Aikido techniques are based on three simple “ABC” principles:
Avoidance: Using taisabaki (whole body movement) and tenkan (circular turning) to move off the line of an attack with an empty hand or a weapon.
Balance-breaking: Blending with an attacker’s line of motion and transforming it from linear into circular energy in order to take him/her out of balance (kuzushi) and into a weak position.
Control: Redirecting the opponent’s energy and applying a lock or a throw to neutralise the attack.
Of course, as in yoga, these simple principles take a lifetime to learn to apply correctly.
The Practice of Aikido
Like tai chi, aikido can be practised solo, constantly repeating the basic foot movements and the kata from the position of tori (the practitioner who receives the simulated attack and applies the technique).
Most practice sessions consist of individual floor work (unsoku and tandoku-undo) to develop instinctive muscle memory, practising safe breakfalling, and then working with a partner to refine and develop the dance-like flow of the kata sequences. There is usually a time for kakarigeiko or freeplay during the session, where the techniques are applied in a much more free-flowing style against one or more “attackers”, who are sometimes armed with tanto (rubber training knives). Although the application of the techniques is often less than perfect in freeplay, this part of aikido training helps develop instinctive reactions and general fitness. It’s also great fun, since no-one gets hurt!
In aikido, kata practice is conducted at a relatively slow pace, very much driven by the individual pace and learning rate of each student, but after many years of practice, some aikido practitioners are able to apply techniques successfully against a real-time attack at full speed.
There is a huge amount of online material about aikido, much of it helpful, but also much that distorts the founding principles on which aikido is based — the films of Steven Seagal are perhaps not the best example of what aikido is about!
The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Aikido
The development of mind/body/spirit which lies at the heart of aikido translates into direct wellbeing benefits. At its simplest level, gentle physical practice in a supportive space promotes gains in stamina, balance, strength and flexibility — and, more importantly, the positive self-esteem which flows from those. We’ve seen this especially in our younger students.
For older people who may need work on improving balance and retaining confidence in movement, aikido has proved hugely beneficial. Learning ukemi or the “art of falling” on a soft surface helps erode the corrosive fear of falling which, in all too many older people, can lead to seclusion, and learning to move in a controlled and purposeful way boosts self-confidence when confronted by busy places.
And over time, the mental discipline involved in practising aikido, as in yoga, inculcates its own calmness and self-confidence.
Each session ends with mokusó, an invitation to a short period of silent reflection on the training session (or simply a chance to observe breathing), and concludes in a seated circle with otagai ni rei, which loosely translates as bow (i.e. give respect) to everyone equally, followed by the za rei or communal kneeling bow to everyone in the circle.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Who takes up Aikido?
Hopefully you do! Lots of different types of people train at our club. We tend to attract people who want to stay healthy, get a bit fitter and more flexible, learn self-defence, meet new people and have fun. The minimum age of the club is school age, but we have no upper age limit.
I’m really unfit — does this matter?
No. Training is geared towards what you personally can do so you don’t need to be fit to start. You will certainly get fitter through regular training, but we don’t do circuit training or anything like that. Most sessions will start with a light warm-up at your own pace, followed by some gentle stretching before we start the aikido.
Does it hurt?
Bumps and bruises are inevitable in any martial art but more serious injuries are extremely rare. If you’re not at a high fitness level then you are likely to ache a day or two after your first few sessions, but this will stop as you continue to train.
Is it very military?
Definitely not in our club. We find that encouragement works much better than bawling instructions at people. We also don’t make you do anything you don’t want to (what would be the point?) We do use some traditional Japanese protocols (like bowing rather a lot) but these are partly for safety purposes and also as a way of showing respect to each other.
How often do I have to train?
We like students to train regularly, as it is much easier for us to follow your progress that way, but how often you train is completely optional. All you need to remember is that aikido, like any other skill, requires practice and the more you train, the quicker you’ll progress.
What will I learn?
You’ll start with the simplest techniques, including learning very basic breakfalls and the first techniques in the aikido kata. As your training progresses, you will learn more advanced techniques as well as defences against someone attacking, grabbing, or punching you (we try to cover the most common attacks seen on the street). As you progress, you’ll learn defences against weapons, as well as against multiple attackers. You’ll also learn how to fall without hurting yourself and, most of all, your confidence and self-discipline will increase.
Do you wear coloured belts?
Yes, we have a range of grades progressing from red to black. The belt grades are as follows:
Ungraded (Red Belt)
6th Kyu (White Belt)
5th Kyu (Yellow Belt)
4th Kyu (Orange Belt)
3rd Kyu (Green Belt)
2nd Kyu (Blue Belt)
1st Kyu (Brown Belt)
Shodan (Black Belt — 1st Dan)