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The Progression of Aikido Technique from Basic to Advanced

by George Ledyard

Published Online

An area of much confusion in Aikido is the relationship between advanced practice and the basic foundations of technique. The vision of Morihei Ueshiba walking unperturbed surrounded by attackers who seem unable to put a hand on him and instead fly in every direction with little or no physical contact is one that most Aikido practitioners have seen.

Interestingly, there is no generally agreed-on viewpoint as to what O-Sensei, Founder of Aikido, was actually doing when he showed this Aikido to the public. Amongst the many different styles of Aikido and amongst the even larger group of individual teachers, many of whom trained directly with the Founder himself, there is almost no common ground when it comes to how the art progresses from its basics, which differ little from style to style or teacher to teacher, to the “Advanced” level.

For some teachers, “advanced” Aikido looks very much like its foundational basics, simply smoother, more effortless, flowing like a stream from technique to technique. Here, “advanced” seems simply to indicate the level of effortless relaxation achieved by the practitioner in dealing with committed attacks initiated by a partner / opponent. But there would seem to be no attempt on the part of these teachers to “lose the form” as the Founder clearly had. Other teachers seem to have taken Morihei Ueshiba at eighty to represent the quintessential Aikido and these teachers have attempted to duplicate the formlessness exhibited by the Founder at the end of his career. For these teachers there is more importance placed on being sensitive to every shift in energy, physical or psychic, from the partner than on developing good strong physical technique. Some, in fact, denigrate powerful physical training as counter to what the Founder intended.

The problem with both of these approaches is that Aikido for O-Sensei was a process which continued right until he died. Those who try to pick a particular time in the life of the Founder during which he was doing “orthodox” Aikido inevitably fail to understand the foundations on which the Aikido of that particular time period rested. They also choose to ignore everything which the Founder developed after that point in time, which for him represented often decades of unremitting training. To do this seems to represent more personal preference than having any particular justification.

For those who wish to jump directly to the end of the career of the Founder and make his advanced and formless technique the model for their own practice, they are attempting to understand an art without understanding the foundations upon which the whole edifice rests. Some teachers would maintain that we do not have to re-invent the wheel, that the Founder did much of this work for us so we wouldn’t have to. This argument might hold water if there were any examples of this in reality. But I have not yet encountered a single instance in which someone had reached an ethereal level in his or her technique without having had a background in very hard physical training. Attempts to pass on their understanding to their students without having them go through the same process have in my own experience failed completely. The reason for this would seem fairly obvious in that every insight, every epiphany which leads to a qualitative jump in the level of training seems to be based on the firm foundation of a previous understanding attained. I myself, have yet to see anyone skipping stages and going directly to the highest level of training without going through the necessary preceding steps of the more mechanical and physical training process. Uniformly, the attempts to do this which I have encountered have resulted in students whose movement is hollow, missing the necessary intention necessary to perform technique at this level.

So what I would like to attempt to do is outline what I see (at this stage in my own training) as the natural progression of technique from the basics as depending on good solid understanding of the mechanics of how the body works, how to use one’s own movement to develop power and how to join that power with that of another without conflicting, to the advanced which depends more on aiki as the interaction of the physical with the energetic, the place at which the Body is effected by the Mind and technique becomes less and less physical and more a matter of principle in action. This should allow the student of Aikido to see the relationship between the different steps in the progression from basic to advanced. This relationship exists equally for empty hand and weapons as well.

The first level of training is revealed via static technique. This level of technique is designed to develop an understanding of structure. How does one’s own body work, how does the partner’s? How can one meet power without conflicting? To pass beyond this level one must understand the mechanics of the art, the jiu-jutsu component, so to speak. One must learn to relax and one must understand the basic “geometry” of technique. In this training we encourage the partner to be as powerful as possible so we can gain feedback regarding our “understanding” as expressed via our technique.

The next step in the progression (which is often done simultaneously with the first stage) is technique done from movement. While demanding a continuing focus on the skills being developed via static training, training with movement begins to teach how the manipulation of spacing (ma-ai) and timing (de-ai) can serve to neutralize the power of the attacker. The strong “center” developed through static training is now shown to be moveable, wherever the practitioner is, even when moving, that sense of “center” is maintained. At this stage the nage allows the uke to initiate an attack and he receives it by using his movement to blend with the attack. The energy of the attack is then redirected into the structure of the uke for locking techniques or into the uke’s balance points for a throwing technique. It is at this stage of training that the student begins to work with the concept of how to “lead” the energy or attention of the partner. Leading the Ki of the opponent is one of the hallmarks of Aikido technique.

From the martial standpoint the previous level of training is limited in that it cedes considerable power to the attacker by allowing him to decide what and when an attack will be. Given the fact that all people have a certain reaction time between when they perceive something and when they can act on what they have seen (about a half a second for most people), allowing the attacker to have the initiative is a major advantage for the attacker. This is a problem as it a) means that from the start of a technique the nage is being re-active to the uke and b) if the attacker chooses to utilize less than fully committed techniques such as feints, the uke can cause the nage to move as he wishes and then suddenly change the attack, thereby making the nage’s attempted technique incorrect.

So the next level of technique changes who initiates. No longer does nage simply accept whatever the uke dishes out. He uses his own movement to begin to draw out a reaction from the attacker at the moment of nage’s choosing. If nage closes the ma-ai (space) with uke, he will hit a point at which uke MUST either commit to his attack or back up. Failure to do one of the two will result in his being open to being struck by nage. Since it is nage who determines when he is crossing the ma-ai point and arriving at “critical distance” he has no “reaction time” because he knows when uke must commit. This is very important in the development of martially effective technique and must be researched carefully. The difference between this stage and the last is that in the last stage the nage allowed uke to initiate and then he led the “attention” of the uke via his own movement. At this level of technique he takes control of the “timing” by manipulating the “spacing”, this begins to make considerations of “fast and slow” in technique irrelevant. The practitioner begins to operate outside the temporal zone as he begins to control the issues associated with timing and spacing.

What has been happening so far in the development of these “stages” is that technique is getting progressively less physical as the principles of space and timing are used to shape the movement of the attacker. In the next level of technique not only does the nage initiate action to draw out uke’s movement, but he uses the energy of his action to lead the response given him by uke. At this stage of practice the attacker ends up being almost completely reactive to the nage. The nage is controlling his actions even before they start to occur. Technique appears to be lighter and more energetic than powerful and physical although it is quite possible to do technique at this level which is quite powerful if one chooses. This is accomplished by manifesting the principles as atemi waza rather than as throwing or locking techniques. Quite explosive and effective martial technique can be generated in this way. In practice, of course, atemi waza isn’t utilized to inflict injury or create physical dysfunction. Rather, it is a way to use potentially explosive energy to draw a response from the uke. This can serve to distract him and shift his energy away from the area of the body on which a technique is being done (as in a locking technique) or it can be used to draw his attention making an entry possible without being struck. In other words, at this level of technique atemi is about directing the attention or energy of the partner towards what one wishes him to see and away from what one doesn’t.

When this level of technique is reached, there is often no physical contact which precedes the “throw”. A technique that had been, in its basic form, a technique from a grab of some sort, would now be timed in such a way that there was no grab. There might or not be an intention to grab but the actual technique has moved to the energetic stage at which the partner’s attack is drawn out by the nage, then by leading the attacker’s attention and producing movement by exposing the attacker’s openings (suki) the nage gains control of the attacker’s center without physically manipulating him but rather by creating the situation in which the attacker moves himself as desired. An atemi which is placed in the space which the uke needs to occupy in order to complete his attack will result in uke breaking his own balance in order to escape being hit.

When this level of technique is reached, the technique is operating via pure principle rather than by the physical factors that had produced the technique at more basic levels. A technique like ryote-tori tenchi-nage exemplifies the principle of “splitting” the partner’s energy (physical or mental). When it finally gets to its energetic expression it no longer requires the ryote-tori attack. In fact tenchi-nage can be done against a front kick for example. The tenchi exists in how the attention of the attacker is split from its perceived target and directed away allowing nage to enter without being struck. But this manifestation of the “splitting principle” cannot be achieved without a thorough understanding of the basic physical execution of the technique. It cannot be bypassed.

When technique is presented to the students in this manner, with variations progressing from the elemental, physical, static versions to the advanced, energetic, flowing versions, it can assist the student in understanding both where a given technique has come from and where it might go in its development. This can serve to demystify the energetics of the advanced technique since the principles can be broken down and taught, but it can also clearly show what elements are essential in providing the foundations of a technique before movement towards a more sophisticated version can be reached. Each level assumes understanding of the previous level. Using this type of methodology perhaps there can be more students who do reach the highest levels of this art created for us by the Founder of Aikido.