Is Aikido effective?
by George S. Ledyard
The article below does not necessary reflect the point of view on Aikido of our club Aikikai Gent. However, we think these articles provide really ‘food’ for deeper thought on Aikido and it’s value.
This article appeared on the forums of aikiweb
Dit is een extract van een conversatie gevoerd op Aikiweb (een forum ivm Aikido).
Blogger:The only true test is in an actual combative situation – any other environment, regardless of intensity, will still only provide a speculative result.
Ledyard: I do not think this is true at all. It’s not at all difficult to know when things are martially ineffective. Aikido practice is highly stylized. So the first sign of martial ineffectiveness is when the folks in the dojo can’t even make their waza work under the controlled circumstances of practice.
Irimi is at the heart of all martial application. If you go to a dojo and no one can enter without you hitting them, the practice is ineffective. That’s my first test… I frequently arrive at dojos to teach and find that not a single student can pull off an irimi when I attack. That’s because I REALLY attack. at the majority of the dojos I see around, the students are not really trying to strike their partners. If everyone trains that way day after day, they think they know how to do things they really cannot do. As Frank Doran Sensei says, the “entry” is everything, everything else is just icing on the cake.
I think that the “entry” is the most neglected aspect of Aikido training. I sell a lot of Aikido DVD’s. I have a set I call the Principles of Aiki set. Vol. 2 is just on “Entries”. I sell fewer of those than the others. I am convinced that this is because people see the title and say to themselves “I know how to do that…”
Anyway, it’s a shock when a bunch of third or fourth dans, or even worse, someone running a dojo, finds that they can’t do an entry. They can know 500 techniques and without effective irimi, it’s just 500 techniques they cannot do.
The second thing one can spot at a dojo at which the practice is clearly martially ineffective is closely related to the above. Can the students at the dojo strike? With speed, with power? If not, then the practice is being done at unrealistically slow speed. People will not be able to adjust when it gets fast and hard.
What does the “intention” feel like during practice. Once again, you can look at the folks in many dojos and see that they have no projection, no forward intention. You can stand in front of them and feel nothing. They have no idea how to organize a strong forward flow of attention. If you attack them fast, or God forbid, with unexpected timing, they are never ready. You can stand in front of someone like this and know you will hit them before you even start.
One of my students gave me a book on the theory of limits as applied to business. While being over my head math-wise after about three chapters, I got the gist of it. It changed my thinking about how we teach our art. The theory of limits says that in any complex system, like a factory (and Aikido is also a complex system of body / mind skills), one needs to analyze the various elements that go into producing the output of the factory and decide which one is the “limiting factor”. You can throw all sorts of money and resources into that factory and have no increase in the production whatever if you don’t devote them to improving the “limiting factor”.
So, in my opinion, most Aikido practice is done without any regard to this idea. People are studying a wide range of techniques, empty hand and weapons, putting all sorts of time and money into their training with almost no increase in actual skill from year to year because they have not addressed the limiting factor in their Aikido.
For the majority of the folks I see training, the limiting factor is the lack of ability or willingness to train with attacks which have speed and power. Strikes have no body integration and hence no actual power. Grabs tend to be “strong” in a way that is totally ineffective. A grab should be designed to effect the partner’s balance and his ability to respond. Turning your partner’s hand purple by grabbing really hard has no martial effectiveness whatever and is probably making you tight in a way that limits your ability to move freely.
So collectively, I would put all of this under the label of “attacks”. Problems with the “attack” is the limiting factor for most Aikido folks. There is simply no possible way for someone to get to any level beyond the rudimentary without addressing this issue. Period. 50% of ones training is in the role of “uke”. All sorts of attention is put on the ability to take the fall, very little is put on the actual attack.
Now, that said, fixing this issue is still no guarantee of “martial effectiveness” outside the dojo. But the idea that only combat will tell you anything simply isn’t the case. Physical conflict runs through a whole range from a drunk guy shoving you at a bar to two or three fellows with guns confronting you on the street. There innumerable stories of folks with only moderate skills, developed in their dojo environments, using their Aikido “effectively” for self defense on the street. The reason for this is that most attackers out in the real world are not formally trained in anything. Many are simply incompetent. Dangerous perhaps, but not very sophisticated.
Combat is all out, life or death. Most folks will never have to use their Aikido in combat. That doesn’t mean that one can’t train for martial effectiveness. Do you want to know whether you are “martially effective”? Go up to your local mixed martial arts gym and see about applying what you’ve worked on in the dojo. Personally, I don’t actually care about this issue, but young men often wonder if their stuff “works” and this is a good way to find out. The uchi deshi used to wonder the same thing… they’d go out to the local bars and get in fights, often with the soldiers from the occupation. That’s a good way to find out of you can do your Aikido against folks who have no formal training. Of course you might get injured, killed or just plain arrested doing this, but it will tell you something.
Anyway, my feeling is that people need to fix how they train in the dojo and get it to the point at which it actually works within the stylized framework of Aikido itself before they need to start worrying about “combat application” or “martial effectiveness”. These discussions are off mark most of the time, I think. Find the “limiting factor” in your training and fix it. Then find the new “limiting factor” and fix that. Progress will result and eventually you will be good at what you do. Then, if you want to experiment with non-traditional applications, go ahead. Folks who worry about this too early in their training typically do not get very good.
This is an interesting thread but I would ask one question regarding about focussed attacks to facilitate martial effectiveness per George’s post.
I am quite adept at striking with hands, feet, elbows, knees, head, etc. depending on the range, body position, etc. from my training in kyokushin, however I can’t attack at more than a fraction of my ability because I can’t receive the same in kind. I would go so far as to suggest either nage or myself would be seriously injured in the process (nage if they couldn’t effect a technique, me probably if they did!)
Similarly, can you really make something martially effective without testing the rigours of being injured as you are in virtually any fight. We used to train extensively in driving elbows into forearms, knees into shins, etc. in an attempt to overwhelm your opponent – a sort of Pyrrhic victory. The last person left standing was the one who could take the most punishment.
Acting this way turns the whole things on its ear, but is it a true representation of a fight?
Ledyard: a) obviously, an imbalance between what you can deliver and what you can take back is clearly a reason to tone it down; I was that way when I started. I cam from a Shotokan background (just some college classes) and I could attack far harder than what i could take back. So I had to tone it down until I got my ukemi skills up
b) any encounter with someone who is not operating on the Aikido paradigm will likely be highly impactive. I think this is one of the reasons one develops a more formalized training style. Othewise folks would be injured all the time and you would only have two or three crazed Aikido maniacs training. By having a certain structure to train we can keep things predictable enough to avoid too many accidents and still train in such a way as to isolate the key principles we wish to work on.
c) the desire to go beyond the form is entirely an individual decision. I do not think that it is necessary unless ones interest is largely focused on fighting. The form of physical Aikido technique had meaning for the Founder. Changing that to get to fighting skill is, in a sense, a de-volution of the art. Aikido is quite challenging enough to give one a lifetime of study without feeling that we need to change it from the broad presentation given us by the many teachers who succeeded O-Sensei.
d) what I am simply asking for is that the outer form of the practice have actual content. If there is an attack, I would like it to be a committed attack, regardless of how formilzed it seems to be. If there is a throw, I’d like to actually be a throw that would throw someone who isn’t just colluding and running around you in circles.
Aikido practice is designed to change the practitioner in a number of ways. Some are physical, all are psychological. It is a form of character development. It is a practice designed to allow you to have access to the benefits of martial training but with a focus that is not about fighting, in fact about not fighting. I take the non-violent message of the Founder very seriously. But many people think that being non-violent means sucking the life out of the techniques. I think that is wrong. Training with little or weak intention will never reveal anything of any depth about the power of non-resistance. It will never develop the strength of character that would allow one to stand in the midst of conflict with a calm mind. It will never help the student transform what has made him fearful into something more positive.
Weak Aikido is just that, weak. It has nothing whatever to do with what O-Sensei taught. It might be good exercise, it might be a fun way to work out with like minded friends. The dojo can, in fact, be a second family that so many of us crave.
Aikido is an art that is fundamentally about the study of connection. For various reasons it has attracted a group of practitioners who are actually terrified of really connecting. So the fear-based high testosterone boys tend to turn their practice into some kind of martial competition, attempting to cover over their fear with aggression. Folks with less physical prowess tend to go other direction and suck the life out of the practice energetically. Then the two groups snipe at each other over the fact that the other didn’t understand O-Sensei’s Aikido at all.
In fact, I do not think that either of these groups is doing Aikido as the Founder intended it to be. If ones practice isn’t making one less fearful in a substantial way, it cannot be said to have anything to do with the “Art of Peace”. Practicing to get strong enough to defeat all enemies isn’t really dealing with what makes one fearful. Nor does hanging out with a bunch of like minded folks and enforcing an atmosphere of harmonious cooperation at the dojo. When the practice is designed to make everyone comfortable, it isn’t designed to be transformative (except to the most damaged amongst us who may need that to train at all).
Aikido should make us more sensitive but less reactive. It should teach us to have another response to being attacked, physically or emotionally, than to attack back. It should impart confidence without arrogance. It should allow one to interact with ones fellows in a way that doesn’t require that they change to fit your insecurities. If it has anything to do with conflict resolution, there needs to be some conflict in the practice so that one can practice resolving it.
All of this start with being honest on the mat. The term for this is “makoto” often translated as sincerity. Insincere attacks, insincere ukemi, will not yield anything of great value. While most people would say that not being fearful is a good thing, I think that most have no actual notion of just how powerful a person is who is no longer operating out of fear. Aikido practice is about discovering this for oneself. Unfortunately it falls short a lot of the time. But that is the fault if the practitioners, not the art itself.
BloggerI don’t think you really ever stop fear. Heck I am just as fearful of dying as I was before I had all my training. Maybe even more so. I think you learn through training how to drive through fear by developing coping mechanisms and habits to allow you to push through it.
Ledyard: It’s not that you have no fear… it’s that you stop being fearful of as many things. I have a number of friends who are combat veterans, very hard core. Some were really damaged by the experience. But a number of them, especially the guys who had a personal practice like the martial arts, simply ended up as guys who are not scared by the million and one things that effect most folks.
I think that physical bravery is the easiest trait to develop. Just look at the extraordinary acts of courage done by ordinary people put into combat situations or natural disasters. But look at how difficult it seems to be for human beings to stop being afraid of each other…
I have friends who wouldn’t bat an eye being on the mat with five guys with sticks trying to hit them… but ask one of them to have a sincere conversation with one of his peers? You’d think it was asking the impossible. The toughest guy you’ve ever met will let his marriage crumble rather than go to counseling. The prospect of talking about his own feelings is just too frightening.
People are terrified of being hurt by each other. That hurt can take the form of criticism or judgment. It can take the form of rejection. In the extreme you get a young man who shoots another because he was “dissed”. Virtually every way in which we are fearful of our fellows produces a way in which we can hurt them. It goes back and forth and the result is a society of people who are terrified of each other. Then, when the powers that be go out of their way to exploit this fearfulness for their own ends, you end up with the kind of crazed, polarized mess we have today.
Aikido training should develop ones awareness of the fundamental connection between all of us. You have to be willing to put oneself into a physically intimate relationship with your classmates. You need to make yourself vulnerable, just as in relationship. There can be no connection, no technique without being vulnerable. Contrary to what many folks who are “fighters” might believe about the art, I think that one of the most important aspects of our training is learning to “lose” i.e. take the fall, receive the technique.
In life we “lose” all the time. My wife dropped divorce papers on me, a student lost his job, a boss rains all over you about something that wasn’t your fault, a child is killed in some war far away, a hurricane destroys your home, a fire burns your dojo to the ground, it is endless.
There is no magic technique that keeps one safe from these things. What? You’re going to nikkyo the boss when he’s being a jerk? What cool fighting technique will protect you from the devastation of a child passing? No, you are taking a hit. After that, it’s a matter of how you handle it, what kind of ukemi you take. If you contract around the pain and hold onto it, the hit may be so hard it destroys you. Or you can go with it, let it move through you, and perhaps take it into something more positive.
I believe that Aikido practice, when it done well develops the ability to stand at the center of chaos and be strong, physically and emotionally. At the same time it also helps one realize that the winning and losing model we often buy into in our lives, is simply not functional for most of our human experience. Shit happens. You aren’t in control of it, you can’t defeat it, resistance is futile. That’s the ukemi side. Things are going to happen in which you are taking a fall. Do you want to hit hard and hold that injury in your life or can you take the fall and move on? As a lapel pin I once had said, “Live right, eat healthy, die anyway.”
That’s the central fact of existence. We are all going to die. Good martial arts training should heighten ones awareness of just how fragile the human being is. At some point, you realize that fighting is really a no win proposition most of the time. As we can see from our various military enterprises in my own lifetime, in doing what is necessary to “win” we end up damaging ourselves on a very core level. The price of such a “victory ” will be paid for at least two generations in the damage done to the current participants and the the issues they pass on to their own kids because they haven’t dealt with the damage.
It’s not that Aikido is unique in this at all. Many of the most amazing, high quality individuals I have ever met are lifetime martial artists. But Aikido is specifically structured to develop this sense of connection coupled with a letting go of attachment to particular outcome. In this interaction with our partners we learn to relax and allow the partner to act as he or she wishes and let the technique become what it needs to. Take musu aiki. And if suddenly we are taking the fall, that’s ok too.
While this paradigm might not be the best one for developing fighters for combat, I think it a very good one for developing human beings who can live their lives doing more good than harm, leaving things around them better than when they arrived in the world.
So Aikido can help people lose their fear of being intimate. It can help them to stop worrying about “losing” something when dealing with others. In short, it can help people move out of the “if I’m not winning, then I’m losing” mode of thinking most folks operate under.
So, it’s not that we stop being afraid. We just narrow down what we are afraid of to what is of real significance and stop being afraid all the time of what doesn’t actually matter. When we stop being afraid we gain our freedom to act.
Which is why the goal of making what you are doing viable is more important than making your goal enlightenment.
What is viable David? Does it mean that if someone grabs you as they do in class you can perform a given technique? Then sure, I am all over that. But what does that have to do with the ability to defend oneself? As folks are so fond of pointing out, no one attacks that way.
Real world attacks are almost always ambushes, meant to take you by surprise and defeat you before any waza you might know could be utilized. In most cases, predators work in groups so we are talking about multiple attacker situations. In a very significant number, we are talking about weapons (enough that you have to assume the presence of weapons when you train). In that kind of situation, the first guy you touch needs to go down and not get up.
Is that what you are training for in your Aikido? If so you must be training quite differently than any Aikido I have seen. If self defense in a bar is your goal, you need to train in an environment in which there is furniture, non-combatants, the need to integrate verbal along with physical technique. You need to practice in the type of clothes and footwear you’d be wearing. I have never seen Aikido practiced that way. It’s the same if you want to use your skills out on the street… You need to train on slippery pavement, amongst parked cars, etc.
Peyton Quinn, who has actually used his Aikido in real situations once said, “You’d be amazed how well iriminage works when you bounce the guys head off the bar…” Is that what you mean by making your technique viable? Because that’s what the stuff looks like in a fight. Are you training that way in your dojo? I’m not saying you have to actually practice it that way… but you have to be thinking about it that way when you practice or you won’t apply it that way when you are in the middle of it.
It’s not about how hard you throw, it’s not about how strong your wrist locks are, or if you can move a guy who trying not to move. If you want viable self defense capability, you need to get out of the dojo and cross train, preferably do some scenario based training in which you can check out if your Aikido works in the environment in which you might have to apply the technique. You need to work on your Aikido with people who aren’t doing Aikido.
The amount of wishful thinking in Aikido is tremendous. All sorts of folks convince themselves that what they are doing is martial and “viable” simply because they train roughly. If people are getting injured on the mat, then it must be “real”, not like those Aiki bunnies. A lot of this is just samurai wanna be non-sense. When I was younger and not so smart I had a lot of that in me. A lot of years of training has shown me how silly I was. I have done combat arts and Aikido, in any way it is normally practiced, in the vast majority of styles, simply isn’t one. Attempting to make it into one is like trying to rebuild your Rolls and make it a hot street racing car. No matter how you try, it will never be that because it was designed to be something else.
If one trains properly, a certain amount of self defense skill will be a by product of the training, yes. But if that is your prime concern, you should do another type of training and / or get out and practice your stuff outside of the dojo.
Blogger:If your well-being is in danger, it’s probably wise to employ more than just one option in dealing with it, or at least take multiple options into consideration
Ledyard:This is absolutely true. Real self defense systems are layered. They must address multiple situations, and multiple levels of force. A real defensive system should include weapons training, empty hand training, weapons retention, grappling, use of force training, etc.
A lot of self defense is about strategy as much as technique. And the strategies must take into consideration what your personal requirements are. Are you an LE professional, are you in the military and on the front line? Are you doing executive protection or are you a civilian who just needs some capability just in case?
What many men mean when they say they want to be able to defend themselves is that they want to be able to hang at their local bar or pub and not worry about getting beaten up. Is it really worth taking all the time, money and effort which martial arts training requires just to be able to do that? Or would it be simpler not to hang around in places like that?
You know where Aikido really shines in terms of real world application? Low level force restraint for law enforcement, corrections, and security personnel and weapons retention for anyone carrying a firearm (or other weapon) That’s where dojo training most directly applies to some real world application.
Most civilians have little need for low level force restraint capability. Women have almost none. Almost any defensive situation a typical civilian might encounter would be at a threat level in which high level impact techniques or deadly force would be appropriate. Facing a threat of a certain level and responding at an insufficiently low level of force can be disastrous. That’s why Aikido, which largely focuses on lower level force application, is not a great art as the foundation for a layered self defense system. Study something that teaches you how to take someone out, fast and violently, then add Aikido to give you some options. I’d have firearms as part of that system unless that was simply impossible for legal reasons and if I couldn’t I’d have a couple layers of weapons capability, maybe even if I could.
I only go on about this because I see so many people absolutely missing what is deep and amazing about the art in an effort to shape it into something it is not. There is way better training out there for straight self defense; if that’s the primary concern, one should go do that training. Why do you think that there is not a single military, law enforcement, corrections, security, executive protection, or personal protection organization out there which uses Aikido as the central core of its defensive system? It’s because it’s too complex, hard to train, takes too long, focuses on a lower level of force application than what is required in many situations, etc.
I am really serious about this… If you live in an dangerous area in which you expect to have to defend yourself, or you hang around in bars with men consuming alcohol with some frequency, or you have a stalker problem, or any serious violent threat to your physical well being, do some other training. Don’t live in some fantasy that your dojo Aikido training will protect you and your family. It might… but there is a lot of training out there that would be a thousand times more certain if that were my major concern for doing a martial art. This is not Aikido’s weakness, it is its strength, in my opinion. But I realize that this isn’t necessarily something on which everyone would agree with me.
In an Aikido context that means you become brilliant at learning Aikido and no doubt your Aikido kata will be excellent, but what good is that? Is being able to perform Aikido kata of any use? Well you can’t fight with it, so not martially it has no value. Is the simple repetition of Aikido kata better than the simple repetition of Karate kata? Will you reach any greater spiritual or philosophical insights by performing Aikido kata than you will performing Karate kata? No.
I absolutely reject the notion that the art of Aikido has no value outside of some anticipated practical self defense application or martial encounter with a trained martial artist (duel?).
Aikido is an art, the practice of which has its own inherent value. As I have said many times, if one is training properly, some degree of self defense capability is a by product of the training. But is not the point of the training.
This is not just an issue with Aikido, it exists in most traditional martial arts. If real world application is the standard by which we judge, then many of the elements of our training are archaic and irrelevant. And many practical techniques, strategies, and technologies are ignored. So we dump what seems impractical and add what seems modern and up to date. Soon it isn’t the same art at all.
Aikido is an art which, in my opinion, is about the study of connection… physical, psychological, and spiritual. Nothing I have heard or read about the Founder or his deshi, including what I heard from my own teacher who was one, contradicts this view. If you look at the entire quarter century period of the Founder’s life after WWII, which is when the art actually became Aikido (1942), I would say that the Founder’s teaching showed a staggering lack on concern for the practical application of the art. His entire focus was on how the techniques of Aikido contained the various principles at work in the universe, that the doing of Aikido could and would on some level, bring things into harmony.
All the time I see people bringing the mind of conflict into the dojo and trying to remake Aikido into something it is not. The people who do this never get very good at the art. In the pursuit of “practical” skills, they content themselves with the surface and never delve into what is far deeper in the practice.
It’s only when, IMO, you start imagining how you would apply the lessons of Aikido kata to the real world that you start to really learn Aikido. That’s when it ceases to be the repetition of a dead form and becomes a living process and it’s only when you start to imagine and mentally reherse its actual application that Aikido becomes an art seperate from any other otherwise you can repeat any kata from any art ad infinitum with the same results.
I think that this misses the point entirely. This kind of statement shows a lack of understanding of what kata is. It is not and never was a “stale repetition of a dead form”. Kata means form. Marshal McKuen once said, “the media is the message”. Well, in Aikido the form is the message. The basic techniques of the art illuminate the these fundamental forms. These then combine and recombine to create an infinite interplay of form. One can spend ones entire life in the study of how to bring ones body and mind into accord with these forms. The more you know, the more you understand you don’t know.
Masakatsu, agatsu “true victory is victory over oneself”. It isn’t about winning over another.
I was trained by one of the most martially capable Aikido teachers of the post war period. I always find it ironic when I end up one side of a disagreement with someone who is championing Aikido as a “martial art”. I’ve taught bouncers, executive protection, law enforcement, corrections, and security professionals. I get “application”. But none of that was Aikido. Aikido is so much more than that.
As you’ve said, the spirtual content was in O-Sensei’s spiritual practice not in his martial practice. So logically the martial practice isn’t an efficent route to spirital insights or development. If you want those you have to meditate and practice misogi. Logically the martial side has to stand on its own as martial practice or it is simply a distraction from serious spiritual practice. If it doesn’t stand on its own it should be abandoned as a pointless exercise and Aikido should adopt meditation and misogi as it’s main practices. Or “recreate” a martially effective form of Aikido.
O-Sensei stated that training was misogi. The Founder made no distinction between his Aikido and the other practices he pursued. That included farming. It was all Aikido to him. There is no question that we have perhaps limited the scope of what Aikido is more than the Founder did. I for one am not prepared to move to the country and investigate how farming fits in to my Aikido. But I think we received an art from the Founder that quite clearly was not intended as a practical fighting style. Ellis Amdur has quite an interesting section in his latest book about how and why the forms of Aikido were developed by the Founder after the war. Practicality of application did not enter into it. Making the art about fighting will cause the practitioner to miss entirely what is right there before him.