Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba (often referred to by his title ‘O Sensei’ or ‘Great Teacher’). On a purely physical level it is an art involving some throws and joint locks that are derived from Jujitsu and some throws and other techniques derived from Kenjutsu. Aikido focuses not on punching or kicking opponents, but rather on using their own energy to gain control of them or to throw them away from you. It is not a static art, but places great emphasis on motion and the dynamics of movement.
Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical energy, as the aikidoka (aikido practitioner) “leads” the attacker’s momentum using entering and turning movements. The techniques are completed with various throws or joint locks. Aikido can be categorized under the general umbrella of grappling arts.
Aikido derives mainly from the martial art of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, but began to diverge from it in the late 1920s, partly due to Ueshiba’s involvement with the Omoto-kyo religion. Ueshiba’s early students’ documents bear the term aiki-jujutsu. Many of Ueshiba’s senior students have different approaches to aikido, depending on when they studied with him. Today aikido is found all over the world in a number of styles, with broad ranges of interpretation and emphasis. However, they all share techniques learned from Ueshiba and most have concern for the well-being of the attacker. This attitude has been at the core of criticisms of aikido and related arts.
The word “aikido” is formed of three kanji:
* ai – joining, unifying, harmonizing
* ki – spirit, life energy
* do – way, path
The term do connects the practice of aikido with the philosophical concept of Tao, which can be found in martial arts such as judo and kendo, and in more peaceful arts such as Japanese calligraphy (shodo), flower arranging (kado) and tea ceremony (chado or sado). The term aiki refers to the martial arts principle or tactic of blending with an attacker’s movements for the purpose of controlling their actions with minimal effort. One applies aiki by understanding the rhythm and intent of the attacker to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter-technique. Historically, aiki was mastered for the purpose of killing; however in aikido one seeks to control an aggressor without causing harm. The founder of aikido declared: “To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” A number of aikido practitioners interpret aikido metaphorically, seeing parallels between aikido techniques and other methods for conflict resolution. These kanji are identical to the Korean versions of the characters that form the word hapkido, a Korean martial art. Although there are no known direct connections between the two arts, it is suspected that the founders of both arts trained in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu.
In aikido, as in virtually all Japanese martial arts, there are both physical and mental aspects of training. The physical training in aikido is diverse, covering both general physical fitness and conditioning, as well as specific techniques. Because a substantial portion of any aikido curriculum consists of throws, the first thing most students learn is how to safely fall or roll. The specific techniques for attack include both strikes and grabs; the techniques for defense consist of throws and pins. After basic techniques are learned, students study freestyle defense against multiple opponents, and in certain styles, techniques with weapons.
Physical training goals pursued in conjunction with aikido include controlled relaxation, flexibility, and endurance, with less emphasis on strength training. In aikido, pushing or extending movements are much more common than pulling or contracting movements. This distinction can be applied to general fitness goals for the aikido practitioner.
Certain anaerobic fitness activities, such as weight training, emphasize contracting movements. In aikido, specific muscles or muscle groups are not isolated and worked to improve tone, mass, and power. Aikido-related training emphasizes the use of coordinated whole-body movement and balance similar to yoga or pilates. For example, many dojo begin each class with warm-up exercises (junbi taiso), which may include stretching and break falls.
Roles of uke and nage
Aikido training is based primarily on two partners practicing pre-arranged forms (kata) rather than freestyle practice. The basic pattern is for the receiver of the technique (uke) to initiate an attack against the thrower (nage, also referred to as tori, or shite, depending on aikido style), who neutralises this attack with an aikido technique.
Both halves of the technique, that of uke and that of nage, are considered essential to aikido training. Both are studying aikido principles of blending and adaptation. Nage learns to blend with and control attacking energy, while uke learns to become calm and flexible in the disadvantageous, off-balance positions in which nage places them. This “receiving” of the technique is called ukemi. Uke continuously seeks to regain balance and cover vulnerabilities (e.g., an exposed side), while nage uses position and timing to keep uke off-balance and vulnerable. In more advanced training, uke will sometimes apply reversal techniques (kaeshi-waza) to regain balance and pin or throw nage.
Ukemi refers to the act of receiving a technique. Good ukemi involves a parry or breakfall that is used to avoid pain or injury, such as joint dislocations or atemi.
Aikido techniques are usually a defense against an attack; therefore, to practice aikido with their partner, students must learn to deliver various types of attacks. Although attacks are not studied as thoroughly as in striking-based arts, “honest” attacks (a strong strike or an immobilizing grab) are needed to study correct and effective application of technique.
Many of the strikes (uchi) of aikido are often said to resemble cuts from a sword or other grasped object, which may suggest origins in techniques intended for armed combat. Other techniques, which appear to explicitly be punches (tsuki), are also practiced as thrusts with a knife or sword. Kicks are generally reserved for upper-level variations; reasons cited include that falls from kicks are especially dangerous, and that kicks (high kicks in particular) were uncommon during the types of combat prevalent in feudal Japan. Some basic strikes include:
- Front-of-the-head strike (shomen’uchi) a vertical knifehand strike to the head.
- Side-of-the-head strike (yokomen’uchi) a diagonal knifehand strike to the side of the head or neck.
- Chest thrust (mune-tsuki) a punch to the torso. Specific targets include the chest, abdomen, and solar plexus. Same as “middle-level thrust” (chudan-tsuki), and “direct thrust” (choku-tsuki).
- Face thrust (ganmen-tsuki) a punch to the face. Same as “upper-level thrust” (jodan-tsuki).
Beginners in particular often practice techniques from grabs, both because they are safer and because it is easier to feel the energy and lines of force of a hold than a strike. Some grabs are historically derived from being held while trying to draw a weapon; a technique could then be used to free oneself and immobilize or strike the attacker who is grabbing the defender. The following are examples of some basic grabs:
- Single-hand grab (katate-dori) one hand grabs one wrist.
- Both-hands grab (morote-dori) both hands grab one wrist.
- Both-hands grab (ryote-dori) both hands grab both wrists. Same as “double single-handed grab” (ryokatate-dori).
- Shoulder grab (kata-dori) a shoulder grab. “Both-shoulders-grab” is ryokata-dori
- Chest grab (mune-dori) grabbing the (clothing of the) chest. Same as “collar grab” (eri-dori).
The following are a sample of the basic or widely practiced throws and pins. The precise terminology for some may vary between organisations and styles, so what follows are the terms used by the Aikikai Foundation. Note that despite the names of the first five techniques listed, they are not universally taught in numeric order.
- First technique (ikkyo) a control using one hand on the elbow and one hand near the wrist which leverages uke to the ground. This grip also applies pressure into the ulnar nerve at the wrist.
- Second technique (nikyo) a pronating wristlock that torques the arm and applies painful nerve pressure. (There is an adductive wristlock or Z-lock in ura version.)
- Third technique (sankyo) a rotational wristlock that directs upward-spiraling tension throughout the arm, elbow and shoulder.
- Fourth technique (yonkyo) a shoulder control similar to ikkyo, but with both hands gripping the forearm. The knuckles (from the palm side) are applied to the recipient’s radial nerve against the periosteum of the forearm bone.
- Fifth technique (gokyo) visually similar to ikkyo, but with an inverted grip of the wrist, medial rotation of the arm and shoulder, and downward pressure on the elbow. Common in knife and other weapon take-aways.
- Four-direction throw (shihonage) The hand is folded back past the shoulder, locking the shoulder joint.
- Forearm return (kotegaeshi) a supinating wristlock-throw that stretches the extensor digitorum.
- Breath throw (kokyunage) a loosely used term for various types of mechanically unrelated techniques, although they generally do not use joint locks like other techniques.
- Entering throw (iriminage) throws in which nage moves through the space occupied by uke. The classic form superficially resembles a “clothesline” technique.
- Heaven-and-earth throw (tenchinage) beginning with ryote-dori; moving forward, nage sweeps one hand low (“earth”) and the other high (“heaven”), which unbalances uke so that he or she easily topples over.
- Hip throw (koshinage) aikido’s version of the hip throw. Nage drops his or her hips lower than those of uke, then flips uke over the resultant fulcrum.
- Figure-ten throw (jujinage) or figure-ten entanglement (jujigarami) a throw that locks the arms against each other (The kanji for “10” is a cross-shape).
- Rotary throw (kaitennage) nage sweeps the arm back until it locks the shoulder joint, then uses forward pressure to throw.
Aikido makes use of body movement (tai sabaki) to blend with uke. For example, an “entering” (irimi) technique consists of movements inward towards uke, while a “turning” (tenkan) technique uses a pivoting motion. Additionally, an “inside” (uchi) technique takes place in front of uke, whereas an “outside” (soto) technique takes place to his side; a “front” (omote) technique is applied with motion to the front of uke, and a “rear” (ura) version is applied with motion towards the rear of uke, usually by incorporating a turning or pivoting motion. Finally, most techniques can be performed while in a seated posture (seiza). Seated techniques are called suwari-waza.
Thus, from fewer than twenty basic techniques, there are thousands of possible implementations. For instance, ikkyo can be applied to an opponent moving forward with a strike (perhaps with an ura type of movement to redirect the incoming force), or to an opponent who has already struck and is now moving back to reestablish distance (perhaps an omote-waza version). Specific aikido kata are typically referred to with the formula “attack-technique(-modifier)”. For instance, katate-dori ikkyo refers to any ikkyo technique executed when uke is holding one wrist. This could be further specified as katate-dori ikkyo omote, referring to any forward-moving ikkyo technique from that grab.
Atemi are strikes (or feints) employed during an aikido technique. Some view atemi as attacks against “vital points” meant to cause damage in and of themselves. For instance, Gozo Shioda described using atemi in a brawl to quickly down a gang’s leader. Others consider atemi, especially to the face, to be methods of distraction meant to enable other techniques. A strike, whether or not it is blocked, can startle the target and break his or her concentration. The target may also become unbalanced in attempting to avoid the blow, for example by jerking the head back, which may allow for an easier throw. Many sayings about atemi are attributed to Morihei Ueshiba, who considered them an essential element of technique.
Weapons training in aikido traditionally includes the short staff (jo), wooden sword (bokken), and knife (tanto). Today, some schools also incorporate firearms-disarming techniques. Both weapon-taking and weapon-retention are sometimes taught, to integrate armed and unarmed aspects, although some schools of aikido do not train with weapons at all. Others, such as the Iwama style of Morihiro Saito, usually spend substantial time with bokken and jo, practised under the names aiki-ken, and aiki-jo, respectively. The founder developed much of empty handed aikido from traditional sword and spear movements, so the practice of these movements is generally for the purpose of giving insight into the origin of techniques and movements, as well as vital practice of these basic building blocks.
Multiple attackers and randori
One feature of aikido is training to defend against multiple attackers, often called taninzudori, or taninzugake. Freestyle (randori, or jiyuwaza) practice with multiple attackers is a key part of most curricula and is required for the higher level ranks. Randori exercises a person’s ability to intuitively perform techniques in an unstructured environment. Strategic choice of techniques, based on how they reposition the student relative to other attackers, is important in randori training. For instance, an ura technique might be used to neutralise the current attacker while turning to face attackers approaching from behind.
In Shodokan Aikido, randori differs in that it is not performed with multiple persons with defined roles of defender and attacker, but between two people, where both participants attack, defend, and counter at will. In this respect it resembles judo randori.
In applying a technique during training, it is the responsibility of nage to prevent injury to uke by employing a speed and force of application that is commensurate with their partner’s proficiency in ukemi. Injuries (especially those to the joints), when they do occur in aikido, are often the result of nage misjudging the ability of uke to receive the throw or pin.
A study of injuries in the martial arts showed that while the type of injuries varied considerably from one art to the other, the differences in overall rates of injury were much less pronounced. Soft tissue injuries are one of the most common types of injuries found within aikido although a few deaths from repetitive “shihonage” have been reported.
Aikido training is mental as well as physical, emphasizing the ability to relax the mind and body even under the stress of dangerous situations. This is necessary to enable the practitioner to perform the bold enter-and-blend movements that underlie aikido techniques, wherein an attack is met with confidence and directness. Morihei Ueshiba once remarked that one “must be willing to receive 99% of an opponent’s attack and stare death in the face” in order to execute techniques without hesitation. As a martial art concerned not only with fighting proficiency but also with the betterment of daily life, this mental aspect is of key importance to aikido practitioners.
Upon closer examination, practitioners will find from Aikido what they are looking for, whether it is applicable self-defense technique, spiritual enlightenment, physical health or peace of mind. O Sensei emphasized the moral and spiritual aspects of this art, placing great weight on the development of harmony and peace. “The Way of Harmony of the Spirit” is one way that “Aikido” may be translated into English. This is still true of Aikido today, although different styles emphasize the more spiritual aspects to greater or lesser degrees. Although the idea of a martial discipline striving for peace and harmony may seem paradoxical, it is the most basic tenet of the art.
- Wikipedia: Aikido
- AikiWeb Aikido Information – a site on aikido, with essays, forums, gallery, reviews, columns, wiki and other information.
- AikidoFAQ – an informational aikido website, including articles, tips, and multimedia.
- Aikido Journal – Online magazine. Provides articles, interviews, and discussion of techniques.
- Aikido – The way of harmony podcast – Aikido Audio interviews from various Aikido styles.