Philosophy & social media

Aikido and the big picture

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is an often cited quote from the Founder of Aikido, Master Morihei Ueshiba (O’Sensei), that goes along the following lines:

Aikido is not a technique to fight and defeat the enemy. It is a way to reconcile the World and make human beings one family.

I have often pondered on this statement and wondered how it is possible that a martial art or any form of budo for that matter could hope to achieve such a lofty goal.

In the context of Aikido, its probably not that surprising that I can never recall anyone ever talking about World peace or anything like it. Our efforts on the mat are exclusively focussed on developing our skills, working on ways to improve our body structure and basically enjoying our practice. After class many of us then head out for a coffee, have a few laughs and then return to our regular lives. World reconciliation just never comes up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt then struck me the other day as I was leading a class that I had missed something obvious. Looking around the dojo there were people of different ages, background, gender, physical ability, work life, etc. Everyone was working together to help each other improve their skills and understanding, be safe and just have fun. In short, they were just enjoying each other’s company and learning from their differences.

I then realised that this is what O’Sensei was probably talking about.

Until next time

Ian

So why open a dojo?

The decision to open up a new Aikido dojo is certainly not for the faint of heart.  In the modern world, its establishment alone is filled with many challenges and responsibilities, including arranging insurance, dojo space, affiliations, mats, licences, management and financial systems, compliance with legislative obligations, policies and procedures, advertising, …. and the list goes on.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith all these issues, and the fact that it’s much easier to be a student or guest teacher at someone else’s dojo, the most common question I get asked is why did you open up a dojo?

For me the answer to this question is simple – it’s something I’ve dreamed of doing since the first day I stepped on a martial arts mat some 40 or so years ago. Back then it was a Judo mat, but as time went on I transitioned into Judo’s sister art, Aikido.  While the martial art changed, the dream to start my own dojo never waned.

So what is it about a dojo (or “place of the way”) that makes it so special?  The obvious answer is that it’s a place where you get to learn, explore, share, and practice your Japanese martial art of choice with those who have a similar passion and interest.

For me, however, a dojo is more than this. It’s a place where we can leave our problems at the front door and for the relatively short time that we are there, live in a world which is positive, encouraging, free of politics, welcoming, non-discriminatory and fun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe way I see it, the world is full of institutions, systems and individuals apparently hell-bent on putting people down and stripping them of their confidence. A dojo is an escape from this. My suggestion to anyone who has walked into an Aikido dojo and experienced feeling worse about themselves than when they went in – find another dojo.

And so when I opened the doors of Aikido Warrior Dojo for the first time on Saturday morning 8 March 2014, I had no doubts about what I was doing – this is where I was supposed to be. The fact that we were immediately greeted by 2 “welcome swallows” who decided to join us while we set up seemed only appropriate.

Finally a big thank you to everyone who helped set up Aikido Warrior Dojo in the last couple of weeks.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

Ian Grant Sensei
Head Instructor
Aikido Warrior Dojo

Aikido training – Drawing the line between cooperative and pointless practice

The need for a cooperative dynamic in Aikido practice is widely acknowledged by most of us who practice the Art.  Aside from the non-competitive philosophy that underpins Aikido, there is the practical reality that many techniques would be unsafe to practise without at least some element of compliance from our training partner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA question worthy of consideration, however, is where to draw the line between cooperative practice and pointless practice (i.e. practice that removes or substantially diminishes the opportunity for both parties to learn).

For example, having our training partner just “tank” at the first opportunity removes the learning opportunity for both the nage and the uke. The same could be said where an often well-meaning training partner just rolls out of a technique regardless of whether the person supposedly executing it has functionally done anything to cause such a reaction.

For training to have learning validity, I think a good starting point is an acknowledgement that Aikido practice is between two equals.  That is, it’s not between a human and a rag doll, or a human and some form of “uke-bag”.

Quite the contrary, Aikido practice involves an ongoing  2 way interaction between the attacking  and responding partners (i.e. the uke and nage) who are acting as equals with a view to enhancing their mutual knowledge and skills. This is so, whether it be in the form of kata or free-form practice (taninzugake).

That being said, where one draws the line between 2 equals engaging in productive cooperative practice, as opposed to pointless practice, is something that might cause reasonable minds to differ. Certainly, even the very notion of such a concept as “pointless  practice” imports an element of subjectivity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever, as a working model for uke’s trying to keep on on the right side of the cooperative line, I think a practice methodology whereby the uke acts as follows is not a bad start:

  • The uke does not give up their centre (this is something the nage learns to take, which is not possible if it is sacrificed by the uke);
  • The uke gives the nage their weight to work with (without this, the nage has no sense of the reality of what they are doing).
  • The uke gives an honest attack (e.g. if the attack is a strike to the head, they don’t aim to miss or predict the nage’s response).
  • The uke gives a committed attack  (i.e. the uke follows the attack through to the end and doesn’t stop half way);
  • The uke stays mentally connected with the nage from the beginning through to the completion of the attack (aside from importing an element of realism, this also enhances the safety of the practice);
  • The uke ensures that the intensity of the attack is commensurate with the abilities of the nage, the skills of the uke to safely respond and the purpose of the practice.

How far the uke can go beyond this line before degenerating into competitive and potentially dangerous practice is worthy of an article on its own.  Certainly, enthusiastic free form practice can inadvertently and quite quickly slip over into competitiveness and potential danger.  Fortunately, one of the roles of the class sensei is to intervene at this point and save us from ourselves!

Ian Grant

Aikido – A forgiving approach to self-defence

Zenponage - Ian Grant and Brendan Carter A couple of weeks back, I was talking after class with a relative newcomer to our Art who had been pondering on a number of philosophical issues relevant to the martial practise of Aikido. The discussion went along the lines that if Aikido is not about teaching people how to fight, then what is it really about.

There is probably no right or wrong answer to this question.  Speaking from a strictly martial context, my own view is that Aikido is about giving the practitioner skills to allow them the choice between a forgiving response and a destructive response to an attack.

I think it would be fair to say that in most violent altercations the respondent to an attack ordinarily only has the option of a destructive response.  This response involves either applying a destructive force to repel the attacker or accepting self destruction through submission.  What Aikido facilitates is giving the recipient of an attack another option.

In Aikido we learn to merge an attacker’s energy (or ki) with our own energy such that the attacker’s centre of balance is taken while our centre remains strong. The result is that for a moment of time the attacker is completely vulnerable.  It is at this point that the Aikido practitioner is in a position to make a choice between one of 2 options.

The first option is a forgiving response where damage to the attacker is minimalized to that necessary to end the attack (i.e. through the application of an Aikido technique). The second option is to take advantage of the attacker’s weakened structural position and execute maximum damage to the attacker, such as a strike to a vital organ.  In Aikido we obviously advocate the first choice.

Taken from this perspective, Aikido is not about learning skills to destroy an attacker, but rather learning skills to have the option of a more forgiving response.

All the best

Ian Grant

Other references which may be of interest

(a) Some thoughts on self-defence by Dan James Sensei at http://www.aikidorepublic.com/articles/brisbane-self-defence

(b) Toppling (kuzushi) by Dan James Sensei at http://www.aikidorepublic.com/internal-strength/03topplingkuzushi

(c) Aikido: Christan TISSIER in Budapest 2013 (teaching) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=9PQv5aR_hsg (particularly at about 11.07 mark) – Christian Tissier Sensei comments on the destruction/forgiveness choice in Aikido applications.

Aikido without kuzushi – It’s like pizza without cheese

For Aikido to be practised with any element of martial integrity, the ability to employ kuzushi when applying a technique is a critical skill.

I would go as far as to say that in the absence of employing kuzushi it would be almost impossible to successfully apply any Aikido technique against a structurally centred and non-compliant aggressor of equal size and strength.

For those not familiar with the term kuzushi, it is most commonly used in a martial context as a reference to unbalancing the person who is initiating the attack (uke).  In other words, it involves bringing the uke’s center of gravity beyond their base of support and hence removing their ability to regain uncompromised balance.  While in this unbalanced position, it becomes very difficult for the uke to resist or counter the application of an appropriate Aikido technique.

While it all sounds so simple, learning to employ kuzushi is far from easy in practice. Amongst other things, it requires relaxed sensitivity, timing, and the ability to redirect an attacker’s energy.  If that isn’t challenging enough, kuzushi also needs to be employed at the time of first contact with the uke and then maintained throughout the application of the technique.

Unfortunately, I note there are a number of Aikido commentators around the web that appear to be concerned there is a trend in modern Aikido to de-emphasise and in some cases disregard the important role of kuzushi. I certainly hope these concerns are unfounded.

Excluding kuzushi from our practice would effectively render Aikido useless from a martial perspective.  For me, Aikido without kuzushi is like pizza without cheese. It’s not something I’m interested in trying.

Ian Grant
Head Instructor
Aikido Warrior Dojo

 

No-touch Aikido techniques: Separating fact and fantasy

There are plenty of examples on You Tube where a “martial arts master” appears to take an Obi-Wan Kanobi moment and use an invisible blast to project one or more students across the room.  Let me blunt from the outset, I’m a non-believer.

I must confess, I did visit an unaffiliated Aikido dojo some years ago where the possibility of shooting long distance “ki blasts” seemed to be seriously discussed.  I should add no one in the room could actually demonstrate such blasts, but the very fact some of them hoped to one day was enough for me never to return.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in the efficacy of so called no-touch Aikido techniques.  In fact, the truth is quite the contrary.  It’s just that these techniques have nothing to do with Star Wars let the force be with you” like blasts.

I should also add that I have on many occasions been the recipient of Aikido no-touch techniques. Based on this experience, I can assure the reader they are quite effective and have nothing to do with science fiction or mystic rays.

Essentially what happens is that the nage (i.e. the person doing the technique) neutralises the uke’s attack by executing a strike in such a way that the uke has the option of taking a fall instead of being hit. This takes considerable skill on the part of the nage, both in terms of timing and delivery. Specifically, the strike has to be fast enough such that it cannot be deflected, but slow enough so that the uke has the option of taking the fall to get out of the way of the incoming blow.

In real life, an untrained attacker will most likely be hit rather than choose to fall to avoid the strike. The nage must therefore also be trained in delivering the strike (which in fact is typically more a cut) so as to not suffer injury to their hand or arm when delivering it.

In a dojo setting, a uke well versed in ukemi (falling) is also critical. In essence the uke must respond to the strike as if it were a throw – something requiring some practice to do well.

See below a photograph sequence taken at the former Mizu Aikido Dojo.  The demonstrated no-touch technique is being used to neutralise an attacking force in the form of a two armed grab (ryotemochi).

Aran Seq

So there you go – no touch techniques really exist.

Ian Grant

Are gradings important?

From time to time, one hears a hearty debate between dojo students as to the merits of grading in Aikido.  Indeed there has been many an article on Aikido and other martial arts websites about the benefits or otherwise of gradings in traditional martial arts.

 

These debates typically discuss such matters as the need for uniform standards, the origins of grading systems, commercial influences that may impinge on integrity of the grading process, martial arts elitism and like matters.  What is often overlooked, is the personal benefits that gradings offer the student.

Ian Black belt HQSome years back, my Sensei at the time sent me an email that really brought it home to me as to why I should always step up to grade whenever invited.  The correspondence came about after I was invited to test for my Aikido 3rd kyu grading (green belt) and was having personal doubts as to whether I was ready.

The email included the most eloquent and persuasive statement that I have yet heard as to the personal benefits that gradings offer the Aikido student.  It went as follows:

Preparing for grading makes you review what you are learning.  And puts a little pressure on yourself.  I see it like this …  A plant in a pot will grow to a certain height. Only when it is transplanted into a larger pot will it continue to grow.”