Recently, I’ve been thinking and about how to make Aikido more accessible. I wondered: perhaps if people understood a little bit more about me and my personal journey then hopefully they might get more out of their own Aikido training.
I didn’t have a particularly great childhood. I didn’t go for want of food or clothing but family life was tough and I was unhappy, angry and directionless. I searched desperately for an escape, something to bring some structure to my life. To this endS, I did just about everything you can imagine: Athletics, Gymnastics, Yoga, Jazz Ballet, you name it. Some of it I was naturally good at; some of it not so much. But ultimately, nothing held my attention and I continued to feel lost.
When I was 15, I saw a TV show called “The Way of the Warrior,” which documented various martial arts. The one that stood out for me was Aikido. It had a man seemingly effortlessly locking, pinning and throwing. That’s what I wanted to do! So I found a Dojo and started.
It was like nothing else I had done before. It was seemingly easy enough for anyone to learn and yet difficult enough that its secrets have remained elusive for nearly 30 years—and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. For anyone who’s ever hiked, Aikido practice is a bit like climbing along a ridge line—you see the top but the moment you reach it, you realise there’s another peak just behind it.
I can’t say for sure what ultimately convinced my parents but I suspect due in part to sheer desperation, six months later I was in Japan studying under a direct student of the O’Sensei (literally, Great Teacher; Ueshiba Morihei, Founder of Aikido) in the Founder’s very own Dojo (literally, way place). For the next 12 months I literally lived in the Dojo, slept on the mats, worked in the field of the Dojo farm and trained a minimum of 2 hours every day—sometimes 4-6 hours if there was a university group visiting.
It was tough to be sure, but it was also the most incredible time of my life. I had structure, I had good role models and I was growing physically and mentally fitter and stronger. Sensei (teacher) and his family were strict but they were also the most kind and generous people a young person could hope to come in to their life. In short, it changed my life. It also changed what Aikido meant to me.
In your training do not be in a hurry. Never think of yourself as an all-knowing, perfected master; you must continue to train daily with your friends and students and progress together in Aikido.—O’Sensei
Aikido is Budo. To most people Martial Arts and Budo are probably interchangeable but they are not. At the risk of sounding clichéd, Budo is more than an activity; more than a sport. It’s not about fitness or fighting. There are no rules, no competition. Budo is living (and by extension practising in the Dojo) as if every moment is life or death. Training in Japan feels like this—every class, every day as a live-in student feels as though at any moment something might happen. Morihiro Sensei (9th degree black belt and direct student of O’Sensei) said that Aikido techniques are 80-90% striking—we happen to focus on the other 10-20%.
Morihiro Sensei also said that “Aikido is like a mirror on your soul.” With vigorous training and constant vigilance your awareness heightens and your empathy grows. You begin to understand what others are thinking. You begin to anticipate what is needed in any given situation. You begin to read people more intuitively. You begin to see people for who they really are. But more importantly you see yourself and the way you handle the fear, the anxiety, the excitement, the nerves that are part and parcel of the training.
Aikido builds strength both mentally and physically. Aikido practice is hard. The throws are vigorous and they toughen the outer layers of your body. The locks and pins are effective and strengthen your muscles and joints. Techniques are painful but at the same time they don’t last forever. They strengthen your mind by teaching you that it’s just pain and it will end.
Aikido is an internal art—more in common with Bagua than say Judo or Jiujitsu even though that’s where the obvious roots lie. Everything in Aikido moves around centrelines. Everything draws power up from the ground, through the feet, legs and hips and delivered outwards through the rest of your body. There is more, much more to Aikido than the physical manifestation of the techniques. That said, it is through the vigorous practice of these physical techniques that the other aspects will manifest themselves.
Aikido is a life long endeavour. There is no point at which you can say “I have mastered Aikido.” Even as a teacher you are a student. In my case through circumstance rather than choice alone, I just happen to be a little further along than my students. Every class, no matter how experienced you feel you should try your best to achieve “beginners mind” and look at every technique and every situation a new.
Aikido is mosogi (purification). The mindset, the self-reflection and introspection, the physical and mental strengthening, the development of internal power and the constant and relentless renewal of your understanding and awareness can and hopefully will leave you feeling calm, confident, relaxed and refreshed—even after a long hard practice or a tough day at work.
Aikido is family. No matter where I go in the world, I always have somewhere to stay and somewhere to train. The friendships I make on the mat extend far beyond the boundaries of the Dojo, or Japan or whatever city or country I happen to be in. When we are on the mat we train like life depends on it; off the mat we are always there for each other.
One does not need buildings, money, power, or status to practice the Art of Peace. Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.—O’Sensei
The Dojo is a special space and demands special behaviour and attention. Traditionally, Aikido tatami (straw mats) are hard and covered in a rough canvas—in the old days mats were only used on special occasions and instead they trained on floor boards with nails sticking out that needed to be hit back in before each class. The tatami have a unique smell which when combined with the wood of the Dojo walls transports your mind away from the outside world. It’s almost impossible to replicate that outside of Japan but nevertheless it’s your mindset as much as anything that is important.
When you walk through the door of the Dojo and bow toward the shomen (front), take off your shoes and put on your clean white dogi (uniform) you begin the process of misogi. This is further reinforced as you clean the mats and then bow at the beginning and end of each class. Look around the Dojo for there are always things that need cleaning, fixing, tidying. Use each step as an opportunity to leave your worries behind and recapture your beginners mind.
Be respectful to the space and to others. Be aware and respectful of other classes that may be in progress. Say onegaishimasu (please) when you bow in to your partner and domo arigatou gozaimashita (thank you) when you bow out. Aikido is an inherently dangerous activity. Your partner is literally giving themselves to you. Understand and respect this and return the gesture.
Even though there is a hierarchy of rank between students there is only one Sensei and for the most part all students are otherwise treated equally. Class is an opportunity for you to practice and learn—instruction is the role of Sensei—so keep chit chat to a minimum. If you have a question, ask it after class. Understand that not everything will make sense and not everything you practice will be directly relatable to a “real situation.”
Hold on firmly and strike effectively. Learn the intent behind each attack—it’s not always obvious. As uke (receiver) your primary role is to help your partner learn through diligent, genuine and respectful attacks. If you end up in a wrestling match or a “but what if someone does this” situation, nobody is learning anything. The best way to get better is to help your partner get better.
Above all enjoy yourself. Practiced correctly, you will grow stronger physically, mentally and technically. However, as you improve so too will your partner. As everyone grows stronger so too will the attacks, grips, resistance, etc. and the frustrating side effect of this is that you never quite feel like you’ve improved but you have. When a beginner joins the class take a look at them. That was once you. See how far you have progressed?
The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.—O’Sensei
As you may have gathered, Aikido is a very traditional art and the practice is no less so. We are not focused on winning a fight or a competition. Just like scales on the piano, not every technique you practice will have an obvious practical application but every technique embodies some principle that is important.
Learn to be an effective uke (literally, receiver). Learn to protect yourself whilst delivering an attack. Learn to fall safely without exposing yourself to counter-attacks. When you’re thrown get up quickly—every minute of practice counts. Learn your own limits—only attack at a pace and with a level of strength you could comfortably handle in return. Use your turn as uke to practice your footwork, to develop a better, stronger grip and to feel what does and doesn’t work. If you only focus on doing the technique you’ve wasted half the class.
“You should be able to knock a bird in flight out of the sky”—O’Sensei. A ki-ai (short yell or shout uttered when performing a move) is integral to every movement we make in Aikido. It promotes correct breathing. It helps develop internal strength. And as O’Sensei alludes to, performed well a ki-ai is in itself a form of defence and attack.
Every open-handed—as opposed to weapons—class starts with Tai-no-henko (literally, body, change). It’s a seemingly innocuous practice but its simplicity belies the inner secrets of Aikido. At face value it teaches you to merge rather than clash with your partner’s strength; to generate movement and power through your feet and develop strong, stable hips as well as the subtle train ma’ai (distance) and intention. And for your partner, by holding on strongly and never letting go, it’s a great way to develop strength that starts from your belly, extends through your torso and culminates in an iron grip.
Next we take Tai-no-henko and attempt to perform it ki-no-nagare (literally, energy flow). Again, it’s not just the person performing the technique that benefits. Your partner is also practicing the application of a controlling grab whilst moving.
Together, these two practices set the pattern for learning everything else: first perform a technique statically a few times; then attempt it a number of times on the move. You will find that techniques “work” when performed statically and likely fall apart once they are done in a more flowing fashion. This is perfectly natural. Observe your self on the move: Where are the holes in the technique? Where did you feel yourself come unstuck or lose balance? Then try to fix those deficiencies when next you have the opportunity to practice statically.
The third practice we do every class is morote-dori koku-nage (literally, two-hand grip breath throw). This takes the principles of the first two techniques and introduces the concept of kokyu (breath power) and oshidashi (pushing power). It’s also the first time you will throw (and be thrown). Remember, when someone is learning to throw they will be ineffective at it. As uke, use this as an opportunity to hold strongly, keeping your feet anchored to the ground and not stepping forward. Practice your falling even when you don’t necessarily feel that your balance has been broken. Start to understand the subtleties of resisting your partners movement without stopping them completely.
Taken together these three practices embody so much of Aikido that they will continue to baffle and reward in equal parts for your entire Aikido life.
By this stage you should already be sweating. In Japan I have often looked up at the clock after the first few techniques and thought “What?! There’s till 45 mins to go!” As nage you have been working hard to move your body in the face of resistance; as uke you have been trying to find that balance between giving your partner enough resistance to learn, but not so much as to prevent them from moving. Remember, if your partner can’t move at all they’re never going to learn and your role as uke is to help them learn.
From here classes consist of various techniques from the Aikido syllabus. When you consider all the different combinations of attacks, throws, locks and pins, Aikido has literally thousands of variations. At first this can be daunting but slowly you come to realise that there are common threads that run throughout them all. Try to learn the names of the various forms and attacks. Understand the relationships between them all.
There are standing techniques, seated techniques, half standing/half-seated techniques, sword, staff and knife techniques. There are techniques to the front and to the rear. Some techniques will be throws; otherwise will be locks and pins. Again, not all techniques have obvious practical application—in fact there are techniques specifically called oyowaza (applied techniques)—but all are designed to teach you something or strengthen you in some way. Be open to them all. It’s not a fight. It’s not wrestling. There are no rules. There are simply pre-arranged ways of learning and practicing.
We preserve and share the great influence of my father Morihiro while remaining faithful to the technical and spiritual heritage left by the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. We continually try to improve ourselves through the intensive and systematic practice of kihon (basics), and we believe each training session is a unique opportunity to feel closer to the Founder. I firstly apply this permanent training to myself.—Saito Hitohira Jukucho
My Sensei once told me you should spend at least 5 years finding a practice and a teacher that is right for you because ultimately your life and your martial arts journey is very personal.
Just as there are many styles of martial art, there are many styles of Aikido. The style of Aikido we practice is very traditional, very rigorous, very technical and can be traced directly from the Founder. It is hard work. It takes a long time to learn. And it has held my interest and kept me fit and healthy for nearly 2/3 of my life.