This is the third installment in an ongoing series of “A Layman’s Observations” where I discuss my observations on martial arts and combat sports. Read the prior installment here.
Since the early 2010s, there has been a movement that attempts to make aikido functional in a combat situation. The question of aikido’s effectiveness as a purely martial pursuit has been a point of debate since its inception in Japan during the 1930s. Many of this movement’s modern proponents – mostly YouTube personalities and channels – have either given up trying to prove aikido as an effective martial art, stopped sharing their knowledge completely, or have retreated back into their niche, away from the larger aikido community for a myriad of reasons. A brief history of the movement can be found in an earlier article regarding aikido’s curriculum.
In researching these proponents, I have found that many take a crucial but elusive element and aspect of aikido for granted that is not generally discussed, especially when they experiment to prove the art as effective. This component that may be the key to unlocking aikido’s effectiveness is the principle of aiki. It is perhaps an overlooked aspect of aikido that many of these proponents do not consider when trying to mold aikido into a functional art. Because of the aiki in aikido and that the art eliminates combativeness and forceful struggle (i.e., resistance), aikidoka are focused primarily on the form, function, and overall body mechanics of the required movements. Combative arts, by their nature, can have a level of resistance and competitiveness that can sometimes detract the learner from the overall form, function, and body mechanics of the required movements and techniques. Thus, struggle becomes the primary component in the execution. By aikido removing that struggle, the purpose of movement – of technique – has a chance to flourish within the aikidoka, giving them a solid foundation to integrate other martial aspects from outside arts, if they choose to do so.
The aiki in aikido is the joining of energies between uke and nage – the Way or Method of Harmonizing Energies. To the general aikido community, aiki is demonstrated when uke is in perfect sync with nage and vice versa; where uke is committed to the attack and nage is harmonizing or joining with that committed attack to create a free flow of combined movement while keeping uke’s balance compromised. On the same token, nage only uses just enough or the correct amount of their own energy to join with uke’s. To paraphrase Jigoro Kano’s explanation: if a partner comes forth with a two, you would not meet that two with a ten – that would totally destroy the partner. Rather, you would match their two and then send that partner on their merry way. For the most part, this basic explanation of aiki to aikidoka is generally accepted; only the physical manifestation is argued about, hence the plethora of aikido styles, organizations, and methods of practicing and achieving aiki.
Whatever the practice an aikidoka participates in, there is a certain level of “aiki flow” that one develops from years of dedication to the art. Such as, “aiki flow” could be similar to the flow drills which Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu utilizes while on the ground – there is a fluidity with the practitioners’ movements as they move from one technique or hold to the next. While there is an aesthetic quality to this flow, such a flow can help develop and integrate new skills, techniques, and routines while further ingraining and expanding into the aikidoka’s current skill set. Therefore, this flow could be considered an aspect of aiki as nage uses or joins with the minimal energy given to them by uke to flow through the technique or drill, while uke in turn commits, connects, and follows through with the attack into proper ukemi. With this in mind, aiki could possibly serve as the basis for aikidoka to essentially cross train in other martial arts.
Here, I will use my own training as an example, however, other practitioners may have different experiences. Four years ago when I began training judo, the ukemi came naturally as both judo and aikido have similar ukemi systems. One of the first things that I noticed was the way I was codifying or working through a judo technique, as things were new to me. I was attempting to find that “aiki flow” that I would usually apply in aikido to the judo technique. There were some choppy movements, but I was able to find that flow a little bit quicker than my newer judo peers.
Another thing I noticed, especially when I was participating in randori, was that I was evading my partner’s attacks with some consistency. This evasion demonstrated itself in two different ways: moving and blending. Moving was removing myself from the line of attack, especially with footsweeps – something that is indirectly related to aiki. With blending, if my partner pushed, I turned out of the way; if my partner pulled, I entered in with that energy, countering them with a throw that usually did not work. What I found, however, was that if I blended with my partner’s energy, I could eventually find that escape. I especially found aiki while duking it out during ne waza randori, with this same explanation.
My second example refers to an event earlier last year  when I enrolled in Olympic Fencing. Now, this example of aiki is more on the general term that aikidoka use to relate to aikido. Here, in an abstract way, I used the principle of aiki, specifically how I learned to harmonize energies, to help me learn the basics of Olympic Fencing quickly. Without sounding as if being out in left field, let me offer an example of aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, using aiki in such a manner.
According to John Stevens, a dance choreographer approached Ueshiba to help her create a routine using the naginata. Ueshiba, knowing absolutely nothing about naginata, purchased a naginata manual and meditated on the book for several days. By the time the dance choreographer returned to see what Ueshiba had created, she was stunned and amazed, commenting on the fluidity of the routine. It is known that Ueshiba was a very spiritual person, and it could be concluded that it was through his spiritual worldview that he framed his aiki training. In a similar sense, I framed my aiki training not in the spiritual worldview but in the physical, and how I moved my body in relation to whatever technique or principle was required of me at the time, relating what I knew to what was required at that moment. While learning the fundamentals of fencing, I continued to ask myself, what does this movement remind me of in aikido? What are the similarities between the two arts and how can I find that middle ground? With these questions, I was beginning to connect the points between aikido and Olympic Fencing. By using this base of aiki training, I was able to assimilate Olympic Fencing basics a bit quicker than my beginning classmates at the time.
What these examples hope to illustrate is that aiki can serve as the basis or even the foundation for aikidoka who wish to expand their training into other disciplines or attempt to achieve something different within their own training. The benefits of branching out from one’s normal training is covered in an earlier post.
As stated previously, there were many aikidoka leading the movement to make aikido more effective for combat situations, where they tried to bring in other variables not usually done in general aikido practice, whether it would be other techniques, concepts, strikes, or situations in general. Each of these practitioners, especially Christopher Hein, as he himself points out in one of his videos, used aikido, or the basis of aikido, as the foundation to ultimately build upon when either learning something new from another art or incorporating a modified routine from an outside art into aikido. These practitioners used aiki when attempting to achieve their respective objectives, whether they knew it consciously or not. I used aiki when placed into a judo and an Olympic Fencing environment; those martial artists who came before me used aiki in following their passion; the samurai and warrior castes across the world used aiki in learning the different aspects and avenues of warfare.
The use of aiki extends further than its martial component, however, that is beyond the scope of this editorial. Nevertheless, harmonizing energies can be both a physical and an abstract concept when one goes to the core of its application. The physical aspect is blending and flowing with the energy given to a practitioner is moving out of the way or using that to transform the energy into part of a technique. The abstract aspect is harmonizing with the environment around oneself and channeling that into the physical. How does judo’s movement align with aikido’s? How can my aiki foundation compliment what I am currently doing in fencing? By stripping away the resistance and the combativeness or competition from aikido, aikidoka can become a sponge for acquiring, incorporating, and utilizing additional and external martial knowledge. By relating these examples and thoughts, I hope to have conveyed how aiki can be applied to other martial activities and encourage other aikidoka to trust in their aiki foundations to try something outside of their regular aikido routine.
3 thoughts on “A Layman’s Observation: Aikido’s Aiki and Its Foundational Benefits”
Aikido in the 1930’s was Daito-ryu, not a new art – and this was true even through the 1960’s, to a large extent, as far as Morihei Ueshiba was concerned. Under Morihei Ueshiba and the majority of the first generation of students, the practical effectiveness was assumed. It was later that this began to change into modern Aikido, post-Morihei Ueshiba.
Your definition of Aiki matches Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s definition, but not Koichi Tohei’s, and many others, and is, I believe, quite different from Morihei Ueshiba’s own definition, which puts a different slant on the discussion here.
Master Ueshiba transformed Daito-ryu (self-defense) into Aikido to promote harmony and the non-duelism of Oomoto-kyo. Why transform Aikido back to Daito-ryu? If one wants self-defense, go to Daito-ryu. Instead work to resolve the dualism of Tori and Uke where Tori does not dominate Uke as does Aikido today. This is conflict management on the mat in a win-win context. Too much focus on Tori and little on Uki. Begin with two, come together as one (harmony), and become two again. Like fueling a fighter aircraft in the air. There are the tanker and fighter jet, they harmonize their movements to become one, and finish as two again.The Nage-no-Kata of Judo reflects the formal grace of both Tori and Uki working in technical and spiritual harmony. This Judo reflects Aikido. Go back to what Master Ueshiba wanted when he transformed Daito-ryu to Aikido – harmony/non-dualism, not the conflict and dualism of Daito-ryu.
1) What, exactly was this alleged “transformation”?
2) What makes you think that Daito-ryu is only about fighting?
Now, a comment, some relevant quotes, and a link.
The comment is that Omoto-kyo is fundamentally about duelism – the dualistic theory of Yin Yang is fundamental to their cosmology.
Here are the quotes and the link:
– Tokimune Takeda, the son of Morihei Ueshiba’s teacher Sokaku Takeda and the Soke of Daito-ryu Aiki Budo:
“The essential principles of Daito-ryu are Love and Harmony”
“The goal of spreading Daito-ryu is ‘Harmony and Love’, keeping this spirit is what preserves and realizes social justice. This was Sokaku Sensei’s dying wish”
“There is no first attack in Aiki-jujutsu. Endure as much as you should endure. Even when it becomes necessary, neutralize the opponent without causing injury through Aiki.”
– Yukiyoshi Sagawa, one of Sokaku Takeda’s senior students and one-time successor as Soke of the art:
“Aiki Budo is the Way of Human Development”
“Aiki is the fitting together of Ki. Through this harmonious reconciliation all things under heaven and earth in the universe move peacefully without disturbance. This harmonization is Aiki.”
– Masao Hayashima (早島正雄), who trained with both Sokaku Takeda and Sokaku Takeda’s student Toshimi Matsuda (from the first page of his book – “Taoist Aiki-jutsu – the volume of Internal Power”):
“Aiki-jutsu is said to be the Budo of Harmony.”
– Katsuyuki Kondo, Menkyo Kaiden in Daito-ryu Aiki-budo from Tokimune Takeda and successor to the mainline of Daito-ryu, in an interview with Aikido Journal‘s Stanley Pranin:
What are the main differences between Daito-ryu and aikido?
I don’t think there is any difference. In Daito-ryu, too, practice begins and ends with courtesy (rei). And its final goal is the spirit of love and harmony.
Here’s the link to “Ueshiba-ha Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu”: