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Cultivating a Martial Spirit

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

Everyone beginning aikido practice is motivated by a particular purpose or set of goals. Among the most common are a desire to learn self-defense, develop physical fitness, or seek companionship. Over time these initial goals take on a different meaning as one begins to experience the transforming effect aikido has on one’s life.

Since aikido—and martial arts in general—are disciplines that teach techniques capable of injuring and killing an adversary, they should be practiced with a sense of seriousness and attention to minute detail due to the inherent risks involved. Training in such a focused mental state leads progressively to the cultivation of what might be described as a “martial spirit.”

We use the term “martial” here in the same sense as the word “bu” in Japanese as interpreted by the Founder, from “budo,” usually translated as “martial art.” “Bu” encompasses two key concepts. First, it connotes an Oriental system of fighting skills with classical origins primarily aimed at teaching self-defense. Bu also incorporates the notion of an activity or pursuit intended to lead the practitioner along a path of spiritual advancement. Both of these ideas are contained in aikido as conceived by the Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

Training with a martial focus

The bu or martial element is so vital a part of aikido training that to remove it would be to reduce the art to a mere exercise system or health method. It arises from an awareness of the inherent dangers of training thereby introducing a kind of mental tension during practice that in time produces a state of heightened sensitivity. Here are some of the dojo processes that promote the development of this martial mindset.


Etiquette is one of the cornerstones of proper dojo behavior. Many misunderstand the importance of the formalities adhered to in the dojo. The customs we observe before, during, and after training are designed to establish a controlled setting where dangerous techniques can be practiced safely. Etiquette should not be dismissed as an empty set of forms performed merely out of habit.

Etiquette is of great value outside the dojo as well. It is a form of social lubricant that makes personal interactions proceed smoothly. Scrupulously polite people make few enemies, an obviously desirable trait for martial arts exponents.

Being uke

Aikido training consists of partners alternately performing the role of nage (person throwing) and uke (person being thrown). Paired movements in aikido are akin to kata or forms practiced in numerous classical martial arts and some modern arts as well. The forms are, however, less structured in aikido and serve as guidelines to the proper execution of techniques to be modified according to the specifics of the encounter.

In training, the technique to be applied is known to both partners before the attack begins. This is an additional factor that assures a safe practice environment. For that reason, it is important for uke to attack cleanly and with intent without anticipating nage’s response based on his foreknowledge. Nage needs a committed attack in order to understand matters of balance, body mechanics, and energy flow. Uke’s martial attitude will protect him from injury and promote his own progress and that of his training partners. Uke will also be rewarded for his efforts with a flexible, well-conditioned body that is comfortable with falling—a disturbing, if not dangerous, experience for most people.

Being nage

In the kata-like approach described above, nage knows the nature of the attack so he can concentrate on proper body displacement, distancing, and unbalancing his partner. The element of emotional stress that typically would accompany a real-life confrontation is largely absent in this basic training context. Nage’s initial movement should unbalance his partner because uke will be powerless to resist if he has lost his center of gravity.

Nage benefits from practice over an extended period of time to the point aikido techniques become second nature. He learns to reengineer his instinct to oppose oncoming attacks in favor of blending-type responses that characterize aikido techniques. He learns to maintain physical and mental equanimity in the face of attacks that would be unsettling to the untrained person. As the learning process unfolds— whether or not consciously—nage develops an increased level of sensitivity to the goings-on in his surroundings. He becomes able to discern what constitutes a potential threat and what does not. This attitude of constant alertness distinguishes people with a budo background and is a fundamental component of the martial spirit.

Identifying training goals

Aikido practitioners should regularly review their normal activities and circumstances to identify areas of danger or weakness that demand attention.

Here is a specific example. Aikidoka sometimes see shortcomings in their art in comparison to other martial arts. Consequently, it is tempting to debate “what if” scenarios in discussing the effectiveness of aikido techniques. But are we really training to be able to defeat a championship karateka, a professional boxer, or an Olympic wrestler? How will channeling our energies toward such goals help us in our lives to prepare for the kinds of attacks we might be exposed to? There is no real way to rank the arts in some hierarchical order of efficacy because no objective standard can be devised to measure their relative merits. This mental exercise may provide good grist for bulletin board discussions, but the hypothetical nature of any matchup makes any conclusion purely speculative.

Thus, we should not regard our ongoing practice as a waste of time because our aikido skills might not be a match for a professional fighter. If that were really our goal, we would surely not train in aikido in the first place. This is not to state that we should approach aikido training haphazardly or settle for mediocre results. The point is that our ultimate goal should be to protect life, liberty and property not to defeat an opponent in a match.

Realistic scenarios

Let us assume that a survey of our surroundings leads us to conclude that one of our real concerns is a random physical attack. We could be surprised while walking down the street, driving in a car, or even while in our home. In our real world the assailant is likely to be wielding a firearm or knife and might have one or more accomplices.

The element of surprise is one of the chief reasons this sort of random attack succeeds. It is often not the sophistication of the attack, but the fact that the victim has been caught offguard that results in him being injured or killed.

In that we cannot possibly know the exact nature of a random attack or even if we will ever be subject to an assault, what is called for is a level of general psychological preparedness rather than a knowledge of specific defense techniques. We must develop a constant state of alertness and be capable of responding instinctively to unexpected threats. We must become healthy, flexible, and well-conditioned individuals capable of rapidly adapting to challenging situations.

Why Aikido?

This brings us to a perfectly reasonable question. Why study aikido and not something of more immediate applicability to incidents of urban violence like the use of firearms or street fighting skills? Depending on one’s circumstances, it may indeed be a good idea to practice other disciplines. There are certainly strong arguments for the benefits of cross-training.

That being said, another compelling reason for training in aikido has to do with the second component of “bu” mentioned above. That is, aikido is also a path of spiritual development. It contains within it a moral imperative to respect and nurture all living beings. Aikido projects an idealized view of a world in harmony and the techniques of the art exemplify this abstract vision in a tangible, physical context. Moreover, aikido techniques embody the principle of non-resistance. This was the vision of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba and should be kept in mind by aikido practitioners. It also happens to be an excellent formula for living one’s life in a world fraught with danger and discord.

Epilogue: Making hard decisions in troubled times

Most of the time the challenges we face in our daily lives do not involve direct physical encounters. Most of the time our battles take place on an inner, psychological plane as we wrestle with life’s unending problems and uncertainties. The martial spirit cultivated through years of aikido training can be an asset of incalculable value at such times.

On September 11, 2001, a day that will long be remembered by all of those touched by its consequences, the world entered into a time of political and spiritual crisis. A mere two weeks later, a major aikido seminar was scheduled to take place in California. Some 300 people had already signed up to attend the event. The guest instructor scheduled to fly in from Japan, heeded the warnings of the Japanese government, relatives and friends and decided to cancel his trip. This was probably a logical decision under such extreme circumstances.

The sponsors of the event found themselves on the “horns of dilemma.” Should they cancel the event altogether and incur a painful financial loss while compounding the disappointment of those planning to attend? What about those who had already registered? Should they cancel their plans and withdraw into a “siege mentality” where they curtail their normal activities due to fear of the unknown?

In this particular instance, a satisfactory solution was worked out. The sponsors asked a group of senior instructors to share teaching responsibilities in the absence of the advertised instructor. This approach allowed the seminar to take place even under such adverse conditions. More than half of the those originally planning to attend did in fact show up. This is a specific example of how we are faced in our daily lives with situations that call for us to draw on our martial training to find appropriate solutions where none is apparent.

As the sponsors of Aiki Expo last year, there was a period of time when we had no idea of where world events might lead. We had to continuously entertain the possibility that the Expo might be overcome by political and military events and never take place. In the end, the Expo did indeed take place and was an unqualified success.

This year’s event, Aiki Expo 2003, has now been cast under a similar shadow by the machinations of our world leaders. Therefore we must make contingency plans in case some emergency situation should occur that would impact the event. Despite these uncertainties, I am confident the Expo will take place on schedule. Not only will it take place, it will continue the quiet revolution we have set in motion to challenge current training practices and improve the overall quality of the art.

Stanley Pranin
February 2003