Now, some three decades later, plus some change, I’m about to be tested for my san-dan in Aikido. I have fulfilled my promise and in a way I have done so three fold counting by the number of times I’ve completed dan grading. Before taking on the test and the added responsibility that comes with every dan grade, I ask myself again what is Aikido to me and how should I approach further learning.
In my pursuit of mastery, like many others, I question my practice time and time again. “Am I doing techniques right?” “Is this or that effective?” And to a certain extent, “can I defend myself?” Perhaps the last one, in everyone’s mind, is the most important. But is it? The context for which Aikido finds itself in is always changing as many things do. For instance, today Aikido finds itself in the company of MMA or mixed martial arts. It has become unavoidable for it to be pitted versus several other arts. Its legitimacy gets questioned resulting in some aikidokas being prompted to try and defend it against skeptics but in a way playing in the terms set forth by other arts. Already we can see the problem in this. At the onset, Aikido loses its ground as it is forced to play into the strengths of another kind of practice.
As an Aikidoka I also have such concerns but I have resolved these issues. The answer lies in what I wanted my Aikido to be for me. It is however a bit disconcerting when I see some Aikidoka feeling insecure on how to see and develop their Aikido. Some are even challenged by others and by the way I see it, probably feel they are pushed back against a wall or a corner and are made to believe the inadequacy of their practice. There is no need to be insecure about one’s practice. One only needs to set the right attitude on how to approach practice and define clearly what it means for them.
In the first place, Aikido has a beautiful heritage and that is more than enough to secure it as a legitimate martial art. The history of O-Sensei’s techniques, the branching out of several other forms by his students, and its propagation all over the world are fascinating stories talked about over and over and never ceases to amaze even the most seasoned aikidoka. Second, it’s philosophy has depth and every aspect of it is embedded in its actual physical practice. The practice of awareness of actions and the delivery of appropriate reactions adhering to its philosophy is a cycle of self-correction. Every time you get lost in the execution of a technique, you only need to remember its philosophy. Every time you forget its philosophy, you only need to practice intently to remember about balance, awareness, and its dynamic sphere.
Regarding the question of self-defense and whether it will be effective versus other martial arts or MMA is a perplexing debate. Self-defense is a broad topic and in todays context the extent and range of the field of different martial forms is simply too large to cover completely. Here is where the initial argument already fails. Aikido is a traditional martial art and has remained so for many years. Its basic forms are largely based on very simple and very singular modes of deflections, entry, and techniques. So, can you use Aikido to defend yourself? In the traditional context the answer is yes. However, if you pit it against modern day martial arts or other martial arts for that matter the answer depends on how you practice. To even begin to test your practice with other martial arts shouldn’t it be best to study the other forms too? How can you even begin to defend yourself against something you have no knowledge about? The study of other forms affects your technique; it adapts, it changes. Then the question becomes, “Are you still practicing Aikido with all the changes?” Perhaps what results is a form very different from Traditional Aikido or Aikido at all. Are you still an Aikidoka? This is a touchy topic. Every martial art evolves. What is important is to figure out what it means for you and what you want from it. Does your chosen martial art fulfill your needs as a martial artist or does it answer your questions regarding self-defense?
I teach Traditional Aikido and have chosen to stay within the boundaries of the traditional forms. Do I teach self-defense? In the simplest sense yes but the complexity of the world outside the dojo makes it a very different setting. Training with weapons is a good example. We have tanto-dori or knife disarming practice. Will it work outside the dojo? It may be best to answer with further questions. How often do you practice? How intently do you practice? How often do you practice tanto-dori? Have you studied how other knife wielding arts move? Have you practiced with these other forms with experts in their field? All these aside however, we still practice tanto-dori but not in the context of these questions. The importance of tanto-dori is the magnification of the awareness of the dangers posed by such weapons. It makes nage more aware of his body position in relation to uke. It makes him more aware of uke’s balance and ability to strike back during technique. Nage should perform a technique without endangering himself from uke’s knife or a counter move. An uke with a tanto, raises nage’s awareness of danger and thus becomes more intent during practice.
The wielding of the bokken and the jo is also an essential part of my Aikido. Do I teach to defend against these weapons or to even match someone who is a kenjutsu expert? To me these weapons simply magnify the dangers posed on by uke. The simple shomen-uchi, or strike to the top of the head, for instance, is made more menacing and more meaningful when uke is using a bokken to deliver it. Again it magnifies nage’s awareness of uke’s threat. Without the bokken, nage’s awareness lowers and what may result is sloppy technique. Likewise, the jo becomes a very useful tool in developing ma-ai or proper distancing. You can’t wield or use it to its full advantage when you are too close to uke. Practice with the jo reinforces nage’s consciousness of the effects of reach, extension, and projection. The jo being the longest of the three weapons used in Aikido and its versatility as it can be wielded from both ends allows nage to perpetuate continuous circular movements while staying out of uke’s reach or influence while being able to unsettle uke’s balance from a safe position or proper distance.
For me these are enough for Aikido to have more meaning. It gives practice depth and reason. If as nage an Aikidoka can be made aware of the dangers of armed attacks then it will eventually become natural for him to be aware even of unarmed attacks. Raising awareness in terms of position, balance, and extension should be the basic concerns during practice. Will I teach ways to deflect against a seasoned knife wielder? Will I even teach how to defend against someone with a gun? Will I teach how to toe-to-toe with an MMA fighter? The answer is no. These concerns are the sole responsibility of the practitioner. I prefer to stay within the boundaries of Traditional Aikido and I am already well aware of its potential. Others who have far deeper concerns into such things should immerse themselves into specific arts. I too look at other forms of martial arts but only to further my learning but I will not teach something I have no deep knowledge about.
In the dojo we practice Traditional Aikido. There is already a huge plethora of ways to make practice meaningful. From time to time there will be something new as all of us learn something different everyday. We evolve at paces varying from person to person. Am I content with my practice? In a way yes but in another sense I still look for ways to improve. It will never stop. Am I a master in what I do? Certainly not, but judging from the many things I’ve said so far I think I’ve learned quite a bit and I have amassed enough reason to keep practicing.