The Way of Harmony in a Western World by Michael Aloia

A short essay on aikido and budo in the Western world.

There are those things in life that often are a self-contained conundrum – where what you see isn’t what you get; where what you think you have is actually something completely different, and where things actually get harder the longer you do it. Aikido is one of those self-contained conundrums. Looks can be deceiving when it comes to this modern day Budo, martial way, rooted in samurai lore and Asian tradition and religion.

Aikido, the Japanese Way of Harmony, can be anything but when beginning the journey to master not only its physical skill sets but surmounting the long-term mental and spiritual challenges associated with attaining an understanding and devotion to its counter-intuitive philosophies and ideologies.

A Martial Way

Aikido is a Budo, not a martial art. Classified as the latter due to its assumingly similar characteristics with other martial styles as well as its Asian lineage, Aikido is actually a martial way – a way to live one’s life, a way to become more, one day at a time. Martial, “bu,” means warlike. “Do” means way. However, in context of Budo and of Aikido, the war we fight is not with others, but with ourselves. It is not the war without we look to win, it is the war within. The internal struggles we face daily to be a better person, to overcome the challenges of life and rise to the occasion every time are common to all. This is the real battle, and it is a battle we all fight everyday for our lifetime. Training involves a honing of the mind, body and spirit. This is Budo. Betterment, happiness, success, strength, and peace all come from within. In Budo, this is achieved through regular training. This training is associated with Aikido.

In a Western world, we often look to solve our problems or fill our voids with external remedies: we buy things, drink things, eat things, and throw things way. When those things lose their luster, we start a new cycle and do it all over again. Each time, however, the stakes get higher, but the relief is shorter and the voids still remain. Budo is a self-channeling, self-sustaining way to find contentment and inner peace as well as the inner strength to endure.

Giving Way

Aikido’s basic philosophy is to give way and go with the flow. Let that which comes to do you harm pass. Just step aside. Rather than fight with it, blend with it. Get out of the way and move on. For many of us, this is way easier said than done. Western belief is rooted in the “John Wayne” approach: stand your ground, duke it out, and the bigger, stronger man always wins. This, however, is resistance, and resistance only begets more resistance. However, with Aikido’s notion of giving way, resistance is eliminated through the use of its movement principle. Simply not being where the attack is and taking a new position, a new perspective, creates options to redirect, diffuse or escape. Proving a mutually beneficial outcome for all involved. In an old fashion “duke it out” scenario, in the end, there is only one man standing. This is not mutually beneficial.

Though it may appear to be a weaker approach than the “John Wayne” method when confronted with a formidable opponent, it is actually moreso a non-submissive state of being that encompasses a strong sense of self-belief, restraint, and the strength to not just fire back, as would in a knee-jerk reaction.

Non-submissive, used here, is being one who does not fall prey to the trappings of conflict and further it by engaging in it. Giving way provides alternatives and an opportunity to view the situation from someone else’s point of view. It also makes point to the importance of self-preservation and removes one from the conflict mode to a resolution mode.

Easier Seen than Done

Looks can be deceiving with many things – as is the case with Aikido. At first viewing, Aikido techniques appear effortless and simple. But ask any practitioner and their answer will be to the contrary. Aikido’s approach is simple: get out of the way, take the balance, and use your partner’s energy against them by disturbing their power and their position, rendering their efforts null and void. However, in this simplicity lies a sophistication that takes a lifetime to learn. Because it is simple does not equate to ease. Many of the movements in Aikido are counterintuitive to Western beliefs and natural responses. Referring back to the “John Wayne” approach of standing one’s ground, Aikido would have its practitioners moving offline and forward, past the attack, essentially entering in. Whereas instinctively, when a hostile individual approaches, Western tactics would have us stand there and “take it like a man.” Our other choice would be to back up and cower away, risking judgment and dishonor. But walking away is a form of self preservation, there is no dishonor in that.

Rather than look to take part in a fist to cuffs exchange of blows, Aikido looks to avoid such displays and seeks position elsewhere. With experienced practitioners, Aikido’s series of movements are based in timing, spacial awareness, patience and relaxation, much like how one would most benefit in any daily life situation.

Not a Religion, It’s a Way of Life

There are always those who begin a new path in life and in the initial stages of development, finding what appears to be the missing pieces of something they have been searching for. Without delay, these individuals dive headfirst into this newfound discovery, often with very little to no knowledge of what they are in for or what will be expected of them. Their first impression was only a surface experience, yet this was enough for them to make the leap. Where there are circumstances that this sort of decision-making process pans out to be a good fit and a lifelong commitment, more often than not, it is the contrary. It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “Aikido is my new religion” by those new to the training. Aikido does appear to have religious nuances such as particular clothing, ritualistic and ceremonial practices, and a high degree of reverence. However, these are not religious practices but cultural traditions, martial customs, observances of honor, respect, and self discipline. These traditions and customs are a way of life. Though Aikido does have some influence from the Shinto religion, its true heritage resides primarily in samurai history and Japanese culture. Much like Christianity and Catholicism, Christianity is a much older way of life than that of the organized religion of Catholicism. In an organized religion, certain doctrines are followed and adhered to, limitations are imposed. As opposed to a particular belief or faith that one chooses to live their life by, there are no limitations. In this comparison, it is not uncommon for the two to become interchangeable with the other or perceived as the same thing simply because those who practice Catholicism are most likely Christians of some sorts. Aikido and Budo are one in the same.

Aikido is an extension of Budo, as are other martial disciplines that are more than just a fighting style or method. Those that promote a way of life – daily practice that involves a lifetime of commitment – are Budo. Aikido is Budo, but only one vehicle or method that can be used to achieve such daily practice.

In Conclusion

The true experience of Aikido is not achieved in one, two, or even 100 times. There is no instantaneous gratification or trophy for just showing up. A commitment to train is a commitment to achieve. The reward is a better individual – strong in mind, body and spirit. This can only be realized after one has given their own self to it – surrendering narrow beliefs and limited perspectives. The challenge is great, the road long, and, at times, hard. But it is a bountiful road. The essence of Aikido takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary by finding the beauty in the simple things, by finding inspiration in routine and by finding contentment in serving others as we look to serve ourselves.

Michael Aloia
Dojo Cho
Asahikan Dojo

Check out Michael Aloia’s How Aikido Can Change the World here.

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.


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