A frequent comment by aikido practitioners is that it seems like aikido "doesn't really work". Most believe that it can work some of the time, under certain circumstances, with an opponent who grabs or closes distance. Many feel aikido is just not effective against attackers who kick and punch the way a boxer or MMA fighter would do. This causes a dilemma, since self-defense is an expected goal of aikido training. I have written about this before, but maybe it's time to expand a bit.
Background of Aikido - The Old Days
Aikido was derived from a handful of traditional Japanese martial arts that O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba studied during his formative years. These arts were originally combat systems designed to incapacitate or kill enemies, and rounded out a traditional warrior curriculum that started with bow, then spear, and ended up centered around the ever-present long sword (katana). Ueshiba was highly proficient in spear and sword, as well as the empty hand expressions that derived from them. Even today, most aikido schools spend time with bokken/jo and some even use real steel blades or cross-train in Iaijutsu/Kenjutsu or other battlefield styles. These systems understood that one of the main objectives was to disarm and bring the enemy to the ground, where they could be controlled (and killed) more easily. For this reason, traditional arts like Daito Ryu emphasized unbalancing and joint-locking/breaking in their systems. For opponents who might be armored, a drop to the hard ground would effectively take them out of the fight. Armor offered protection against strikes, but articulated joints were still vulnerable and helped to get an enemy off their feet.
Some Universal Principles
When dealing with an armed opponent, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Get Inside --- at range you will be unable to attack. you need to get inside the weapon arc as fast as possible
- Control the head/neck/spine --- taking the structure means taking the balance and strength
- Bring them down --- on the ground, a lot of striking power is lost. Adding impact via projection helps disrupt the attacking intention and energy
It is important to note that all of these principles still exist in modern aikido, just as they did in the foundation arts that aikido was born from. This means that on balance, aikido is still (or can be) the devastating combat art that is its' heritage.
So, what changed??
Modern Aikido and O-Sensei's Vision
As a young man, Morihei Ueshiba was a ferocious warrior. His body was very strong from years of hard training, and even in his mid-seventies he had the foundation of muscle from his youthful training. After the war years, he became committed to peace and harmony, hence even choosing the name of Aikido (the Harmonizing Way). Over the course of his life, he became further and further from the combat aspects of his lineage and closer to the spiritual nature of his religious beliefs as an Omote-Kyo priest, ultimately declaring that his power "came directly from God". Techniques were adapted and redesigned to be less violent, and ukemi (breakfalls) were added to make them easier to practice. The original techniques do not have ukemi.
Modern aikido's many stylistic variations are largely due to different disciples having trained with O-Sensei at different times during his life, where his philosophy and teaching methods would have naturally had different focus areas. Teachers who were with him in the early days have aikido flavors which are more aggressive and self-defense oriented (Yoshinkan/Tomiki/Iwama). Others are more spiritual (Shinshintoitsu, Ki Society). There is nothing wrong with any of these, of course, they merely represent different blends of "martial" and "art".
The Modern Urban Battlefield
If you are one of the people seeking to make your aikido as effective as possible as a fighting style, there are a few things that I recommend focusing on:
1) Atemi "striking" and Irimi "entering"
This is at the heart of fighting using aikido. I have written about this before on my blog and my opinion is unchanged. Rather, over the interim years I would highlight this even more. To create opportunity to execute a control or projection, atemi is a must. If the opponent had a helmet or other face protection, instead of striking the face, atemi would mean moving the chin backward or to either side. This disrupts the balance and is the beginning of control. Harder styles suggest the atemi should be a knockout quality chop or punch to the face and I tend to agree. If not, moving the chin is a secondary option. Weak atemi is useless and leads to a misguided belief in the effectiveness of techniques for self-defense. Note this blog's caption photo, where atemi is disrupting uke's balance and structure.
To do atemi properly requires excellent timing. It means closing distance "Irimi" to deliver this strike decisively on a different line from the one the attacker is using (or entering forcefully enough to take the line away). One should imagine the concept as being TaiAtari (striking with the body), which means explosively driving hips and body forward into attacker's attack and this is how to get inside their attacking arc.
Footwork is key. To use atemi properly, footwork needs to get us out of the way and onto a line that will bring our hips and body inside the attacking arc and into position to deliver atemi. This means rather than evasive footwork, it is important to train "entering footwork" which brings us into immediate contact with uke, just as we deliver atemi.
The timing for atemi is developed through practicing reactivity. This means that at the exact instant of aggressive intent (being touched on the wrist/arm/body) or uke's shoulders moving to wind up a punch, we must explosively drive into them. If grabbed, atemi is instantly delivered to the face without hesitation. Training these split-second reactions is important to deny uke the time to block atemi early , and make sure their only option is to tilt their head back and lose balance, opening up the opportunity for control or projection.
4) Disruptive Energy
Because of ego, most aikido schools do not train atemi hard enough (or at all). Students feel afraid when shite comes rocketing in explosively delivering atemi (chop or punch) to their faces. They stop coming to class because it is intimidating and uncomfortable. However, learning to feel this disruptive energy and remain relaxed is also very, very important. In aikido, tension makes techniques hurt worse and increases the chance of injury to uke.
5) Pain versus Injury in Aikido
To effect control or lead to projection, causing pain is sometimes necessary. Expert atemi can get the same result without pain but this takes a while to master. For the rest of us, disrupting uke's aggressive intent requires causing pain. Done dynamically, most of the aikido controls hurt. This pain disrupts uke's concentration and sets up shite's next movement (pin or projection). Again, most schools don't train this way because of ego, but experiencing this as both shite and uke is very important, as I have written here. Learning to give and get pain without panicking is part of our journey to overcoming fear, which should be an objective of any martial art.
Ueshiba's aikido is compassionate and we are strongly encouraged not to injure others. That said, pain is a great teacher, and it is often necessary to persuade uke to stop being aggressive or violent. I contentd that in a confrontation I either have to hurt you or injure you. I prefer to hurt, since once I stop the pain goes away. If I injure someone they will need medical care to recover. From a karmic (as well as legal) perspective, this is to be avoided if at all possible.
In this clip you can see some atemi set ups, but also a lot of cases where pain is used to disrupt uke from resisting the handcuffs being applied. Law enforcement are generally not let to use atemi for legal liability reasons, but the use of pain for compliance is well understood and routine (unfortunately due to lack of sufficient training, many officers injure suspects as well).
It should come as no great surprise that in your aikido journey, you are the product of your practice. In a fight, you will move like you train. There are many ways to experience aikido, all of them valuable. If your goal is self-defense, I encourage you to develop your training to hone the tools that help most for this --- specifically atemi and irimi.