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.
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.
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.
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
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 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