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Voice of Experience: Top teachers reveal how to become strong in aikido (1)

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #110 (1996)


The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Phong Hung Ngo.


On the other hand, there are people in perfect physical health who are unable to conduct themselves properly in society for whatever reasons - those suffering from rnental illnesses or possessed by criminal minds, for example. Probably where we need to shed light, then, is not on strength in a quantitative sense, but rather strength as it is understood in terms of humanity spiritual nature and people’s views of life and the universe they live in.

Bujutsu training and a constant awareness of death

There is the view that people have forgotten the significance of the founder’s original koan: ‘Bu no Hongan,” his teaching on the seeming contradiction between the death and destruction of the martial ways and the original vow of Amida Buddha to save humanity.

There are no competitive matches (shiai) in aikido, but the reason for this is that in true bujutsu such matches ultimately lead to “a meeting with death” (shi ni ai), which is something inimical to our modern societies.

It is often said that there is only a hair’s breadth of difference between simulated combat and actual combat, but in reality there is a huge difference that exists deep in the psyches of the individuals involved. Actual combat is a lawless and violent reality in which there are no referees or other impartial arbitrators. Unless one or more of the contestants is bent on mutual destruction or some other out-and-out madness, I don’t think it is possible to experience the true ‘meeting with death” of bujutsu.

People do not want to die, nor do they want to be defeated, so they frantically develop and stockpile abominable weapons and gather for war. In this sense there is not much difference, except in scale, between petty gang wars and wars among nations. Actual combat is the very picture of hell and chooses neither time nor place. To train in budo is to come face-to-face with this reality, and the soldiers and bushi of long ago thought constantly of the battlefield. Viewing themselves as individual “castles,” they endeavored earnestly to avoid making unnecessary enemies, exercised restraint in personal vendettas, demonstrated careful respect and discretion toward others, and were modest in keeping their own sense of self-esteem deep within. As fighting men, the bushi of old valued most highly an attitude that could confront the ever-present specter of death while at the same time truly appreciating life and living it fully.

The sublimation of conflict

One can’t help but wonder how amazing people like the sword master, Mochida, 10th dan, and aikido founder, Morihei Ueshiba came to cut such noble figures. The almost holy spiritually charged atmosphere surrounding teachers like these who have risen above the world of conflict that is bujutsu, represents a goal that their closest pupils desire to achieve more than anything else in life - for what happiness, that would bring!

That realm of attained by exploring technique utterly and treading the path to the fullest degree is not a quality that can be attained by the kind of halfhearted bujutsu that we see today. It is, rather, something realized by training in the narrow gap between life and death. As the lotus sends its root deep into the mud below while sending a beautiful flower to the water’s surface, budo training at whatever level is to confront death while endeavoring to make an exhaustive study of life and what it means to live. This is, in any case, how I see it.

There seems to be a tendency these days for well-known instructors to turn their own way of doing things into distinct styles, or to have excessive pride in the size of their organizations. Such individuals may do well to reflect on what it means to lose sight of the humility and nobility of character that characterize the warrior.

The secret of aikido training is to strive toward the perfection of character, to perfect ourselves as human beings, and this, I think, is not something that can even be discussed on the same level as any commercial concern. This is easy to say, of course, but it does require a certain resolution to keep these things separate.

Choose your teacher well

There is an old adage to the effect that three years spent finding the right teacher is more important than three years of training. I should mention in this connection that just as crabs dig holes to match their own bodies, people tend to select teachers based on their own personality and character-“birds of a feather,” as they say. But when people with such similar ways of thinking and similar propensities gather together like this, they tend to create separate styles and are prone to fall into patterns of self-satisfying behavior.

Avoid locking into set forms

The founder always taught that in aikido there are no set forms, and that while there are paths and principles to help cultivate an ability to adapt to circumstances, it is important to avoid fixing techniques into a particular form. I have tried my best to avoid creating any set forms for myself for the reason that since an attacker is an unknown quantity, only being able to do set forms and techniques is a weakness. Rather than that, I think the important thing during training is to maintain a flexible decision-making ability. Without this it is easy to become locked into set forms. Training is a form of simulation that allows you to practice finding solutions to single sets of conditions or hypothetical situation, in other words, specific “What if…?’ situations. In the sense that these situations are only temporary assumptions for the purpose of practice, they offer nothing absolute. Training methods and individual techniques are really only hypotheses addressing various categories of attack.kokyu demonstrated by universal laws.

Training kokyu

Throughout his life the founder stressed that suwariwaza kokyu ho and other methods of forging kokyu power were the most important training methods. While these methods are outwardly simple, they do require concentration and psychological and spiritual purification. These practices train your ability to contain your contentious urges in a state of harmony, to convert centripetal and centrifugal forces into bodily energy, to create a meeting of ki, and feel out a technique to know in which direction it will go. It is not enough simply to be able to generate ki; rather the practice of kokyu ho helps you learn how to harmonize with your partner’s movement and energy and use these to amplify your own movement and energy. Not only using your partner’s power but actually amplifying it increases the effectiveness of your techniques. It is a way to practice putting to use in technique the natural resistance that living things have.

Avoid shallow philosophizing and concentrate on embodying the founder’s teachings

Harmony and aiki are not just philosophical concepts. They are the principles on which aikido technique is based and as such serve as method to improve the working of your mind and body. Training without losing sight of this path involves deeply cultivating the heart and mind, and at the same time is a form of education that brings the raw contentious mind to a peaceful state that embraces coexistence and mutual prosperity. The peace, harmony and love taught by the founder are not mere philosophical concepts, but important keys to realizing the principles that make techniques applicable and effective. Therefore, aikido practitioners should avoid shallow philosophizing and strive with the most serious intent to embody the founder’s teachings in their technique.

I hope people will train with an awareness that within the principles of aikido technique there lies a progression from animal man to spiritual man, and that, through the cultivation of people of peaceful disposition, aikido can contribute to society.

I hope that through aikido people can strive to go beyond the limited time and space in which we live, to seek more eternal truths, to avoid pursuing the primitive idea that you must win a contest in order to know your own strength; I hope they will revere this one precious life that exists uniquely in the universe, and become strong in both mind and body.

It is my great hope that people will seek not the relativistic world of strength and weakness, but rather will confront life and death, and search for the kind of strength needed to have a meaningful life.

Constant return to a state of “everyday mind”

Takafumi Takeno

Yamanashi Yoshikan

What is “strength” in aikido?

The aikido that you learn will be different depending on your own goals and your instructor’s concept of the art. I think strength, too, can be discussed in a number of different ways, depending on the orientation of your thinking and what you are looking for.

I would like to suggest that strength comes through striving for self-improvement on both the technical and spiritual/ psychological levels simultaneously. I don’t intend to speak definitively on specific training methods to accomplish this, since I feel that I am myself still in the middle of my own training process, but I will mention a few of my experiences and the feelings I’ve had on the subject so far.

In Yoshinkan aikido, before moving into actual techniques, we spend a good deal of time really mastering basic movement and stances. Aikido is said to be essentially an expression of the principles (riai) of the sword through the body, and the practice of basic movements is what familiarizes you with your own body enough to be able to execute these principles is taijutsu (empty-handed techniques). Training in basic movements helps build the strong legs and hips that are the foundation of taisabaki (body shifting) and the stability that aikido techniques require; such training also cultivates a posture conducive to developing proper breathing, timing and concentration.

In my dojo we use basic movements and techniques as our starting point and train in them through constant repetition. Then we apply these basic movements to basic techniques and later to freestyle and applied techniques and variations.

Training in technical aspects: basic movements as the point of origin

Yoshinkan aikido is often called “stiff”, “rigid” and “combative” but I think the reason it looks that way may be because we train in basics so thoroughly.

On the other hand, it is because of these basics that we can do freestyle and applied technique. Practicing only freestyle or applied techniques without first having mastered the basic movements would be like a calligrapher practicing only cursive style strokes without first learning how to write in the block-style.

In my dojo we train through basic exercises and basic techniques, or more accurately, basic kata, or forms that allow students to develop postures that are strong along a central line. Once these kata have been learned, we alter the training method to learn how to apply the same movements in actual techniques.

Unfortunately, breathing, timing art concentration as we understand them in aikido are things that can’t be seen with the eye. However, techniques executed from a posture in which hands, feet and hips are all generating power along the same line are naturally powerful. On the other hand, you can neither unbalance your opponent effectively nor control him with movements that are just superficial copies or that rely solely on arm strength.

In my dojo we study how to unbalance an opponent, how to use strength efficiently and how to be sensitive to one’s own posture. Training in this way gives students the opportunity to feel each aspect of each technique in their bodies directly. We analyze each technique and practice its movements one at a time, thereby learning things like proper distancing (maai) and both our own and our opponent’s psychological state.

It’s easy to talk about all this in words, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, strength is invisible. I think it no exaggeration to say that the only way to learn the proper cadence of aikido (breathing, timing, and so on) is to experience such things first hand.

Training in the spiritual and psychological aspects - competing with the self

I trained under Shioda Sensei as an uchideshi for twenty years. He used to say: “The greatest strength is the accumulation of virtue. This means being strict with yourself and devoting yourself sincerely to self discipline and training”. In other words, training yourself for spiritual strength begins with putting aside mental and physical preconceptions and remaining as open as possible. The first battle is with yourself. In this battle it is essential to avoid setting limits, and to pursue everything you do with a positive attitude and one-hundred percent effort: ‘Know yourself, know your partner”. I firmly believe that earnest training on the part of both nage and uke will lead both eventually to feel the power of the techniques and the principles behind them.

Depending on how well you set goals and work on pursuing these sincerely in your daily training and depending on how well you can train while integrating the technical and spiritual aspects, the right sort of energy and vitality will naturally conic about.

For the nage, this means devoting yourself to executing techniques with the greatest possible energy and vitality; for uke, receiving techniques with the greatest possible energy and vitality. Polishing your own self to be able to devote that self completely to being nage or being uke is, in my opinion, a training method for becoming strong. That is to say, becoming strong involves working with issues residing within. The best situation you can ask for is to find an instructor who can work with you to address those internal issues as they pertain to you specifically.

I believe that aikido is training to activate both your technique and your mind so that you can understand “in your body” how to make decisions and handle situations.

In my view, you absolutely cannot understand aikido if your only goals are learning things like how to do sneaky attacks and make techniques more effective or painful. Training in aikido is like owning a fine Japanese blade: to keep it sharp and free of rust you need to give it regular maintenance while also leaving it in the scabbard and refraining from displaying it unnecessarily; at the same time, though, you need to quietly polish your skill in wielding it to avoid it becoming little more than a pretty decoration.

I took ukemi for Shioda Sensei many, many times over the years; even now I can still feel the “awfulness” and the strange power his techniques had. My own aikido, on the other hand, is still immature in many ways, so I continue to train, day in and day out, so that someday I may be able to do aikido about which I can say, as an individual aikido practitioner, “This is it… This right here…”

Aikido is very subtle, very elusive, but this quality is precisely what makes it interesting. I encourage everyone to enjoy it, I encourage everyone to worry about it, too. And the more you worry about it, the more experienced you are, the more you should return to the “beginner’s mind”. There you are almost certain to obtain that which you could not find before.

This repetition, this way of training that constantly cycles back to the beginning is, I believe, the way to become strong in aikido.

Failing to find the right teacher, it is better not to study at all

Kazuo Chiba

Shihan, San Diego Aikikai

Light and dark in the desire for strength

The desire to become strong is probably something inherent in every human heart - something as natural, for example, as the passions between the sexes, and like those passions inherently neither good nor bad. It is when this desire is taken a step further, when you consider how you might actually go about making yourself strong, that the seeds of some specific direction or goal-consciousness begin to germinate in the fertile ground of what is otherwise simply a primitive impulse. Inherent in these budding seeds is a positive character that in turn generates positive motivations such as the will to improve the self or to embark upon a search for some sort of truth. So in this way, depending on the guidance you receive, the urge to become strong holds opportunities for self-awakening and self-rediscovery.

But the heart seeking strength in this positive sense conceals darker impulses as well-egotistical and impersonal impulses to push aside, step on, climb over, and otherwise negate the existence of others in the pursuit of that strength. In this sense, the will to strength has manifested itself as a dark and sanguinary current running throughout the history of Japanese budo; paradoxically, however, for those who have found themselves forced to stand on the narrow precipice between life and death, their very existence at stake, this will to strength has served as an important light offering opportunities for fundamental rebirth, or qualitative change, of the self.

That which divides jutsu and do

The light and dark that is inherent in the search for strength helps us to understand the different personalities and approaches of the men who entrusted their lives to budo, and even today this interplay between light and dark serves as a point of reference for us in understanding the meaning and significance of their experiences: how they chose to live, the actions they took, and their ways of thinking.

While to become strong is a natural human desire, people cannot be fully satisfied or find peace of mind through strength alone. Miyamoto Musashi, for example, takes a severe and critical inventory of himself when he writes, in his reminiscences, that none of his more than sixty victories were won because he should have won them, but rather were “gifts from the providence of coincidence”. In the relationship between Toru Shirai and Muneari Terada of the Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu, too, we can identify a psychological dimension inaccessible through strength alone, and it was action in this realm, and not physical strength or even technical proficiency, that distinguished and elevated these men to great renown. These examples alone should be more than sufficient to illustrate the critical division between jutsu (art, skills, the physical) and do (the pursuit of a path, the realm of mind and spirit).

The importance of finding the right teacher

Most ideal is not to simply strike off blindly in pursuit of strength, but rather to establish early on your own definition of the concept of strength, based on your own criteria. This will give you an appropriate direction in your training and unfold in you a desire to find the teacher who can guide you along that path, and from there your journey can truly begin. The importance of this process is the core teaching of the dictum: “Failing to find the right teacher, it is better not to study at all”.

As you pursue your desire to become strong, as your journey down your own long, dark path, even should the way be fraught with difficulty, as long as you have some small light to illuminate each step, you are certain to raise yours eyes eventually along the way and glimpse sliver of the dawn that awaits. This capacity to find one’s way with only the feeblest illumination, to find salvation and enlightenment by the glow of even the smallest taper, is part of the greatness promised to humanity.

Diligent and earnest training as the goal

Kiyoyuki Terada

Yoshinkan Saikou Shihan

The will to be strong as a motivating force

One of the ideals of aikido is that which we call ki, an entity unknowable through human intellect, and the unique physical techniques of aikido cultivated through long years of rigorous training shall suddenly come together when needed in effective self-defense techniques. Realizing this ideal is undoubtedly a desire shared to one degree or another by all who train in aikido.

Putting aside the question of whether ki is inherent in individuals, or strong or weak depending on the person, let us assume that the manifestation of the ideal just mentioned is indeed possible. It goes without saying, of course, that the training and discipline required to achieve that ideal is by no means ordinary or easy.

In any case, to become strong is a desire shared by all who train in budo. The question is, how does one go about it? Of course, there is only one real answer to this question, and a fairly common one at that: Train as hard as you possibly can. And of course, for most people this answer seems too obvious and ordinary to be sufficient. People tend to want to become strong more quickly. Depending on their level of enthusiasm and ambition, they engage in various methods of training to forge themselves and their body, hoping that such exercises will lead to a strong physical center.

Whether or not these methods have benefited one’s technique is something each individual has to decide based on their own perceptions and values. Everyone’s results will differ.

For me it is unclear whether such training has benefited technique; I get the feeling, though, that it has. I have never pursued such strength training on any sort of a planned or regular basis, but rather simply followed my impulses and the demands of the occasion. Consequently, I have never felt constrained or obliged to pursue any particular method of practice - if I didn’t feet like doing something I simply didn’t. This may sound embarrassingly self-indulgent, but in fact whenever I have refrained from such physical training it has undoubtedly been because of some health problem somewhere in my body; it is, I think, better to avoid doing too much or pushing oneself beyond reasonable limits.

Specific methods for developing physical strength

I tend to start off doing an abbreviated version of the warm-up exercises used by athletes in general, including simple stretching and so on. Then, depending on my mood, I may include some of the strengthening exercises below.

Push-ups. Do about twenty or thirty of thern, increasing or decreasing the number as needed. I do the fingertip variety rather than the palm variety. Going up and down is easy enough, but rocking the body back and forth in a sort of wave motion makes them quite a bit more difficult. These wave-style push-ups take a bit of getting used to, but eventually you’ll be able to do them.

Chin-ups/Pull-ups. Different people can do different amounts of these. When you’ve reached your limit and can no longer pull yourself up, continue to grip the bar and just hang these for a while, letting all the tension out of your body and maintain that position for as long as you “Courier,Courier New” can before letting go.

Sumo-style leg-stamping (shiko). Begin by standing with your legs spread wide and your knees bent. Raise right or left leg up as high as you can. Try not to let the pivot leg waver and keep your balance steady. Curl the ankle back as if to point the sole of your foot toward the sky. When you have raised the leg as high as you can, turn the toes inward and down, then bring the leg down to stamp the earth (or the mat). As you do so, make a conscious effort to shift the weight that had been fully on the pivot Ice so that it falls in the exact center of your body and bend the knees slightly. This will allow you to practice shifting the center of gravity away from the pivot leg and settling it firmly in the tanden area below your navel. Throughout the process, rest your hands on your knees, but do not use them to add power to the stamping movement or to steady your upper body. Practice this exercise alternately on both sides.

Training a strong physical center

1) From a seigan stance, have your partner grasp your right (or left) wrist strongly. From that position, move as if you are raising a sword to the jodan position (over your head). As you do this, have your partner try to press your arm back down. As your arm is being pressed down, keep trying even harder to lift your hands into the jodan position.

Stand with your right or left arm hanging perpendicular to the ground and have your partner grasp your wrist strongly. From that position, move your fingers, which will be pointing down, so they are pointing upward, putting power into the movement and continuing to raise the fingertips until they are at your face level. Your partner should try to press your arm back down to prevent you from doing this.

These are some of the physical training exercises I have found most helpful, although I would not want to suggest that through these alone you will become stronger or more skillful at aikido. To become truly strong, the only tiring I can really recommend is to continue training as hard and as sincerely as you can.

Take a broad view – train with initiative

Shoji Nishio

Aikikai Shihan

The following essay was compiled from a telephone interview conducted on 10 February 1996]

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