O-Sensei Ueshiba taught that peace and harmony are to be desired over violence. If so, how should we deal with violence directed at us in the form of a physical attack? Ueshiba felt that the answer didn't lie in a violent response (if you hit me, I will hit you back). Instead, we should seek to avoid conflict. Barring that, neutralize an attack by seizing control of the situation and directing it towards a resolution in which no one is harmed.
Aikido, as a term, is comprised of three kanji characters:
Ai - Harmony or blending Ki - Spirit, breath, energy Do - The way or practice
Ai: Harmony in Aikido
At the heart of all Aikido techniques is harmony - the blending of two or more people to form a harmonious whole.
When friends or lovers come together to talk, play, dance, or whatever, harmony arises from the mutual interest of the participants. When a couple dances together, there is a desire on both sides to move with the music, follow the tenants of a particular style of dance (waltzing, tango, two-step, etc.), and mutually enjoy the experience.
Conflict, on the other hand, happens when the interest of one party is being imposed on another. Violent conflict occurs when one person attempts to harm another using an unarmed attack or one involving a weapon. (Violent conflict can also extend to verbal abuse, emotional damage, etc., but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.) Aikido is the study of techniques that can be applied in situations of violent conflict and that lead to harmonious solutions.
Before harmony can begin, there needs to be awareness. The signs of a potentially violent situation are there for anyone open enough to see and understand them. There are many aspects of awareness (including emotional climate, verbal language, body language, past history, environment considerations). The point is that you need to be aware of what's going on around you at all times, especially in situations where violence might occur. Awareness is the start of harmony.
With the awareness that violence has been initiated (or will be soon), blending is the art of aligning physical motion, energy, and spirit. Blended alignment is used to gain control of the situation so that it can be neutralized. If a person tries to punch you (tsuki) fall back (or move around it). If they grab and pull, move forward with them. Once alignment starts, control of the situation can flow from the attacker to the defender. This control is what Aikido technique is all about. Blending requires long, hard practice. There are so many variables to consider it's difficult to even generalize them. However, over time, the aikidoka (student of Aikido) gains an understanding of basic attacks and how to blend with them such that a defensive technique can be applied.
Aikido technique presents the possibility of gaining control over a violent physical attack. The question then becomes: what will you do with that control? Several resolutions are possible:
- escape - create an opening in which to leave conflict behind.
- meta control - neutralize this attack so that others can be dealt with (usually in muli-person situations).
- immobilization - physical restraint of the attacker, creating the possibility of verbal resolution.
- end of conflict - create an awareness in the assailant that physical attacks will not be effective.
Aikido practice provides controlled experiences to blend with a known attack and attempt some form of resolution. These might be simple blend and run exercises or the may result in a hold-down or pin to restrain the attacker. At more advanced levels, Aikido practice introduces the student to multiple attackers and how to manage control in such situations.
Ki: Spirit and Energy in Aikido
The concept of Ki (or Chi in the in the Chinese traditions) is that energy flows through your body (and the universe at large). Speaking from a purely philosophical perspective, this energy represents power and the ability to influence both your inner self and the exterior world. It is a very useful concept that allows the student to visualize control and influence in dynamic situations. In Japanese, the character KI, (Ki), can be associated with energy, breath, or spirit. These aspects are all useful to understanding ki.
Ki is often explained as a kind of energy that can be gathered, concentrated, and applied in an Aikido technique. Koichi Tohei (founder, Ki Society) talks about ki being present all around us - it is light, gravity, motion, and so forth. - the very essence of the whole universe. Others, such as Minoru Inaba (Shiseikan Dojo, Tokyo), teach that ki is generated in the body as a product of metabolism and strength of spirit (see below). Most are in agreement that ki can be gathered into a person's center (Hara) where it is concentrated and then directed as needed. Ki can be used to resist motion (unbendable arm), enhance motion (the sword cut), or effect control in a blended situation. It can be used to verbally shock the attacker (ki-ai). Outside of violent situations, it can be used for other purposes, such as healing (Reiki and Ki-gong are examples).
In some traditions, practice with ki is the start of training. Sitting, standing, and in motion, ki is the force that makes Aikido technique work. Ki practice exercises take many forms, including centering, unbendable arm, kihon-waza forms, and weapons forms. Regardless of when it is introduced in the curriculum, ki as energy is a very useful concept that can aid visualization and understanding of the very subtle effects that can occur in Aikido.
Traditionally, ki energy was conceptualized as breath or breathing. Regardless of an eastern view of drawing in the energies of the cosmos or the western view of oxidation being vital to metabolic release of energy in the body, breathing is an important part of Aikido practice. Many schools of Aikido teaching abdominal breathing (Japanese term needed) where breath is drawn deep into the belly (often through the nose) and expelled in a controlled or forceful manner (often via the mouth). Breathing is another way to visualize ki entering and leaving the body.
Beyond breathings a metaphor for ki power, breathing is an important part of practice. Control of breathing is an important way to control your own body. Only by maintaining control over yourself (starting with breath) can you hope to blend with your opponent and harmonize with him (or her).
Beyond being seen as a form of energy, many aspects of ki are spiritual in nature. Aikido students are taught that their spirit matters. Spirit includes will power, attitude, concentration, awareness, self-discipline, and belief. Some of these have terms associated with them: mushi (no-mind) or zanshin (focused concentration) for example. Others are described in more general terms or by the affect it will have on technique. Students are encouraged to have a "martial spirit", to give strong attacks, and apply defenses as if they were real situations.
O-sensei Ueshiba often taught Aikido as a spiritual exercise. He drew many examples from Japanese mythology (such as those told in the Kojiki (http://www.pantheon.org/areas/mythology/asia/japanese/articles.html) and from various philosophical beliefs, such as the w:Kotodama. As a deeply spiritual person himself (reference from John Stevens here), he felt that the spirtual aspects of Aikido were essential to understanding it.
Do: Following the Way of Aikido
A Personal Journey
Like many other martial arts, Aikido is considered a "way" - a spiritual path to enlightenment. It is a personal journey that starts with the decision to study it and ends ... well, some say that it never ends. Along the way, the student encounters many personal challenges. Some of these are physical (the strength to perform some move), motivational (it takes a long time before even basic proficiency is reached), emotional (political conflicts within a school), and even spiritual (bowing to graven images of the founder). The challenges lead to a deeper understanding of the art, but there are also many positive moments as well. Finally grasping a basic technique, passing a test, making friends; perhaps finding strength you didn't know you had.
There is no special path up the mountain. Some are recommended over others. Some have been blazed by other students and teachers. Other students may be a bit further down the road, or trailing behind you, but there is comfort knowing that all are on the same journey.
In the early days of Aikido, there was no rank system. You trained, you practiced, you did what the instructor told you to do. Over time, you were acknowledged as an intermediate student, an advanced student, or perhaps even encouraged to teach yourself. (Reference needed to when rank was introduced into Aikido). Rank systems serve two basic purposes: they motivate students to strive for deeper understanding and they define a measure of accomplishment. Classical studies have shown (reference needed) that learning is enhanced when rewarded. Recognition of rank advancement is one way to acknowledge that a student has mastered certain aspects of Aikido. Rank can also be used to foster safety in the dojo. Students close to each other in rank often practice together. In situations where there is a large difference in rank, the more senior is expected to tailor their responses appropriately to the level of their partner.