Aikido, Sparring & Self Defense

Aikido and Sparring (first of 2)

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.

Aikido and Self Defense: How to Acquire the Skill (2nd of 2)

All martial arts talk about self defense benefits, yet they can be very elusive.  Some people offer self defense classes where you learn a couple of techniques in a day and go off certified as equipped to handle yourself if someone out there really attacks you.  Chances are the student will become overconfident in their abilities and get themselves into trouble without knowing how to get themselves out of it.  So how do we approach acquiring real skill in self defense?  What are our responsibilities as a student?

As in any martial art, Aikido teaches the notion of non-attachment.  To the extent you are attached to any phenomena, that phenomenon becomes your weakness.  As a reference,Takuan explained the matter well.   So to become truly effective in self defense, we must release our attachments to all phenomena, and anything short of complete success will leave us open to defeat.  Once open, a perceptive attacker will always be able to harm us, and so we may only rely upon the fortune that they do not figure out our weakness.  The ability to defend ourselves will not be based upon skill.  So if we begin our practice hoping for self defense skill, that wish will act as an attachment and we will fail.  Instead, the initial approach to training should involve dropping that motivation and simply practicing.  Through practice one learns to drop all attachments, including the fear of being harmed if attacked, and this approach is the fastest way to accomplish the goal.

Over the years, I have heard people from virtually every martial art talk about how they believe their training would never work in real life, and the grass is always greener in some other discipline.  Aikido does not work because you do not start out with 100% resistance.  Judo does not work because you don’t deal with people striking.  Tai Chi does not work because you spend all day doing these weird forms.  Karate does not work because if you miss and the opponent gets up close and personal, you are at a complete loss.  MMA does not work because if there are two opponents or one is armed you are clueless.  Proposed solutions?  Do Aikido, Judo, Tai Chi, Karate and MMA.  Each method teaches the same principle: nonattachment.  If you achieve the goal of nonattachment, any of these methods will work.  The point is that one should not become frustrated at the intermediate levels of practice and give up training for nonattachment or success will never be achieved.

There is, however, another point.  In Aikido I was taught that there are two methods of study.  One is to study Aikido itself.  Another is to study other forms of knowledge and use what you learn there to see and understand what you are learning in Aikido.  To the extent someone finds certain avenues of study helpful, approaching self defense via cross training in another martial art can be very helpful.  One steps outside the Aikido world and attempts to examine the same principles through a different lens.

This opportunity addresses the student’s responsibility in achieving success.  No martial art is designed as a method to spoon feed information to the student.  In fact, in olden days they used the term “steal the technique.”  Stealing the technique does not refer to taking something which does not belong to you.  I would reference the article in Hoa Sensei’s book for further interest, but basically the idea is the student is responsible to investigate matters and find the solution themselves.  The teacher is not responsible to offer up everything on a silver platter.  The student must investigate on their own with 100% thoroughness, or success will never occur.  So the student must investigate the points completely and simultaneously be completely unattached.  Perhaps you can get a sense for why genuine skill in self defense is considered to be elusive.

The decision on whether to cross train or not is completely personal.  If someone, in the process of diligently studying the notion of nonattachment, feels examining the matter through a different lens would be helpful, they should certainly pursue it.  If they find a school that can help them and have the time and opportunity, the process can be very productive.  If they are not interested or cannot find the appropriate opportunity, continued study of nonattachment in the midst of self defense related activity in Aikido can work as well.  Again, the decision is completely an individual matter.

So in summary, the student of Aikido, in order to learn genuine self defense skill, must take on complete responsibility to examine the principles of the art down to their very core.  The principles teach nonattachment, and so the study must also employ complete nonattachment in the process.  The task is difficult and the goal is elusive, but the effort along the way is designed to provide benefits of all kinds as we continue to transform ourselves.  Some of these benefits are described in earlier entries of this blog and more will be posted later.  Some wish for the alternative of instant self defense, just add water.  The idea that someone else will take responsibility to give you the skill you wish immediately without any responsibility on your part simply does not exist in any martial art.  Anyone who makes such a claim, if believed, will only bring trouble.  You will expect to have a skill that you really don’t possess and make poor decisions based upon false information.  Depending upon circumstances, the results could be devastating.  The only sane alternative is to relax, drop the attachment to the wish for self defense skill, enjoy the basic practice of Aikido and study hard.  That approach is the most direct path to acquiring many benefits, including self defense skill.

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