Frequently asked questions
Is aikido for me?
If you are not seriously injured or if you don’t have X-Men superpowers, Aikido may fit with you. As a Budo, Aikido can be practiced by everybody and most of the time all the students practice together at the same time: old or young people, advanced or beginners, male or female, etc. Aikido is part of what is called internal martial arts, that means a martial that do not require or develop the use of pure strength but some other skills like coordination, timing, harmonization (not blocking the partner).
The only pre-requisite is to get the right attitude: aikido learning curve is slower than “fighting martial art” (such as Kung-fu or self-defence), it takes time and perseverance. If you ready to commit, aikido is definitively for you
What are the benefits of practicing Aikido?
Practising Aikido on a regular basis will develop a lot of skills.
Physically, if Aikido does not develop pure strength (like lifting some weight in a gym for example), Aikido will develop core strength: balance, posture, legs (falling down and standing up will definitively improve your legs and your overall condition). The way we practice in this dojo will develop also flexibility and will remove internal tensions (internal tensions make your movement heavy and visible by your partner).
Self-development wise, practicing aikido will help you to reduce your stress, your insecurity, to improve your vigilance…
Is Aikido really effective as a martial art?
The first answer will be yes but it is absolutely necessary to define what the expectations behind this word are. Giving the fact that, without any X-Men super power, nobody can be faster than a bullet, the effectiveness is something that needs to be defined.
Aikido is not a set of techniques that is designed to hurt people but a set of technics and principles that will be used to overcome aggression protecting people, including your partner.
As an Aikido teacher, I have been asked a lot of question in that sense: “is it relay effective?”, “Which martial art is the strongest?”, “Can I kill people with aikido?”
For the last question I would recommend to ask yourself first why would you kill somebody? And maybe a therapist would be more effective than an Aikido teacher (joke). For the two first question, the answer will be that it depends on the practitioner, not on the martial art itself.
As it is said above, the learning curve in Aikido is slow, maybe slower than other martial arts indeed, but with time, perseverance and hard work, an aikidoka (aikido student) will develop all the skills that may help him to survive to a common aggression (see the first point related to the gun fight).
How long does it take to get a black belt?
Of course the answer will be different for each cases, mastering aikido requires a lot of commitment, hard work and perseverance. But my experience shows that a particularly gifted student practicing everyday (actively) can get a black belt three years after he/she started (I personally met a student like that). For the more-average people, the required time will be a longer. Don’t forget that a student who gets his/her 1st Dan black belt is called shodan (“beginner’s grade”), that means that the journey starts here, everything before was a preparation for this journey.
Of course, you still can buy a black belt and pretend to be a yudansha (black belt student) without any days of practice, as far as nobody asks you for any demonstration, it can work (joke).
Are there Aikido trainings dedicated to new students?
There is no beginner’s class for now, not that no beginners are admitted, of course not, but all student (total beginners or advanced) come and train at the same time. There is no secret technic in Aikido. A total beginner can be asked for his first day of practice to work on a technic that could be asked for a 6th Dan test. Of course the expectations won’t be the same. In the dojo, the teacher is responsible to take care of each students, feeding them with what they actually need. Aside of the global teaching approach, there is an individual follow-up for each students.
What importance should we give to weapons in aikido?
This is a very usual question in aikido.
Personally, I really like the practice of weapons.
For the intensity it brings “naturally” to the practice but also because the practice of weapons illustrates in the strongest way the notion of staging of our own practice: Before the training, the Bokken is only a piece of (twisted) wood, as the training begins, the piece of wood becomes a blade with the sharpest edge. And when the course ends, the sword turns back into a piece of wood. All this reminds us that what we do is about representation, a (school backyard?) game.
From the point of view of building up the body, the practice of weapons such as a bokken, for example, will require the students to align/organize the body in a very natural way. With the both hands on the bokken, it takes indeed a lot of effort not to have the body not aligned. On the contrary, grabbing a bokken with the two hands, the hips and the body are placed quite naturally, and this makes it an interesting pedagogical tool.
Are weapons indispensable to the practice of aikido?
I do not think so (it is only my own opinion).
First, it is important to note that the practice of Ken in Aikido does not reach a very high level. Aikido is not a school of Kenjutsu. The exercises that are practiced are extremely basic in comparison to what is done in the traditional schools of kenjutsu. The exercises performed in aikido are usually degraded exercises (we will say "adapted") of the sword schools (Kashima, Katori, etc.). And the legacy of O Sensei in this matter is rather blurry, on purpose I think. What O Sensei has given to us is more of a tool box than the repertoire of a sword school, strictly speaking.
It is certainly possible to use the sword as part of an Aikido course (Taijutsu) to illustrate a movement or a line. However, I am not persuaded that the element that is explained with a bokken cannot be explained by the verb. In fact, it happens that the sword is used as an educational tool in a situation which (to be nice) I cannot understand. In this situation, Tori holds a sword and Uke does not. The teacher then tries to explain the technique using his completely artificial advantage (the sword) without realizing that this situation is wrong. Because this situation is based on the fact that Uke acted initially in a "taijutsu" framework, without any of the protagonists being armed), and Tori when the time seems opportune, uses a sword out of nowhere... Would it come from a distortion of Te-Gatana? “Move, if my arm was a sword you'd be dead"... "And if I had wheels, I'd be a bicycle."
The professor ignores in this case that if Uke would had considered the possibility of a sword he would probably attack differently (part of the aikido being precisely to study how to disarm an armed partner).
One question still tickles me about the practice of weapons and the sword in particular. How to reconcile the pacifist ambitions, or can we say, compassion, of Aikido faced with Uke when the majority of sabre movements end with a cut that would be lethal to the partner?
To this I have no answer, but I keep digging.
Is it necessary to practice other martial arts?
You may know this sentence “the mind is like a parachute; it works better when it opens”.
I think that we shall keep in mind that Aikido is not the ultimate martial art, that this so called ultimate martial art does not exist, and that nobody has the Truth (not even me who is writing these lines, how ironic it is, isn’t it ?)
In that way, practicing another martial art in parallel of the practice of Aikido can definitively help not to be confused about this.
Doing some sparing with a boxer is really interesting in term of reaction on unexpected attacks, the practice of Win Chun is also very good at protecting the center line in a very close distance from a partner, the feeling on the whole body that Taiichi brings is fundamental or to use an example that a lot of aikidokas will appreciate, the practice of Kenjutsu will bring a lot of sense into the weapon practice in Aikido.
Nevertheless, I think that it is very difficult to dedicate ourselves deeply into several martial arts at the same time. It may also be taken as a lack of consideration to use another martial art as a complementary activity. It would consider that Boxing, Win Chun, Tai chi, Kenjutsu at the same level as swimming, jogging or stationary bike.
The question that is more interesting is why we think we have to practice another martial art.
Aren't we sure enough about our own practice? In that case, is it coming from a lack of attention on our own practice (are we doing all the necessary effort to get all what the martial art can bring on this matter)? Is it coming from the teaching (in the case of a teaching which would not put emphasis on the part of the practice that you have an interested to)? Is it coming from the art martial itself that does not bring what we need at this moment of our life?
Is it the quest for the ultimate fighter that remains around? Do we still believe that the ultimate practice exists? It is indeed an effective commercial argument ... maybe we should think about changing the martial detergent "Plouff" which is twice as effective as our good old classic detergent ... Fear or in any case insecurity is a lever of very powerful enslavement for a martial arts teacher. To be aware of it is already to be a little less sensitive to it… and understanding why we have this feeling of a need to practice several practices can also be a great step forward…
How to self-evaluate?
This article follows a discussion on ZOOM (“Les causeries du Jeudi” that could be translated into “small talks on Thursday”) with Gaston Nicolessi Sensei, aikido teacher in charge of “Le Dojo de la Roseraie” in Toulouse where Franck Noel Shihan (founder of the dojo) teaches still. Gaston is also a member of the Technical College of the French federation of Aikido, Aikibudo and Affinitaires and, as such, takes an active part in the technical supervision of aikido in France.
The discussion was about self-evaluation in Aikido.
The lack of competition, which is one of the things that makes aikido distinctive, has a very concrete effect on the method of evaluation. In a sport, competition "simplifies" the measurement of a practitioner's progress. By the number of matches won, the individual knows how to place himself on the practitioner scale.
But in aikido the reality is different, and this lack of competition forces us to find different evaluation methods / criteria. This is what the two French aikido federations within the CSDGE have done, for example, to frame the grading tests that they have in common and which Gaston shared with us.
The 3 basic criteria are:
- Formal knowledge of techniques (of the repertore)
- Construction of the technics
- Respect for the integrity of the partner.
Of course, these 3 principles can be used in the context of his own evaluation as a practitioner and we will try now to deepen them.
The first point is quite explicit. Aikido has a relatively small technical repertoire compared to other martial arts and seeing your own deficiencies in this repertoire allows you to easily gauge your level in this area.
Let's focus now on the 2nd principle: construction of the technics.
This step can be divided into three phases:
- How to position yourself
- Uke’s imbalance (how to create it and how to lead it)
- The final move.
Positioning refers to all of the movements (forward, backward, out of line, taking an angle) that constitute how the Tori will make contact with Uke's attack. It is important to move appropriately, favoring a translation (forward, backward, transverse) first and then a rotation to modify the distance between Tori and Uke.
The imbalance is a key phase in the construction of the technique. Because that is what an Aikidoka does throughout the practice: creating imbalance. During this phase of creation, it is imperative to keep your own balance, and we will put emphasis on keeping our verticality and our center (unity of the body, a rather "compact" body, the action closer to oneself than to Uke who has to be out of his/her center). Once you, as Tori, manage to create imbalance, it is interesting to wonder about the mechanisms of this creation. Is it the move? Is it an atemi? (I can see too many Uke being thrown out of balance because of the fear of an atemi rather than being put out of balance).
As for the final move, the most spectacular phase, when Uke falls, it is also imperative to check whether Tori is physically able to transmit this impulse to the partner. Concretely, this will often take the form of a forward move (translation of the hips, forward weight transfer), the steps will be "full", the feet being fully in contact with the ground, the knees relaxed. , the weight “sitting” down in the hips.
When it comes to partner integrity, this should be at the heart of our practice. I would think of it from the angle I spoke of earlier when I quickly spoke of atemi. Is my Uke unbalanced by my move or by a sanction (atemi or pain). I have practiced with brutal or painful Tori, but now I see that it was more about a lack of skill than a lack of empathy towards me.
If we now take a little altitude and go beyond the physical details, the main source for self-evaluation is still the practice. In particular, Ippan Geiko where Uke tries to remain neutral, reacting to Tori's actions without anticipating or, on the contrary, blocking. This practice generally highlights errors which would not be visible in the case where Uke reacts in an automatic way as soon as he recognizes which technique is happening (many Tori push on Ikkyo whereas it is a question of going down, but for reasons I do not understand some Uke keep going to the ground on this horizontal constraint).
It is also imperative to practice outside of your regular dojo. Especially in the case of small dojos, where the number of students is not very large. Because the complicity (which can also be conflict) between the practitioners will give false feelings of accomplishment. Practicing with an unusual Uke is a great way to get over the "does this really work" questions.
Finally, and this point is aimed more specifically at the oldest, it is very rewarding to practice with peers of comparable level but from significantly different schools. It allows you to find the reasons for doing things the way they are. Breaking down dogmas will help to evaluate one's own practice.
Philippe, Feb 2021