We all, more or less, have in mind the meaning of the word “aikido”, which defines the art in which we practice. We could say without this, of course, being the definitive or sole interpretation of the word that it means ‘the path or the way of harmonizing with the energy’.
Said interpretation potentially involves two aspects: a physical and a spiritual one. Many things have been written on the spiritual aspect both by the founder himself and by many of his students, and the writings vary according to the temperament and the character of each one of them. But beyond the spiritual side that a martial art can have, as a means of shaping a healthy individual by making her/him capable to control her/his violent instincts within the community where s/he lives, helping her/him to find answers to questions of existential nature that might be troubling her/him, through practice, there is also harmony on the physical side, during combat per se.
Recently, we had the honour to host Shihan Shane Riley, 7 Dan, in our school. For 25 years, Shane Riley Sensei has studied aikido next to Shihan Cottier, a direct student of O’Sensei. This allowed him to develop an aikido style which focuses both on the base of the techniques and their effectiveness. Developing those principles, Sensei Riley has worked closely with the West Yorkshire police, using aikido as a means to de-escalate different crises or difficult situations. He holds state certificates allowing him to work as a police trainer regarding security issues, at a national level.
During the class he taught, he mentioned something that put me into thought and which I could say was the trigger for writing this article: “Unfortunately, today, many instructors have confused the techniques we use to exercise and to understand the technique with the technique itself. “
So, hold on a moment and ask yourself what is the actual meaning of that. Firstly, it means that a technique that is visually harmonious, beautiful and refined cannot be a technique one will successfully use in the street! Then, one will reasonably argue: “Why do we even practice this exercise-technique, since it is not effective?” In my opinion, this is primarily the case for our body to gain “muscle memory” and learn the technique but also to avoid injuries when we begin our training in the art, which is not something reproachable at all.
However, why train for a martial art if not for being able to respond to a real fight? And here comes the reality. The point is that we live in the age of the image and the image must be perfect and flawless because that is the only way to sell a product in the marketing world. I’m sure we’ve all seen enough videos from great Masters’ demonstrations where the uke doesn’t not lose even an inch while they move, they make incredible breakfalls without even sweating, in the process. We all understand that these demonstrations are very well choreographed, right? Also, we have all read the comments from other martial arts students who are essentially challenging or prove wrong any potential effectiveness of aikido – and somehow they are right! Mixed martial arts, for example, are not harmonious, they are not as beautiful to watch, but no one is going to comment under an MMA fight video that what they see “does not work”, precisely because it seems to be more realistic. I started my first steps in the world of sports with boxing at the National Sports Club and I will never forget my first fight: once it was over, my ears were ringing for a day and a half because of the punches, given that my opponent would not be harmonious with me, instead he would try to hurt me in any way.
Wishing to be harmonious to such an extent that “our technique works” is not good neither for the art nor for ourselves, in the event of a real combat! So, what about the harmony we are looking for at the physical level and which our art calls us to find?
The harmony which is actually desirable and useful, both at a training and a realistic level, is about immediately absorbing the opponent’s attack, at any level of speed or power. So, I must harmonize with her/him in order to absorb the maximum force s/he will attack me with; s/he must NOT harmonize with me so that I can successfully apply the technique.
But how is this achieved? Trying to understand the following in the most comprehensive way possible:
A) the way to attack,
B) the speed of the attack, and
C) the physical distance between you and the opponent
so that when the attack occurs, I can absorb it to such an extent that my opponent does not have the strength to resist rather than putting an effort to not resist, in order not to spoil my flawless image.
Do you want to make a test? If you are an instructor, have a 6th or 5th kyu student as your uke to show the most difficult technique you can teach in your class. Will it work? If not, then if s/he were to be your opponent in a real fight, you would have lost. If you are an advanced student, and have a black belt, try once a week to practice the techniques only with beginners.
In case someone less experienced than you does not follow the technique applied, try to find the way to harmonize with her/him in order to for her/him to fulfill her/his role as an uke, because s/he cannot and will not harmonize with you if s/he trains only for a month!
While you do this, don’t fall into the trap of thinking about what others will say about you if a technique does not work straight away, while you have a black belt or you are an instructor. Remember that it is better to fail at the dojo rather than in the street. After all, harmony also means accepting victory and defeat.