Why resistance has its uses in learning physical techniques, but is counterproductive in the practice of aikido as a martial art for personal development.
When I was a schoolboy in the 60s, I used to read a regular series of comics about the Second World War. Cheap and in small school-bag size, they had epic painted covers with line-drawings inside, depicting heroic British air force pilots and army soldiers battling it out with their German counterparts. When the British pilot was shot down and interrogated by the Gestapo, the zealous German officer would invariably say, “Resistance is useless!”
In my aikido practice, those words would often ring in my mind. Much has been said about aikido attacks not being “real” and how proper practice involves an attacker coming in with commitment and resistance, so that the practitioner can correctly learn the technique.
This approach is obvious if one sees aikido as a physical martial art. But in reality, like many other Arts concerned with personal development, the physical aspect is only a part of the whole practice.
If one were to go deeper, one would find that aikido is also an exploration into sensing an attacker’s intention—their mind—and dealing with it.
Before physical movement, there is intention. And in a real attack the intention comes with full commitment.
The more subtle side of aikido is to learn to sense the partner’s intention to attack, and to work with it before dealing with their physical body. This is where the principle of Ki comes in.
This principle says that, where the mind moves (i.e., the direction of the attack), ki also moves. What the practitioner (nage) senses is the ki of the attacker (uke). If the nage correctly senses uke’ski, doesn’t resist it but instead leads it, the uke will not feel anything and will naturally follow.
When the nage’s ki and the uke’s ki combine, the resultant flow is like a dance, or perhaps like horseriding. In skilled horseriding, I have been told, the rider leads the horse so subtly, it is as if the horse is reading the rider’s mind.
For this increasingly subtle practice to happen, the uke needs to attack with commitment, but totally relaxed and prepared to follow nage’s lead. Then nage can relax deeper into the practice, and start feeling and leading the direction of the attack. A uke who is relaxed and soft, and follows the nage’s lead, can teach the nage a lot about what they are doing, just like a mirror.
Ukes who are hard and resistant cannot, by definition, be attacking with commitment—they are mentally holding back, either intentionally or because of fear. Also, by definition, they are unstable. Being hard and resistant is actually very dangerous for the uke, because if they meet a very relaxed and experienced nage, they could fall very hard.
When I throw a uke who is resistant, I have to be extra careful and look after them. When I have an experienced uke who is totally non-resistant, I have more confidence and can use more power—and they can take it.
The more you practice ukemi with non-resistance, the softer and more resilient your body will become. You will naturally develop the ability to absorb more of the nage’s power and to stay safe at all times, because when you are relaxed and non-resistant, you can follow the movement while staying balanced and fluid. Also, the more relaxed and non-resistant you are, the more you can take the locks (nikkyo, sankyo, yonkyo) and pins without flinching, thus ensuring the nage does the technique correctly.
You have no need to resist nage to “teach” them something. If you are following, they will feel where they themselves are using too much physical force or going in a wrong direction. If they incorrectly turn back into your flow, they will be pushed over.
My teacher, sensei Ken Williams, had an assistant who was a tall strongly-built Glaswegian in his 20s. He had been sensei Williams’s personal assistant for about 10 years. It was a joy to practice with him because his attacks were strong and soft. He made you feel good, and you learned a lot from just practising with him. And he could take almost all of his teacher’s power—almost.
So, aikido is a paradox. The more you follow your partner’s ki—whether you are uke or nage—the better both of you become.
By offering a strong committed attack, the uke gives nage something to feel and lead. By being conscious of leading the uke’s mind, the physical movements become effortless, smooth and powerful. This is because, if the nage learns to lead the uke’s mind, their body will gladly follow. This is a simple and natural principle.
After the initial stages of learning the physical movements, the aikido practice is no longer about performing physical technique, it is more about learning to lead the uke’s mind before their body has even moved.
That is why the founder, Ueshiba, said that in real life, aikido is about “gaining victory” even before the attack has begun. Thus, violence can be averted through non-resistance.