It’s been close to eleven years since I last wore a gi and was thrown over someone’s hip, but I still practice Aikido every day. Not in a dojo, and not on a practice mat, but in the office and in my home.
What is Aikido?
Aikido, for those of you unfamiliar, is a martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba that rose to prominence after World War II. It’s influenced heavily by both Jujutsu and Kenjutsu, and those can both be clearly seen in the techniques. Whether it’s in the joint locks and throws so similar to jujutsu or the emphasis on seeing the hands as blades as it incorporates the sword techniques of Kenjutsu. Aikido also incorporates a fair amount of practice with bokken, which are wooden practice swords, and jo, the staff.
However, what makes Aikido distinctive, at least in my mind, is it is also heavily blended with its founder’s spiritual views of harmony and peace. In Aikido, practitioners do not meet their attackers with force, but rather use their own aggression against them to either throw them away from the practitioner, or subdue them in a hold. The technique used is often dependent on the number of attackers. A single attacker, called uke, can usually be placed in a joint lock and held to submission. Multiple uke will be often handled by throwing those attackers into each other.
One of the criticisms often leveled at Aikido from other styles of martial arts is that the practice methodology is not realistic for combat, which might be fair depending on the school. Some schools eschew the spiritual aspects of study in favor of focusing on harsher conditioning and technique, or more competitive practice. Personally, I’ve found that Aikido techniques do have some applications in real world situations, and most of them have nothing to do with physical conflict.
It’s the spiritual and mental lessons of Aikido that I hold most dear. On the mat, I learned to face conflict and have compassion for my attacker. I learned to recognize somebody’s momentum — physical or mental — and that the best way to handle an attack is to step into it at a slight angle, and help my attacker find their way to the floor, whether it was their intention or not. Compassion, conservation of energy, and confidence stepping into conflict are what help me live my life better every day.
This is not an unusual experience either. During a 1985 military project to train “holistic soldiers”, 25 Special Forces members were brought in to be trained on, among other things, Aikido and meditation. One of their instructors published a book about the experience, which included this notable exchange.
“Has it made any difference in your personal or professional life?” I ask Karter. He’s tapping his fingers rapidly against his knee, a safety valve for the overflow that’s always building in him. His head begins to bob up and down quickly and the movement goes down his torso until he’s moving forward and backward in a small but highly charged rocking motion.
“Yeah,” he says evenly, “I don’t hit my kids as much. I’m more centered so I don’t react so quickly to them.” He looks away for a moment. When he looks back his pale blue eyes, filled with such passion, longing, and future bore straight and true into me. “That’s real nice,” he says without a pause. “Everybody in the family likes it, too.”
— Richard Strozzi-Heckler, In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to Green Berets
When I first read that passage as a young college student, it shook me to my core, and doubled my resolve to practice, even though it meant I had to take my classes in another city since the classes offered by my university did not fit into my schedule.
A brief word about ki
Before we go further, let’s talk about the elephant that often enters the room when we discuss traditional martial arts. That elephant is the idea of energy, which depending on the art may be referred to as “ki” or “chi”. There is a notion that this energy flows through bodies and can directed in particular ways. Many disciplines such as Aikido discuss techniques in this fashion, much to the amusement of practitioners of modern mixed martial arts. And certainly, there are some notable examples of ridiculous claims of no touch strikes which is often used as proof that traditional martial arts are nonsense. Of course, these claims are as far from actual martial arts — traditional or modern — as a televangelist’s prosperity gospel is from the ten commandments. These are more a result of behavioral conditioning from teachers who are confused and overzealous at best or frauds at worst. Painting the whole breadth of arts with this is unfair and inaccurate, but healthy skepticism is something I will never treat as a fault.
Whether you buy into the notion of ki is going to have a lot to do with your existing mindset, much like how you think about the notion of breath and chakras if you do yoga. My opinion is that there’s no magic energy here, but that the metaphors of ki provide a useful mental framework for thinking about movement. When I’m told to extend my arm and prevent someone from bending it, resisting the motion is far less effective than extending my arm and imagining that my arm is a long fire hose of energy that’s flowing out beyond my hand. Mechanically speaking, what’s really happening is that I’m just tricking my brain into using a different set of muscles than I typically would and those require little effort to get the job done. The same extends to other movements.
Thus, when I talk about techniques below, I will at times make reference to ki and the flow of energy, but I’m not trying to get you to buy into some mystical force, as I don’t believe it exists. I’m merely using a framework for conceptualizing the techniques and approach.
Where’s your center right now?
In all martial arts, your stance is important. For Aikido you want to keep your center of gravity low and balanced between your hips, with your weight slightly planted on your leading foot. This is a stable position from which you can easily flow in a circular pattern.
In Aikido, everything you do should be coming from a relaxed stance and you should expend the minimum of effort to achieve the desired effect. This isn’t particularly difficult as you typically use your attacker’s momentum against them so there is rarely, if ever, a battle of strength vs strength. But to do this effectively, you need to get your mind out of your muscles. Yes, you are moving your arms right now, but stop thinking about them. Focusing on your limbs will only make your upper body tense up and what should be a single fluid motion becomes:
- Step forward
- Raise arm
- Catch elbow
- Push down and turn
Thinking of it mechanically results in mechanical movement, which is fine when you are just starting out, but makes for an ineffective technique. You need to be fluid and move at the same pace as your uke or you will fail. To break this habit, you practice until the movement is second nature and focus on keeping your center of awareness in the same place as your center of gravity.
There’s an important psychological reason for this as well. In Aikido, adrenaline is your enemy. Proper execution requires a relaxed mind and body, and the fight/flight response that adrenaline fuels is about tensed muscles and tunnel vision. Panicking is a sure way to either get yourself or your uke hurt in ways that were not intended. Focusing on breathing deep and maintaining your center as a meditative practice helps curb this response.
This has obvious benefits elsewhere as well. When you are stressed or nervous, your heart rate races and your shoulders tense. The same fight/flight response builds up whether you are struggling to stay on top of your work or having a conflict with a loved one. It’s a physical response to a mental conflict, and just like in Aikido techniques, this adrenaline-like response serves only to make it more difficult for you to succeed. Learning to develop the same responses to mental and social conflict are immensely valuable.
Make your office a dojo
The office is an environment rife with the potential for conflict. Differences of opinion will abound, and how constructively those are communicated is going to depend quite a bit on your corporate culture, and the personalities of your co-workers.
In most cases, when someone is aggressively pushing something that you don’t agree with, meeting them head on in a conflict is an enormous waste of effort. It’s far better to step to the side, and see how you can guide the initiative towards an acceptable outcome. You don’t say no, you figure out what you can add to it to either guide your uke to the right conclusion, or find a compromise that you both can live with. Like an improv performer, you’re saying “yes, and” instead of “No.”
The important thing here is: Let go of the idea of winning. Win/Lose scenarios breeds deeper conflict and resentment. No matter how persuasive you are, if you are still thinking in terms of winning and losing, you will never reach a long term accord with your uke, and the conflict will come back to haunt you again later. It’s not about winning. It’s not about manipulation. It’s about collaborating. You work with your uke to find a safe resolution to the encounter and bring each other into alignment. This is the sort of conversation that fosters a true relationship out of conflict.
I’m sure you’ve already realized how this applies to any other relationship as well. You can apply it at work, your home life, and amongst your friends. Some traditions may disagree with me, but in my mind, Aikido is not about battle, but rather dialogue.
No one does it perfectly
We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.
Archilochus, the Greek lyric poet, may have been the first to coin the phrase above, but it’s one that’s been often repeated by my instructors. Understanding these principles is not enough. If you do not practice them regularly, you will fail when you attempt to use them. You will panic, freeze up, or respond more violently than you should.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. While I don’t train with the physical techniques anymore for a variety of boring practical reasons, I also don’t have any expectation that I’d be able to deploy them successfully. However, I have no excuse not to continually practice the mental and social applications of this martial art each day. I try to do this as much as possible.
Admittedly, there are still lot of times where I make mistakes. I still suffer bouts of anxiety, and times when I let my ego get in the way of a resolution. The same will be true for you. When that happens, you need to avoid getting frustrated with yourself, as that will only feed the beast. Instead: breathe, lower your center, and focus. Practice doing that as much as you can, so that it’s second nature by the time you need to apply it.
Recommended further reading
If you would like to learn more about Aikido, particularly in how it applies to your life away from the dojo, I recommend the following books.
- The Way of Peace, Morihei Ueshiba
- It’s a Lot Like Dancing: An Aikido Journey, Terry Dobson
- Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons From The Tokyo Riot Police, Robert Twigger
- In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to Green Berets, Richard Strozzi-Heckler
- The Randori Principles: The Path of Effortless Leadership, David H. Baum
Of course, none of the books above is a substitute for getting onto the mat and actually doing Aikido, which I highly recommend you try. There is a visceral understanding that comes from applying the techniques which makes using them in non-physical conflict more natural.
Your mileage may vary
Martial arts are not for everyone. As always, check with your doctor before starting any new physical training regimen. If you are not in a position to try Aikido, consider mindfulness practice or meditation instead. Keep in mind that if you suffer from clinical anxiety that this is not a substitute for talk therapy or medication, but could be used to supplement those.
Whatever technique you choose to adopt, do make it a practice. Routine exercise are what lead to competence these skills, and mastery can yield huge benefits for your daily life.