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The Practical Application of Aikido Technique

by Charles McCarty

Published Online


You may never need to use Aikido in a practical and physical way in your life, and perhaps you already have. You may have gone into the art on a whim, as I did, or may have begun training because of some event in which you were victimized, and vowed to never become a victim again. I can’t speak for all, but I can speak from my own experience, and will attempt to do so in this essay.


Turn on the news, read a paper or watch a movie, and you are likely to get the impression that the world is a very dangerous place. The media industry consistently presents its consumers with the worst possible news, and drives that home with repetition of the images that accompany news reports in this age of ubiquitous video and cell phone cameras. Film and television entertainment often dwell on violence perpetrated and violent response, often after implying that attempts to resolve conflict peacefully are futile and counter-productive.

The modern popular hero is the patient and long-suffering victim, who finally snaps and reacts with overwhelming violence; or the avenger who delivers justice in a hail of bullets, blades, or kicks and strikes. Even movies with Aikido references such as “Above the Law” and its successors feature this steady escalation from unjust persecution of the weak and innocent into violent retribution.

We are presented with a skewed viewpoint of the world that makes it seem much more dangerous than evidence suggests that it actually is. Watch an advertisement for alarm systems, and invariably the blaring of a properly set alarm chases the startled bad guy, straight from central casting in his black watch cap and dark sweats, back into the darkness in a panic. Statistically, and confirmed by my own personal experience as a 911 operator and dispatcher, over 99% of all burglar alarms received are false alarms set off by weather, power outages, improper use, authorized workers or guests who don’t know the proper code, even birthday balloons or house plants disturbed by a breeze from a heater or fan. In over 12 years I have taken only one burglar alarm call that was justified, and that involved an unoccupied house.

Personal experiences over the last 35 years of my life include dozens of occasions of the use of Aikido in a practical hands-on way. My situation is not typical. I have voluntarily placed myself in an environment in which physical confrontations are nearly inevitable from time to time. When I began training in Aikido I was working on the night shift at an emergency medical facility in Berkeley, California during the mid-1970’s, because it was the first decent job that I could find after leaving the military. That it was kind of dangerous at times was not as much of an issue to me, since I had recently been a medic in Vietnam. In comparison it felt pretty safe. I did not begin my training because of my job, however, but because of a fascination with samurai movies—but that’s a different story.

After beginning regular training in Aikido I was often able to avoid confrontations and physical tussles, but they still occurred. I was now able to handle situations without causing injury to the other party, an improvement over my previous history. Prior to beginning Aikido training, I broke three people’s noses in job-related incidents over a period of 4 years, and had my own broken once. All my actions were judged to be justified, but it was nothing to be proud of. Once I began training there was an immediate and complete cessation in injuries to others, though I still got a few more minor injuries myself over the next few years.

After moving to the Northwest and experiencing a quiet decade devoted to the continued study and teaching of Aikido, I joined the local Sheriff’s Office as a 911 dispatcher, and once again placed myself in harm’s way by becoming a Reserve Deputy and participating in the control of lawbreakers and the intoxicated in the course of paid and volunteer duties. I was not particularly interested in either dispatching or law enforcement, but needed to get a decent-paying job, and this was the first one available. Once again, the use of Aikido principles helped to reduce the need for placing hands-on, but when necessary, proper application of Aikido technique resulted in control of the aggression without injuring the aggressor, this time without injury to myself. I have placed myself in the path of violence through my choices of employment. In all the years before and since I have never been the victim of a violent crime outside these duties. The occurrence of unprovoked violence is rare in most communities.

Martial arts have the capability of making our world a more peaceful and polite place; a place in which everyone with whom we interact is treated as a valued partner, even when they choose to act with ill will. On the mat we act out scenarios of aggression and resolution in a highly formalized setting of protocol and understandings about our respective roles as uke and nage. As training progresses there are fewer constraints on attack, and the relationship of the partners becomes more fluid; but there is always an overriding understanding that we are the two sides of the same coin, the two aspects of the yin and yang symbol, without which the whole cannot exist. We take the role of bad as well as good, attacker as well as defender, so that we may understand in some way the nature of evil.

The martial arts are important because they allow us to train for the worst situations with the best people in a controlled environment. (I do not include sports or entertainment for the thrill-seeker in my definition of the martial arts.) The world outside the dojo, however, is a messy place, where the roles are not nearly as well defined and you cannot

count on your partner/adversary having the best wishes for your well-being and personal advancement. It has been my experience that even the early stages of training can assist the Aikido student in managing the rare unexpected attack or crisis. Naturally, that skill becomes greater as experience increases over the years. It is important for people to prepare themselves through training and application, whether in Aikido or another discipline, to be better people and to be capable of coping with all of the good and bad that life has to offer. The best of martial arts cultivates the best in humanity.


Aikido occupies a unique place among the martial arts. It is a traditional art, derived from several historical weapons and grappling systems, refined by the Founder, Morihei Uyeshiba and brought into the modern world as a non-competitive art form which places emphasis not on victory over others but on self-development for the purpose of contribution toward the overall benefit of society. Aikido organizations have over the years spread to most countries of the world, currently enrolling hundreds of thousands, and have influenced millions through involvement in training. Aikido practitioners worldwide share the common language of the mat, allowing you to visit a dojo in Japan or France or Russia, perform irimi-nage or koshi-nage with fellow aikidoka, and understand each other perfectly well.

Aikido fosters mutual respect, a high regard for the physical and emotional integrity of the partner and an understanding of body mechanics. We perform technique that is designed not to kill or maim, but to control without injury or humiliation. We train with weapons; not to learn how to injure or dominate others, but to develop an intuitive muscular-level understanding of the correct patterns of movement for our empty-hand techniques, and to experience the dynamics of weapons so that we may better protect ourselves when they are used against us. Our intent is not to become invincible, but to enhance our flexibility and responsiveness to the forces that surround us and impact our lives.

In our training we do not exclusively perform technique, we receive it as well. Aikido recognizes the existence of light and dark, positive and negative, right and wrong and good and evil. In our constantly shifting roles as nage and uke we train to be complete persons, not always the winner, nor forever the loser in life. In proper training we strive for balance in the performance of technique and the execution of sincere attacks, always with a safe resolution. As nage we provide a measured response, suitable to the skill level, physical condition and constitution of the attacker. As uke we provide enough energy and resistance to provide a challenge for the nage, without frustrating the nage’s ability to learn from the experience by an excessive or inadequate challenge. There is a precise balance in which optimal learning can occur. We seek it for ourselves, and we seek to provide it to others.

Our commitment to Aikido is not for the exclusive purposes of physical fitness, or to become more confident, or to feel safer on the street, or to have a good attitude toward winning. We study it for all these reasons, and much more. Whatever event or goal led us into the art, at some time we discover that we are doing it to become better people, who, in the course of training become more fit, more confident, safer and have realized that everyone can win.

Many other martial arts have value in preparing the individual for a healthy place in society through the instillation of habits of respect and the development of self-discipline and physical skill. Some may be far more appropriate and efficient at preparing individuals for physical combat than traditional Aikido. These arts may fulfill all the goals of fitness, confidence, safety and a healthy attitude toward winning and losing, but most of them have one flaw that prevents them from being optimal for the fulfillment of the goals of Aikido; the risk of causing unnecessary injury. An art that teaches striking, kicking, joint locks and bladed weapons or sticks prepares you well for training with protective gear or competition in a controlled environment, with rules and restrictions. Applied in a real-life setting they can only be assured to work when performed full force and without regard for injury. This is unacceptable for those of us who have adopted the ethical values associated with traditional Aikido. Additionally, we live in a litigious society, and violent response, even to violent attack, is unwise.

Aikido techniques, when properly applied, allow control of aggression without lasting injury to the attacker. This provides a major advantage to the Aikidoist who finds it necessary to use technique off the mat. It is possible to protect yourself with the same movements in which you have trained for those many hours in the dojo. There is no real difference between street technique and mat technique in Aikido, except that some techniques are more appropriate or useful than others. It is not necessary to train in a special way to gain the skill needed to use Aikido in practical applications, as long as your training stresses the strong basic techniques that are most helpful in the street, and includes the progression from kihon to ki no nagare, static to flowing, with the ultimate goal of takemusu aikido, aikido that flows spontaneously from the heart.

My experiences have given me the opportunity to see how and when it may be appropriate to use technique for personal safety and the common good. No serious Aikido student should seek the test of physical encounters, as that violates the ethical standards set for us by the Founder and his successors. There may, however, come a time when the challenge is brought to you. The use of physical technique in a real-world setting must be guided by the understanding that self-defense is not the primary purpose of our training, and any success we have in controlling aggression with Aikido technique is an ancillary benefit, neither to be desired nor trained for, but to be accepted if and when it occurs.


Authors Westbrook & Ratti were among the first US students of Aikido to examine the art in an exhaustive way in their collaborative writing and illustration of the book, Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. The ethical progression that they outline begins with unprovoked aggression, proceeds to the use of provocation to instigate aggression with violent resolution, and, on to defense against an unprovoked attack, resulting in injury or death of the attacker. This is as far as most ethical analyses proceed. The use of the principles of Aikido, however, allow for another level—that of skilled defense against an unprovoked attack that results in the control of the attacker without serious injury. This is the level of discussion for this essay, though I believe that there is yet another higher ethical level, the use of the same principles that govern physical Aikido technique to redirect and divert possible violence before it is manifested physically.

Westbrook & Ratti state that there are certain circumstances in which it is acceptable to use physical technique, assuming that other means have failed or are inappropriate. These are: self-protection when your life is at risk, the protection of others who are threatened with injury or death, and for the common good (that is, the good of society). Personal and public property are not included in this list, so just call me (and my associates) at 911 if you come upon someone stealing your neighbor’s stereo.

Practical uses of Aikido in non-violent work, social and home situations are discussed in Terry Dobson and Victor Miller’s Giving in to Get Your Way and in Crum’s The Magic of Conflict, two other early classics on the subject published in the U.S. In common with Morihiro Saito’s discussion of the symbolism of the triangle, the circle and the square, the basic principles are defined as meeting (confluence, triangle), blending (redirection, circle) and throw (resolution, square). These principles can be applied regardless of whether the encounter is physical or social, in training or in real life. The ethical, spiritual and physical principles we seek to follow unify the views brought to the martial arts by O’Sensei himself, by some of the martial arts and spiritual masters who influenced him, as well as many who follow his Path or have found variations of their own, influenced by Uyeshiba as he was by his teachers.

Among the goals of the Founder were world peace, harmony among people and nations, respect for the natural world and respect for each other. Within the cultural context of his birthplace and the times and events of early 20th century Japan, the Founder adapted his mastery of the traditional fighting arts to devise his new martial art of love, with the goal not of defeating an enemy but of going past the relationship of conflict, to a state where there are no enemies.

The beauty and grace of well-executed technique were one of the great attractions of Aikido for me. The movements can be flowing, and nevertheless direct and effective. When properly performed they seem to follow the lines of the universe. Much of modern life seems to involve resistance and confrontation, and it can be refreshing and relaxing to let yourself be caught in the natural flow of a movement. This is a principle which you need not surrender if you find yourself doing technique on the street. On the contrary, it will serve you well.

The highest accomplishment for the student of Aikido is the use of the principles of Aikido to defuse a potentially violent situation. This is the ideal toward which I have striven, and sometimes achieved. You may be unaware that you are even using the principles of blending and resolution, as they will have become ingrained in your approach to relationships, but on occasion it is obvious.

An example dates from my relatively early years of training when I was still working in the emergency room in Berkeley. The hospital had a psychiatric ward, and as a nursing attendant one of my duties was to provide security and monitoring for psychiatric patients being evaluated by the on-call psychiatrist. One night a paranoid individual was brought in. The man was extremely agitated, and my experience with others in a similar state suggested that at any moment he could become violent. He saw threats and danger in every person and every situation that he encountered. My response was to empathize with him; to agree that the world indeed was a dangerous place. I offered to be his protector, and to put him in the safest place in the building. This calmed him, and he willingly followed me to the seclusion room. Once assured that I would personally sit outside the room and protect him from danger, he went in and I locked the door. I placed my chair in view of the little window in the door, and proceeded to sit there and “guard” him for the rest of my shift. Every few minutes he would come and check to see if I was still there, and by the time I left he was asleep.

Our study of Aikido is much more than physical exercise, but mere academic study of the principles without time on the mat would be meaningless. If we wish to fully benefit from what we have learned in this marvelous art we must behave at all times as though we are on the mat. Be polite, compliment people, smile, be generous and don’t act defensively or out of fear. When negative energy comes our way, this sort of an approach to life will often either deflect the negativity or allow us to find an aiki resolution to the situation. On the rare occasion that violence is threatened, more often than not confluence, blending, and mutually beneficial resolution will avoid the need for a physical solution to potential conflict.


The mat and the real world are very different places, and it is not always possible to consistently apply the awareness we have acquired in training to real-life situations. An Aikido dojo is properly and typically a place of respect and etiquette, with an hierarchy based upon levels of experience and position within the organization, locally and at a regional, national and international level. As aikidoka, when we enter this hierarchy we subsume ourselves to the tradition and practices of the path on which we have embarked. We collectively bow to the portraits and memory of men many of us have never met, as a gesture of the respect which we have for their legacy. Our actions as attackers are sincere, but usually devoid of genuine emotion. Those we attack are our friends and companions on the quest for self-improvement. Equally, when we receive these attacks and apply technique, it is with the understanding that it is our responsibility not to cause injury or undue discomfort to the attacking partner. Our consistent use of the word “partner” when referring to each other is telling. The functional translation of uke as “fall guy” and nage as “thrower” suggests the level of agreement that we have when we meet in training.

There are many factors which influence the relationships that we have with others in settings outside the dojo, which are usually absent from the more structured and orderly world of training. Emotion and family relationships are seldom a direct factor on the mat. Crime statistics suggest that emotion and family are often related to crime, but high emotion by itself is present in many potential encounters on the street or at work. Crime committed against a stranger may involve a great deal of emotion, as a result of the mental process that a criminal experiences while creating the energy and rationalization to commit a crime.

Alcohol and drugs are a major factor in many, if not most crimes; by contributing directly to the state of mind in which criminal acts are undertaken, by providing the motive for an act of property or monetary theft, or both. The presence of drugs and alcohol in one or both of the players in an encounter can remove inhibitions, radically alter the “normal” behavior of an individual and dull the ability of someone to sense and respond to efforts to defuse the situation.

When we are training with like-minded individuals, the results are fairly predictable. We bow in, we stretch, we observe demonstration of technique, we bow to a partner, are thrown two (or four) times, and then perform the throw two (or four) times.. After repeating for a length of time we bow out, change, and go home. With a little variation here and there, we all do something a lot like this from two to five times a week. We also have patterns of varying rigidity in our outside lives. The threat of violent crime is a profound disruption of this pattern if and when it occurs. It is a random event that may prey upon the patterns in our lives, and change them temporarily, or forever.

If the disruptive quality of an unexpected attack throws you off your stride, the application of the principles that could help defuse the situation and reach an aiki resolution without conflict may fail. Keep in mind that the resolution of conflict without physical application of technique is the highest of the ideals to which we might aspire, and as such requires the greatest level of practice and skill. If there are 5 year techniques and 20 year techniques in the physical realm, how many years would we have to practice before being able to consistently apply the technique of no technique? Sometimes the assumption is made that this is easier than, say, a good nikyo. In fact, I believe the hard training leading eventually to a good nikyo paves the way for the application of the principles in a non-physical way. It’s certainly not the other way around.

It is important to strive for the ideal, and prepare for the worst. George Leonard has a mantra that he repeated often when leading his classes at Aikido of Tamalpais; “expect nothing, be ready for anything”. We follow the admittedly winding path represented by the jagged major brush strokes of the Japanese character for “do”. It is not a straight line, and neither are our lives. When the application of pure principle fails we must be prepared to respond in the best way that we can, within the ethical construct which we have adopted. As trained martial artists we bear more responsibility than the average man or woman on the street to react appropriately to emergencies, and that may mean that for the first or fiftieth time we will need to lay hands on another while seeking to resolve a dangerous situation.


Should you have the misfortune and statistically rare occurrence of actually becoming the intended victim of violent crime, the sort of real-life attackers you may encounter will almost certainly be very much different than your usual training partner in the dojo. Fortunately for us, few people with criminal character or intent have the drive and commitment to train extensively in martial arts, although they may have gone to a few classes, subscribe to the magazines, watch the cable TV wrestling and cage-fighting events and carry the weapons associated with certain “martial arts”. In my years of occasional application of practical technique, I have encountered only a couple of assailants who were reputed or claimed to have had any significant actual training. One self-proclaimed kick-boxer was very voluble as I transported him back to the lock-up after a mental exam at the state hospital. He claimed that he “could have been a champion”, except that he always lost in the tournaments. Go figure. On one occasion he was found in possession of spiked brass knuckles, and the one time he tried a kick in my presence, it resulted in a face plant as a result of the application of ikkyo.

Except for career criminals, many of those who seek to cause trouble for others are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, which can be helpful to you since they may lack coordination, but can also present other difficulties. Alcohol, sedatives and opiates, often in combination, cloud the judgment, change personalities and fuel the potential for violence. This can make the individual less susceptible to the tactics of peaceful resolution. Other drugs such as amphetamines, methamphetamine and other stimulants, or mind-bending drugs such as LSD or PCP have less effect on coordination, make the individual unpredictable in action and can contribute to nearly super-human strength.

The techniques that work in real life situations tend to be simple ones that are applied directly and without embellishment. They are the techniques that either lead directly to a face-down pin or can be adapted to end in one. Ikkyo and yonkyo have been among the most useful to me in the past, while nikyo, sankyo and gokyo all have been successfully employed from time to time. Kotegaeshi has received several successful applications, and shihonage has potential in variation. Kaitenage has come up only once, and didn’t work particularly well when I used it in a traditional way. In a modified form, it may be useful. Keep in mind that by no means do I suggest that only certain “practical” techniques should be studied. The entire range of techniques are required for any achievement or understanding within the art of Aikido.

The most useful single technique by a considerable margin has been a variation of ikkyo. Ikkyo has the advantage of simplicity and nearly universal application to any grabbing or striking attack, with or without weapons. It is also something that we have practiced an awful lot, with a lot of different people. It typically ends in a face-down pin, and it is easy to shift into a kneeling nikyo pin, which is secure and leaves both hands potentially free to dial 911 on a cell, search the subject, control a weapon or deal with a second attacker.

Ikkyo provides access to many other joint techniques, leaving you with many options for different endings. With a hand-shift in response to resistance it is easy to shift from an ikkyo to a kotegaeshi. Kotegaeshi directly applied to a choke or hair grab has been quite successful, if it is followed up with a face-down pin. Ikkyo, sankyo, yonkyo, gokyo and kotegaeshi are all potentially valuable in dealing with an armed assailant, as long as consideration is given to the arc of a bladed weapon and its length, with firearms being regarded as weapons of unlimited length.

The types of attacks you may face on the street will have little in common with the grabs and strikes that we receive on the mat, but if you train in the full standard range of static and dynamic grabs, strikes and weapon take-aways, you will actually find yourself very well prepared for the less formalized and generally less well-organized attacks of the street. Grabs are grabs. Strikes are strikes, but you can expect punches to a more varied target area, not just the abdomen. A yokomen has a lot in common with a slap or roundhouse punch, and if you are attacked with a baseball bat or a tire iron, think bokken or jo. We rarely train for kicks, but the few kicks I have been presented with in real life have not been high-flying “I’m going to hit you on the opposite side of your face with my right foot” movie kicks. Remember that someone kicking is already on the edge of imbalance, and the same rules of blending and redirection that we use for any attack apply here as well.

One thing that you will immediately observe, should you have to defend yourself or others, is that, with rare exception, your response will have little resemblance to technique performed in the dojo. Spontaneous unplanned events are unique. Your training will provide you with appropriate reactions that may result in an actual technique, or may simply lead to a series of movements influenced by training and appropriate to the moment, but not readily classified in any traditional way. After each encounter I immediately try to reconstruct the actual chain of events in my mind so that I can identify the elements of my response. This also has the effect of calming and helping to mitigate the adrenaline rush that will invariably follow, no matter your level of training, a real life-threatening situation. Training may reduce this reaction, but no amount of training will completely eliminate it. You must react quickly and decisively, so that the tunnel vision and loss of fine motor control that an adrenaline dump causes does not affect you during the critical moments of an encounter. Afterwards, bring your breathing under control and use the reconstruction process or another mind-calming activity to restore balance.

Though your technique may not be classical or even something about which you feel particularly proud, all the elements of classical technique are as important here as they are in the dojo or during a ranking test or demo. High in importance among them is the concept of ma-ai. Most attacks are signaled by clues in the appearance, demeanor or behavior of the attacker. Ma-ai requires awareness of all that may threaten, and in particular of the moment at which that threat moves inside a certain space around you. At that point, the game is on, even if it is inappropriate to begin actual technique. There should be movement to establish and maintain a safe ma-ai, and the subtle use of posture and stance to provide the distance and opportunity for reaction appropriate to the situation.

Though Aikido is a defensive art with the goal of resolving conflict without injury, atemi is nonetheless important to successful performance of technique in a hostile environment. The original use of atemi in Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu was to incapacitate or cause such severe pain as to end the match altogether. Tokimune Takeda, the successor of Sokaku Takeda, one of Uyeshiba’s teachers, is said to have stated “If the attacker is smiling when technique is applied, it is modern aikido. If he is screaming it is Daito Ryu.” In our training, atemi is primarily a distraction and an encouragement for the attacking partner to move in a particular direction that serves the purpose of the intended throw. This is even more important when the attacker is an unwilling partner who does not have the subconscious tendency to follow the familiar path of a technique that has been performed on him or her many times before. We can anticipate that a real attacker doesn’t already know where we want him or her to go, and if known, would not be cooperative.

Ki-ai, the obverse of aiki, serves to focus the energy that we generate through aiki, and ensures proper breathing patterns. It also combats the tendency to breathe erratically in a real life-threatening situation. It is important in training, and no less so in real life. The startle factor in a good loud exclamation is even more important off the mat than on. Rather than a generic “hai!” you might consider a good loud “hey! Or “no!”. In real life you don’t want to seem too martial by assuming postures or making the noises people associate with movie martial arts. Don’t tip off a possible assailant to your experience.

Timing is always important to performance of the best technique. Miyamoto Musashi’s essay, A Book of Five Rings, has had an influence on many generations of martial artists. Primarily a book of strategy, it consists of passages on the five principles; ground, water, fire, wind and the void. The major point of the first section is the importance of timing in everything that we do. Our lives are subject to timing, and the proper use of timing in an encounter is critical to success. It is not something that we can always impose on a situation, and we need to detect and adapt to it. Whether or not the Founder studied the strategy of Musashi, it is clear that he was in full concordance with it. His ability to control multiple attackers, more apparently powerful than he, can be explained at least in part by his perfect awareness of the timing of the attacks.

When you act within the timing of an attack you do not need to be more powerful than the attacker, but unless you choose to initiate the action you must adjust to the timing with which you are presented. Reactive timing is required if the attacker launches an unexpected attack, and may dictate that you blend away from the attacker to allow synchronization with the movement. If the attack is anticipated the blend can be forward to capture the aggressive energy and synchronize with the attacker from the first moment, a generally more desirable but not always possible scenario. If intent is clear, you can initiate the action and trigger the imminent attack a moment before it is actually launched. This may make it easier to unbalance a very aggressive attacker.

I sometimes find myself with the responsibility of bringing someone under control for their own sake and for public safety (the common good). I may have to initiate the action, reaching out to take control or delivering an atemi to create a reflexive action that allows successful application of technique on someone who is a danger to himself or others. “Before the before” timing is justified in certain circumstances, but it may be hard to justify unless you have the special powers conferred by law enforcement status or certain areas of employment.

It is possible to anticipate an attack, and subtly guide the circumstances so that when an attack does occur, it is channeled into a certain pattern or direction. This will limit the unpredictability and facilitate response of an appropriate nature. We do this all the time in training by offering our arm to be grabbed or by presenting an apparent opening to lure in an attack of a certain nature on a specific side, even in jiu waza or randori. Once we become aware of the aggressive intent and the inevitability of an attack, we can present an opening in a subtle manner so as to lead the attacker in on our own terms while controlling the timing. As long as provocation is not offered the ethical standards will be met.

Compassion remains an important element of our relationship with an attacker. We need not sympathize or approve, but we do seek empathy with the attacker. This is a necessary part of the blending process so that we may lead him or her to a safe resolution, regardless of the intent of the attack.

In real life you will experience physical and psychological changes unlike any you have felt even in the highest stress of training or testing. Time dilation is one of the commonly reported psychological phenomena of people who have experienced a sudden life-threatening event. Time dilation is the apparent slowing of time and/or increase in reaction speed during a frightening and unexpected event. Long believed to be an objective phenomenon, recent experiments suggest that it is actually a distortion of perceived time as the brain processes more of the millions of sensory stimuli we constantly are subjected to. Since the brain seems to mark time by the number of stimuli processed, this results in time seeming to slow down during a crisis event.

The experimental results, which have not been accepted by all brain researchers, suggest that perception does not actually improve, but in a subject’s memory response and decision-making ability will seem better than normal. There may not be any objective improvement in performance, but neither does there seem to be an associated degradation of performance. The most profound time dilation I have experienced did not involve a violent attack, but a bicycle accident. After repairing my electric bicycle after being forced off the road by a careless driver one night, I took it on a test ride, without putting on my helmet. After all, I was only going to ride a block or so. (Don’t try this at home, kids.) The front (motor) wheel was not properly attached, and it shifted and locked up as I cruised at about 20 mph. In the next moment I was flying forward over the handlebars. I seemed to have plenty of time to set up the fall, and took a decent forward roll. Then I was on the ground, starting an assessment of damage, thinking, “That wasn’t so bad”. What seemed like several seconds later the bicycle, about 80 pounds with batteries and motor, landed on me. Time suddenly went back to normal.

To provide several personal examples of practical technique I can go back to my early days, as well as cite a much more recent event. While working in the hospital in the 1970’s I was sent to the basement to locate a person who had wandered into an area closed to the public at that hour. I found a street person preparing to nap in the kitchen area. When he refused to leave or to get up, I used a sankyo to lift him to his feet, and then converted to a yonkyo to lead him toward the elevators. Yonkyo allowed me to hit the “up” button with his elbow, and once in the elevator to select the 1st floor, again with the elbow. Once we reached the lobby a yonkyo takedown and nikyo pin kept him in control until the arrival of law enforcement.

Several years ago as I arrived at the Sheriff’s Office, I heard a disturbance in the area of the lobby next to the dispatch office where I worked. An agitated individual was in the lobby, trying to recover some items that had been taken from him when he was last arrested. Released just the night before from a mainland jail, he had returned to the islands and was working himself up into a frenzy about the recovery of his property. I knew the court clerks would be entering the lobby at any time to check for new arrests over the night, so I entered the lobby to try to calm him and monitor his actions. He was frantically going through his pack and tossing items on the floor, including a folding saw and pruning shears. I secured these by standing on the shears and holding the saw behind my back. I urged him to write a statement describing his missing items. This seemed to work for a moment, and he wrote a few large words on the paper, then announced “I’ve got another one!”, referring to the folding saw I held behind my back. He reached into his inner jacket pocket to pull out what did appear (and proved to be) a larger folding saw, I dropped the saw I held, stepped forward to deliver an atemi to his face, took control of the arm he had been using to pull the weapon, now protecting his face, and did a tight ikkyo takedown, within the four by six feet of unobstructed space in the lobby.

He struggled vigorously and unsuccessfully against a nikyo pin, and I was quickly assisted by another dispatcher and then by several deputies. One of the deputies assisted me in escorting him to the jail area, where I pinned him upright into a corner with one hand with an ikkyo variation as we frisked him for additional weapons. As we did so, he continued to struggle against the pin and cried out “Where is that old man? I’m going to kick his ass!”

The episode was typical of such encounters—short and chaotic, but successful in that nobody got hurt and, I suppose, justice was served. Perhaps I could have avoided the situation altogether, but someone else could have walked into the situation and ended up getting hurt. Since I have law enforcement status he was charged with assault and resisting arrest, I got to demonstrate ikkyo in court before the judge, and the attacker spent a few more months in jail. Later, the Sheriff thanked me for handling the attack without causing any injury.


One limitation on the techniques that we can safely use when dealing with a real attack is the fact that most attackers are unable to safely take high falls. Our responsibility is to protect even a genuine attacker, which means that any technique that ends with a high fall is inappropriate. The successful resolution of attack must lead the attacker’s energy toward a safe place on the hard ground, and in a safe path. That safe path is subject to the environment we are in. The spaces in which we are required to perform technique when we are off the mat are seldom ideal. In the dojo we have other concerns, since we often work in crowded conditions and the motion of the partners around us are constantly affecting the space available to us. In a real situation we are unlikely to have the luxury of mats, and we may also have irregular surfaces with poor footing and obstacles such as furniture, doorways and other uninvolved people. It may be possible to shift our location to a more favorable one, but usually we will be confined to the place where the action begins.

It is important to maintain control after a technique is performed, and to acquire possession of any weapons involved in the attack. For this reason a throw that does not easily lead to a pin is of little value, except when nothing else works. My personal experience suggests that it is best if the pin results in a face-down position with full control of an arm. The inability of the attacker to see you assists in diffusing anger, and is also better at leading to control of a weapon. Nikyo, sankyo and yonkyo pins are ideal for this purpose. While I am not an advocate of the use of weapons, it’s not a bad idea to understand firearms enough to know how to render one safe and unusable, and the grips that can be safely employed when taking away various types of firearms.

Techniques that rely upon pain compliance are of dubious value in controlling some assailants. No Aikido technique should rely upon pain for its success, though pain may be a component of technique. Don’t expect someone to give up just because it hurts. I well remember once being subjected to nerve-grinding yonkyo at a seminar, which I stubbornly decided to resist. The nage finally said in frustration “Doesn’t that hurt?”. Tears were running down my face, but I shrugged him off, saying “Yes, but it doesn’t work!”. If anything, pain has the potential to fuel the rage of an attacker, and makes it that much more difficult to maintain control. Alcohol and drugs reduce sensitivity to pain, and some drugs such as PCP totally anesthetize a person under its influence. I have found, nonetheless, that even someone under the influence of PCP can be controlled with the proper body mechanics of a good pin. The folding saw attacker mentioned previously was found to be under the influence of alcohol, and also was positive for five of the six psychotropic drugs for which he was tested. He had managed to get in this state less than 24 hours after being released from incarceration.

Techniques that result in the hyper-extension of a joint have a high risk of causing injury when applied to a resistant subject. Some versions of jujenage and certain variations of ikkyo can present this problem. Jujinage is not the best choice anyway, since it does not readily lead into a face-down pin. Ikkyo is ideal as long as it is applied with a slight protective bend of the joint, and finished with a secure pin, such as nikyo.

It is futile to plan in detail for real life attacks, as they are by nature unpredictable and variable. You should train in the traditional way with sincere ukes who give some resistance and varied attacks appropriate to your experience. There can be no shortcuts, or any perfect technique that will always be successful in all circumstances. What you can do is to control those variables that are within your control. Don’t go where you have no need to go or where there is the slightest sense that it would be unwise. Use best practices of Aikido principle to meet and redirect apparent aggressive intentions, and be ready to respond with all your heart if you must. Run if that is a safe option.

Techniques that may be unwise to apply vary according to the situation and your level of training, but in general some rules apply. Be observant of the body language of the potential assailant. Don’t go for big movements and big blends, but seek small circles and direct entries whenever possible. Try to end the action as quickly as possible. Avoid koshinage, most kokyunage, iriminage, most kaitennage, jujinage, tenchi-nage and shihonage. Avoid any throw that pins face up, does not give you full control of a weapon or leaves any freedom of movement. Do not use a throw that leads someone to a forward roll, as they won’t take it, and they will not be discouraged enough to call it quits. If an assailant doesn’t know how to fall and has no intention of voluntarily doing so it will be your responsibility to lead him or her into a safe and controlled resolution. Be willing to give up what you are doing and take the technique in a new direction. When pushed, pull. When pulled, push.

If you are faced with the rare skilled attacker or the coordinated action of more than one attacker, none of the above restraints will necessarily apply. Do what you must, and follow the general principles of any successful randori. Don’t hesitate, don’t stop, don’t back up, don’t spend

time concentrating on any particular attacker and constantly move forward toward the weakest apparent point in the attack. You will not have the time to be choosy about technique and you may need to use all available techniques in your repertoire. Be sure that each and every throw leads firmly down when possible, and try to use the attackers against each other, as in any good randori, by using one as a shield or barrier against the others.

Defending yourself with a weapon, even something as innocuous as a kubotan (a keychain-sized pressure point device) can change the dynamics of the situation if you are attacked. For reasons discussed in the next section, it is best to use your empty hands, your attacker’s weapon or whatever is immediately and naturally available, such as a regular ring of keys. Remember that your weapon can become your attacker’s weapon, and your use of any type of weapon works against you in court, even in self defense situations.

At times you will need to modify technique in order to make it more viable, so that a technique which most commonly ends with a throw ends instead in a face-down pin, preferably with the controlled arm in a high position. This should either be a technique in which you have trained, or a straightforward adaptation and blending of movements with which you are already familiar. I do not advocate special techniques or dedicated self-defense only training, as I think that goes against the traditions and principles of our art.

On one occasion I had the opportunity to apply kaitennage to someone who had attacked a nurse, and up to a point it worked very well. I had the attacker apparently controlled, hand and arm above his back, head held down. It was very nearly classical, but I was unsure what direction to take him from there, and I paused. In that moment he reached into his pocket with his free hand, came up with a can of Mace and sprayed it over his shoulder full in my face. At that point I did what I should have done in the first place: I sank to my knees and drove his controlled shoulder straight down to the floor and converted it to a high nikyo pin, without being able to see a thing. A little pressure, and he dropped the can of Mace.


When it comes to the law and the use of Aikido techniques to protect yourself or others, the question of what technique to use is relatively straightforward in relation to the possible legal ramifications. Laws vary state by state and country to country, so it is only possible to look at the overall picture in a very general way, and this discussion should not be taken as legal advice. If you find yourself forced to apply in real life the techniques you have learned on the mat, immediately afterwards say very little or nothing, and consult with a lawyer if law enforcement becomes involved in any way. It does not matter that you are in the right and know it. The law is full of qualifying words such as “justifiable” and “reasonable”, and these are words that mean something to one person and something very different to another. Witnesses notoriously will color their report in accordance with their sympathies. It will be up to you and the person who attacked you and your respective witnesses as to the interpretation of the incident by law enforcement and in any subsequent court action, even if you are appearing as a victim and the other party is a defendant.

There are three elements which must be present before you can use physical force against an apparent attacker: The attacker must have the means; that is, the physical capability, weapons or skill necessary to carry out an attack. The attacker must have the opportunity to perform an attack, requiring some proximity. A statement that he or she is going to get you, delivered from a distance, is a threat but not an attack, unless the means to immediately bridge that distance, such as a projectile weapon, is present. Finally, intent must be present in order for it to be considered an attack. This refers to the other person’s state of mind, which you will have to infer from his or her actions and any statements that are made immediately or in the recent past. Before you can legally use force to defend yourself, you must reasonably believe that you are about to be injured or harmed. Every situation is different, but in summary the attacker must want to hurt you, be capable of hurting you and the circumstances must be such that it is possible.

In order to successfully claim self-defense afterwards, you will have to pass the test of the “doctrine of unclean hands”. The gist is that you cannot have in any way provoked the altercation, by threatening words, belligerent behavior, the display of a weapon or even the implication of one. Violation of this doctrine can negate the argument of self-defense in a court action, regardless of who actually started overt aggression first. If an attacker withdraws from the assault, and you pursue and continue the altercation, you may be denied the self-defense argument. If you react in an excessive manner to an attack, you will run afoul of the concept of proportionality. This requires that your responses be scaled, or in proportion to, the threat with which you are faced. It comes down to presenting a reasonable response appropriate to the nature and degree of hazard presented by an attack. The response must use no more force than is necessary to prevent or mitigate an assault on your person.

In some states the so-called “castle doctrine” gives much more leeway if you are attacked in your own house, or even on your property. Generally speaking, this golden zone does not extend beyond your own domicile or property line. In my home state of Washington and some other states, regardless of your location you have no duty to retreat. In other words you may stand your ground and defend yourself if threatened, but the best legal and moral advice is to retreat if possible, until it is unsafe to retreat further.

In a civil court much different standards apply. In the famous O.J. Simpson case, he was acquitted in a criminal case and held liable for the same action in a civil case. It was not just the vagaries of the jury system, but a difference in the rules of law and evidence that apply in criminal and civil cases that helped produce this result. Criminal law is absolute, and juries are held to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which most often is interpreted as absolute certainty. In civil law, the standard is one of likelihood, not certainty. Many states in fact, including California, Texas and Florida have a so-called “comparative fault” principle, which weighs the relative degree of fault of both parties in a civil complaint. Both may be found at fault in varying degrees, affecting the ultimate settlement. Because of the relative ease of proving a case and the potential financial reward, many allegations which would not meet the standards of criminal law are brought to civil courts. Even if law enforcement finds no fault, you could later be summoned to a civil action.

Aikido principles and techniques, properly applied, are not likely to result in your involvement with either court system. If you cause no lasting injury to an assailant there is very little to justify a criminal or even civil complaint. You may very well find yourself summoned to court to testify against an assailant, however, and it is always possible that someone may file a civil complaint, possibly months later. Most lawyers will take such cases only when paid up front or when there is a good likelihood of being on the winning side with substantial damages from which to draw their fee.

Keep in mind that the objective truth as you see it is not the reality that others perceive. If you need to appear in criminal court or in a civil action it will be your word against that of others. Aside from physical evidence, absolute truth has no meaning in testimony in a courtroom—the only question is; who is most credible, who is believed. Present yourself dispassionately and professionally. Always tell the truth from the very beginning as you observed it. Don’t exaggerate or attempt to interpret what you observed. Make simple straightforward statements in response to questions, and never volunteer anything that you were not asked. Don’t say “he was trying to kill me”, simply “I felt in fear for my life”. You can only guess at what someone intends, though you can certainly state “he said he was going to kill me”.

As trained martial artists we are held to a higher standard than the average person. The first impression other people have may be negative, influenced by the distorted view of martial arts held by many in the general public. While there is no law registering the hands of karate experts as lethal weapons (if there were, we’d have to register our hips) you may need to explain the principles of Aikido, and possibly even demonstrate technique in court. I suggest pantomime. You definitely don’t want to demonstrate on the defendant or plaintiff or his or her lawyer. You may need to present your curriculum vitae—a brief summary of your training and any other relevant information, such as employment that puts you in contact with the public or gives you responsibilities for public safety.

Smile, you’re on camera! Don’t be surprised if video of an incident shows up in court, or maybe even on YouTube or cable TV! In every public place and many private ones you should assume that you are being filmed and audio recorded. If there isn’t a surveillance system in the area, there probably is someone with a cell phone camera. If you act in accordance with proper ethics and principles, this can only help you, even as you may regret the notoriety. If you behave as if someone is recording every move and statement, you will be fine if someone actually is.

The first priority in any potential conflict should be to avoid the situation if possible. If that is impossible, attempt to escape the attack before events progress. The final option is to deal with the attack with the minimum possible response. Any Aikido technique performed so as to avoid serious injury to the other party will be appropriate. In any encounter requiring the use of a pin or throw, if the other person is injured or if he or she or associates know you or can find you again, you must contact law enforcement. The things you do and say in this first law enforcement contact and even before can make life easier for you or complicate the situation considerably. If an unreported initial attack is followed by another more serious event, law enforcement personnel will want to know why you did not report the first incident.

In the first minutes after an attack you will suffer an adrenaline storm, and people have been known to say some pretty bizarre or irrelevant things under the influence of a bucket-load of adrenaline. If this is brought into court and presented as a sign of your callous disregard (“She was more concerned about her torn pants than my client’s dislocated shoulder!”) the judge or jury may be distracted from the vital fact that you are the victim of a failed assault. Remember that you have the right to remain silent, and that is not a right offered solely to criminals. You may wish to delay speaking until the initial excitement and adrenaline level has subsided, then decide whether or not to speak further without legal counsel. Refusal to speak without counsel from an attorney cannot be held against you in an investigation or in later court proceedings. Your decision is important, and can influence the rest of your life.

So walk (or run) away if you can. If you can’t safely leave, use all your wiles and training to avoid using physical force. If you must physically react to an attack, let your training carry you through to the resolution of the threat without hesitation or concern. In over 30 years Aikido techniques have never failed to work for me in the real world. The action may not be pretty or traditional, but nobody gets hurt, the problem is resolved, and in all that time and in dozens of incidents, no one has ever brought a complaint about the use of excessive force or inappropriate restraint. Will it always work? That does not matter, as long as you approach each situation with sincerity and the attitude that an unexpected event is not a contest, but an opportunity to give expression to your ability to sense and act on what is right in the world. Then, whatever happens, happens. I do not believe that your ability to survive a violent attack will be compromised by study of and adherence to the ethical standards and physical patterns of modern Aikido, for ultimately we will each do what is needed to survive, driven by the instincts of the lizard brain that resides deep in each of us. A deeply embedded set of ethical standards and responses should make it more likely we can survive in a way that we are comfortable with later.


In most respects the immediate world in which we live is a positive and rewarding place. Those problems that we have as individuals and societies largely can be attributed to a failure of communication and trust. Our training in Aikido is largely about communication, usually of a non-verbal sort. We listen to the body, for there are fewer lies in body language than in verbal intercourse. We could not train in Aikido without a high level of trust; for the art itself, our teachers and those with whom we share the mat to both receive and perform technique. Whenever we train with openness to learning we exercise our trust, which is the only way that we can continue to grow and evolve as individuals and as a society.

The world remains a less than perfect place, and in common with every generation since humanity became conscious of itself and its environment, we are convinced that things are getting worse at a rapid pace. Just as you should evaluate your progress in Aikido not by where you are now, but where you were one or five or ten years ago, think of the conditions 6o plus years ago, when tens of millions died in a world-wide war. Think of the standards of 200 years ago, when slavery was legal in much of this country. Think of the uncertainty of life several thousand years ago, when warfare routinely meant the extinction or attempted extinction of whole cultures, and the rights we take for granted were only concepts. Slavery still exists, warfare and ethnic cleansing still rage, rights are still concepts to many; yet we live in a better world than ever, we are aware of our shortcomings, and we do not glory in them. We can make the future of mankind better through our personal commitment to Aikido, both the principles and proper performance of appropriate technique. Our Path may not be the only solution to the problems of the world, but we can make it a part of the solution, and we can refrain from being part of the problem.

There are good people and bad people in the world, and thus it will always be. Perhaps we must always have a few evil people around to convince us that we are, in comparison, good. A good uke (that is, someone who is good at being bad) is necessary in order for you to become a good nage. We need that brush of evil in our hearts in order to recognize and develop the good aspects that should dominate our personalities. Aikido is not a means of becoming perfect, but a tool by which we become aware and in control of our imperfections. We can make other people’s lives better by the way in which we react to them in our encounters, regardless of the nature of the interaction. When we have found and isolated that kernel of evil, the black dot in the white field of yang; the white dot in the black field of yin, we can harness its energy for the betterment of ourselves and our society. By opening ourselves to communication with all, to trust in others, we may win some and lose some, but over the long term we will gain much, through a society based on love and respect, rather than force.

Pride in accomplishment is part of human character. This is not inherently bad, but pride in the practical application of Aikido is dangerous. The goal of Aikido is to avoid conflict, and successful conflict is not an indication that the goal has been achieved. Physical resolution of violent attack may be necessary, but it is not something to feel good about it, and never to be sought as a test. Modern Aikido is designed to be a conflict resolving art, and when used for an offensive purpose and without strict ethical standards, Aikido is just good body mechanics with no spiritual foundation, and as subject to defeat as any other martial “art” in a contest.

The Founder had a vision of a world evolving toward peace under the influence of training in Aikido. Through our relations with others in and out of the dojo we are each important to the fulfillment of that vision. Whether you believe in ki energy or the vision of a world at peace or just the solid reality of a good throw and a strong pin, each of us have chosen the Path of Aikido for some reason. Something keeps us coming back, despite pain and disappointment and injury and frustration. We step on the mat, bow in and go at it once again, again and again. We believe in something, though it may not be easily expressed in words. This belief is not easily reduced to the level of words, but is better felt in the body, and expressed by the body in the language of action. When words fail to defuse a situation (and we must be sure that our words have not inflamed it) then we may need to respond to an attack with the memories in our muscles, the product of performing ikkyo 20,000 times, of blending a million times or more.

It is my hope and belief that you will never need to use physical technique in a life-threatening situation, unless you have placed yourself in the path of violence as I have through job choice or environment. Remain vigilant and aware, with a positive attitude toward others and you should not have to be tested in a violent life and death encounter. However, as I Fratelli Bologna said, “I know, I know, but you know, you never know”.


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Thanks are due to many people, who have assisted me in getting started in Aikido, maintaining my involvement through many, sometimes difficult years, and who have contributed to this writing project.

In 1974 I was inspired by Loren Pelkey, a student of Aikido sword under Rick Rowell. Rick became my first instructor and encouraged me to go beyond my first shallow interest in “samurai sword” fighting to full commitment to the principles of Aikido. Years later I became a junior partner with Rowell Sensei in founding Aikido of Diablo Valley in Walnut Creek, still active in Concord, California under his leadership.

I continued my studies in parallel at the Aikido Institute, then of Berkeley and later in Oakland, first with Bill Witt and then Bruce Klickstein, who prepared me for my Shodan test in 1981, and presented me with the belt that I wear to this day, now so worn as to be nearly white. During these years I traveled around the Bay Area to train wherever I could, with Frank Doran, Bob Nadeau, Hans Goto, Hoa Newens, George Leonard, Wendy Palmer, Richard Heckler, Kim Peuser, Bernice Tom, Richard Moon, Michael Hudson and others. All contributed in a positive way to whatever understanding of the art that I achieved then or since. Several opportunities to train directly with Morihiro Saito during his visits in the late 70’s and early 80’s convinced me of my dedication to the Iwama style of Aikido.

George Leonard served on my thesis committee for the preparation and publication of my Master’s thesis, The Way of the Warrior as a Path to Spiritual Mastery; the Modern Art of Aikido, completed and submitted in early 1981 at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California. His advice and example served me well in my attempt to integrate the physical, spiritual and academic aspects of Aikido.

There are too many people to enumerate to thank for keeping my passion for Aikido alive during the years from 1985 to the present, after I moved to the San Juan Islands in Washington State. At health clubs, Grange buildings, high schools, state and local parks, the Dojo on Lopez Island (a dedicated building on our property) and currently in the local Taekwondo studio, numerous local residents have joined me for varying lengths of time in the shared study of the principles of Aikido, inspired and informed by the traditions embodied in what is now called Takemusu Aikido.

Aviv Goldsmith welcomed and guided me back into the fold when I began attending the annual Memorial Day Gasshuku in 2005. Witt Shihan has been generous in sponsoring and mentoring me since my contact with him at that event, and each since. Every time I have the opportunity to train with him I am reminded of the reasons that I have chosen Aikido as a major part of my life’s path. I owe a debt to the Takemusu Aikido Association, and all who have served to establish and maintain it, for keeping alive the Traditional Aikido that first inspired me.

Thanks are also due to those who have assisted me in the editing of this manuscript, especially my wife and supporter, D.T., though I claim any error or deficiency as my own. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Charles Silverman reviewed the legal aspects of the document, and Sgt. Scott Brennan of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, a martial arts expert in his own right, provided numerous suggestions as well. Hans Goto and Aviv Goldsmith Senseis reviewed a late draft and made useful comments and criticisms. Several of my current students, including Gys Bruins, Jon Ruhnke, Peter Thelin, Tom Boydston and Tigran Norekian also provided valuable suggestions. Their continued interest in the art of Aikido keeps my passion for it alive.

Finally and most of all, I thank a remarkable man I never met, Morihei Uyeshiba, for the insight and courage of a life devoted to the task of influencing the world for the better by transforming a life of martial discipline and accomplishment into an example suitable for a world to follow.

(Submitted for 3rd dan, Takemusu Aikido Association, May 23, 2009)

Charles McCarty

Island Aikido

Friday Harbor, Washington

The author releases any copyright and permits this article to be freely reproduced, distributed and excerpted from subject to reference to the original document.