Aikido is frequently criticized for being “impractical.” This sort of statement tends to start arguments. Instead of getting defensive, let’s try to understand the criticism. It has been expressed independently by many people, so I believe that it contains some element of truth. But the issue is not about practicality per se. Instead of labeling Aikido in binary terms, it is more useful to think about short-term and long-term effectiveness. Aikido’s strong focus on long-term development comes at the expense of its short-term effectiveness.

Aikido translates roughly to "Way of the Harmonious Spirit"

Aikido has built its reputation on a clear and distinct philosophy. Aikido practitioners(“Aikidoka”) attempt to neutralize attacks by blending with and redirecting the opponent’s motion. This is integral to the principle of “aiki”(合気), sometimes translated as “harmonious spirit.” In terms of physical motion, aiki means seeking the path of least resistance. Aikidoka try to never resist incoming force because it’s more efficient to redirect an attack. And if the Aikidoka can neutralize every attack, he or she need not even harm the opponent. In this way, the path of least resistance is also the path of least violence. To leave the opponent unharmed is a higher level of aiki, an ethical concept which is expressed in every Aikido technique..

Aiki is beautifully efficient when executed properly, but a skilled opponent will not make it easy to do so. Here are some traits that a martial artist must have in order to apply aiki against a skilled opponent:

– Sensitivity in order to know exactly how and where the opponent is applying force.
– Subtlety in order to redirect the opponent without resisting his motion.
– Precise timing in order to move with the exact ebb and flow of the opponent’s movement.
– Precise targeting in order to redirect and opponent’s motion toward points of imbalance.
– Speed in order to react immediately and keep up with an opponent who began moving first.
– Confidence in order to pass up opportunities to strike or displace the opponent, which would make him easier to manipulate.

Aiki is so difficult to achieve because each of these qualities is less necessary when you are free to strike or violently displace an opponent. But this sort of violence is at odds with the principle of aiki. And isn’t a forceful attack inefficient anyway?

Not necessarily. When combined with proper structure and angles of attack, a small amount of force can overcome a much greater force. This may mean that you have to oppose force with force. But by disrupting the opponent, subsequent attacks may require less force. These harder, “violent” techniques are tools by which we make an opponent easier to manipulate. Without these tools, Aikido requires a higher level of skill to overcome an attack.

I don’t question whether Aikido works at the advanced levels. The question is this: Does low- or mid-level Aikido work at all?

Ueshiba Morihei never had this problem. By the time he founded Aikido, he was already an experienced practitioner of several other martial arts. Aikido is based primarily on Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, taught to Ueshiba by Sokaku Takeda. An overwhelming majority of Aikido techniques owe their existence to Daito Ryu, so the two arts often look very similar.

Ueshiba Morihei (1883-1969), founder of Aikido

The principle of aiki is integral to Daito Ryu, hence the title “aikijujutsu.” But Daito Ryu practitioners employ hard strikes and more direct, painful joint locks. Ueshiba must have learned these aggressive techniques and consciously discarded them. Why? Presumably, Ueshiba believed that they were not in keeping with aiki. The path of least resistance should never mean using force against force directly, yet that is exactly what a hard strike requires. Ueshiba removed the aspects of Daito Ryu which were in conflict with a purely harmonious approach. In doing so, Aikido was born as a philosophically pure art with a clear sense of identity.

Aikido’s ultimate goal is not so different than that of most martial arts. Even the hardest, most aggressive martial arts tend to become softer and more subtle at the advanced stages of training. So what’s the difference? Ellis Amdur, an instructor in Aikido, Araki-ryu, and Toda-ha Buko-ryu, said it best:

“Unlike almost all other martial arts in which peace, a surprise and revelation, lies at the end of a long and harsh road, aikido seems to require that aiki (harmonious spirit) be present as an explicit goal from the first day. The techniques one learns upon entering the dojo are the same as those learned on the last.”

(Source: “A Conversation with Daito-ryu’s Other Child” by Ellis Amdur)

Perhaps Ueshiba founded Aikido so that aiki would be the primary focus from day one. This might help expedite the learning process; maybe he wanted to save his students from having to discover these ideas on their own. Ueshiba’s long-term focus makes sense. But because of this shortcut, Ueshiba’s art became harder to apply at the earlier stages of training.

Many Aikidoka would deny that this sacrifice is a drawback at all. Why would anyone care whether Aikido works in the short term? Some Aikidoka like to set Aikido apart from other martial arts, as if it is an entirely different activity. They might say that Aikido is a way to neutralize or avoid conflict, not a short-term method of fighting. This attitude betrays an assumption that Aikidoka need only concern themselves with the ultimate expression of the art. Their indifference toward this criticism only confirms where their priorities lie. They expect their art to transcend physical violence from day one.

Ultimately, it comes down to a question of emphasis. Which should a martial art emphasize more: short-term or long-term effectiveness? If a martial art emphasizes short-term results, it shouldn’t take much training for it to work in an unrestricted environment. On the other hand, a short-term martial art may not allow a student to realize his or her potential. If a martial art emphasizes long-term results, a student may be able to realize his or her potential, but the art may be ineffective up until that point. Aikido sits squarely on the long-term end of the spectrum, and this is a major reason why so many people think that Aikido is impractical.