his Aikido in different ways. Thus different styles of Aikido were born. The more common are listed here along with a brief explanation of what is different about the style. Each style has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all are firmly rooted in the basic concepts which make Aikido the unique art that it is. None should be considered superior or inferior to any other, but rather an individual must find a style which best suits him or her. Outside factors such as geographic location may of course limit one's options.

Aikikai

Also known as Hombu (which actually means headquarters). This is 'classical' Aikido as taught by the Ueshiba family. Today it is governed by the Aikikai Foundation which is run by O Sensei's son, Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. There are several different organizations which teach this style of Aikido such as USAF and ASU (in the United States) and BAF (in the United Kingdom).



Iwama

As taught in the town of Iwama by Morihiro Saito, a close student of O Sensei. Includes an emphasis on the relationship among taijutsu, ken and jo movements. This style of aikido reflects the art of the Founder as taught approximately between the years of 1946-1955 and the number of techniques is more numerous than those presently taught at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo.

Ki Society

Also known as Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (Aikido with Mind & Body Coordinated), founded in 1971 by Koichi Tohei a 10th dan student of O Sensei who, at O Sensei's request, brought Aikido to the U.S. in 1953. Ki Society stresses the use of Ki not only in technique but in daily life to remain calm & relaxed in stressful situations.

Kokikai

A style founded by Shuji Maruyama Sensei. It is a particularly soft style that emphasizes 'minimum effort for maximum effect.'

Tomiki Ryu Aikido

Was founded by Kenji Tomiki, a high ranking judoka, whom Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo) sent to Ueshiba to learn Aikido. The primary focus of Tomiki Aikido is kata (forms) that strive to teach and capture the fundamentals of Aikido. Tomiki de emphasized the concept and importance of ki, and instead decided to concentrate on the physiological side of Aikido.

Yoshinkan

Places emphasis on the use of Aikido as a method of self defence and less on the more esoteric and philosophical elements.

Can Aikido be used for self-defence?
We do not teach Aikido as a self-defence form - it's a martial-art - please do not confuse the two, despite what you've seen in the movies. Although Aikido is not a self-defence form in itself, we believe that, by teaching Aikido in the way we do, following a set of basic principles, the precepts of self-defence are embodied in the practice. We teach good posture, keeping the head up to be aware of other attackers, moving off the line of an attack rather than fighting etc.

Remember that the important bit of self-defence is not how much you hurt your attacker but how much your attacker doesn't hurt you!


Does Aikido take longer time to master and apply than other martial arts?
The simple answer is "yes". A year in Karate/Tae Kwon Do/Kempo and you can probably fight much better than before. It takes well over a year before you start feeling comfortable enough with Aikido techniques to imagine using them in "real life". The complex answer is "no" in the sense that I don't think anyone ever feels like they have "mastered" an art. If they do then they've stopped growing, or the art is too simple. In Funakoshi's autobiography you definitely get the feeling that he doesn't feel like a "master" and is bemused to be considered one.

An old story might tell you some of the mindset you ought to apply when studying martial arts:

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo he was given an audience by the sensei. "What do you wish from me?" the master asked. "I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land," the boy replied. "How long must I study?" "Ten years at least," the master answered. "Ten years is a long time," said the boy. "What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?" "Twenty years," replied the master. "Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?" "Thirty years," was the master's reply. "How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked. "The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way."

Is Aikido better than karate/judo/any other martial art?
This is an extremely controversial question and has generated much heated debate in forums such as the rec.martial-arts newsgroup

The answer to this question is very subjective - students of any particular martial art tend to favor that one over any other (otherwise they would probably be studying the other martial art).

There are many different but equally valid reasons for studying any martial art, such as for self defence, for spiritual growth or enlightenment, for general physical health, for self-confidence and more. Different martial arts, and even different styles within a particular martial art, emphasize different aspects.

Hence 'better' really depends on what it is you want out of a martial art. Even given this distinction, it is still a very subjective question so perhaps a better one would be 'Is Aikido better than any other martial art *for me*?'

This can only be answered by the individual asking the question. The rest of this FAQ may help you in some way towards finding that answer. An alternative way to answer this question is to simply say, 'No, Aikido is not 'better' or 'worse' than any other martial art. It is simply different.'


Does Aikido have competitions?
It is often said that Aikido does not have any competitions. It is true that the founder of Aikido (Morihei Ueshiba, or O Sensei) felt that competition was incompatible with Aikido, but that does not mean that everyone agrees.

One popular style, Tomiki Aikido, does have competition. It is not however considered to be a fundamental part of the style. On the other hand, the majority of Aikido schools do not have any competition.

Most Aikido training, even in schools with competitions, is of a co-operative rather than antagonistic nature, with both thrower (nage) and throwee (uke) working as partners and trying to optimise the experience of the other.

This "working partnership" is also necessary to a) minimize the chance of injury from practicing (potentially dangerous) aikido techniques, and b) to develop both partners' capacity to "take ukemi" - to be relaxed and able to take care of oneself when responding to "falling" or being thrown in a martial situation.


Principles of Aikido

It is not possible to cover here, or perhaps even in any number of books, all the principles of Aikido or even give great detail on what is mentioned. The interested reader is directed to the Bibliography for more information or for informed, respectful, discussion, to Aikido-L Internet Discussion Group

Ki -- Aikido makes extensive use of the concept of ki. Aikido is one of the more spiritual martial arts and has been referred to as 'moving zen'. The name Aikido can be translated as 'the way of harmony of ki'. Exactly what ki 'is' is a somewhat controversial issue.

Some believe that the physical entity ki simply does not exist. Instead, the spirit, the intention, the bio-physico-psychological coordination through relaxation and awareness are concepts being used in the teaching. These aikidoka sometimes tend to frown upon the philosophical/spiritual aspect of ki.

Other aikidoka believe that ki does exist as a physical entity and can be transmitted through space. They, on the other hand, make use of concepts such as ki of the universe, extending ki etc.

The fact of the matter is that there is a large portion of aikidoka who are still, and no doubt will continue be, on their 'quest for ki'.

Without doubt, this has been the most difficult question to write any kind of reasonably fair answer to. On the subject of the nature of ki, perhaps more than in any other area of Aikido, the aikidoka must find his or her own answer, whatever that may be. The last word on this subject will be left to the former Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the son of O Sensei:

"We may hear students say that `It is a feeling of some kind of energy coming forth from mind and body in harmony.' Or `It is a strange, vital power which appears unexpectedly at times from an unknown source.' Or `It is the sense of perfect timing and matched breathing experienced in practicing aikido.' Or `It is a spontaneous, unconscious movement which refreshes mind and body after a good workout,' and so forth.

Each answer is valid in the sense that it is a true reaction gained through actual personal experience. And being a direct expression of a felt condition, it contains a certitude that cannot be denied. If this is so, the differences in responses is negligible, and the great variety attests to not only the difficulty in precisely defining ki but shows that the depth and breadth of ki defy coverage by a single definition." -- from "The Spirit of Aikido"

Entering (irimi)

Entering, or "irimi" is one of the basic techniques of aikido and is closely related to "blending" with an attacker. At a basic level, irimi is a movement which looks like a slidestep toward or into an opponent's attack. Aikido thinks of most movement as being circular or spiraling in nature; irimi brings a person "into" the circle of movement, so that the energy of the attack can be directed along the circular plane - much like catching a frisbee on your finger, letting the circular energy 'spin' around the finger and then sending it on its way in the same, or an alternate direction, with a minimum of effort.

The concept of entering emphasizes the importance of placing oneself inside the "danger radius" of a partner's attack. Imagine a boxer's punch. The punch has gathered most of its power and effectiveness at or near the full extent of the boxer's arm. Beyond the reach of the arm there is little danger or threat. Similarly, inside the full extent of the arm the moving fist has developed very little energy, and again poses little or no threat. Several things may be substituted for the boxer's punch: any strike with a hand, knife, sword or staff, for example.

Ukemi

Ukemi may be described as the art of receiving a technique. The practice of ukemi involves rolls and other breakfalls. Here are a few reasons why we practice ukemi in Aikido, and why it is such an important part of our Aikido training:

1. To stay safe. That is, not only to avoid injury in that confrontation, but to be aware of what is going on throughout the whole confrontation (encounter) and therefore be able to find and respond to openings and, perhaps, to escape.

2. To experience the throw. Part of the learning process must be to understand what the *other* side of the encounter is - what does it feel like to be tied up in a particular technique? Also, to observe the other person's technique, particularly if nage is a senior student or teacher. Being able to take ukemi means allowing the detachment necessary to "observe" (with the body and mind).

2.a. To learn to listen with your body. To throw well requires sensitivity to your partner. Often we are so caught up in the active role of nage that we forget to be receptive to our partner and move in a way that harmonizes with uke. By being uke we get a chance to emphasize the receptive aspects of body movement (though that is not all there is to it). Hopefully, by emphasizing receptivity half of the time you improve your receptivity the other half of the time.

3. To assist your partner to learn. Being a good uke means maintaining the connection with nage, and allowing nage to experience that connection and to really experience the technique. Being a good uke allows nage to perform the technique without worrying about uke being injured.

4. To condition the body. Taking good ukemi requires a lot of work; much emphasis is placed on staying connected, staying flexible and staying aware.

Atemi

Atemi, literally, means to strike the body. A simple explanation of atemi is that they are strikes. Some people insist on more rigorous definitions such as only strikes to pressure points. One purpose of atemi is to distract your partner, so that they focus on your hand, or their pain, rather than their grasp. This can make it easier to move. In this context, you could regard atemi as a "ki disturbance". Atemi, on some interpretations, need not be an actual strike, since what matters is the effect on uke, that is, the upsetting of uke's physical and psychological balance, facilitating the application of technique. Some claim that the best way to ensure such unbalancing is to deliver a real strike, especially where there is potential for strong resistance. Still others claim that atemi involves "projecting ki" toward uke, where this involves something above and beyond merely provoking a sort of startle reflex or response to the physical strike (or threat thereof).

Some feel atemi is important in the actual accomplishment of waza rather than being independent waza in and of itself. This is a personal feeling. This distinguishes aikido (in the opinion of some) from striking arts where the atemi is the focus.

What does it mean to 'move off the line'?

The energy of any attack flows from one point to another, usually from an attacker to his or her intended victim. The line that connects these two points is called the line of attack. For example, the energy in the boxer's punch flows (via his fist) outwardly from his body towards his opponent. This is the line of attack. Once an attack is committed, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change the course of the attack. (An excellent example of this is the flying kick in Karate: once the attacker has left the ground, there is very little that can be done to change the course of the attack.) To 'move off the line' is to move off of the line of attack at or after the point at which the attack is committed, into an area or zone of safety.

Center/hara/haragei

One's center is just that - the physical and martial-arts "middle" of the body. Located in the abdomen ("hara"), it serves as the source/focus of ki/energy and as one's balance point when executing techniques. Try lifting something directly in front of you, then try lifting the same object when it's off to one side - it's much easier when it's "centered," right? Maintaining an awareness of (and "connection" to) your and your training partner's centers makes just that kind of difference in the ease and flow of aikido.

Extension

Just as it is important to "remain centered," it is important to "extend" in aikido. Many techniques are facilitated by "extending ki" or "extending energy" during their execution. Physically and psychologically, this helps counter the tendency of many people to contract and keep their arms and legs close to their bodies, because aikido is generally practiced with large, sweeping movements.


Dojo Etiquette & Dress

NOTE: The precise etiquette and dress code followed at any given dojo may vary from the general information given here. This derives from the fact that O Sensei had a very long career, and his students who went on to teach aikido and have students of their own learned from him at different times, as well as incorporating their own ideas into the forms observed in their dojo. When training at a new dojo, either as a beginning student or when visiting fellow aikidoka elsewhere, be sure to respect local traditions. If you are unsure of the required etiquette, follow the lead of the more senior aikidoka present. Feel free to ask if you haven't had a chance to observe them yourself.

What is the proper before-class ritual?

Basically this involves the students kneeling in one or more lines parallel to the front of the dojo, or shomen. The sensei enters and kneels. All present bow toward the shomen (where a picture of O Sensei [or a piece of calligraphy representing the kanji for "ki" in the case of Ki Society aikido] is traditionally on display). Then a further bow, sensei to class and class to sensei. There may or may not be clapping or words uttered.

Why do we bow and use Japanese at certain times during a class?

Many Aikidoka feel that it is important to maintain the traditions of the art in order to preserve its integrity and also as a mark of respect to both its founder and its history.

The extent to which these customs are adhered to depends on the dojo. Some customs are almost universally observed: showing respect to your teacher by bowing and saying "Onegai shimasu" [lit. "I make a request"] before class and "Domo arigato gozaimashita (sensei)" ["Thank you very much (teacher)"] after class, as well as to your training partner(s) (before and after each technique in some dojos, only before and after class in others) is arguably the most important. Some dojos insist on using the Japanese terms, others allow English versions. The bowing is meant as a mark of respect to O Sensei (or Tohei Sensei in Ki Society aikido), the instructor or your partner - it does not have any religious significance and is in fact more akin to a handshake in Western society. It does not symbolize worship of any sort.

Another reason for bowing is as a safety measure - a physical pause that is used to put aside extraneous thoughts and consider the limitations of your training partner (among other things).

Is talking permitted on the mat?

This depends on the policy of the dojo at which you train; some frown on any talking on the mat at all, while others are quite permissive. Generally, it is best if one observes the etiquette of the dojo they are at, not the one that they usually train in. In no case should anything other than the technique at hand be discussed, however. One line of reasoning behind the no talking rule is to test the observational skills needed by martial artists. Another is that while in class one should concentrate exclusively on aikido and that talking with others around you serves only to break that concentration.


How is Aikido training conducted

Aikido practice begins the moment you enter the dojo! Trainees ought to endeavor to observe proper etiquette at all times. It is proper to bow when entering and leaving the dojo, and when coming onto and leaving the mat. Approximately 3-5 minutes before the official start of class, trainees should line up and sit quietly in seiza (kneeling). (If you are unable to sit in seiza, you may sit cross-legged instead if you ask you instructor).

The only way to advance in aikido is through regular and continued training. Attendance is not mandatory, but keep in mind that in order to improve in aikido, one probably needs to practice at least twice a week. In addition, insofar as aikido provides a way of cultivating self-discipline, such self-discipline begins with regular attendance.

Your training is your own responsibility. No one is going to take you by the hand and lead you to proficiency in aikido. In particular, it is not the responsibility of the instructor or senior students to see to it that you learn anything. Part of aikido training is learning to observe effectively. Before asking for help, therefore, you should first try to figure the technique out for yourself by watching others.

Aikido training encompasses more than techniques. Training in aikido includes observation and modification of both physical and psychological patterns of thought and behavior. In particular, you must pay attention to the way you react to various sorts of circumstances. Thus part of aikido training is the cultivation of (self-)awareness.

The following point is very important: Aikido training is a cooperative, not competitive, enterprise. Techniques are learned through training with a partner, not an opponent. You must always be careful to practice in such a way that you temper the speed and power of your technique in accordance with the abilities of your partner. Your partner is lending his/her body to you for you to practice on -- it is not unreasonable to expect you to take good care of what has been lent you.

Aikido training may sometimes be very frustrating. Learning to cope with this frustration is also a part of aikido training. Practitioners need to observe themselves in order to determine the root of their frustration and dissatisfaction with their progress. Sometimes the cause is a tendency to compare oneself too closely with other trainees. Notice, however, that this is itself a form of competition. It is a fine thing to admire the talents of others and to strive to emulate them, but care should be taken not to allow comparisons with others to foster resentment, or excessive self-criticism.

If at any time during aikido training you become too tired to continue or if an injury prevents you from performing some aikido movement or technique, it is permissible to bow out of practice temporarily until you feel able to continue. If you must leave the mat, ask the instructor for permission.


How do ranks and promotions work in aikido, and how come there are no colored belts?

According to the standard set by the International Aikido Federation (IAF) and the United States Aikido Federation (USAF), there are 6 ranks below black belt. These ranks are called "kyu" ranks.

Eligibility for testing depends primarily (though not exclusively) upon accumulation of practice hours. Other relevant factors may include a trainee's attitude with respect to others, regularity of attendance, and, in some organizations, contribution to the maintenance of the dojo or dissemination of aikido.

The testing requirements are very different from style to style and from organization to organisation. They also change over time.

Traditionally, white belts are worn by all mudansha (kyu-ranked i.e. below black belt) aikidoka, and black belts by yudansha (dan-ranked). While some dojos adhere to this policy, others have adopted systems involving the use of different-colored belts for mudansha, with each color signifying one or two kyu ranks. There are naturally proponents for each system.


What is a hakama and who wears it?

A hakama is the skirt-like pants that some aikidoka wear. It is a traditional piece of samurai clothing. The standard gi worn in aikido as well as in other martial arts such as Judo or Karate was originally underclothes. Wearing it is part of the tradition of (some schools of) aikido.

In many schools, only the black belts wear hakama, in others everyone does. In some places women can start wearing it earlier than men (generally modesty of women is the explanation - remember, a gi was originally underwear).


What if I can't throw my partner?

This is a common question in aikido. There are several answers. First, ask the instructor. Most likely there is something you are doing incorrectly.

Second, aikido techniques, as we practice them in the dojo, are idealizations. No aikido technique works all the time. Rather, aikido techniques are meant to be sensitive to the specific conditions of an attack. However, since it is often too difficult to cover all the possible condition-dependent variations for a technique, we adopt a general type of attack and learn to respond to it. At more advanced levels of training we may try to see how generalized strategies may be applied to more specific cases.

Third, aikido techniques often take a while to learn to perform correctly. Ask your partner to offer less resistance until you have learned to perform the technique a little better.

Fourth, many aikido techniques cannot be performed effectively without the concomitant application of atemi (a strike delivered to the attacker for the purpose of facilitating the subsequent application of the technique). For safety's sake, atemi is often omitted during practice. Again, ask your partner's cooperation.


How often should I practice?

As often or as seldom as you wish. However, a minimum of two practices per week is advised.

How can I practice by myself?

Naturally, aikido is best learned with a partner. However, there are a number of ways to pursue solo training in aikido. First, one can practice solo forms (kata) with a jo or bokken.

Second, one can "shadow" techniques by simply performing the movements of aikido techniques with an imaginary partner. Even purely mental rehearsal of aikido techniques can serve as an effective form of solo training.

Why should I train with weapons?

Some dojo hold classes which are devoted almost exclusively to training with Jo (staff), Tanto (knife), and Bokken (sword); the three principal weapons used in aikido. However, since the goal of aikido is not primarily to learn how to use weapons, trainees are advised to attend a minimum of two non-weapons classes per week if they plan to attend weapons classes.

There are several reasons for weapons training in aikido. First, many aikido movements are derived from classical weapons arts. There is thus a historical rationale for learning weapons movements.

Second, weapons training is helpful for learning proper Maai, or distancing.

Third, many advanced aikido techniques involve defenses against weapons. In order to ensure that such techniques can be practiced safely, it is important for students to know how to attack properly with weapons, and to defend against such attacks.

Fourth, there are often important principles of aikido movement and technique that may be more easily demonstrated by the use of weapons than without.