Adult Classes


Principles and Practice.


Entering a dojo, and watching an Aikido class for the first time, casual observers are often so caught up in the arts graceful circular motion that they miss out on what’s going on, just below the surface.  Typically, …


When an instructor teaches, he or she selects a student to help him demonstrate a technique, while the other students sit in a line and watch. 


The instructor and student bow to each other, and the student takes on the role of uke (attacker) and grabs or strikes out at the instructor, who takes the role of nage (or defender).


The instructor asks the student for a particular attack, grabbing or striking out at the instructor.


As nage, the instructor doesn’t flee, block the strike, or lash out at uke.  Staying centered and relaxed, he or she moves just enough to evade, or lessen, the force of uke’s attack.  At the same time, the instructor matches the speed of uke’s attack, and intercepts the attacking limb, and,  using a broad circular motion, smoothly draws uke off balance. 


Continuing his or her motion, the instructor redirects the energy of the attack back toward uke, bringing him or her to the ground with a pin (osaewaza), or sending uke off into space with a throw (nagewaza). 


The student and instructorrepeat the demonstration a few times, starting from different positions on the mat so the watching students can see the technique from different angles.  They conclude the demonstration by bowing to one another.


The students bow to the instructor, then each other as they pair off and take turns playing the roles of uke and nage, working together to re-enact the attack-counterattack scenario they’ve just seen.  Uke attacks in the agreed upon way, and nage responds with the demonstrated counter-attack, over and over again.


The instructor moves from pair-to-pair watching and offering advice and corrections, until he or she decides it’s time to demonstrate a variation on the technique, clear up areas of common confusion, or to move on to another technique. 


Those with a background in martial arts, might appreciate aikido technique, but question the cooperative nature of practice, and ask why aikido students don’t use more strikes, or test their skills by engaging in competitive matches, like karate-do’s kumite, or randori in judo. 


Striking techniques (atemi) do play a role in Aikido technique and practice.  However their role is limited, as counter-strikes (like blocks) tend to disrupt the flow of the action.  What strikes there are, are either used by uke to initiate practice, or by nage, to disrupt or divert uke’s attention, making it easier for nage to apply the chosen technique.


One reason for the prevalence of cooperative practice is practical.  Much Aikido technique involves bending, turning or twisting uke’s wrist, elbow and shoulder joints to affect a lock or throw.  Unrestrained, competitive matches would quickly result in an unacceptable number of injuries.  This much remains unchanged since the days of feudal Japan, when the samurai engaged in cooperative practice of earlier versions of the same techniques. 


Hence the great emphasis placed early in one’s training on the art of ukemi, which roughly translates into the art of giving a sincere attack, receiving nage’s counterattack technique, taking whatever fall or roll that results.  It should be noted that taking ukemi doesn’t mean a student has been defeated in anyway.  In truth it’s an act of generosity, to oneself and one’s practice partner. 


Uke’s role is to make it possible for nage to learn. Proper ukemi also allows uke and nage to practice safely.  But more than that ukemi is an opportunity to learn: only when nage can trust his or her uke to take ukemi spontaneously, safely, at speed can both partners truly practice the techniques as they were intended, learn how the techniques should feel, and assimilate that knowledge with their bodies, minds and spirit.


As for nage, being able to receive an attack and draw an attacker off balance isn’t as easy at it might look.  Throughout the attack, uke must not sense any resistance.  He or she shouldn’t sense their balance slipping away until it’s too late, rather, he or she should feel as though they’ve been sucked into a whirlpool, then spun off into space - as thought they just tried to embrace a gigantic spinning top. 


This requires more than simply adopting a new style of movement.  It asks more of us than submitting to the repetitive practice of attack-counterattack scenarios.  In order to truly blend with the energy of someone’s grab or strike, first we have to overcome our deep-rooted instinctive tendency to fight or flee in the face of a threat.  


Simply put, in order to master technique, we first have to master ourselves. 


For most people this is the hardest part of training in Aikido. It is also where the convention of cooperative practice is most useful.  Not only does the “role play” of basic practice allow the student to train without fear of injury, it also allows the student a safe, non-threatening to develop:


  • personal self-control,
  • spatial awareness and focused attention,
  • a relaxed, properly aligned body and mind, unified in stillness and in motion,
  • timing and pre-emptive positioning,
  • the openness, sensitivity and confidence necessary to receive, and move in tandem with, an attacker’s energy (without opposing or resisting it).


… without having to worry about winning or losing, and overcome the tendency to over react to threats, out of fear of pain, injury or humiliation.


This requires patience and commitment.  While the physical movements of Aikido can be learned in a relatively short period of time, learning to move the body in a relaxed, integrated and unified way takes longer.  Opening oneself to the energy of others, and learning to truly harmonize with, and neutralize that energy takes longer still.  Ultimately Aikido asks us to confront and transcend our fears of “the other” and communicate with men and women of all ages, lifestyles, languages, and cultures, through our practice – and thus brings us, bit by bit, into accord with the spiritual principles of the art described above. 


Recognizing and accepting this internal aspect of Aikido training is the surest way to make progress during practice.  When the student is able to move in perfect tandem with their partners, the student’s hidden potential emerges, and he or she is able to take what was once a form of constructive role-play, and elevate it into a remarkable physical reality, thereby achieving a unity not only with our partner’s energy, but the pulse of the universe itself.


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