Why aikido techniques don’t work

by Dan James


An example of kintsugi, the Japanese art of ceramic joinery that treats breakage and repair as a natural process to be celebrated rather than disguised. image: wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi

Not just a provocative title, but an excellent starting point from which to develop a better understanding of the art of aikido, and how we might improve its effectiveness in our regular practice.

Rather than respond with some variation of “your aikido might not work, my aikido works just fine”, if we want to challenge this assertion, we need only look around the internet forums, or pop into a local MMA gym… you’re likely to be in for a rude surprise if you think you can pull off a sankyo the way you practise it in the dojo.

So to be clear, aikido absolutely does work, but aikido techniques as typically practised in the dojo absolutely don’t work in real-life application.

The trouble is that techniques are presented (in most dojos at least) as if they are scenario-based, appropriate responses to specific stimuli (such as a particular attack). But this is a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of waza (technique; art; skill).

The techniques of aikido are kata (model; form): that is, a standard series of movements chained together for the purpose of principle-based learning and transmission of an art. We learn kata from day one, but the hiden (secret teachings) are in how we interpret or apply them (the bunkai).

If you pop along to a sword school or karate dojo it’s a lot more obvious: you’ll likely see their kata being practised as a long series of 30-odd movements. No one in these dojos imagines that in a combat situation they might perform a 30-step kata and have success, instead they might spontaneously apply one or two movements from a kata in a real-life confrontation.

So how do we get it so wrong in so many aikido dojos? Perhaps because the kata are so much shorter, it’s possible to mistake them for some kind of preparation for actual combat. And because most of us in aikido are into peace, love and mung beans, we might not look deep enough to discover that any action that relies on reacting to what someone else does is ineffective in real-life violence.

People learn through story telling and therefore kata (especially short kata) are often interpreted as a problem with a corresponding series of movements to solve it. This approach helps tap into imagination and thus is a very effective way to transmit and preserve the principles of an art through the generations. In this way the kata of aikido are a kind of container or jar for the art itself and it’s our job to fill that jar with meaning.

O-Sensei, the founder of aikido (or some might say Daito Ryu Aiki Jujitsu rebadged for a post-war, right-wing peace movement), said that the way of aiki is formless and spontaneous. From this viewpoint, kata are simply examples strung together to help us study principles. But if we want to manifest aiki we need to move beyond this.

So what’s in an aikido kata? Can we pick it apart to enhance our understanding? There are a number of phases including: initial contact, opportunities for striking, the meeting and joining of ki, and resolution through throws and pins.

In the contact phase we practise from a diverse catalogue of striking and holding attacks that come from different heights, directions and angles. At the point of contact we apply balance breaking (kuzushi) which needs to be maintained throughout the kata. As we move through the kata we are constantly aware of body positioning (tai sabaki) exploring where we can safely be in relation to uke (omote, ura, shikaku). We learn how to move around our partner safely using irimi and tenkan. There are opportunities for strikes (atemi jutsu), joint entanglements (and breaks — although Aikido™ finds this a little distasteful). The end of the kata explores a feast of projections and pins to keep us entertained for years.

The ability to apply what we learn from kata — using the principles in the real world — means picking apart the kata to find each of these elements. This is very different from thinking “Oh, attack x is coming, I need to react with technique y… Damn! Uke didn’t attack correctly… Bad uke!”.

Most of us are very familiar with the flowing nature and beauty of kata practise in the dojo. When we combine this with rigorous enquiry into the component elements and phases, we can transform the container of kata into something quite amazing.

Another great tool for exploring kata is atemi. O-Sensei is famously quoted as saying aikido is 90% atemi (although he is also quoted as saying 70%). And there’s very good reason for this. It’s not that we want to go around hitting people, we probably wouldn’t have chosen aikido if we did! It’s that atemi is a terrific tool for understanding our aikido kata. Atemi not only makes our flowing, dojo aikido better but also gives us a way to apply the principles we learn in kata in a devastatingly effective way when necessary.

A few years ago, through the experiences shared by fellow argonaut Andrew Sunter, I was introduced to Target Focus Training (TFT), a modern combative art that has evolved from investigating the best way to train special forces in the US. It’s not my cup of tea, but it very simply and effectively puts into perspective the role of atemi jutsu in aikido. Andrew continues to study TFT and integrate the principles of atemi jutsu into Great Ocean Aikido.

Practising atemi jutsu is an excellent way to ensure we:

  • identify the segmental points in the kata
  • align our bodies correctly
  • break balance effectively
  • identify opportunities for joint manipulation that arise spontaneously
  • develop correct timing
  • remove hesitation and therefore develop better flow.

I am looking forward to learning more as we catch up at our Autumn workshop in Alstonville using Jim’s engaging style of learning to accelerate understanding. I hope to see friends there from near and far.


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