You call that ‘Aikido?’

There are many interpretations of Ai Ki Do – some dealing more with techniques applied in combat situations through to some which focus much more on the highest levels of spiritual understanding.

Aikido was the name chosen by the founder, Morihei Ueshiba or Osensei, for his art and if one encounters those who actually trained with him or reads his writings, then it is clear to what degree anybody’s particular interpretation agrees with Osensei’s vision. Furthermore, a better understanding is achieved after dedicated practice.

Some might think that Aikido should be preserved exactly as the Founder transmitted it, but it is readily apparent that Aikido was a work in progress and continued to evolve and become more aligned with the potential that Osensei saw.

Some of Osensei’s top students continued to refine the art and the way it was taught after their master passed on. One of these students was Koichi Tohei Sensei, who began the style known as Shin Shin Toitsu or ‘Ki” Aikido.

Whatever school we are from, it is surely necessary to acquaint ourselves with Osensei’s intentions and then take a deep look at the way we are practising. Does it fit with the specific spiritual attitude and ethics of Osensei and do the techniques agree with his spiritual insights? If so, then we are indeed practising an interpretation of Aikido. If the attitude and techniques we learn are not in accord, then it’s not really Aikido, but something else.

So what does Ai Ki Do actually mean in Japanese?

The first character “Ai” depicts harmony, the coming together of entities or forces.

The second character is, of course, “Ki”, which is the energy of the Universe and also often refers to the intention and energy of an attack or technique.  

The third character is “Do” which denotes a spiritual Way, a path through life whereby we may gain in understanding.

So, we get ‘Harmony Ki Way.’

This could be interpreted several ways. Some might see it primarily as a way of harmonious Ki, and of course, the techniques do not resist attacks, but blend and lead techniques to neutralisation. To do this requires the adoption of a calm, focused mind and relaxed, supple body that can sense and respond to the nature of the attack.

Aikido’s battlefield predecessor, Aiki Jujutsu, harmonised with attacks as a highly useful strategy for defeating foes.

Aikido, and especially Ki aikido, deliberately moved away from Aiki Jujutsu’s extremely devastating techniques, yet there is still the physical reality of an attacker being thrown and meeting with a solid obstacle, most likely the ground. In jujutsu they say, ‘The ground never misses.’ Not a lofty saying, but it expresses physical reality; get thrown to the ground and you’re going to get hurt. Unless, of course, you know how to roll or break your fall. And then there are Aikido’s locks, that would sprain, strain or possibly break joints or bones, if applied fully to an assailant.

A karate instructor once jokingly commented, ‘You aikido guys talk about harmony and then throw each other into walls.’Was this pointing out hypocrisy or his way of expressing admiration for the injuries Aikido’s techniques can cause? Many martial artists judge effectiveness by the degree of havoc wreaked. Perhaps he had watched too many Steven Seagal movies, but he had a point. Where’s the harmony when an attacker is hurt?

Hawaiian aikido master Takashi Nonaka once said that ‘We are all children of the Universe. None of us has the right to hurt another child of the Universe.’ We are allowed to protect ourselves in the best way we know how; the Universe has installed this instinct into its plants and animals and human beings,

Rather than be satisfied with our base natures for seeking the death and destruction of those who attack us, aikido trains us in a wiser, more mature approach .

If the attacker is injured when we truly seek harmony with the spirit of love and protection with them, then it is because their violent intent causes them to hurt themselves. We do not add any more impetus to the throw than the momentum of the attack. Despite our best efforts to look after others, we cannot prevent gravity, centrifugal force and the nature of solid matter.

The fighting mind cannot expect to be uninjured while seeking to injure! We reap as we sow.

So, for those gentle souls unwilling or unable to defend themselves, consider that allowing others to hurt you or others is agreeing to their violence. True pacifism is not passivity, but confidence and strength of character to insist on peace.

On another level, the harmony of aikido comes from its PRACTICE as both uke and nage practise respect for each other while honing each other’s skill and level of mind / body unity on the mat. The proof of good learning is whether we take this approach into life outside the dojo.

Koichi Kashiwaya Sensei, one of Tohei Sensei’s foremost disciples reminded us, ‘If only nage does Aikido, then it is no longer Aikido. ‘ Both nage and uke must follow and exhibit the principles of Aikido. Then the best character development and superior technique comes forth. Then both people grow and win.

A fighting mind cannot understand this – without a loser, there can be no winning. But that kind of winning is relative and subjective. It does not see beyond the immediate and therefore is ignorant of the greater truth.

Just because it wins on the battlefield does not make it wisdom; there is always a negative consequence to wilfully injuring another.

Thus, it is also clear that Osensei wanted his Aikido to foster a specific SPIRIT and make universal principles clear through physical verification in conflict situations. It is clear that martial geniuses such as osensei and Tohei sensei were not trying to improve on aiki jujutsu’s devastation capabilities.
When asked in interview what his art was, Osensei replied, ‘aikido wa jiko taisei no michi desu. Aikido is a path for self improvement. (Literally becoming a greater self.)

Yet there is another, even more profound meaning of Aikido that Osensei often described: aikido is the way of harmony with Ki – or being one with the Universe.

Osensei is famous for his mystical experiences of enlightenment and unity with all things and his writings encourage aikidoka to experience this for themselves, although it is not clear how this is to be achieved in concrete terms.

Tohei Sensei obviously wanted to make sure that this message was emphasised and so he formulated the Ki and aikido principles and he changed or discarded many of the original techniques to agree with these.

This could be viewed as heresy or as a refinement and loyal devotion to the essence of what osensei was wanting to bring into the world: aikido as a way to deeply experience and live in harmony or oneness with the universal Ki itself.

Let us remember that he was appointed by his teacher as chief instructor for sixteen years until osensei passed away, so at that point, osensei must have consented to Tohei’s teaching methods to some degree at least.

The methods may be different, just as techniques and teaching styles may vary even between teachers in the same dojo.

Although it could be said that techniques and strategies need to be effective in protecting ones self in actual combat, if Aikido’s effectiveness is judged by its ability to cause damage, then it is a pale cousin of aikijujutsu.

No, it was never meant to be a better fighting technique; it is meant to be a way to harmony in conflict and to create peaceful warriors with universal minds who could create a world order of love and wisdom.

Whatever interpretation we might choose, there are many valid interpretations and bio diversity is the way of nature. May we all become acquainted with the founder’s vision and see if our individual learning is in accord therewith. Ultimately, each practitioner will have their own flavour of aikido, but in order to call it aikido, one should be able to show how it reflects the founder’s vision.

About the author

Michael Geisner

Ki Aikido can become a rock solid centre that fear, confusion and conflict cannot disturb. It is that in my life and has seen me through some tough times. The way to peace requires constant practice but it pays huge dividends.

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Copyright © 2014, The Aikido Journey / Michael Geisner. Images used are for journalistic purposes, no copyright infringement is intended.