Aikido Journal, Summer 1997 by Mark Binder - all rights reserved
"A martial art for peace..."
That is how Aikido has been described.
When you tell this to someone accustomed to the films of Bruce
Lee or Jackie Chan, they nod their heads and smile, humoring
you. Practicing for war while professing peace? That just doesn't
Spectators watching Aikido exhibitions are frequently struck
by the graceful flowing movements, and the seemingly effortless
way that nage throws uke across the room. Sometimes it looks
as though the attackers simply fall down in advance of the throw,
and they feel as if someone is cheating. Perhaps, they wonder,
there is too much cooperation going on here. Aikido, they conclude,
looks really cool, but would be ultimately impractical "on the
When Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido's founder, was alive, no one
questioned the art. Ueshiba was a trained swordsman, a practitioner
of Aiki-Jujitsu, who developed Aikido slowly over many decades.
He had noticed, we are told, that there were relatively few
old martial artists.
One by one the most dedicated students of the martial arts
fell prey to injuries, or as their bodies grew weaker they came
up against a stronger, quicker, younger opponent, and were defeated.
In Aikido, Ueshiba created an art that allowed him to walk
onto the mat at eighty years old, and toss his attackers around
like scarves thrown from a magician's sleeve. When Terry Dobson,
an ex-marine and one of the few Americans privileged to take
ukemi from O-Sensei, attacked Ueshiba with full force intensity,
he reported that he found himself suddenly and swiftly planted
on his back.
Aikido, Ueshiba taught, is the way of harmony with Ki -- the
blending of energies. An attacker is no different from the defender,
who by following the attack, entering in or turning around it,
can guide the aggressor into a fall, away from harm. Behind
his techniques were the decisive movements of a Japanese swordsman,
one who knew the importance of one-strike conclusion of battle.
Ueshiba's ukes, his attackers, we are told, felt his power
and commitment as he led them around in circles and off their
feet. Watch one of Ueshiba's students, as anyone who practices
Aikido is, and you will see the echoes of the Master's technique.
It has been said that Aikido is weakening as it moves further
from the founder. Are today's attackers falling because they
are thrown, or are they falling because they are supposed to?
For Americans, the "way of harmony with Ki" sounds very mysterious,
very deep, and very Japanese. Most of us have been raised in
a practical machine age. Power is measured in megawatts, in
megabytes, in chip speed, and in bank balances.
We are only just beginning to understand the idea of "hara,"
of centering oneself regardless of the circumstances. Many Americans
complain that their lives are out of balance, spinning too fast,
and that the only way to survive is to run faster, work harder,
and earn more, or alternatively to diet, spend less, and save
more. Each of these solutions depends on an external effect
working on the world. They are like the karate technique of
blocking an opponent's blow as it comes crashing towards your
head. If you are strong enough and fast enough, and your opponent
is weaker and slower, then the blow may be deflected. Otherwise,
the blow lands. Unfortunately, even if you have managed to deflect
the blow, you are likely to find bruises on your arm, and on
the arm of your opponent.
The way of harmony with Ki is to know that blocking power
with power results in a crash. One or the other, or both, may
survive the wreck, but something is hurt, damaged. If one views
a martial art as self-defense, there is no healing, only a victor
and loser. "Aikido is protection," Terry Dobson once said. You
are protecting yourself, but you are also protecting your attacker.
It is as if a favorite uncle has too much to drink at a wedding,
and gets into a fist fight. No one wants to hurt the uncle,
and no one wants the uncle to hurt anyone else. So, the student
of Aikido steps in, and uses the least amount of force to protect
the Uncle from hurting himself, and anyone else.
Dobson relished throws that looked accidental. He would envelop
his attacker, bringing the aggressor gently to the floor with
soothing words, "Are you ok? It looked for a moment like you
were going to fall."
"But," says the skeptic, "that's at a wedding. What about
on the street? What if two guys..." Wait a moment. Extend the
notion of family only slightly. There is a famous saying that
there are only eight degrees of separation between each person
on the planet. Everyone knows someone who is related to someone
who is married to the President's aide or to the mugger
"But the muggers want to hurt you," says the skeptic. Do they?
Or do they just want your money? If you run away will you be
safe? Have you been attacked or simply threatened with words?
Were you shoved? Is a shove an attack?
Several years ago, I was in an argument. We were nose to nose,
and I felt his anger growing. Then he shouted at me, "Get out
of my face!" So I stepped back, away from him and out of his
reach. Had he attacked me? Yes, but not very hard. By stepping
away, I protected both myself and him from physical conflict.
"But what if they have a knife?" asks the skeptic. Step out
"But if they have a gun," frowns the skeptic. Give them your
"Then what's the use of Aikido?" says the skeptic in frustration.
What is the use of swimming in a hurricane?
As we build our practice of Aikido into the next millennium,
we will need to find ways of extending Aikido beyond the mat.
For most Aikidoka, the students who love to train daily, the
practice itself is enough. We enjoy the friendship we share,
the physical challenge of the sport, the joy of rolling, and
the act of learning and growing and improving our understanding.
The martial art of Aikido will always be a haven for men and
women who want to study, learn, throw and be thrown.
If that is all, if we only keep our practice on the mat, Aikido
may eventually turn into a dance. Graceful and flowing, fun
to participate in and to watch. The skeptics may yet prove to
be correct, 'It looks cool, but up against a Karate guy, or
Aikido's secret strength is its ability to become invisible,
to allow itself to extend outside of the dojo. The techniques
of Aikido are only physical metaphors for resolving conflicts
in "real life." Yet we rarely train ourselves to bring our Aikido
knowledge into our lives.
In my own experience, ukemi, the art of falling, has been
the most useful aspect of Aikido outside the dojo. Not long
ago, I was carrying my two month old son downstairs, when, at
the top of the staircase, I tripped. We slid, me on my back,
he in my arms, halfway down the staircase. Rather than stiffen,
I relaxed. Rather than panic, I held him gently above me. The
noise was incredible. The look in his eyes was terror. His screams
afterwards, my wife's panic, my own guilt and fear were all
vigorously expressed. And neither of us were hurt.
Other times, kneeling on the mat after an argument with my
wife, I have wondered to myself, 'Why can't I practice Aikido
verbally? Why can't I blend instead of fighting with her?' Students
of Aikido will not engage in a physical conflict if there is
another option. Yet we still battle our spouses, our bosses,
and our colleagues. We train our physical Aikido by limiting
variables. "You will grab my wrist," the teacher says, "and
I will throw you like so. Now practice."
That is one of the reasons that the skeptics feel our art is
too staged. We know that, over time, our reflexes become better,
and our knowledge of how to deal with any attack becomes automatic.
Blending into a fall also becomes ingrained. As the attacker,
knowing that an atemi strike to the face could "on the street"
be a closed fist, uke dives backwards to avoid the punch.
Outside the dojo, it isn't so easy. You sit down to dinner
and your spouse says, "Did you pay the phone bill?" And sometimes
that seems like an attack. What is the best technique to apply
to this phone bill attack? If we have practiced long and diligently
in the dojo, we may think to ourselves, 'Perhaps the least amount
of effort necessary to blend with this...'
Recently, my wife and I were arguing late into the night. Finally,
in exasperation she snapped, "What is it going to take for you
to let me sleep!?" Her tone of voice was angry, and for a moment
I believed that this was another dagger of words. Then I realized
that I didn't need to fight her. She only wanted to know what
it was going to take for me to let her sleep. Her "attack" was
exactly like a mugger asking for my wallet. So I gave it to
her. We discussed it, and few moments later, the argument was
diffused, and we were happily asleep.
For too long, the art of Aikido has long been limited by its
classification as a budo, a martial art. We train hard in the
dojo, enjoying our discipline, deepening our techniques, and
developing richer understanding of the martial art. We have
learned how to deal with punches and grabs
How can we develop techniques to deal with the phone bill attack?
What moves can we practice to avoid fighting with the people
we love? Inside the dojo, it looks like Aikido is about defending
or protecting yourself from physical attacks. Now, and into
the coming years, we must expand our studies, and begin to include,
in the rest of our lives, the missing element of peace.
Copyright 1996 by Mark Binder, All Rights Reserved