Archives for posts with tag: aikido

As a martial arts junkie, I often find myself comparing concepts between different martial arts. Whenever I can, I like to adapt what I’ve learned in one martial art to make me better at another. I like to think that my experience with prior martial arts can help me learn other martial arts by applying concepts that I already know. But when I do this, I often run into problems. Whenever you try to import a concept from one martial art to another or compare ideas across martial arts, you are likely to run into trouble. Why is this?

Right away, one thing is clear: Sometimes different martial arts conceive of similar ideas very differently. For example, Wing Chun traditionally teaches six and a half point pole techniques as if they were extensions of unarmed techniques. On the other hand, there are other martial arts which teach very similar long staff techniques without pairing it with unarmed martial arts at all. If you were to examine the reasoning behind the techniques of Wing Chun or these other martial arts, you would probably find that they are very asymmetrical and difficult to compare, despite their similar jurisdictions. Why? Some would say it’s a matter of comparing apples and oranges. That may be true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the underlying reasons for their asymmetry.

It’s easiest to examine and compare concepts when they are deconstructed as much as possible. When we deconstruct concepts, they tend to become more specific and less inclusive(more limited in scope). For example, if I say that “spirit” is important in martial arts, I am allowing that concept to remain broad and vague. If I say that it is important for a martial artist to cultivate spiritual strength, then I am a little more clear and specific. More specifically, I could say something like “a martial artist can increase his awareness and mental acuity by engaging in meditative exercises.” This last statement is the most deconstructed, and the easiest to analyze. However, it is also relatively narrow in scope, so it may not contain all of the meaning of the original statement.

But sometimes we can’t deconstruct ideas as much as we would like. For example, the principle of Aiki is an umbrella concept which contains multiple ideas. On the physical side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance by using the opponent’s momentum against him. On the interpersonal side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance in social relationships as well. There are also ethical aspects to Aiki(e.g. if the goal is to neutralize a hostile opponent, then one should not attack if the opponent is already neutralized. Furthermore, if you do attack, the opponent may use the very same tactics to neutralize you). While we can look at each of these aspects separately, it’s clear that Aiki links these ideas together at a fundamental level. That provides an obstacle to those of us who would try to deconstruct it.

Aiki is problematic because it contains several linked concepts. When concepts are linked together, they are difficult to compare to other martial arts which have similar ideas that are not linked. This is a problem that translators encounter every day. In language, we encounter linked concepts frequently. In English, the word “house” has different connotations than the word “home,” because “home” is linked to ideas such as comfort, safety, love, and so on. If we were translating the word “house,” it would probably be easy in most languages. On the other hand, it would be difficult to translate “home” if the target language did not have a word with those same connotations. This is why many words do not have direct translations in other languages. Likewise, many martial arts concepts do not have direct translations in other martial arts. This is because when concepts are linked together, those concepts acquire certain connotations.

It’s not always a problem when concepts are linked. But when we’re comparing ideas across two different martial arts, it’s a problem when that linkage is asymmetrical. For example, martial art A believes that every stance is associated with a certain state of mind, so it links its concept of proper stance with its ideas about attitude. On the other hand, martial art B looks at stances independently, preferring to think of attitude as an unrelated concept. When comparing the stances of martial arts A and B, or when applying the stances of one martial art to another, these linked concepts will be an obstacle to the translation.

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When you encounter an attack, there are only four options: Resist, yield, avoid, or submit to the attack. Let’s take a moment to examine the idea the most difficult of these four options: yielding.

Unlike dodging, when you yield to pressure, you’re not avoiding contact altogether. Yielding involves allowing the opponent to make contact with your body and letting a portion of the force pass through your body. To yield is to receive the opponent’s force, and to yield well is to receive it safely. Many times it involves redirecting the opponent’s force, but it can also involve moving the opponent’s target out of the way so that the force passes through harmlessly.

Unlike resisting, yielding does not attempt to stop the incoming force abruptly. To yield is to meet hardness with softness. However, not all softness is yielding. If a person collapses under pressure, that is not yielding. That is submission. Instead, yielding requires a base level of resistance. For example, you must have enough structural tension to maintain your balance in spite of the incoming force. Wing Chun practitioners might think of bang sao(aka bong sao), an arm position which is often used for yielding. Bang sao only works if you have enough bodily tension to keep the elbow from collapsing and keep it in its proper position. By relaxing certain muscles and tensing others, you are manipulating the path of least resistance for the force, making it easier for the force to go where you want it to go while making it more difficult for the force to go elsewhere.

Yip Man and Bruce Lee practicing Wing Chun. Bruce Lee is performing bang sao with his right arm, a technique which requires some structural resistance in order to yield.

Yielding does not necessarily neutralize the force. For example, Aikidoka often yield in order to turn an attack back against the opponent. In this case, yielding is used to redirect that force, not just to absorb it safely.

The goal of any martial encounter is to maintain control over yourself and, secondarily, to gain control over your opponent. The basic problem of yielding is that you need to stay in control while allowing the opponent to affect you. What makes yielding dangerous is that it comes close to giving that control to the opponent. This is why yielding usually requires more timing, sensitivity, and subtlety than resistance or avoidance. It’s hard enough to manipulate the path of least resistance for an unchanging force, like digging a canal for a stream of water. But when that force is actively changing direction and magnitude, then it becomes very complicated to yield.

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.