Is aikido useless?

By Gerald Lopez on January 27, 2020
Once a highly-respected martial art, some people incorrectly think it "useless." Here is why aikido is really awesome if you look at it in the right context.

Every once in a while I check my website traffic to see how it is performing. I noticed recently that the most popular search term being used to find my website is “Is aikido useless?” Initially, I felt offended by this, and ignored it just like we try to ignore annoying mosquitoes.

But, ignored mosquitoes don’t go away, and neither will this question, so I thought I would answer it for the next searcher who happens onto this blog post.

Where does the idea that “aikido is useless” come from?

When I started aikido in the 1980s, it was highly respected as one of the leading martial arts, in Asia as well as in the West. In 1994, for a number of reasons, I stopped practising aikido, and I put thoughts about it on a high shelf away from my consciousness.

In 2018, I decided to start aikido in earnest again. I discovered that, in the intervening period, YouTube had been born, and had built up a plethora of videos about aikido. Much of the content was not good—videos deploring the downfall of aikido, videos about “reality” aikido, and disparaging comments about “fake” instructors, “fake” ukemi, and the uselessness of the techniques.

This hurt. It hurt because, either people now didn’t understand what aikido was about, or—perhaps worse—I had been fooled in all my 12 years of intensive training with one of the top instructors in Europe.

But as I immersed myself back into practice, I realised that, yes, I hadn’t been fooled. What I had learned those many years ago still did work. So where did the popular doubt come from?

I can identify two reasons: mass opinion sharing and mass video.

I think it came from the ability to see aikido in action, to compare, to critique to the whole world, all without needing to get off your armchair and practise. The rise of “keyboard warriors” and “keyboard experts” has hit not just aikido, but many other fields of interest as well. Iconoclastic opinion can rapidly become mass opinion because it is daring, it is disruptive, it is anti-establishment, and therefore it must be right.

In my time, I never got to see other aikido styles or teachers, because I was busy enough doing my own practice. Now, with YouTube, you can pick anyone’s style to pieces, and criticise forms and appearances without understanding what is really going on. And nowadays, what looks dramatic on video is probably taken for what’s best.

Is aikido useless as a physical exercise?

When I started aikido again at the age of 60, I felt it. I ached for 3 months, then I felt tired for another 3 months, and finally, after 9 months or so, I started to feel comfortable with the practice. Not only that, I lost 10kg of excess weight, and started to feel trim and lean again.

Aikido is a wonderful form of exercise. It builds leg strength and it builds core strength. It gives a moderate to high cardiovascular workout at whatever level you choose to exercise. One hour of practice works off 400-600 calories or more.

My 16 years of yoga practice and teaching made me realise that ukemi (attacking and breakfall) is a form of dynamic yoga. It stretches the ligaments and fascia and improves flexibility and suppleness. We are now understanding that working with the fascia can have many health benefits—hence the timeless therapeutic practices of yoga and chi kung.

As a 60 year old, I know I can move like a 40- or 50- year old. I feel fit. I can touch my toes. All without having suffered damage from impacts and excess strains.

Not only that, I know of people who have practised aikido and breathing, who have eliminated asthma and other ailments completely.

I believe aikido has potential as a great physical exercise for young and old.

Is aikido useless as a martial art?

Aikido, when properly practised, looks “soft” and almost staged. This is because, when properly practised, it is an art of moving the mind rather than moving the body.

Not many people realise that aikido is a combination of form and spirit—of body and mind.

Martial techniques are about physical techniques, i.e., the body. But martial arts are about something more holistic. If one doesn’t understand this, one doesn’t understand martial arts.

Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, emphasised the holistic aspect all the time. He talked about using nature’s energies and laws, polishing the mind, and building spirit. He talked about extending ki, keeping your centre, practising gratitude.

He said martial arts was about love.

Not many of his students understood. They thought he was talking crazy, and the words were not important. They just went out and taught techniques. And now, half a century after his death, millions of keyboard warriors don’t understand and think aikido is useless.

What Ueshiba taught was a revolutionary form of martial art that could be practised by anyone. He proved time and again that it was powerful and effective.

Yet his teachings were not adequately upheld and developed for the modern mind. As a result, aikido lost its reputation as a martial art. The approach and understanding needs to change if aikido is to re-establish itself as a worthy and popular martial art that can build the characters of our emerging population.

The martial arts begin with gratitude and end with gratitude. If there is error at the important starting point, the martial arts can become dangerous to others and merely brutal fighting arts. The aikido student strives truly to understand Nature, to be grateful for her wonderful gifts to us, to make her heart our heart, and to become one with her.

Koichi Tohei

Is aikido useless for self-defence?

Aikido was developed by Ueshiba from a combination of lethal practices and arts, including Daito-Ryu Jujutsu and swordsmanship. He developed it into a flowing form that was equally effective, but also able to be safely practised by all.

The essence of aikido is not learning a thousand techniques to disable, maim or kill an attacker. It is about learning to stay calm in any threatening situation. This is probably the most critical aspect of self-defence.

Although Ueshiba and his talented student, Koichi Tohei, taught this in the mid-20th century, it was only in the 1990s or so that scientific research proved that calmness enables access to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, where our most resourceful and advanced mental processes work. Now the police, military, and emergency services are taught techniques to manage stress so that they can deal with situations appropriately and effectively.

In aikido, we are taught to face and deal with mild forms of threat, such as grasping the wrist, to increasingly intense forms of threat. The practices are safe and controlled. This gives the practitioner the opportunity to build their confidence, to stay calm, and to relax.

Tohei taught that it is in relaxation that we can access our full power. This power is not used to clash with the attacker’s power, but to lead it effortlessly.

When you have learned not to resist or clash with the attacker, they are left with nothing to attack. It is like their attack falls into a vacuum. Their mind, one second committed to hitting you, the next second finds nothing, has nothing to resist, and so is easily led. Their body follows willingly. This is the highest form of aikido, and takes a long time to learn, because we have to unlearn trying to move someone’s physical body and throw it.

Before you reach that advanced stage, aikido teaches you many ways to move out of holds, grasps, strikes and stabs. Many people, young and old, have told about how they defused or escaped from a situation, naturally and without effort.

My teacher, sensei Ken Williams was a young man when he studied budo (judo, karate, kendo, aikido) under Kenshiro Abbe. This was the bad old days of the 1950s in London, just a decade after the War. One day he was jumped on by a dozen or so street toughs. He said he couldn’t remember what happened, except he walked away with half of them lying on the ground and the other half running away.

Don’t look at the physical form to judge whether aikido is effective in self-defence. Go and practise under a teacher who understands holistic aikido, and where you can learn how to coordinate your mind and body. Then you will have experiences that gradually build your confidence.

But if you are looking at self-defence as an excuse to show off and fight, then aikido is probably not for you.

Tohei said that a person who lives naturally and with integrity, doesn’t need self-defence. They are protected by their natural resourceful state. This is something to ponder and to understand deeply.

When your mind and your acts become one with nature, then nature will protect you. Fear no enemy… Do not think to prevail over your adversary: think rather of prevailing over self. This is true self-defence and the chief purpose of training in aikido.

Koichi Tohei

Aikido as an agent of transformation

Aikido seems to be losing its relevance in the 21st century—hence the rise of the online query “Is aikido useless?”

Aikido teachers need to think about this. They need to look at their practice and teaching. Is it holistic? Does it have integrity? Does it have some grounding in reality? Is it transformative?

By “transformative” I mean a practice that changes a person from the inside out. Transformative means that which gives a person experience of their innate resourceful state, their natural power, their ability to handle life easily and effectively.

Too many people nowadays have self-doubt. They are anxious, depressed, sad, guilty—they are overwhelmed by their emotions. They are confused, not knowing who they are, what they want, where they are going. They feel weak and vulnerable. We increasingly have a culture that glorifies victimhood.

Transformation means finding your centre. It is not about changing who you are. It is about changing your experience of yourself—and of life. It is about taking your place in the Universe. It is about finding a place of peace and non-contention.

I believe the “secret” message of Ueshiba, Abbe, Tohei, Williams, and many other awesome aikido teachers, was that aikido is a transformative art—potentially transforming not only individuals but also societies. My experience, and the experience of countless other aikidokas, is that aikido, practised with an open mind and an open heart, is a practice that not only builds our body, but also builds understanding and wisdom.

If we can grasp this, aikido can once again become a relevant, revolutionary, socially-useful art that its founder envisioned it to be.

Aikido does not rely on weapons or brute force to succeed: instead we put ourselves in tune with the universe, maintain peace in our own realms, nurture life, and prevent death and destruction. The true meaning of the term samurai is one who serves and adheres to the power of love.

Morihei Ueshiba
Article written by Gerald Lopez
Gerald is a photographer and digital marketer who practises and teaches aikido.

49 comments on “Is aikido useless?”

  1. You nailed it Mr Lopez. You are the worrior. Your article will encourage other fellow travellers. Would really like to meet you one day. Where are you based?

  2. Gracias, hace falta aclarar que el aikido no busca destruir, sino, calmar y construir, sin dañar al adversario que tendrá la posibilidad de recapacitar.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful article. I am old man too and live in Houston, Texas USA. I hope to travel to "down under" one of these days and visit your dojo. Onegaishimasu.

  4. Hey Gerald
    Great article. Really enjoyed it. Good to hear you are teaching again.
    Quentin and I never stopped and still love it as much as ever.
    All the best
    Piers Cooke

    1. Hi Piers, how wonderful to hear from you! I hope you and Quentin are well. Thank you for your kind words. I really hope to catch up some time this year, maybe at Summer Seminar. Very best wishes, Gerald.

  5. Very nice piece..well said. And i really do not care about those attention seekers... Aikido i a beautiful martial art form....i also practise aunkai... Finding and strenghten you center and thereby your ki energy. If you manage to find it, you can do everything.

  6. Thank you, I took up aikido at 50yrs old and was lucky enough to be one of three students of a 7th can instructor who followed these principals. He retired and I've had to change schools where there is no talk of these things. I am fortunate that my old sensei teaches me tai chi now so not all is lost.
    It was nice to be reminded of these goals and the journey I wish to make. Made orange belt this week, onwards we go.

  7. Thanks for a great article. Very enjoyable. Next time I am in Auckland I would like to see if I can visit your dojo. Nice to see I know a couple of your other respondents, what a lovely community

  8. Great text sensei! I practice Ki Aikido in Brazil and I am happy to know how practitioners on the other side of the world have the same feelings!

  9. This is one of the better descriptions of aikido practice as I have experienced it for 25 years. It is not about speed, strength or power, but about understanding, compassion, empathy and integrity. Correct position and movement will lead to a negation of the attacker's power and leave them with nothing to attack; proper movement will lead them without them feeling it, and the ending is decided by a fork in the path -- how the attacker reacts and where the practitioner wants to take it, and with what degree of power and purpose.

    Beautifully written, once again

  10. Even O`Sensei found his first students at the university, not on high-schools. For teenager Aikido is not easy to understand: a martial art with the purpose not to win can`t be martial. Also for adults the practical use of Aikido is difficult to see just because of it`s complexity compared to boxing or karate.
    So those keyboard warriors could simply be ignored if not the number of active aikidokas is decreasing. We have to face it: in several dojos the average age is around 45+.

    I agree with every word you wrote, but if I would read them to a beginner, will he or she will find some sense in the first weeks, months...even years? Unfortunatly we have to find other ways to explain the usefullness of Aikido, until beginners come to a deeper understanding.

    Because of this (I`m not a sensei, btw) I began to tell about my job. I work every day with mentally ill and potentially highly agressive people but was never injured nor damaged patients myself. For example once a man, completly out of his mind in that moment, ran against me with his fists already up. I just stood still and smiled to him and he turned. How would a boxer react? That`s Aikido. You learn this in no other martial art.

    1. You have brought up some important points, Carsten. How to convey aikido to young people so they are attracted to it? I see dojos closing because less young people are joining. You are right, I am struggling to explain my vision of aikido in a way that beginners can understand, and even have problems explaining to some experienced aikido practitioners. Maybe we will find a way. Thank you for sharing your amazing experience.

      1. I want to start a martial art but don’t know what to choose. I want to do Aikido. It looks very interesting. But at the same time I want to do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I don’t know what to do. Even though, I love competitions, I also wanna do something that helps me be relaxed. I also am not very strong and I get bullied around at school a lot. I want to find a way to defend myself while being able to deafest my opponent without using much strength. I am a 12yr old kid.

        1. Thank you for your comment Andres. You have raised some very good points. What I did when I was a teenager, was to try different martial arts. So I did Karate in school, and Tae Kwon Do when I left school. I was about 24 when I discovered Aikido and I was hooked. What I like about aikido is it gives you options in how you manage someone attacking you. In real life, most of the time, we don't want or need to harm someone who is aggressive. For young people, I feel that aikido builds confidence to deal with all situations, not only violence, but also performing in daily life. Find a school with a teacher whom you are comfortable with, and give it a try!

          1. Ok Thank You so much! I’m gonna look at some options. My dad is going to take me to see how Jujitsu is and Aikido. The comment really helped me a lot.

          2. Also, I did Tae Keon Do in 2nd Grade but didn’t become too attached even though I’m a yellow belt. Now I want to do something that I will do for a long time until I get to black belt at least.

  11. Brilliantly written. We in Sri Lanka also finding it difficult to make Aikido popular. We had a sensei from Japan with us for ten years and after he left , it's an uphill task to take it further. We get Shihan down once a year from Hombu dojo to do seminars. Thank you for this write up. We can share among our members.

  12. Very good article on the true meaning and "spirit" of Aikido. I had the opportunity to learn from 9th degree Master John Barr, and his version of Kamido Aikido. It is very much the calm spirit using the attacker's own force, strength, and momentum against them. Thank you for this remembrance of the times of my youth.

  13. This was a lovely read. I am 32 years old man. Born and raised in London. Having grown up studied judo, Tae Kwon Do, Eskrima and kick boxing. Akido has always fascinated me with huge respect. I will be honest and tell you the reason I found this blog was due to searching the exactly words at the beginning of this boog. But all I see these days is people talk bad of it. I refuse to accept this ideology that it has no use. Its very humbling to read your blog and all these comments. I feel maybe if more people took the time to just sit and listen and participate in just 1 akido class they would think differently. Most guys my age and younger only have an interest in the big names in ufc and boxing. Hopefully this can change as akido looks such a beautiful art. I would one day love to learn akido.
    Thanks again. Jordan, London. England.

    1. Hey Jordan, thank you for your comment, I really appreciate the thought you have put into it. You are right, some things are not so easy to understand, especially regarding their use in life. However, I feel that Aikido will attract people more and more, as they look for an art that helps them discover how their body and mind work together. I started Aikido in London in the 1980s, and my teacher was born and bred Londoner, so perhaps the stars will align and you will find a school that suits you!

  14. Also I have another question. Would aikido work against other martial arts (just in case of anything)? (Examples: Muay Thay, Tae Keon Do, Jujitsu, MMA, Karate, etc.)

    1. Aikido is not a combative art like the ones you mention. You could say it is a defensive art. The aim of aikido is to train to become totally calm in the face of anything. Being calm means not needing to contest with anything. The founder, Morihei Ueshiba, said, "A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing." Aikido is the art of non-resistance. Ueshiba said, "Because it is non-resistant, it is victorious from the beginning. Those with evil intentions or contentious thoughts are instantly vanquished." These words are not easy to understand, and take a long time of study. If the words mean something to you, then I recommend you study aikido. Gaining black belt is the first stage - learning the movements. After black belt, you learn to master yourself.

  15. Hi Gerald,
    I started aikido in 1983 with Sensei O'Dwyer in London. I remember you and also how I was struck back then by your dedication to the art. So, as you might imagine, after all these years, it was lovely to come across this website and be able to read your words of wisdom.

    1. Hi Charles, I remember you well, too! Thanks for your kind words, really awesome to hear from you. I hope you and your loved ones have been well. Do keep in touch!

  16. Thank you, Mr. Lopez. I read your article through a happy accident. I was researching based on a character in an urban fantasy book I am reading. She practices aikido. According to your information here, the author has written about the subject with integrity and the transformative ideas you have mentioned. Her sensei is a wise and insightful man who teaches her to be one with her surroundings and calm in any situation. As a result, I am now interested in the discipline and hope to find somewhere near to study. Thank you for the great information.

    1. Thank you Holly, I am glad you have found a meaningful connection with aikido. Best wishes on finding a teacher to support you. Feel free to ask any questions you may have.

      Best regards, Gerald.

  17. I don't mean to sound harsh, but tough love is sometimes necessary when it comes to scams and cults. What Aikido apologists fall back on, without exception, is that if it doesn't ultimately work, it's the practitioner's fault. It's the exact same excuse that pyramid schemes and MLM's will tell you: The business model is flawless, it's your fault it doesn't work.

    The inherent problem with that claim is that it is in and of itself precisely self-refuting. Legitimate martial arts work regardless of the practitioner, that's the whole point, to give an otherwise weaker opponent some modicum of an equalizer in an altercation. Besides possibly getting you at least a little bit of being in shape, Aikido simply does nothing for you when it comes to being a martial art.

    The aspect of "love" is almost comical. Aikidokas are, unfortunately, exactly the keyboard warriors who get up in arms about videos that expose them and, even in this blog post, blaming the practitioner for "not getting it" or "doing it wrong".

    The more legitimate a martial art, the less of that you see. In something like MMA and BJJ, outright blaming people is the exception, not the rule. Additionally, love is always respect. In Aikido, respect is a formality couched in seremony. That isn't respect, it's just ritual. The disdain higher belts have for lower belts is actually pretty disgusting. I also have yet to see a single instance of someone like Steven Seagal showing any respect for a fellow person. Sure, he pays bizarre lip service to the Dalai Lama, but just look at him badmouth other martial artists in Hollywood. That's arrogance, and while people show him respect in demonstrations because tradition expects them to do so, he commands no respect as a person or as a martial artist.

    Also, without exception, every time Aikidokas have gone outside of their bubble to make a point about its efficacy, the results are horrible.

    As for is it useless: Useless compared to what? Being in tuned to the universe and whatnot means whatever someone thinks it means, you can't claim that Aikido does that, even if you'd be doing it "correctly". There is no such thing as tuning into the universe, but even if there were, you have a much better shot at succeeding in that by engaging in drug use. It's also cheaper.

    Is it useless as a means of getting into shape? Compared to legitimate martial arts, yes. Compared to sitting on your couch? It's not useless, but neither is taking a 5 minute walk.

    Is it useless as a martial art? Yes. It doesn't empower people, and saying that people don't show off at it is not true. Its entire point is to grandstand as some ultimate passive and yet formidable martial art. The word "martial" means having to do with war, combat.

    Is it useless as self-defense? Absolutely. Charging people money and telling them that they'll learn to defend themselves, only to betray them afterwards by telling them that they were "doing it wrong" in an altercation where they got injured or robbed is nothing but a scam.

    In this day and age we can weigh and evaluate evidence. That Aikido doesn't measure up is a blessing because people who want to get in shape, learn about genuine respect and friendship, learn how to keep it together in an altercation and who want to ultimately become a better version of themselves can easily determine much more effective systems with which to do so. Going down the Aikido path all too often leads to the opposite. Crippling self-doubt in an altercation, inflated egos because ritual and ceremony orders people to bow and worship higher belts and senseis, and in the worst case, delusions about one's own ability to deal with a violemt encounter and a fragile ego afterwards that will be met by people blaming you for just not getting it.

    1. Hi Not Quite, thank you for taking the time to write your comment. It is unfortunate that your experience of aikido (or at least of Steven Segal) has left you with a bad taste in the mouth, and a rather poor opinion of its usefulness. I have come to the conclusion that YouTube is not an ideal place to get a genuine understanding of aikido. I hope that, with exposure to a good teacher, you might change your mind some day. Thanks anyway for your opinion.

  18. Aikido is a wonderful form of exercise and great for the mind and martial awareness. If you're looking for self defense against a street attacker(s) then obviously Aikido is not going to help you. I hope this helps and good luck to everyone on their spiritual and/or martial arts journey.

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for your comment. Interestingly, I heard of many positive experiences "on the street" from my aikido colleagues and students. Very often, they were able to defuse the situation before it got out of hand, or simply neutralised the person in a harmless way, or in the case of my teacher, he walked away from a whole group of assailants who were picking themselves up from the ground. That is the power and options provided by aikido.

  19. Thank you, Gerald Lopez, for the excellent article.

    Aikido is an opportunity to grow in several ways, including self defense. Most people don't know that Aikido is used by several special operations forces.


  20. Hello Gerald,

    I earned a black belt in Hap Ki Do a while ago and after a decade long break from martial arts I have taken a couple of Aikido classes. I appreciate the similarities of the philosophies of composure and avoidance and the training techniques. I understand the Aikido minimalist approach of the circular movements to redirect and escape an attacker. I am finding it hard to let go of all the additional counter attacking elements to basically the same techniques. Where as Aikido a defense might be avoid/redirect off-balance/throw, in Hapkido it would be avoid/strike/redirect-off balance/wristlock/throw/finish strike.

    Whereas a defense attorney would advise the Aikido approach the Hap Ki Do approach will give you a lot more tools to survive a physical conflict. I really don't want to train these tools out of my reactions, you respond under pressure the way you train. Aikido is very Yin oriented and the Yang very subordinate so expressing Ki is difficult.

    I would like to stay with Aikido as the dojo I found has some great people and I am late 50's and maybe this might be a better path but I don't want to stop being a Hap Ki Do martial artist.

    1. Hi Chris, thank you for your considered reply. Indeed, different approaches appeal to different personalities and use-cases. While the learning process of aikido involves complex movements - which to some seem superfluous or ineffective in real combat - they are meant to explore principles which, when condensed, become very direct and powerful responses. The Yang is there; however it is accessed after many years of integrating the internal principles. I believe it is similar to "soft" forms of Kung Fu, which when applied correctly, are devastatingly direct. Many of my colleagues tell me that they are appreciating aikido more in their later years; that is certainly my experience. My teacher used to say, at the age of 60, that he continued to recall and understand his own teachers words - words that, in his "hot-headed" young days, did not make sense at all!

  21. This blog has me loving the idea of Aikido already. Not only do you make it sound beautiful, you describe it so wonderfully. I'm due for my first lesson soon. I did taekwondo and jiu-jitsu for about a year and excelled quite quickly. I was worried that aikido might not be the same level of what I did. There's just something about martial arts that makes it special. Creating self-discipline, confidence and giving power to one-self when learning how to move their body. Thank you sir, for letting me see what aikido can be and what it can do.

    1. Hi Layla, I'm glad I've been able to convey the beauty of aikido to you! I think you will find connections, especially from your jiu-jitsu experience. May you enjoy your aikido learning as much as I have enjoyed mine.

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