Aikido Journal Home » Articles » Voice Of Experience Aiki News Japan

Voice Of Experience

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #111 (1997)

Aikido Journal put the following questions to several leading Japanese aikido instructors:

    Is strength training necessary in aikido? Should we make a point of emulating the founder’s techniques? What are your thoughts on teaching children? What are your thoughts on aikido as a means of self-defense?
Their answers (reproduced below) show a variety of different responses and contain some important advice for all of us.

Takafumi Takeno
Yamanashi Yoshinkan

AJ: Is strength training necessary in aikido?

Takeno: Shioda Sensei said that strength training is unnecessary and it is more important to coordinate the various parts of the body in order to develop breath power (kokyuryoku). Despite his small stature, Shioda Sensei had an impressive physique, especially around his shoulders. I imagine he developed that part of his body as a result of keeping the elbows down and generating power from the centerline during aikido training.

Muscles can be built up by weight training but then they tend to be very strong in one specific direction and may impede freedom of movement. Aikido involves very subtle movements which vary according to your partner and how they attack. Even the simple act of gripping the wrist can be done while pulling up or pushing down or in any number of other ways. Your muscles need to be capable of a wide range of movement to react appropriately. The solid strength you get through weight training is too limiting. On the other hand, Shioda Sensei always said you should first learn how to do the techniques using strength — probably because it is impossible to do otherwise in the beginning.

But you are always going to find someone stronger than you are, so you have to get beyond strength. You may be able to force someone physically weaker to the mat, but force won’t work against someone stronger. You have to use the body turns, timing and instant reading of the opponent’s ki that are characteristic of aikido.

Aikido is a martial art of balance. It doesn’t really matter how strong you are if you don’t have good balance, which is why Shioda Sensei told us to constantly work on improving our basics to build a strong centerline and posture. That was the principle around which all our training revolved.

One of the most remarkable things about Shioda Sensei was the incredible speed and sharpness of his movement. When you thought he was in one place he’d already be somewhere else. The way his techniques hit you was amazing. There was a shock like being struck at the base of the neck with an iron bar. You could vaguely feel his overall movement, but you couldn’t tell exactly what was happening or at what instant it would take effect. His power always seemed to emanate explosively from movement, rather than from physical strength. If you’ve ever pitched a baseball, you know you can’t generate the necessary speed to throw a fast ball if you grip the ball too tightly and try to throw it really hard. You have to take advantage of the whipping motion generated by the wrist, elbow, hips and other parts of the body working flexibly together. Aikido is similar in that you can’t rely on static strength.

Techniques like iriminage and kokyunage do not rely on the kind of solid strength you get from weight training. The energy has to be dynamic and flowing. Aikido uses power generated within and released externally. But it is not an intellectual process, and only by practicing the techniques over and over can you truly understand.

AJ: What are your thoughts on teaching children?

Takeno: One of the most important things is to play with them rather than try to teach them. You do end up teaching them, but you do it by being their teacher and also their playmate. You have to give kids something to aspire to. They are attracted to things that look good and they admire people who can do things they cant. So you have to present them with challenges: “How fast can you stand up after doing a forward roll? Can you do it even faster? Can you roll in a perfectly straight line?” Presenting tasks this way motivates children. Then you can teach them the necessary basics by saying, “Well, to do that you first have to learn how to do a somersault. Here’s how.”

It’s the same when teaching techniques. Start by having them do the basic movements as forms (kata), then show them how to take ukemi, then put the two together and have them practice with a partner. Avoid creating a one-way flow of information. You need to motivate them to come to the next class and get them to look forward to learning. It may occasionally be necessary to take a firm hand, but you have to loosen up from time to time. I think it’s best to strike a good balance between being strict and relaxed.

When I was teaching the riot police at the Yoshinkan headquarters, we received a request to teach some kindergarten children. They often fell and injured themselves, so we were asked to teach them how to fall safely. Shioda Sensei designated me for the job. I spent my mornings glaring and growling through the practices with the riot police and my afternoons saying, “Hi kids! I’m going to be your ai-ki-do teacher! Can you say ai-ki-do?” To experience the huge gap between those two worlds was of great benefit to me.

In teaching the children my priority was to play with them and develop rapport. Children won’t accept you unless you jump into their world and play. It might seem like a waste of time, hut it’s not. How you play with them is important too, and the games should foster cooperation. Once you get that far you can have them work together to put on demonstrations, which further engenders cooperation and harmony with others.

The rate of sprains and broken bones among the kindergarten children dropped to zero. When they fell down playing soccer, the kids who had practiced aikido would do a nice ukemi and he up and chasing after the ball again without a tear shed. One thing you can say about teaching children is that there is no single method and the teacher needs to constantly think of new ways to practice.

Chizuko Matsuo
Yoshinkan Azamino Aikidokai

AJ: What are your thoughts on teaching children?

Matsuo: For elementary school children, it’s important to keep them interested. As a simple ukemi practice you can have them try doing forward rolls over a belt, starting by laying it on the floor and gradually raising it to create a fun challenge that keeps their interest. At the next level you can have two kids hold the belt and run down the length of the dolo so the others have to jump over it when it reaches them. After a while they’re good enough to be thrown with kotegaeshi, from which they can practice taking nice, round flying ukemi. A soft mat makes practicing such falls a lot less frightening.

At summer camps you can add things like tossing a balloon high in the air and have the children do a forward roll before catching it. This is good when the kids start to get listless from the heat. It gets them up and moving around and they have a good time. I always try to add variety to keep the kids interested. Before doing techniques, kids need a solid background in shikko (knee-walking) and forward and backward ukemi, so we have them practice these things first. When they’re ready I take the elementary school kids into shihonage and ikkajo. The first atemi in shihonage can be difficult for them, so I start by getting them to repeat the footwork many times, moving in and out. I also have them do the movements by numbers.

Later on, in order to develop better coordination, I have them master the Yoshinkan basics, including turning, pivoting, shifting the weight from one leg to the other and so on. I show them how the shumatsu dosa exercise is basically the same as shihonage and how learning to use the hands and elbows properly through the hiriki no yosei exercise is important when doing various techniques.

Some of our people do Shorinji kempo, judo or karate, so we have adopted some of their more interesting and unusual warm up routines. A member of one of our dojos is a qi gong teacher, so the children there do 10 minutes of qi gong as part of their warm-up.

Some might say that since we’re doing hudo, we should make practice very strict, but I don’t think that would work. If there’s not some degree of fun in it, kids are probably not going to go along with it.

Because I’m not a specialist in teaching children, I took a one-year course in sports leadership. At the course I learned that “bunny hopping” should be avoided as a warm-up method because it’s not good for children’s growth. Muscle strength training interferes with the development of their bones. It’s better to do some stretches with the legs bent than straight. I learned these things and various scientific training methods. I think anybody intending to teach aikido to children should spend some time learning such things.

Toshiyuki Arai
Gumma Aikido Renmei Kaicho

AJ: Is strength training necessary in aikido?

Arai: It’s better to develop physical strength than not to but since modern aikido is not a matter of life and death it’s not absolutely essential. It’s something that could be left to the individual.

AJ: Should we make a point of emulating the founder’s techniques?

Arai: Even if we try to do so, the result will vary widely from person to person. But we should still make those techniques our goal because they represent an important standard.

AJ: What are your thoughts on teaching children?

Arai: Teaching aikido to children below elementary school is difficult. It’s not until around junior high school that they become capable of absorbing something like aikido. With younger children more time should be spent with activities that develop lower body strength. It’s also a good time to instill proper etiquette, as well as the habit of speaking and answering loudly and clearly. A positive spirit and vigor are important to develop at that age. Many parents hope the dojo will help their children develop aspects of themselves that can’t he developed at home or school.

Children with specific problems can benefit from aikido training, like those who are overly shy or who have been bullied and need some way to regain their self-confidence. It’s important to make the dojo a place where children cm develop positive attitudes.

AJ: What are your thoughts on aikido as a means of self-defense?

Arai: There is an old saying, “A wise man avoids danger” but there are times when such encounters simply can’t be avoided. I’ve been in several situations (such as when someone called for help to apprehend a thief, and when a woman screamed for help to deal with an assailant in an elevator) in which I’ve felt obliged to act, given my experience with aikido. The body moves naturally in such situations. Aikido techniques can he frightfully effective and lightning fast. There is no need to go brandishing them around recklessly, of course, but you should do what you have to do to handle any situation. There is always the risk of over-reacting or abusing one’s aikido skills, so you should use discretion and avoid bravado.

Seishiro Endo
Aikikai Shihar

AJ: Is strength training necessary in aikido?

Endo: A certain degree of physical strength and stamina is fundamentally necessary, so I always suggest younger people train themselves in that way. But if people rely too much on strength they will end up cheating themselves of the real essence of aikido. People with less physical strength may make up for it by putting a lot of thought into their training, in many cases developing their own special techniques. While physical strength is limited, ki is not. In his younger days the founder possessed a good deal of physical strength and stamina, but as that strength left him he began to devise various new approaches that resulted in the wonderful art of aikido we enjoy today.

AJ: Should we make a point of emulating the founder’s techniques?

Endo: When we learn something, we go through a process called shu-ha-ri. Shu is the stage of doing precisely what you are taught; ha is the stage at which you begin to make your own interpretations of what you have learned and ri is the stage of creating something of your own, based on your efforts in the previous stages. The techniques we learn in aikido are living entities handed down by those who have gone before. In many cases individuals created them to preserve their very lives and as such they should be accorded the utmost respect. We should try to emulate their spirit or essence. However, techniques can degenerate as they pass from person to person. This underscores the importance of choosing your teacher carefully to find one who can teach the substance behind the techniques. The founder’s aikido was very broad and deep, so it is rather difficult to achieve the ha stage, let alone the ri stage! I think it was the founders hope that, through earnest practice, each individual would gradually build something they could call their own.

AJ: What are your thoughts on teaching children?

Endo: I advocate having them practice with adults. I ask the adults to interact sincerely because their attitudes, language and enthusiasm are all conveyed directly to the children. Rather than focus strictly on technique, a proper training atmosphere is more important and a sense of seriousness.

AJ: What are your thoughts on aikido as a means of self-defense?

Endo: You can only decide what attitude to take when you are faced with a self-defense situation.

Kyoichi Inoue
Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo Dojo-cho

AJ: Should we make a point of emulating the founder’s techniques?

Inoue: Yes, they should be continuously handed down. As time passes changes are inevitable but we should not forget the original. The founder’s techniques serve as a benchmark for what we do today. I like to use the analogy of refurbishing an historic building. Unless you take into account the construction techniques of the original, you won’t be able to leave an authentic building for subsequent generations. It may he fine to end up with something completely new two or three generations down the line, but if you know what the original was like, you’ll be able to see and understand the differences clearly.

We learned aikido from the late Gozo Shioda and did not have an opportunity to train directly under Morihei Ueshiba, but Shioda Sensei always focused on the techniques he was taught by Ueshiba Sensei. They were the techniques Ueshiha Sensei did when he was around 60 and so cannot be considered the result of an entire lifetime of study. But there is no question that he had, by that time, already developed the important Spreading the word: Inoue Sensei leads a team to demonstrate at the New Zealand Easter Show in 1971. Over 300,000 people watched the aikido demonstrations during the week-long show. (left to right: Kyoichi noun, Tadao Ogawa, David Lynch, John Dawn, Peter Busseli) fundamentals of his art. It was these techniques that he practiced as the basis of aikido. Later his techniques evolved further and there were differences between what he and Shioda Sensei were doing.

With Shioda Sensei’s passing, we have been careful to maintain our training in the basics that he left us. This amounts to continuing the same fundamentals of aikido that were originally bequeathed to us by the founder.

Having said that, we are constantly discovering new ways to train in those fundamentals and make them more suitable for each individual. In doing so it becomes possible to do movements that are more in accord with the natural order and do not involve unreasonable effort.

It is essential that we keep the fundamental roots of aikido. Whether those roots remain a small bush or grow into an enormous tree depends on the natural endowments and abilities of each individual and their environment. There are those who concentrate only on the leaves, others who look only at the branches and others who look only at the fallen leaves scattered beneath the tree. It is important to study the whole tree, including the roots.

In order not to forget the fundamentals, I think we should indeed continue to hand down the founders techniques.