Learning Aikido

Aikido can be a challenging and frustrating art to learn.

When you first start it seems as if there are hundreds of techniques, scores of attacks and thousands of combinations – each with a ten syllable Japanese name. Though, actually, it is not the sheer numbers of moves that makes Aikido difficult. Once you get into it you soon realise that there are only a dozen or so “important” techniques and a similar number of common attacks. While there are indeed a vast number of combinations and variations the basic starting points fit together like a jigsaw. For any attack there are only a few useful starts (a small tenkan to avoid a moving ai katate dori attack, a “back triangular” foot movement for gyaku and so on) and once you’ve done the start there are only a few techniques that make much sense. Later on you find that small changes of angle and posture can create a seemingly unbounded number of variations but you don’t need to worry about that so much to begin with.

So there may be lots of combinations but the number of basic moves to get the hang of is not that great. Pretty soon you start to feel that you’ve seen most of the main moves already. Throw in a bit of blending and remember to breathe, and you are sorted.

Then it starts to get hard.

Watch someone who is fairly new to Aikido perform a common technique – say ai katate dori ikkyo. Then watch a senior do the same move. It’s clear the senior is much better at it (I hope!). They’ll look more relaxed, more in control, with better posture – the technique just works. Then look at how their hands and feet move – to an untrained eye the moves the two aikidoka are making might look pretty similar. So, why the difference in effectiveness? That’s the challenge in Aikido. It is what is sometimes called an inner art. I’ve no idea what that means officially, but it certainly seems to me that the difference between a technique that works, and one that doesn’t, is mostly about how it feels on the inside. As you progress you rapidly understand that the nuances of how you move your hips, how you hold your arms, how relaxed you are, breathing, all make a big difference to how your Aikido works yet only a small difference to what, from the outside, your body seems to be doing.

When I had been training in Aikido for about a year we had a senior guest instructor come to our club. He showed ai katate dori ikkyo. I had done ikkyo many times by then but he said something very useful. He said “Ikkyo, first technique we meet, last technique we learn”. That was a great relief to me. I’d been working hard for a year. I had a shiny yellow belt (well, actually, a pale lemon coloured belt, but that’s another story), but I still didn’t feel I could make the most basic technique like ikkyo work well. That lesson helped me to understand that it wasn’t the details of the angles and how I moved my feet I needed to learn next – it was how to get the feeling of the technique right.

There are a few basic principles that describe the nuances of how Aikido techniques work. We could just write (most of) them down:

Relax. Move from the hips. Lead. Blend. Keep your hands in front of your centre. Use both hands. Relax. Keep weight underside. Maintain ‘one point’. Torifune. Extend (or extend Ki depending on your style). Breath out. Triangle, circle, square. Avoid, balance, control. Join, connect, catch. Keep your head up. Relax.

The trouble is that just writing them down doesn’t help much. Ironically it was a fiction story, whose lead character studied karate, that helped me to understand the problem here. In this story our hero was trying to learn a particular form of snap kick. His sensei told him “lift your leg, relax your knee, let your leg flip up”. He practised for weeks focussing on this move. He didn’t get any better. Then at the end of a particularly long session he was so tired he didn’t think about it and suddenly executed a perfect snap kick. A fellow student saw how good it was and asked how he had done it. “Well, I just just sort of relaxed my knee and let my leg flip up”!

The point is that the descriptions like “relax your knee” do capture what you are striving for, and do describe the principle quite nicely once you have learnt it, but don’t really tell you how to achieve that learning. For that the only thing is practice, and then more practice.

The fact that these principles run so deep, make such a big difference, and yet take so much to develop, is what makes Aikido so endlessly rewarding, as well as frustrating.

So just relax, extend, keep weight-underside and remember to breathe …

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