This post is my first in a series interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.
Dwight tests for his 3rd degree black belt (Sandan)
Luc: My impression of aikido is that it’s a little different from most martial arts both in techniques and in general philosophy. What’s aikido about, on the most basic level?
Dwight: Ah, the classic $65 million dollar question. It’s one I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer for myself. When I consider what I myself think aikido is, I realize that my perspective has changed radically from when I first started as an exchange student to Japan in 1993. Naturally, I have my “sales pitch” answer to prospective students at the dojo to which I belong: It’s a Japanese martial art, it incorporates empty hand practice and armed techniques involving traditional weapons (wooden sword, staff, dagger), it’s based on a non-aggressive philosophy, you use the enemies energy/movements against them, etc. etc.
Lately, the idea I have been pondering the most is that although I can definitely say that aikido is a martial art, I would not call it a fighting art. Certainly, the techniques practiced and the objectives informing all the movements are drawn from traditional Japanese fighting forms, primarily swordwork and old-style grappling (the same roots of jujitsu and judo). However, I’d be the first to admit that a great deal of our regular practice lacks modern-day utility as a fighting art: We train barefoot, we wear training gear completely unsuited to modern warfare or street fighting, many of our exercises involve a level of stylization irrelevant to strict combat.
I guess one way of putting what I think aikido is, is that it’s a philosophical (and possibly spiritual) study with a strong physical component. Like any philosophical study, you’re trying to discover truths about yourself and the world around you. However, instead of disengaging into a world of your own thoughts, aikido promotes the idea of study through engagement. If meditation is the act of centering yourself while keeping your body still, then I’d say aikido is a way of maintaining that center within while your body moves about.
Now, as I said above, I still definitely say that aikido is a martial art. It’s vocabulary, etiquette, actions, etc. are all drawn from traditions and concepts rooted in the practice of warfare or one-on-one combat. So, I would never put it in the same category as certain types of dance, or practices solely identified as physical exercise.
That being said, I know in my own practice that one gains greater insight and appreciation of aikido when one occasionally explores the fighting aspect. A major part of aikido is the study of kuzushi, of breaking the balance of an attacker, thus facilitating the easy execution of a martial technique. Now, from what I can gather, a person with absolutely no interest in fighting could possibly focus all of their aikido study on this aspect, simply to study how to keep their body relaxed and stable, and how one can adjust their posture and movements in a way that affects a training partner engaged in movement. In turn, this study could be effectively practiced simply with basic grabbing of the joint targets (wrists, shoulders, etc.), skipping over punches, strikes or kicks. The result would be very much like the study of pushing hands in Tai Chi, or a kind of two-person interactive yoga.
However, for myself, actually studying the vulnerable points of one’s body and an opponent’s as they move in reaction to each other, the lines involved in executing a punch or strike, will aid in the study of the above, which is mostly focused on aikido’s internal aspects.
I think the points I mention above are why there are such radically different approaches to aikido depending on the school or teacher. There are some who take an extremely martial approach (like Steven Seagal) and insist on emphasizing the fighting aspects. Others (such as the Ki no Kenyukai or “Ki Society” of Koichi Tohei Sensei) really de-emphasize the martial part and give pre-eminence to breathing exercises, centering drills and seeking to achieve a solid mind-body equilibrium.
I think the trap that some people who practice aikido fall into (and the reason that occasionally we’re the butt of jokes from other martial artists) is that some people think they are practicing afighting art, when their training has not really provided them with any such skills. By way of analogy, I ask you to consider a championship Olympic fencer. Fencing, though a competitive sport while aikido is not, shares with aikido roots in traditional forms of fighting. However, if I was to somehow transport the greatest 21st century fencer back to Renaissance Europe and force him to engage in a duel with live blades, he’d probably be killed very quickly. Sure, he can whip a foil around with incredible dexterity, but that’s a world of difference from being placed into a situation involving life-or-death combat without the comforting presence of judges, referees or movement restricted to a plinth. However, that does not detract from the fact that fencing is excellent in developing a keen eye, fast reflexes, a sense of balance – qualities that could both serve someone well in fighting, but also might simply be good in general self-development.
One other thought I have is that I have met some real fighters, and by that I mean combat-experienced soldiers, not people who won tournaments or participated in MMA, who study aikido, and they are among the most focused and centered students of the art I have ever known. And whenever I have felt doubts about whether there is value in studying a martial art which seemingly contains so much ceremony and abstraction from the physical realities of combat, I think of them. Because despite the fact they truly know how to kill another person, and in some cases have done so, they have found something inherently enriching about studying aikido.
Photo by Maggie Mui