Aikido and Sparring

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I apologize for neglecting the blog for some time, but the need to change locations for the dojo just took up too much time.  This post is related to a topic that came up during training recently.  I invite everyone to comment, discuss and ask questions.

Aikido is known as a noncompetitive martial art, according to the wishes of the founder Morihei Ueshiba.  He stated that attempting to dominate or defeat another in order to win violates the principles of the art, and so competition was to be eschewed.  In the mean time, Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, employed competition and taught that one should not have a desire to win, to dominate or defeat another in the midst of competition.  So the question here is why we do not spar in Aikido.  Is there some aspect of the physical movements that preclude sparring as a training method?  Is there some aspect of the underlying principles that prevent the use of this method, or are the issues with principle more headache material that can be avoided with proper care in practice? If no fundamental problem exists, why do we not spar?  What is the impact of not sparring as a training method on effectiveness of the art?  These questions will be addressed in this entry.

The answer to the question of the techniques preventing sparring, presumably for safety reasons, is straightforward.  Kenji Tomiki, and advanced student of both Ueshiba and Kano, developed his own martial art which applied sparring to Aikido techniques.  Tomiki was a very advanced practitioner who developed the art effectively in this form.  So the answer is no, there are no inherent characteristics of the techniques that preclude sparring.

As for the principle, Aikido aspires to Takemusu Aiki as its highest objective.  This form of training can be summarized as responding reflexively to violent activity without any conceptual thought intervening.  The founder discussed some conceptual thoughts that might intervene in sparring, such as a desire to win, dominate or defeat another.  However, these thoughts are not absolutely required to take place in a competitive setting.  As a result, martial arts such as Judo employ competition and achieve the same objective, Takemusu Aiki.  So the answer here again is no, the principles of Aikido do not absolutely forbid sparring as the problems created by that training method can be avoided with careful implementation.

So why don’t we have sparring absent a desire to win in Aikido?  The answer lies in the nature of the training methods of Aikido as compared with Judo, for example.  In Aikido, we study techniques in great depth from the outset of training.  We start slowly and investigate the basics against a strong grip.  We study posture, breathing, etc.  Next we increase the speed to moderate at an even pace.  Then we go to full speed.  We increase resistance so nage must change the technique, we add counters and deal with multiple attacks.  These attacks begin against a known attack and then move towards unscripted attacks.  Not only does the resistance level increase with each new aspect of training, but over time performing each approach such as multiple attacks the resistance level increases as well.  Ultimately, we finish with completely unscripted attacks in the absence of rules from a fully resisting partner intent upon stopping us at every turn, but only at a point when we can handle it safely.  We are to respond with Takemusu Aiki, or reflexively without interference from conceptual elaborations.  The founder of the art undoubtedly achieved this level in his practice and taught this approach through his lineage.

Judo, by comparison, starts with a rather shallow instruction in technique to start.  Competition is begun immediately with some rules in place.  The job of the Judoka is to learn the techniques in the midst of competition through detailed study, but in the absence of a desire to win.  I suspect the training does not include destroying beginners, so there is probably some graduated levels of resistance perhaps at the early stages at a minimum.  However, an important aspect of Judo training as the level of the student advances is the relinquishing of the rules.  To achieve Takemusu Aiki, the student cannot rely upon the rigid requirements of competition, as a real attacker can do virtually anything.  Eventually, Takemusu Aiki is accomplished as in Aikido and taught through this lineage.

So the ultimate answer is that both Judo and Aikido meet at the top.  Both achieve the highest level of training in martial arts.  Takemusu Aiki is considered the highest level because all avenues to be defeated are closed.  Our ability to perceive an attack and respond reflexively with the appropriate action before the attacker has had the opportunity to fully engage will always yield positive results.  When we stop to consider various concepts, even minutely on an unconscious level, we close down our perception and also unbalance our bodies through inattentiveness to the sensory world.  Through training in Aikido against successively higher levels of resistance, we learn to close each and every opening.  Through training in Judo we may also learn to close each and every opportunity, but this time through relinquishing the safety net of the rules all while immersed in 100% resistance.  When ALL openings are closed, and only then, can we engage in fully effective self defense.  When only one opening exists, should an opponent find it, we can be defeated.  In that case, our survival is dependent upon luck that we will not be caught as opposed to skill.  As long as masters of each discipline live to transmit this knowledge from one generation to the next, the possibility of learning genuine self defense is present in both systems.  For this reason, one would not be surprised by learning that the founder of both Judo and Aikido worked well in supporting each other’s efforts, providing a model for us to follow as well.

Aikido does not employ sparring techniques only because it would interrupt the gradual process of increasing resistance in training.  Suddenly people who study in depth would shift to a shallow approach and learning would shift to 100% resistance sparring with rules from the graduated resistance without rules.  Other days the reverse would occur (A complete switch to competition would simply be a change to Tomike’s art – Shodokan).   The result would be a mixture of two training methods and a lot of confusion.  Learning would stop.  Switching back and forth would prevent continued learning and as a result, all openings would not be closed.  Aikido would no longer be viable as a martial art in that confused form.  Our practice in Aikido appeals to those who need to learn with graduated increases in resistance without rules.  That said, some people feel a need for the learning style that derives from 100% resistance with rules.  If they are already in Aikido, there are several options.  One would be to practice Tomiki’s art.  Another would be to take up a second martial art that employs sparring and cross train.  A third would be to periodically test oneself outside the dojo with friends who studied other martial arts.  Finally, when sufficient self control is present to prevent injury, increasing the resistance in regular Aikido training might also more closely approximate competitive training.  (Resistance might include unscripted combination attacks, pulling back, etc.).  These tactical solutions would enable the training methods of Aikido to remain intact while also meeting the needs of the student.  If anything can be learned from the study of this process, let it be a warning that one should never become complacent in their training.  In Aikido, we must continue to increase resistance.  In Judo we must continue to relinquish rules.  Failure in either case will leave openings where we really only rely upon the luck that an attacker will not perceive our openings as the only means of survival.




9 responses to “Aikido and Sparring”

  1. Kim Avatar

    So when do we know if we can do this takemusu aiki? How many years, usually, does this take?

    1. Administrator Avatar

      Welcome naysayer…

      What is this Takemusu Aiki that you actually want to do?

  2. Kim Avatar

    The one that looks like sparring but isn’t.

    1. Administrator Avatar

      Kim, I think there is some confusion in terms. Takemusu Aiki is only practiced when one has fully mastered the art. I don’t think you were asking when you will master Aikido, but when you can practice with a certain level of resistance. I just don’t know what level of resistance you are talking about…

  3. paulo Avatar

    Kim, it may be possible to incorporate Aikido technique with BJJ. I have tried to see if there can be any techniques that may be employed as I practice BJJ. Maybe you could find a way to do it with you higher knowledge in Aikido and share it. If I find an association, I will pass it on.

  4. Kim Avatar

    Hey Paulo,
    There is this guy Roy Dean who does it. He has black belts in both, I think. Someday when I get more acclimated to bjj I might check him out. Right now I have my hands full with the basics. But I think defintely, there should be a way to incorporate them…somehow! Let me know how it goes for you! The main overlap for me now is in posture and base, especially with the Iwama style. But techniques —I haven’t been able to do those other than kote gaeshi to break grips, sometimes.

  5. paulo Avatar

    I have heard of Roy Dean. I am doing the same, although, I am not able to go to the basics class, so I have been thrown in with the more profecient guys,lol! Learning the hard way, ouch! Its good though, getting a little better. Did not get submitted as much in my last class. My teacher is great.

  6. Kim Avatar

    Right, I was asking about when I could practice with, not necessarily more resistance, but more unpredictability in freestyle (no uke/nage). I think Iwama style gives plenty of resistance to work with, but I was talking about the notion of ‘aliveness’ in training. But yesterdays class was perfect when we did the freestyle at the end. That was pretty much what I was looking to do.
    And Paolo—good luck with the bjj!

  7. Administrator Avatar

    That was a start. Forget about winning and losing…just attack. If the uke/nage leaves an opening, use that lapse to create your own technique immediately, like initiating with shomen and then turning it into ikkyo. If you have to go further into the technique to wait for a lapse of attention on the part of the partner, do so joyously and then counter when the opportunity arises. If there is no opportunity, just take the fall. If you spend all your time hesitating to attack and never put real energy into it, someone else will just blow right through you.

    I suggest first getting comfortable with aliveness there and then working on the timing for initiating the attack after you have good/dynamic mobility. In Aikido we use movement of the body to evade an attacker and generate power for a throw. If your movement is tentative due to fear of losing, you lose your power base.

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