As part of my regiment of Japanese self-study, I try keep myself surrounded by as many Japanese things as possible: books, movies, magazines, you name it. This also extends to martial arts, and after some research I decided Aikido was the right Japanese one for me.
Aikido is written in Japanese as 合気道 , and for those you with some experience in the language you may already recognize some of these characters.
合 (ai): Fit together
気 (ki): Energy (See this post for more information on this character)
道 (dou): Road, or “the way” in a spiritual sense
One of the great things about Japanese is that by understanding the meaning of each individual kanji character, you can guess at the word’s meaning. Here we end up with a rough translation of “The way of fitting together energy”, or if we take a more artistic (and better) translation – “The Way of harmonious spirit.”
I was taught that the basic precept of Aikido, established over 80 years ago, is to defend yourself in a way that is safe for both you and the attacker. For example, imagine a punch is thrown at you. An ideal reaction would involve redirecting your opponent’s force (here we see the idea of “fitting together energy”) to avoid harm, and might end by pinning them on the ground in a neutral position where they cannot continue the attack. Other techniques will begin by someone grabbing you hands or collar from behind.
The story of how I settled on Aikido is actually more about a certain teacher than the art itself. I met him in a South Florida dojo and was amazed to learn he had trained with the masters in Japan for many years and spoke fluent Japanese, to the point where he was employed to translate for several of the high-ranking practitioners. Though by day he was a businessman, when he entered the dojo he was a completely different man, following the precepts of Aikido as he was taught them. I ended up training with him for about a year and a half and can say with a different teacher I would have gotten as far as I did in the art.
The most memorable of his stories was the time he used Aikido in practice. Someone tried to pick a fight with him in a bar, but he calmly refused and diffused the situation without any getting hurt. Had he actually fought I have no doubt he would have come out on top, but the lesson of this anecdote is that avoiding the fight is always better. This brings a strike contrast to other arts where there seems to be an emphasis on punching and kicking, things to injure or aggressively push away an attacker. Truly, there is no one ‘best’ martial art, but rather many from which to choose one that suits your tastes, personality, and spiritual philosophy. But after hearing this story I knew this art was the one for me.
Some of you might feel that a martial art that focuses on “defense” is try and boring, but that is far from the case. Initially there are some basic background techniques, called ukemi (受け身) which basically mean how you handle yourself – basics like falling, basic rolling, and (eventually) more advanced flips. At the same time you practice basic exercises designed to understand your own body, and detect the subtle movements, and center of gravity, of someone who is physically in contact with you. Eventually, you graduate to more advanced techniques such as randori (乱取り）which is a chaotic scene where multiple attackers try to get the best of a single defender in quick succession. There is also some weapons work, with bokken（wooden sword – 木剣) and other simple weapons. The Aikido classed I attended in also had some elements of Yoga, Iaidou (居合道 ーJapanese art related to swordwork) and even some meditative/spiritual elements.
In all fairness, Aikido isn’t the most interesting spectator sport, but in exchange for a showy surface it possesses a deep inner world that is gradually revealed the more you practice. Since the founder Morihei Ueshiba was involved with Shintoism, there are also elements of that in Aikido. This martial art also has the potential to change your life away from the dojo, as part of it’s focus is on controlling your own body and mind (though I’m sure many other martial arts share this aspect). Oddly enough, I often find myself utilizing a certain technique when I enter my bedroom closet.
For better or worse, I haven’t had much time to practice this martial art in the last few years, and the aforementioned sensei has moved to the West coast. A very talented pupil has taken in place in the local dojo, but it will probably be a few more years until I can return to proper keiko (稽古, training). I’m hoping once my son gets a little older we can train together. In the mean time I can at least practice rolls in my living room (:
For those who are interested to learn more about Aikido, I recommend the book “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere“. While I haven’t done more than peruse it at a bookstore, I’ve heard it recommended by many people.
From what I have seen, Aikido is much less popular than other arts like Karate and Taekwondo, and that may be partially because of its passive nature, and tendency to not utilize aggressive marketing tactics. But if you look around your area you might get lucky enough to find a nearby dojo. Just keep in mind that each teacher may have a slightly different way of interpreting and teaching Aikido.
UPDATE: After a few years, I’ve finally starting training again. See my post about that here.
(Featured image taken from Wikimedia commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shihonage.jpg))