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Dojo Etiquette and Selecting your Training Partner in Class by Steve Kanney

Aikido is a very social practice. The reasons for this fact may be clearer than one might imagine. Humans are essentially social animals. Without society, clearly we would not survive. A violent situation is entirely social – it is between two or more parties. So if Aikido is going to be relevant to our lives as well as martial interaction, it is of necessity a social martial art.

However, being social in nature does not mean the rules of engagement mirror that of a social club. For a martial art to be effective, it must enter a social domain and promote rules of engagement that follow a very strict martial discipline designed to meet the goals of training.

The simple decision process of whom you select as a partner takes place in every class, and must fit these rules of engagement in order for Aikido training to produce positive results. It can make the determination whether a dojo is a martial arts training center or merely a social club. We will look at this question from two angles – the martial aspects and the sempai-kohai relationship.

The martial aspect of this decision is straightforward. To the extent anyone has been in some sort of altercation, one notices the simple fact that the person attacking you is not normally someone you like. If you had to pick someone you wanted to attack you, chances are that would not be the person you get. Their body type might not fit your preference and their general aggression and wish to do you harm may be offensive and disconcerting. The point of training in class is to move towards mimicking the environment of such an altercation. So if you insert your own preferences into your training by selecting your partner based upon your personal likes and dislikes, that strategy in no way prepares you for a martial situation.

The better approach is to remain open to everyone and see what lessons will be coming your way during that training session. When you get a partner who is difficult, you should rejoice. It is a good opportunity to test your knowledge and see where your practice needs work. Should you find a partner that smells bad, again you should rejoice. Can you be guaranteed someone who attacks you on the street will be freshly showered and wearing the perfume or cologne of your choosing? Can you get past the odor without distraction in class? Were you hoping to get a certain type of athletic workout in class? Is that what you would be thinking during a real attack? Generally, if your partner is someone offensive to you, learning patience is critical to martial arts training. Chances are a real attacker will also be offensive to you. That’s usually what makes them an attacker. Patience can transition your feelings to compassion and turn the attack into a friendly discussion. As we can see, some of the reasons we might have for preferring one partner over another can be very destructive to the underlying purpose of training.

Letting go of your personal preferences and learning patience are critical aspects of practice. But before we conclude, let’s look at the sempai-kohai relationship, which systematizes the social interaction in practice.

On the plaque on our dojo’s wall, Sugano Sensei explains that one should take care of their juniors and respect their seniors. This is the martial tradition. Sempai does everything for the benefit of their kohai, and kohai listens carefully without questioning under the assumption that sempai knows more. The broad system of ranking people within a dojo has the benefit of giving people a systematized approach on how to interact constructively. With no system on who is senior, everyone in the dojo could feel a need to fight for the superior position in every class. This increase in aggression is precisely the opposite of why we are training.

However, the ranking process itself does not have any absolutes in terms of how each rank compares with another. People advance in rank by learning certain lessons for their own practice. Each lesson is not specified by the rank, but by the individual’s training. Two people with the same rank can have a broadly different understanding and level of skill. Since there is no absolute level of understanding or skill associated with a given rank, it actually does not make sense for the system of sempai-kohai relationships in the dojo to absolute either. Rather, they form a starting point for relations.

There are a number of reasons to cross the boundaries of this system of relationships. However, the decision to cross this line comes with significant practice and is not an appropriate decision for beginners in general. Here are a couple of simple examples. If your senior tells you to do something you know with absolute certainty is wrong – perhaps it is dangerous or violates the principles of practice – the correct action is not to follow the suggestion. One should be respectful to their sempai, but gently guide them towards your best understanding of what is wrong with their approach. In order to engage in this sort of action with your senior, your knowledge that they are wrong must cross the most stringent threshold. The reason is that you begin with the assumption that your sempai tells you something for your benefit alone and they know more than you do. A simple gut feeling that “that doesn’t seem right to me” is not sufficient. You need to have a clear understanding of the principles of the practice and know precisely why the instruction you received violates those principles directly. Otherwise, refrain from the temptation to instruct your sempai, listen to their direction and you may find out why they gave you the suggestion.

Another example is when you tell your sempai of a significant injury you have and why you must adjust your training for your safety. If your sempai repeatedly ignores your concerns due to lack of self control and places your safety at risk, you should go so far as to respectfully refuse to train with that person. Even if they turn to you to bow and practice a technique, you should deflect the overture and select another partner. This example is a legitimate reason to choose your training partner in class judiciously.

From the discussion above, we should be able to see that every decision we make in class, even the decision of who to train with, affects the quality of our practice. If you select a training partner based upon your personal likes or interests, you give up the actual training to accept others and develop patience. You also give up the ability to learn from the types of situations you may actually be faced with in a violent encounter. Your practice becomes stale and your experience of the dojo is more of a social club than martial training. If you violate the sempai-kohai system by failing to respect your sempai without proper reason, your experience of the dojo will act to reinforce your own ignorance of correct practice rather than learning from your interactions with others. It is a form of arrogance which will increase your chances of getting into a violent situation and reduce your chances of getting out of it. You should note that even when your sempai is doing something that is clearly incorrect, respecting them as human beings is still an essential part of the practice as taught by Koichi Tohei. Respecting the humanity of an assailant is actually the best way to diffuse the violence.

Everyone makes their own decisions with regard to how to train – properly or not. But everyone also receives the results of their decisions – substantial benefits or not. The systems are there for guidance, but as in any endeavor, one gets out of it what they put into it…

An Aiki Response to Bullying by Kim Gold

No Bullying

Bullying. It’s on everyone’s radar these days. Whether it is physical, verbal, or cyber, it is a pressing concern for many parents and children. When it comes to martial arts schools, many claim to teach skills to combat bullies. Some, like the Gracie’s have a trademarked program called “Bullyproof” that has been featured on Oprah and other national media outlets.  In reality, the basic process of all martial arts training deals with the issue. However, relevant principles are taught organically as they arise in the training process rather than in an isolated and systematized manner.

Since it is sometimes helpful to present things in a systematized manner, I will liken bully prevention to constructing a building. There is the foundation, the bricks and mortar, and the tools.  Hopefully, this will clarify some of the things we are already doing to address bullying and enhance it through an additional class we will offer.

The Foundation

The foundation of any anti-bullying program starts with a profound sense of peace . The power of self defense comes not from outbursts of violence, but the precise opposite. Power comes from relaxation derived from peace. Developing this sense of ease as the foundation for any action is both the starting point and end goal of martial arts training. It is the very ground upon which it is built.

The Bricks and Mortar

Great architects built structures that naturally blended with their environment. Here the building materials used for martial arts training must reflect and lead the practitioner back to the foundation. In order to minimize the risk of being attacked in the first place, a student is taught how to structure their lives to bring a more peaceful environment.

The bricks and mortar of the Aikido response to bullying are the positive charactar traits that arise from training.  Through continual training, a student develops a long list of positive character traits. Some of them are: charitable attitude, ethical conduct, patience, perseverence, concentation, and an improved sense of perception which enables one to respond with precision to the real issue at hand. This is the “sowing the seeds of good karma” part of the training process. The idea is that when a person is occupied building positive traits within themselves, and sowing positive seeds in their community, their world as a whole improves. It is impossible to specify how this will play out. Perhaps the bully will not be motivated to bother with such a person. Or perhaps, the child will be insulated by his/her circle of friends. Or, alternatively, the child might not be as perturbed by insulting comments, or be goaded into a fight, because they are otherwise occupied with positive things in their lives.  In any case, the development of these positive traits—the bricks and mortar—do, in fact, provide a strong and solid “house” for the Aikido student. This serves to offset or diffuse the effect that a bully has on a martial arts student.

A key part of the “bricks and mortar” phase of training is the development of compassion. Bullies are people too. Hating the bully, or seeking  out revenge, does not help. This brings us back to the perennial test question “Does being angry help you to defend yourself?” The kids conclude that a hateful spirit does not help, but actually weakens a person.  What makes a person stronger is compassionate understanding. Knowing that a bully is acting out of a sense of insecurity …knowing that the bully needs help too…knowing that bullying says more about the bully than the victim…these are all things that an astute Aikido student will pick up on. In Aikido there is an emphasis on defending oneself without doing undue harm to the attacker.  At the core of this is the realization that the attacker is behaving in a violent way because something is wrong with them, and they need help.

The Tools

When you have a job to do, knowing the right tool to use can make all the difference. And even better than knowing which tool you need is HAVING that tool at your toolbox (says the person who can never find the Phillips head screwdriver). Training in Aikido works in both of these areas.

Perhaps one of the most important tools in Aikido is confidence. Confidence is the feeling of entitlement and ownership of one’s personal space, opinions, and rights.  It is projected physically throuth posture, tone of voice (hence the emphasis on kiai), “taking the center,” irimi movement, and the physical movements of weapons training.  Confidence is a complement to any technique, as a technique (or anything) executed without confidence is weak. Confidence should inform every aspect of the self defense effort.

How many of us have told our young children to “use your words” to resolve a conflict? Kids are quick to resort to hitting, yelling, and pushing/shoving to get what they want. One of the first lessons we teach them is to use words rather than physical force. While this is a start, it is really only a fundamental step. The problem is that words can be as hurtful, or cause as much conflict, as physical acts. Words, by themselves, do not diffuse. The art of conflict resolution is complex, and starts far earlier than the actual verbal conflict.

Should something escalate into a verbal or physical confrontation, there are tools available for those purposes as well.  An Aikido student knows that violence is the last choice, and will try to resolve through talking. But a student of Aikido also learns physical techniques that involve evasive movement, throws, and pins. They learn to use their body to generate a powerful and strong base that is not easily pushed over, and that can protect themselves if need be. Although Aikido includes striking, it is not a student’s ”go to” move. The safer, less damaging techniques of getting out of the way and throwing are more appropriate for the situations children encounter.

Iwama style Aikido focuses on a strong, grounded posture and extension of one’s energy. These principles help students to embody a stance that is strong and confident . If somebody is looking for an easy target, who would you think they would choose: the child who walks purposefully into the room and owns the space? Or the one who walks tentatively, slumped over, with their head down?  The inner trait of confidence is reflected in the student’s outer appearance, and the physical movements of Aikido help to increase the student’s inner sense of confidence.

In addition to the physical movements or verbal repsonses, any attempt at self defense must employ strategy. Strategy may be applied at both the verbal and physical level. Some of these strategies involve breaking space, inviting the attack/counterattack, and taking the center. These are touched upon in the children’s classes, and will be elaborated upon in the specific bullying classes.

I am just skimming the surface of the tools that Aikido provides.  As one continues to train, ones’s set of tools and one’s ability to know which tool to use for which situation becomes more developed.


Even though I have constructed a useful metaphor that explains the how Aikido  handles bullying, the philosophy of Aikido is a holistic one. One does not train to achieve a fragmented goal, but rather to improve one’s entire life. The various goals of self-defense, fitness, dealing with bullies, improved attention span, etc. arise naturally over time as by-products of dedicated training. As a stand alone course we will be running a series of monthly “Anti-Bully” classes where we can help the children to see how their training can help them if they have to confront bullies (and any form of conflict) in their day-to-day lives. The classes will include role-playing, question and answer, discussion, strategy, and technique.

Rumble on the Rock by Steve Kanney

Another question on strategy…this time between Anderson Silva & Yushin Okami. First, note the movements Silva used to evade the double leg take downs. Then what strategies were they using. (Note the actual fight starts at time 2:26). Use the strategy articles on the blog from Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings.” Let’s discuss…


Video…MMA fight between Anderson Silva & Chael Sonnen. What strategies were used? by Steve Kanney

You can find the fight with this link. Watch at minimum the minute marks in bold below:

You can get the background on the fight in the first 2 minutes. The fight is fairly long. You can get the feel of what was happening in the first 4 rounds of the fight with part of round 4 (this part is optional if you have time at 33-35 minutes). Then you can see round 5 from 36-41 minutes or so. It is also helpful to view the interviews starting at 42-43:30 minutes or so.

Then let us know what you think of the strategies used in your comments…




Section of The Fire Book from Musashi’s “A Book of Five Rings” which describes subsidiary strategies

To Hold Down a Pillow

To Hold Down a Pillow means not allowing the enemy’s head to rise.

In contests of stategy it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You must always be able to lead the enemy about. Obviously the enemy will also be thinking of doing this, but he cannot forestall you if you do not allow him to come out. In strategy, you must stop the enemy as he attempts to cut; you must push down his thrust, and throw off his hold when he tries to grapple. This is the meaning of “to hold down a pillow”. When you have grasped this principle, whatever the enemy tries to bring about in the fight you will see in advance and suppress it. The spirit is to check his attack at the syllable “at…”, when he jumps check his advance at the syllable “ju…”, and check his cut at “cu…”.

The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions. However, doing this alone is defensive. First, you must act according to the Way, suppress the enemy’s techniques, foiling his plans, and thence command him directly. When you can do this you will be a master of strategy. You must train well and research “holding down a pillow”.


Crossing at a Ford

“Crossing at a ford” means, for example, crossing the sea at a strait, or crossing over a hundred miles of broad sea at a crossing place. I believe this “crossing at a ford” occurs often in a man’s lifetime. It means setting sail even though your friends stay in harbour, knowing the route, knowing the soundness of your ship and the favour of the day. When all the conditions are met, and there is perhaps a favourable wind, or a tailwind, then set sail. If the wind changes within a few miles of your destination, you must row across the remaining distance without sail.

If you attain this spirit, it applies to everyday life. You must always think of crossing at a ford.

In strategy also it is important to “cross at a ford”. Discern the enemy’s capability and, knowing your own strong points, “cross the ford” at the advantageous place, as a good captain crosses a sea route. If you succeed in crossing at the best place, you may take your ease. To cross at a ford means to attack the enemy’s weak point, and to put yourself in an advantageous position. This is how to win in large-scale strategy. The spirit of crossing at a ford is necessary in both large- and small-scale strategy.

You must research this well.


To Know the Times

“To know the times” means to know the enemy’s disposition in battle. Is is flourishing or waning? By observing the spirit of the enemy’s men and getting the best position, you can work out the enemy’s disposition and move your men accordingly. You can win through this principle of strategy, fighting from a position of advantage.

When in a duel, you must forestall the enemy and attack when you have first recognised his school of strategy, perceived his quality and his strong and weak points. Attack in an unsuspected manner, knowing his metre and modulation and the appropriate timing.

Knowing the times means, if your ability is high, seeing right into things. If you are thoroughly conversant with strategy, you will recognise the enemy’s intentions and thus have many opportunities to win. You must sufficiently study this.


To Tread Down the Sword

“To tread down the sword” is a principle often used in strategy. First, in large-scale strategy, when the enemy first discharges bows and guns and then attacks, it is difficult for us to attack if we are busy loading powder into our guns or notching our arrows. The spirit is to attack quickly while the enemy is still shooting with bows or guns. The spirit is to win by “treading down” as we receive the enemy’s attack.

In single combat, we cannot get a decisive victory by cutting, with a “tee-dum tee-dum” feeling, in the wake of the enemy’s attacking long sword. We must defeat him at the start of his attack, in the spirit of treading him down with the feet, so that he cannot rise again to the attack.

“Treading” does not simply mean treading with the feet. Tread with the body, tread with the spirit, and, of course, tread and cut with the long sword. You must achieve the spirit of not allowing the enemy to attack a second time. This is the spirit of forestalling in every sense. Once at the enemy, you should not aspire just to strike him, but to cling after the attack. You must study this deeply.


To Know “Collapse”

Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.

In large-scale strategy, when the enemy starts to collapse you must persue him without letting the chance go. If you fail to take advantage of your enemies’ collapse, they may recover.

In single combat, the enemy sometimes loses timing and collapses. If you let this opportunity pass, he may recover and not be so negligent thereafter. Fix your eye on the enemy’s collapse, and chase him, attacking so that you do not let him recover. You must do this. The chasing attack is with a strong spirit. You must utterly cut the enemy down so that he does not recover his position. You must understand utterly how to cut down the enemy.


To Become the Enemy

“To become the enemy” means to think yourself into the enemy’s position. In the world people tend to think of a robber trapped in a house as a fortified enemy. However, if we think of “becoming the enemy”, we feel that the whole world is against us and that there is no escape. He who is shut inside is a pheasant. He who enters to arrest is a hawk. You must appreciate this.

In large-scale strategy, people are always under the impression that the enemy is strong, and so tend to become cautious. But if you have good soldiers, and if you understand the principles of strategy, and if you know how to beat the enemy, there is nothing to worry about.

In single combat also you must put yourself in the enemy’s position. If you think, “Here is a master of the Way, who knows the principles of strategy”, then you will surely lose. You must consider this deeply.


To Release Four Hands

To release four hands” is used when you and the enemy are contending with the same spirit, and the issue cannot be decided. Abandon this spirit and win through an alternative resource.

In large-scale strategy, when there is a “four hands” spirit, do not give up – it is man’s existence. Immediately throw away this spirit and win with a rechnique the enemy does not expect.

In single combat also, when we think we have fallen into the “four hands” situation, we must defeat the enemy by changing our mind and applying a suitable technique according to his condition. You must be able to judge this.


To Move the Shade

“To move the shade” is used when you cannot see the enemy’s spirit.

In large-scale strategy, when you cannot see the enemy’s position, indicate that you are about to attack strongly, to discover his resources. It is easy then to defeat hin with a different method once you see his resources.

In single combat, if the enemy takes up a rear or side attitude of the long sword so that you cannot see his intention, make a feint attack, and the enemy will show his long sword, thinking he sees your spirit. Benefiting from what you are shown, you can win with certainty. If you are negligent you will miss the timing. Research this well.


To Hold Down a Shadow

“Holding down a shadow” is used when can see the enemy’s attacking spirit.

In large-scale strategy, when the enemy embarks on an attack, if you make a show of strongly suppressing his technique, he will change his mind. Then, altering your spirit, defeat him by forestalling him with a Void spirit.

Or, in single combat, hold down the enemy’s strong intention with a suitable timing, and defeat him by forestalling him with this timing. You must study this well.


To Pass On

Many things are said to be passed on. Sleepiness can be passed on, and yawning canbe passed on. Time can be passed on also.

In large-scale strategy, when the enemy is agitated and shows an inclination to rush, do not mind in the least. Make a show of complete calmness, and the enemy will be taken by this and will become relaxed. When you see that this spirit has been passed on, you can bring about the enemy’s defeat by attacking strongly with a Void spirit.

In single combat, you can win by relaxing your body and spirit and then, catching on the moment the enemy relaxes, attack strongly and quickly, forestalling him.

What is known as “getting someone drunk” is similar to this. You can also infect the enemy with a bored, careless, or weak spirit. You must study this well.


To Cause Loss of Balance

Many things can cause a loss of balance. One cause is danger, another is hardship, and another is surprise. You must research this.

In large-scale strategy it is important to cause loss of balance. Attack without warning where the enemy is not expecting it, and while his spirit is undecided follow up your advantage and, having the lead, defeat him.

Or, in single combat, start by making a show of being slow, then suddenly attack strongly. Without allowing him space for breath to recover from the fluctuation of spirit, you must grasp the opportunity to win. Get the feel of this.


To Frighten

Fright often occurs, caused by the unexpected.

In large-scale strategy you can frighten the enemy not by what you present to their eyes, but by shouting, making a small force seem large, or by threatening them from the flank without warning. These things all frighten. You can win by making best use of the enemy’s frightened rhythm.

In single combat, also, you must use the advantage of taking the enemy unawares by frightening him with your body, long sword, or voice, to defeat him. You should research this well.


To Soak In

When you have come to grips and are striving together with the enemy, and you realise that you cannot advance, you “soak in” and become one with the enemy. You can win by applying a suitable technique while you are mutually entangled.

In battles involving large numbers as well as in fights with small numbers, you can often win decisively with the advantage of knowing how to “soak” into the enemy, whereas, were you to draw apart, you would lise the chance to win. Research this well.


To Injure the Corners

It is difficult to move strong things by pushing directly, so you should “injure the corners”.

In large-scale strategy, it is beneficial to strike at the corners of the enemy’s force, If the corners are overthrown, the spirit of the whole body will be overthrown. To defeat the enemy you must follow up the attack when the corners have fallen.

In single combat, it is easy to win once the enemy collapses. This happens when you injure the “corners” of his body, and this weaken him. It is important to know how to do this, so you must research this deeply.


To Throw into Confusion

This means making the enemy lose resolve.

In large-scale strategy we can use our troops to confuse the enemy on the field. Observing the enemy’s spirit, we can make him think, “Here? There? Like that? Like this? Slow? Fast?” Victory is certain when the enemy is caught up in a rhythm that confuses his spirit.

In single combat, we can confuse the enemy by attacking with varied techniques when the chance arises. Feint a thrust or cut, or make the enemy thing you are going close to him, and when he is confused you can easily win.

This is the essence of fighting, and you must research it deeply.


The Three Shouts

The three shouts are divided thus: before, during and after. Shout according to the situation. The voice is a thing of life. We shout against fires and so on, against the wind and the waves. The voice shows energy.

In large-scale strategy, at the start of battle we shout as loudly as possible. During the fight, the voice is low-pitched, shouting out as we attack. After the contest, we shout in the wake of our victory. These are the three shouts.

In single combat, we make as if to cut and shout “Ei!” at the same time to disturb the enemy, then in the wake of our shout we cut with the long sword. We shout after we have cut down the enemy – this is to announce victory. This is called “sen go no koe” (before and after voice). We do not shout simultaneously with flourishing the long sword. We shout during the fight to get into rhythm. Research this deeply.


To Mingle

In battles, when the armies are in confrontation, attack the enemy’s strong points and, when you see that they are beaten back, quickly separate and attack yet another strong point on the periphery of his force. The spirit of this is like a winding mountain path.

This is an important fighting method for one man against many. Strike down the enemies in one quarter, or drive them back, then grasp the timing and attack further strong points to right and left, as if on a winding mountain path, weighing up the enemies’ disposition. When you know the enemies’ level, attack strongly with no trace of retreating spirit.

In single combat, too, use this spirit with the enemy’s strong points.

What is meant by ‘mingling’ is the spirit of advancing and becoming engaged with the enemy, and not withdrawing even one step. You must understand this.


To Crush

This means to crush the enemy regarding him as being weak.

In large-scale strategy, when we see that the enemy has few men, or if he has many men but his spirit is weak and disordered, we knock the hat over his eyes, crushing him utterly. If we crush lightly, he may recover. You must learn the spirit of crushing as if with a hand-grip.

In single combat, if the enemy is less skilful than ourself, if his rhythm is disorganized, or if he has fallen into evasive or retreating attitudes, we must crush him straightaway, with no concern for his presence and without allowing him space for breath. It is essential to crush him all at once. The primary thing is not to let him recover his position even a little. You must research this deeply.


The Mountain-Sea Change

The “mountain-sea” spirit means that it is bad to repeat the same thing several times when fighting the enemy. There may be no help but to do something twice, but do not try it a third time. If you once make an attack and fail, there is little chance of success if you use the same approach again. If you attempt a technique which you have previously tried unsucessfully and fail yet again, then you must change your attacking method.

If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains. You must research this deeply.


To Penetrate the Depths

When we are fighting with the enemy, even when it can be seen that we can win on the surface with the benefit of the Way, if his spirit is not extinguished, he may be beaten superficially yet undefeated in spirit deep inside. With this principle of “penetrating the depths” we can destroy the enemy’s spirit in its depths, demoralising him by quickly changing our spirit. This often occurs.

Penetrating the depths means penetrating with the long sword, penetrating with the body, and penetrating with the spirit. This cannot be understood in a generalisation.

Once we have crushed the enemy in the depths, there is no need to remain spirited. But otherwise we must remain spirited. If the enemy remains spirited it is difficult to crush him. You must train in penetrating the depths for large-scale strategy and also single combat.


To Renew

“To renew” applies when we are fighting with the enemy, and an entangled spirit arises where there is no possible resolution. We must abandon our efforts, think of the situation in a fresh spirit then win in the new rhythm. To renew, when we are deadlocked with the enemy, means that without changing our circumstance we change our spirit and win through a different technique.

It is necessary to consider how “to renew” also applies in large-scale strategy. Research this diligently.


Rat’s Head, Ox’s Neck

“Rat’s head and ox’s neck” means that, when we are fighting with the enemy and both he and we have become occupied with small points in an entangled spirit, we must always think of the Way of strategy as being both a rat’s head and an ox’s neck. Whenever we have become preoccupied with small details, we must suddenly change into a large spirit, interchanging large with small.

This is one of the essences of strategy. It is necessary that the warrior think in this spirit in everyday life. You must not depart from this spirit in large-scale strategy nor in single combat.


The Commander Knows the Troops

“The commander knows the troops” applies everywhere in fights in my Way of strategy.

Using the wisdom of strategy, think of the enemy as your own troops. When you think in this way you can move him at will and be able to chase him around. You become the general and the enemy becomes your troops. You must master this.


To Let Go the Hilt

There are various kinds of spirit involved in letting go the hilt.

There is the spirit of winning without a sword. There is also the spirit of holding the long sword but not winning. The various methods cannot be expressed in writing. You must train well.

Basic Strategies by Steve Kanney

In Aikido, we are taught that O’Sensei utilized two major strategies: Break Maia (or distance) and inviting the attack in order to counter attack.  While there are other strategies, these are the two he emphasized for the most part.  First we will look at these strategies.  In a later article we will consider ancillary strategies.  The text we will utilize is Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings, particularly the Fire Book within the text.

Specifically, Musashi includes three methods.  (1) You launch the attack, (2) you feign weakness and counter attack or (3) you attack simultaneously with the enemy’s attack.

In Aikido, when inviting the attack, we attempt to create a vacuum or suction like feeling, drawing in the attack.   Then we evade the attacking movement and control the attacker so as not to harm them.

Breaking maia is straightforward.  When the opening is there, or you have taken your partner’s center, then a straightforward attack can abruptly end the violence.

Again, in Aikido, the objective is not to kill the attacker, but control them without harm.  In this manner, we may launch a strike to trigger a block from the potential attacker.  When they block, we use their blocking motion to apply a joint lock, pin or throw.  The emphasis is not to strike with the intent of causing damage.  We can also actually strike as a distraction to apply a controlling technique causing damage.  We can also actually strike as a distraction to apply a controlling technique afterwards.  At times, we withdraw the force of the attack  before making contact.  Should the attacker expect the pressure of the attack and then suddenly not receive it, he/she may become unbalanced and we can then lead them with a more typical controlling technique without really making contact.

The objective in Aikido is not to harm or kill, or even to win a competition.  It is to defend oneself while protecting the attacker to the best of our abilities.  However, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.  Therefore, we do not simply wait for an attack passively and try to defend ourselves after it is launched.  In this sense, Aikido does not conform to the mainstream ideas of a “defensive martial art.” Effective strategy suggests a need to keep the attacker off balance by taking advantage of any opportunity to attack.  However, the point of the attack, again, is not to harm, but to control.

Below is an excerpt from Musashi’s  Book of Five Rings (Fire Book) that details his view of the strategies:

The Three Methods to Forestall the Enemy

The first is to forestall him by attacking. This is called Ken No Sen (to set him up).

Another method is to forestall him as he attacks. This is called Tai No Sen (to wait for the initiative).

The other method is when you and the enemy attack together. This is called Tai Tai No Sen (to accompany him and forestall him).

There are no methods of taking the lead other than these three. Because you can win quickly by taking the lead, it is one of the most important things in strategy. There are several things involved in taking the lead. You must make the best of the situation, see through the enemy’s spirit so that you grasp his strategy and defeat him. It is impossible to write about this in detail.

The First – Ken No Sen

When you decide to attack, keep calm and dash in quickly, forestalling the enemy. Or you can advance seemingly strongly but with a reserved spirit, forestalling him with the reserve.

Alternately, advance with as strong a spirit as possible, and when you reach the enemy move with your feet a little quicker than normal, unsettling him and overwhelming him sharply.

Or, with your spirit calm, attack with a feeling of constantly crushing the enemy, from first to last. The spirit is to win in the depths of the enemy.

These are all Ken No Sen.

The Second – Tai No Sen

When the enemy attacks, remain undisturbed but feign weakness. As the enemy reaches you, suddenly move away indicating that you intend to jump aside, then dash in attacking strongly as soon as you see the enemy relax. This is one way.

Or, as the enemy attacks, attack more strongly, taking advantage of the resulting disorder in his timing to win.

This is the Tai No Sen principle.

The Third – Tai Tai No Sen

When the enemy makes a quick attack, you must attack strongly and calmly, aim for his weak point as he draws near, and strongly defeat him.

Or, if the enemy attacks calmly, you must observe his movement and, with your body rather floating, join in with his movements as he draws near. Move quickly and cut him strongly.

This is Tai Tai No Sen

These things cannot be clearly explained in words. You must research what is written here. In these three ways of forestalling, you must judge the situation. This does not mean that you always attack first; but if the enemy attacks first you can lead him around. In strategy, you have effectively won when you forestall the enemy, so you must train well to attain this.

Methods to Remain Calm during Violence by Steve Kanney

This is a very good question as a suggested topic.  While it may be possible to write extensively on it, I will give several examples.

I recall when I was about 18 years old, and had been practicing aikido for about a year or two, my teacher developed an exercise where he would attack with a wooden sword and we practiced evading it. As a Vietnam vet, I think he wanted to impart something he experienced while facing his fears during 2 years of combat.  So one day he picked up a real samurai sword and began attacking us with that during these exercises.  Slowly, he built them up to the point where I found him attacking me 7 times in rapid fire movements at full speed and with full commitment.  He did not have the experience or control to train people in this manner, and we have disagreed on this practice he developed ever since. However, on the last sword cut, I realized I was too late to evade the attack.  I immediately felt panic welling up.  However, at the moment I noticed panic develop, I had a powerful reaction to it: I knew panic = death.  I shut it down instantly and began an evasive move.  After I began to evade the attack, again, I knew it was too late.  I recall seeing that the sword was going to cut off my right shoulder and arm.  I thought there was a hospital across the street from the dojo so I would be alright, but then I realized I would not even live to get to the hospital.  There was nothing left to do, so I relaxed and waited for my fate to complete itself.  What I did not realize was that at the very moment when I shut down the panic and began to move, my feet went into the air and my movement continued.  As I watched the sword come down to slice off my shoulder, my shoulder continued to move out of the way from my initial reaction.  One could say that the sword practically shaved the hair off my chest rather than slice off my right shoulder.  I remember how my face became pale and my knees began to shake.  My instructor was also quite shaken up as well.  I tell this story to highlight a method of staying calm in an attack.  To the extent one learns the lesson that fear is self defeating through awareness, one will learn to cut off the reaction and do what is necessary constructively.  In my case, this situation was an example of plain dumb luck, I was not aware so much.  But I use it as an example that can help others realize the importance of cutting off one’s fears through awareness and then returning to appropriate action a hand, an important tool in staying calm during a violent situation.

In point of fact, the entire practice of aikido is a method to help one remain calm during a violent situation.  We practice having someone attack us.  We learn a movement.  We practice it over and over until muscle memory takes over and the calculating mind dries up.  We focus on closing openings by being aware and relaxed.  Our partner should, in a non-combative way, show us where we are open during regular practice so we can close each opening over time.  Then we practice defending ourselves in more pressured situations where numerous people are attacking us simultaneously.  We learn to become relaxed and aware of our entire environment, so we can perceive sneak attacks, etc.  Through awareness during practice, we learn to calm ourselves down and become more efficient, and importantly we learn that this is critical in making our efforts effective.  We also perform during tests so people who feel that environment as pressure will learn to relax while coping with it.  All these forms of practice lead to a substitution effect: when an emergency situation develops, rather than become tense, we are relaxed, aware and react reflexively based upon muscle memory.  This practice is called takemusu aiki, or the highest form of practice in any martial art (obviously with different names for each art, but the practice is the same).

For some people, learning to concentrate on their center of gravity is a useful form of practice to learn to control their fears.  The center, or hara, is an infinitesimal point about 2 inches below the naval.  We practice learning how this center is a receptacle where we receive ki and allow that ki to flow from there. Ki flows freely and should not be obstructed, but it is also not something “special.”  Like air, it is everywhere and ordinary.  This is not a method of training we regularly use in our school, but it can be a useful to help people learn to control their fears and remain calm.


First, let’s look at what ki is:

(Note: All quotations with pages given are from Zen and Aikido by Kamata Shimizu)

“Aikido is a martial art which aims at the cultivation of ki. The aiki in aikido refers to harmonizing one’s ki or vital energy not only with a partner, but with all living beings of the universe. This harmony enables one to realize that the flow of an individual’s ki exists as part of the flow of ki of the universe…” (pg 4)

“…it is often difficult to get up early for work whereas it is easy to rise early for pleasure. This is entirely due to the action of ki. It is our ki that orders the body to take some action and, therefore, it is essential to cultivate the spirit to develop ki-power.” (pg 10)

In aikido, the philosophy of ki can also be explained in terms of kokyu power, or breath power. “Kokyu-power is a force which unites one’s consciousness and breathing, which emanate from the center or lower abdomen (seikatanden). This power is not physical strength or a form of trickery. Using kokyu-power, which originates in the lower abdomen, a practitioner can entirely absorb an opponent with his breathing…” (pg 38)

Before one goes off and spends all their time focusing on their lower abdomen, remember Takuan’s comment from the first entry: “You should not place your mind within yourself. Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.’

Continuing: “Then, what is kokyu-power? I regard it as a power which fundamentally unifies the movements of consciousness, breathing, and the body. There is a phrase in Zen philosophy referring to the ‘oneness of mind and body.’ The mind is ‘the spiritual body’ while the body is ‘the physical spirit.’ To consider mind and body as separate is abstract thinking. In Zen, the most important thing is to act.  And action is nothing but the physical manifestation of will.” (pg 38)

So how does this apply to the actual performance of technique?

According to Munenori Yagyu, mentioned in the Takuan post, “That which is kept inside one and which thinks continuously is called the will. That this will, which remains inside, emits outwardly is called ki. For example, the will is the master while ki is the servant. The will remains inside and uses ki. If too much ki is emitted, one will meet with a setback. The will should control the ki to prevent it from excess.” (pg 85-86)

“…In all aikido techniques, you control your opponent with the flow of ki which comes from the center.

It is important in aikido to begin the flow of ki to control the opponent before he projects his own ki. This concept, known as kizen, is also considered to be important in the teachings of Yagyu-ryu swordsmanship…

For example, kizen must be utilitzed when executing the aikido technique ikkyo. Unless you are able to step in at the exact moment your opponent strikes you, you cannot make the technique work fully. Kizen is to take advantage of the instant just before your opponent projects his ki.” (pg 86-87)

A very famous analogy suggests that there is no space even for a single strand of hair. “If your mind hesitates with the movements of your opponent’s hands or legs, an opening appears, your defense weakens and the maai (combative distance) is lost. You should make sure not a single strand of hair can fit between the opposing technique and the movements of your hands and legs in response.” (pg 88)

Regarding another famous phrase, swift as sparks from flint, “This expression should not be misunderstood to mean simply instantaneous. It means that one’s mind does not stop even for a second. In aikido terms, it means one’s ki does not stop even for an instant…If one thinks about doing something quickly, his mind will be carried away with that thought and this will create an opening…

The importance of seeing this ki – [timing [meaning that the flow of ki should not be stopped even for a second, as opposed to the ki of aikido]] is explained in the following manner in the Katsujinken.

‘The first strike of the sword (itto) is not actually made with the sword, but is rather to see the ki [timing] of your opponent. The first sword sees the movement of your opponent and is thus the secret of swordsmanship. You should keep in mind that the ki [timing] of your opponent is seen through the first sword, while you strike your opponent according to this principle using the second strike of the sword (nitto).

‘The essence of the first strike does not lie in the sword itself, but rather in seeing the ki [of aikido] of your opponent. It is most important in swordsmanship to see the movement of the ki [of aikido] that your opponent emits. You see the ki [timing] of your opponent through the first strike and actually cut your opponent with the second strike. It can be understood that grasping the concept of ‘swift as sparks from flint’ is the essence of the martial arts.” (pg 89)

So the next question is what is this seeing…

“Musashi distinguished ‘physical seeing’ from ‘mental seeing’ because he believed that ken [sight] means to see something with your physical eyes while kan [perception] means to see things with your mind…Normally, we see [and hear] things with our physical eyes [and ears]…our eyes and ears only see and hear well the things which we like; this occurs merely because of our personal prejudices. We see and hear things with our own egos. Although we believe that our eyes and ears accept things quite objectively, we are totally mistaken. No matter how much we can see or hear, we do not see or hear what does not interest us.  Therefore, it can never be said that we always see and hear things correctly.” (pg 91)

“…Although usually when we talk about hearing we are talking about the ears, here it says that to hear something with your mind is the equivalent of perception….one can hear the movement of the opponent’s ki [with one’s mind]. Since you hear with your mind you don’t have to see with your eyes…You feel the movement of your opponent with your mind and this is perception. Perception is seeing the will…you should see things without stopping your mind in any one place. Mental seeing is not seeing the movement of your opponent , but rather the movement of your opponent’s ki…

It is not possible for one to learn to use this perception in a single day…Seeing with the mind comes first. Seeing with the eyes must follow seeing with the mind. We see things with the mind in order to see things with our eyes. Therefore, it is necessary to train ourselves to see things with the mind.” (pg 92)

Some of these concepts may be difficult to fathom. The text itself repeats these points many times in the discussion; but we don’t have space here to rewrite the text in its entirety. Rather, perhaps a rereading of the discussion above a few times may help. However, these ideas may simply be difficult for many people to fathom, and training is an essential element in developing an understanding. Genuine understanding cannot come simply from the conceptual mind. For example, while I cannot find the quote at the moment, I seem to recall a poem where the founder talked about seeing with the ears and hearing with the eyes. While the topic is the same as above, clearly trying to understand a statement like this with the intellectual mind will not be fruitful. In answer to such questions as these, my teacher often replied with a “just practice.” Through training, that is the quickest way to understand the meaning. Anyway, the above explanation is the best one I have found in discussing the uses of ki in the context of martial arts training, while simultaneously integrating the discussion with the key points from Takuan regarding the stopping mind.

On Ki – History of the Term (first in a series of two articles) by Steve Kanney

Ki (or Chi – Chinese) are central to many martial arts.  In fact, two martial arts use the term in their name: Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan.  The notion of ki will be explored in two articles below, detailing the historical development and usage in martial arts training.

Before embarking on these two topics I first wish to tell a story.  I took a number of classes in Tai Chi where chi became a central topic of conversation.  On one occasion, the master said that people should not think about chi as if it is something special…it is like air…all around us.  Then, he replied to questions about the location of chi in the body, in the center of gravity normally assumed to be 2 inches below the naval.  He explained that the real center of gravity is in a central point on the left foot when one’s weight is on the left foot, and in the same location on the right foot when their weight is on the right foot. Some time afterwards, he updated these comments and said the real center of gravity is in thenose.  Being Jewish, I naturally had to ask whether that particular instruction would apply equally to Jewish people as to say Chinese.  For example, in my case I was concerned about becoming top heavy…

On Ki: History

“The original idea of ki developed as a metaphysical principle in a number of Chinese schools of thought.  Ki was, for example, the essential principle of harmony, and it was the source of creativity expressed in the form of yin and yang (Lao-tzu), the vital fullness of life (Huai-nan-tzu), the courage arising from moral rectitude (Mencius), the divine force that penetrates all things (Kuan-tzu).

As a term, it was never clearly defined.  Sometimes it was equated to empty space (the void) or nothingness (Lao-tzu), at other times to the formative energy emerging out of chaos (Chuang-tzu).  It was regarded by some philosophers as the dualistic principle that structures the universe…this dualism evolved into the ki operating as yin and yang, darkness and lightness, from which arose the Five Elements Theory and the divinations of the Book of Changes.” In point of fact, I have heard ki equated to prana and even the Holy Ghost.

“The primary metaphysical principle of ki was introduced into Japan in the Nara (710-94) and Heian (794-1185) periods and generally upheld, but the introduction of Buddhist thought from India to China affected its meaning, due particularly to the idea of karmic retribution.

More significantly, the idea of ki combined with indigenous views of nature responsible for the cyclic process of growth, budding, flowering and the withering of plants and trees…

The most dramatic changes in the interpretation and application of ki began to take place with the rise of the samurai class from the late Heian period…reaching its apex in the early Tokugawa (1603-1868). The samurai who faced constant threats of death in an age of warfare understood ki in terms of courage, shi-ki; will power, i-ki; vigor, gen-ki; and bravery, yu-ki.  They were also concerned with equanimity, hei-ki; and conserving energy, shu-ki; which attempted to prolong breathing, ki-soku, as a matter of life and death…”

Ultimately, O’Sensei discussed his ideas of ki: “…I saw clearly that human beings must unite mind and body and the ki that connects the two and then achieve harmony with the activity of all things in the universe.”  Later, “When one unifies mind and body by virtue of ki and manifests ai-ki [harmony of ki], delicate changes in breath-power occur spontaneously and waza [proper technique] flows freely.”

According to Kisshomaru Ueshiba, “[the unity of individual-universe] inherits the idea of ki held by the ancient Chinese masters… [the free, spontaneous expression of breath power] teaches that a person’s breath controls his thoughts and bodily movements…The reason for Master Ueshiba’s emphasis on the dual functioning of unity and spontaneous expression is that he saw the essence of ki as being the essence of his budo.”

[Quotations above from Spirit of Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba pg 21-25 – [bold brackets my own]]

As Aikido continued to develop, unfortunately, the term ki became a political football.  Koichi Tohei, a top student of the founder, separated from the founder’s organization (Aikikai) a few years after his death and formed his own style of Aikido, called sometimes ki-Aikido or Aikido with mind and body coordinated. During his years under the founder, he was known for giving detailed and clear explanations of ki. While O’Sensei gave primarily mystical explanations, Koichi Tohei explained ki almost as a mathematical formula, easily understandable by contrast.  The Aikikai responded by virtually writing Koichi Tohei out of the history of the organization and cleansing the term ki out of the records of instruction.  Meanwhile, Koichi Tohei’s trademark became the ki of his Ki-Society, and while many aikido masters left the Aikikai for his organization in the early 1970’s, they all left in droves beginning in the 1980’s.  Fumio Toyoda Sensei was one who followed this path, later to rejoin the Aikikai.  We now have the relics of this political strife in our midst.  For years training under Sugano Sensei, the term ki was never to be heard.  It simply developed naturally with practice and there was no need to discuss it.  Under Toyoda Sensei the training left from Koichi Tohei, considered to be a valid method, continues on only absent the word ki as it is replaced by the term energy in daily practice.

When asked once about all the different teachers in Aikido and their political strife, Sugano Sensei wryly commented how strange it must seem to outsiders for us to call Aikido the art f peace.  They then observe how we all fight vehemently over who is teaching the real art of peace.

Takuan’s Unfettered Mind

Takuan Soho, as legend would have it, was friend and teacher to famed Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest swordsman in the history of Japan. As a Zen monk, poet, painter, calligrapher, etc, he lived during a particularly violent period of Japanese history. He therefore confronted war and violence, instructing both shogun and emperor and befriending the likes of Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu school of swordsmanship. Zen and martial arts training maintain a long history of inter-relationships in Japan. Zen practitioners also needed to interact with other religions/philosophies, and did so by supporting each individual in pursuing the belief system of their own choice.

That said, the interaction of Zen monks with famed martial artists during their growth and development can be quite instructive regarding the underling principles of martial arts training. A critical aspect shared by both traditions, Zen and martial arts, is learning to face one’s mortality. Takuan, himself, faced death unflinchingly. He requested no funeral ceremonies be done, that everyone simply go about their business for the day, and at the moment of death penned the Japanese character for dream and departed.

In his essay “The mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom,” written to Yagyu Munenori, he addresses certain very basic principles of all martial arts training. I’ve selected several quotations from the first two sections below:

“Abiding place means the place where the mind stops…

Abiding signifies stopping, and stopping means the mind is being detained by some matter, which may be any matter at all.

To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.

Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.

…This is what you, in your style, call ‘No-Sword.’

If you place yourself before your opponent, your mind will be taken by him. You should not place your mind within yourself. Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.

The mind can be taken by the sword. If you put your mind in the rhythm of the contest, your mind can be taken by that as well. If you place your mind in your own sword, your mind can be taken by your own sword. Your mind stopping at any of these places, you become an empty shell…

Glancing at something and not stopping is called immovable. This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it. When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.

If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.

But if the mind stops before one of these men, though you parry his striking sword, when the next man comes, the right action will have slipped away…

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all of the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face a tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there…

This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are all settled in one conclusion.

At any rate, when one practices discipline and moves from the beginner’s territory to immovable wisdom, he makes a return and falls back to the level of beginning, the abiding place.

There is a reason for this.

Again, we speak with reference to your own martial art. As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind.

As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted. Later, as the days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

In this sense one sees the beginning being the same as the end, as when one counts from one to ten, the first and last numbers become adjacent…

…of the beginning, the abiding place and the immovable wisdom that comes later become one. The function of the intellect disappears, and one ends in a state of No-Mind-No-Thought. If one reaches the deepest point, arms, legs and body remember what to do, but the mind does not enter into this at all…

There is such a thing as training in principle, and such a thing as training in technique.

Principle is as I have already explained above: when you arrive, nothing is noticed. It is simply as though you had discarded all concentration…

If you do not train in technique, but only fill your breast with principle, your body and your hands will not function. Training in technique, if put into terms of your own martial art, is in the training that if practiced over and over again makes the five body postures one.

Even though you know principle, you must make yourself perfectly free in the use of technique. And even though you may wield the sword that you carry with you well, if you are unclear on the deepest aspects of principle, you will likely fall short of proficiency.

Technique and principle are just like the two wheels of a cart.”

I suspect most of the words written above, on some level are familiar to those who practice in the dojo. For example, on technique versus principle, Saito Sensei has often explained that there are two sorts of people in Aikido, those who talk about practice and those who do it. Regarding the unconscious ability of the body to respond naturally to attacks, Sugano Sensei terms this muscle memory. He also describes the way to look at an attacker, “glance as if looking at a mountain in the distance.” In other words, don’t look at his fists, his hips, or any specific aspects of their body in attempting to calculate how the attack will be launched and/or how you will respond.

However, the central theme his is the abiding mind versus the mind that does not stop. The description of how these aspects change throughout one’s practice, from beginner to middle to expert levels, is very important. Consider this point in how you train on a daily basis. How does the stopping mind leave you open to be defeated. We may begin to see this in some small way in daily practice, but it is also important to understand the process on an intellectual level, so we may become more aware of what is happening in practice and consider them in more depth.