I remember once I was walking back from the hardware store where I had just purchased a 4' x 8' piece of 1/2" white foam board. Now, I don't have a car so I had to carry this foamboard back the 10 blocks to my house on foot. You don't know how much wind there is until you are carrying something that if a small amount of force is applied in just the right way would easily snap it into pieces. So, I soon realized that the only way I would get my board home in one piece was NOT to fight the wind but to work with it.

So I started walking home with the board beside me holding it daintily with two hands along its edge, balanced between the two ends so the whole of the board floated on air beside me. As I was walking along I quickly learned where to expect the puffs of wind that would affect the balance of my board. When you came upon an opening in two buildings, or a car would pass you by, or you had to cross the street, the wind would spin the board up, around and over my head, and I knew if I fought to keep it still and down the force would snap the board. So ,instead, each time I let it go where it may, literally dancing with it spinning over and around my head, pirouetting forward and sometimes back until the board came to rest where it began.

I thought as I danced along with this board how aikido like this walk was. How you won in the end, with your board at home intact, by using force to an advantage, or at least winning by not fighting but flowing with the force.

Many years ago I studied aikido too.

It was part of training in movement that I undertook for a poor theatre troupe and workshop, along with many other forms of movement, including dance and mime.

It must have been much like amelinda describes: redirecting your opponent's energy. Our sensei in the dojo, and our masters in the troupe, spoke about the ki, I think it was, basically the solar plexus, or a chakra.

The idea seemed to be to absorb, and redirect the motion of all actions. as a consequence, being thrown by the sensei was quite an experience. From standing, he would take my arm, then, with hardly a breath--by him or me--I would be turning, head over heels on the mat, then, with just enough force, I'd come to a standing stop at the other end of the mat. No one else could manage. Its a real bore to run out of steam flat on your back!!

I had two problems, which quickly ended my short career:

  • glasses
  • dust

I wear glasses. Just as they make swimming, and especially taking lessons in a pool difficult; in the dojo, it was near impossible. I couldn't really wear them while being thrown, or interacting with others. I'd have to put them on to watch demonstrations, then remove them for practice.

And the dust! This was the killer. I couldn't breath! The tickling in my throat was unbearable.

Fortunately, the Idea of movement that my masters wanted to impart I picked up from the other Practices.

Goddamn I love aikido.

It's been three months since I practiced regularly. The whole summer. Now I'm finally getting back into it. The style at my new dojo is a little different, I'm still in the process of reconciling it with my old habits.

Sensei is demonstrating a technique. He has the two biggest guys in class up there with him, one on each arm. Each of them is holding on with two hands (as opposed to one or three.), and when I say they are big, I mean big. The one guy has a bit of a pot belly, but he looks like the kind of man you would see standing behind a drill press, or in front of some other large piece of machinery, working with his arms, his hands, his muscles. I don't know what he actually does, but he's big, and he's strong. The other guy is this gigantic fucking Czech. He's not quite as massive as the first one, but his chest and arms look like they were chiseled out of stone. This guy is really really strong.

So sensei is demonstrating the wrong way to do it. He's jerking his body into them, trying to push them away with his arms. His whole body is tense, vibrating like a piano wire. He's gritting his teeth, and the two guys have to brace themselves, but sensei is still getting nowhere.

And then it happens...

All the tension is gone from his arms, and his hips are twisting, smoothly, back and forth. His arms follow along, gently, like water. And what's attached to his arms follows along too. A large sweating white man, and a big-ass Czech. Their whole bodies are caught up in this simple motion, and then, smoothly, naturally, easily...

WHAM!
WHAM!

They are both on the mats, and sensei is still standing, perfectly calm, relaxed, and centered. It is truly beautiful. More so because I know that feeling.

It's not extemely frequent, but gradually it becomes more and more common. That feeling when you execute a technique just right, when you finally relax and stop thinking about it, and just move. Everything flows evenly, smoothly, and your body has become the fulcrum and lever with which Archimedes (thanks, chkno) claimed he could move the earth. And there is Uke, floating through the air, across the dojo, and all you want to do is laugh and laugh and laugh at the sheer bliss of it.

Perfect.

The Way of Harmony with Energy

Aikido (Japanese: ai- harmony, ki- energy or power, do- way, or path) is the martial art developed in the mid-20th Century by Morihei Ueshiba, called O-sensei (great teacher) by his devotees. Aikido is a modern martial art with ancient roots; Ueshiba was a student of numerous traditional (koryu) forms of Japanese martial arts, including aiki-jutsu, sumo, and sword and spear arts. Aikido is traditionally defined as a soft, circular art that focuses on pins, throws, and grappling, with little emphasis on strikes or attacks. Aikido is sometimes called a non-violent martial art; in the ideal case, aikido is intended to neutralize an attack without causing harm to either the attacker or defender. This ideal was born of Ueshiba's devotion to the Omoto-kyo neo-Shinto movement, combined with traditional samurai notions regarding budo.

History

It is hard to say when exactly aikido began; certainly, the art changed and grew throughout the life of its founder, whose personal history is intimately tied with the history of aikido. Furthermore, the history of aikido is intimately tied to that of the various schools of aiki-jutsu, who trace their histories back to the Minamoto clan of ancient Japan. Many date its modern emergence to 1927, when Ueshiba first began teaching martial arts in Tokyo, but certainly Ueshiba had already spent years formulating his own martial arts visions. In 1931, Ueshiba's headquarters dojo, the Kobukan opened, and in the years that followed, the man and his teachings began to gain prominence throughout Japanese society.

The name 'aikido' emerged in 1942, the system previously being known as aiki-jujutsu or aiki-budo. The stages of Morihei Ueshiba's life are commonly seen to correspond to the different schools of aikido that emerged after his death; Yoshinkan from his early years, when the influence of Ueshiba's aiki-jutsu training was most prominent, is marked by harder, more linear techniques. The Aikikai School, often seen as the most 'official' style, originates in the middle period of Ueshiba's life, after 1942 but before the years leading up to his death. Aikikai styles are best defined in contrast to those of the other schools- they are more rounded and softer than Yoshinkan styles, but retain more physicality than the developments of the Ki Society school. The Ki Society, having its origins in the techniques that Ueshiba taught towards the end of his life, place greater emphasis on the concept of ki and centering than either of the other schools, and tend to emphasis ki testing and rounded, soft techniques. Each of these schools represented the vision of aikido that Ueshiba had imparted to different students during different stages of his life (Gozo Shioda in the case of the Yoshinkan, and Koichi Tohei (namesake of the Tohei hop) in the case of the Ki Society), though both students began training under Ueshiba in the 1930's.

Training

Aikido employs techniques of training and instruction that are somewhat unique. They combine traditional ideas about martial arts instruction (often more so than other, more ancient arts), modern learning techniques, and temple etiquette. Specifics vary from school to school and sensei to sensei, but a few things tend to be consistent. Terminology can vary considerable- there are multiple Japanese terms for each technique or element, and multiple translations into English for each of those words. Some terms are almost always called by (one of) their Japanese name(s). Others are almost always translated. Be prepared to Build Your Vocabulary

The Dojo

A traditional dojo consists of a large, rectangular mat (synthetic or tatami), oriented towards the kamiza- a small shrine, often featuring either a portrait of O-sensei, or calligraphy relevant to budo. The dojo is, in a certain sense, a temple (dojo originally referred to a place where Buddhist monks were taught), with the kamiza as its altar. Teacher and students bow to the kamiza at the open and close of each class, and it is considered polite to not face ones back or point ones feet towards the kamiza. Likewise, shoes are not to be worn on the mat.

Rank

Because all students, regardless of rank, typically train together in aikido, rank is of less concern than in other disciplines. You may never know the rank of your partners, even those you train with repeatedly, unless you ask. You can probably make guesses based on ability, though.

Aikido uses the traditional system of two rankings: kyu (learner) ranks, and dan (qualified student) ranks. The kyu system usually starts at 6 or 5 for adults, and rank decreases with testing, until one reaches 1st kyu. Kyu-rank students wear a white belt and gi, and most commonly do not wear a hakama. Dan ranks begin at 1 (shodan) and increase with testing, to a theoretical maximum of 10. In practice, the highest ranked living aikidoka are of 9th dan or less, and the highest ranked Westerner is 7th or 8th. Dan ranked students wear a black belt, gi, and hakama, usually blue or black in color.

Testing practices vary by school and dojo. Some require a minimum number of hours of training to test for each rank, others base their requirements on years or months of training and don't bother with the number of classes attended. At each level, the student is expected to show progression in the number of techniques known, and skill at executing the required techniques. Ki tests, ukemi ability, weapon forms and dealing with armed attackers, and randori may also play a role, particularly at higher levels of testing. Contrary to what many believe, a black belt does not indicate that you are a master of aikido, as the progression of ranks beyond the first black belt indicates. Rather, in the traditional system, the black belt indicated that the student has achieved a basic level of competency with the full range of techniques taught by the art, and is prepared for further study. It's the martial arts equivalent of a bachelor's degree; you're educated, you know the ropes, it is a basis for continuing your studies, but you certainly don't know everything. A black belt also does not qualify one to teach; teaching certification is often handled separately from the regular rank progression, and may require special study. Full teaching authorization is often only given to those of 3-4th dan or higher.

Instruction

Aikido instruction is based on two pillars: observation, and partner practice. Aikido techniques are introduced to the class by the instructor performing them with a senior student acting as uke (uke is the person who delivers the attack, and receives the technique. It literally means 'the one who receives (the technique)'). The instructor may verbally describe the technique, or may repeat certain aspects of it in slow motion, or from multiple angles. In the most traditional dojos, instruction is not performed, per se. Rather, the student simply observes the technique, and is expected to reproduce it (this is sometimes called 'stealing' techniques, but is actually the principle on which all ancient dojos operated). Few modern dojos go to this extreme, and usually provide at least some verbal instruction. Nevertheless, the ability to learn by observation is highly prized, and is particularly handy for learning at a seminar

After techniques are presented by the instructor, students break up into pairs (or in the case of odd numbers, pairs and a trio), and, after an initial bow, begin to practice the technique. One partner (usually called uke) delivers the initial attack, receives the technique, and performs the roll, breakfall, or other technique (called ukemi) necessary to avoid being injured. The other partner (called, typically, nage- lit. 'thrower') receives the attack, performs the technique, and ensures that his partner comes to no harm. Techniques are practiced twice on each side before partners switch roles- uke attacks on the left, right, left, and right, and then switches to performing the role of nage. When partners practice in threes, one student sits in seiza on the edge of the mat, observing. The standing pair perform the technique, switch, perform the technique, and then uke sits, and the sitting student rises to become the new uke; to put it more plainly, nage always remains standing after both partners have performed the technique.

Students are expected to switch partners for each technique, the intention being that every student will be paired with every other student before the end of class, without repeating (in reality, there are usually either too few students, or too few techniques presented for this to be true). Students are not paired on the basis of ability, and classes are not 'tracked'; it is common, and expected, that very senior students and beginners will practice together. In these cases, it is expected that the senior student will adapt to fit the needs of the junior, providing instruction where necessary, and matching his technique to the ukemi ability of the newer learner. Training is meant to be cooperative. Nage does not 'win' by making uke fall, nor does uke 'win' by frustrating nage's technique. Both partners are expected to deliver authentic attacks, and perform the technique to the best of their ability. Likewise, it is not proper for uke to 'take a fall', acting like the technique works when it has not been performed correctly, nor does uke resist a correctly performed technique to the point that nage is forced to either give up or injure him. If attacks are performed authentically, and techniques carried out correctly with an honest nage and uke, they will work as advertised. If you give attacks with too little energy, if nage exhibits improper ma'ai or does not perform the technique correctly, you will end up with a wrestling match. More on this later.

The sensei may observe students or groups of students during the performance of techniques, offering criticism and (hopefully) correction. Training may also include ki testing (simple exercises designed to test the students ability to move from the center and sense a partner's energy), randori (group sparring, in which a single student receives simultaneous or sequential attacks from multiple partners), ukemi practice, lectures on aikido thought, or practice of weapons kata. Two fundamental lessons of aikido training: the person you are practicing on is your partner, not your opponent and you are always responsible for the safety of your partner

Ukemi

Perhaps the most important thing that you will ever learn from aikido is the fine art of falling down. Ukemi refers to the methods of receiving and reacting to techniques, as well as the maneuvers used to prevent injury when one is thrown or pinned. These techniques consist of rolls (forward and backward), the breakfall or high fall, and things to remember about where to put your face and hands to prevent them from being kicked, stepped on, rug burned, or otherwise abused when one is being pinned. It also includes learning how to deliver attacks that both provide enough energy for the technique to be performed and also preserve nage from danger. One should be able to throw a punch or deliver a shomen with enough force that the throw will be more or less automatic; at the same time, you should be able to stop or divert your attack any time it becomes clear that your partner is not going to respond in time to avoid injury. Please do not punch nage in the face.

In the system used by the Japanese well into the 20th Century, a new student would not be permitted to perform techniques until they had spent several years taking ukemi for more senior students. Modern attitudes are more liberal; students begin taking both roles as soon as they can safely do so. Absolute beginners are often segregated into special classes until their ukemi skills are adequate to open training. In practice, one can train without problem, and even pass your first few kyu tests without learning the breakfall- techniques can be modified to work around this limitation.

Most people will never get into a fight with armed or unarmed attackers where it would be wise to break out the ol' aikido- or anything else, for that matter. Everybody falls. More people die of falls, especially, but not exclusively the elderly, than die of shootings, robberies gone bad, knifings, or any other form of violence. Learning to fall can save your life in the Real World- it could mean a bruised butt instead of a cracked skull the next time you slip on an icy sidewalk. Far more aikidoka have stories about ukemi helping them survive or lessen the damage from falls than have stories about fighting off bands of armed terrorists in the supermarket. If you learn nothing else from aikido, learn how to fall.

Techniques

A quite thorough and enlightening explanation of the basic elements whose permutations make up the catalogue of aikido techniques exist at the so-named node. In short form, aikido builds around 3 attack forms (which can be generalized to any kind of energetic attack- kicks, punches, strikes with a sword, baseball bat, broken bottle, staff, or plush Elmo toy), as well as several dynamic or static grab techniques, and responds through 4-6 wrist locks (depends on school/who you ask) and seven or so basic throws. Most techniques also exist in two variations- a rotational form (omote) and a more linear 'entering' form (iremi).

Weapons

Aikido makes use of three basic weapons: the jo, or short staff, the bokken, or wooden sword, and the tanto, in this case a wooden knife. These three weapons were incorporated into aikido because they had been parts of Morihei Ueshiba's own training as a young man. The weapons are used as an extension to regular training; the three strikes used in basic aikido techniques are based around Japanese fencing forms, and so can be performed either armed or unarmed. The added length of the weapons aides students in learning ma'ai, or proper distance, and the added 'threat' of the weapon can add intensity to training. In theory, aikido techniques allow one to defeat an armed attacker, disarming and immobilizing in a single move. Likewise, certain techniques show the student how to use a weapon (most commonly a jo) to perform an empty-hand technique- locking and pinning an assailant who is so foolish as to grab the end of his staff. In practice, it is not a good idea to get into fights with people with spears, knives or swords. No good can come of it. Some dojos attempt to make this clear by practicing using wooden knives with inked edges- as in plan on a few days in the hospital for every ink-stain on your gi.

Aikido weapons are also used solo, in training kata designed to enhance overall coordination and balance. These kata are often borrowed from other arts- iaido, iaijutsu, jodo, and others. They consist of a series of strikes, blocks, stance and position switches, and movements, that 'rehearse' a combat, and provide practice in basic movement. Kata can be performed alone, or with a partner- make sure you have quality weapons that will not splinter or shatter if struck during partner practice. Some dojo only teach weapon techniques to more senior students, and may offer special classes in their use. Other dojos may be putting a bokken in your hand the minute you walk through the door. Some do not use them at all. Most feel that they are a valuable addition to practice, and necessary for a 'complete' and traditional aikido education- good if you place to teach or ascend the dan ranks- but not necessary to learn and enjoy aikido.

Philosophy

The full personal philosophy of Morihei Ueshiba is hard to put to words, or even understand. Many of his own students later reported that they were unable to follow the often rambling teachings of their saintly instructor. Ueshiba's views had been profoundly affected in the early 1900's by his contact with the Omoto-kyo movement, an obscure Shinto revival movement that made several attempts at founding Utopian colonies, and was eventually shut down by the government in a Waco-style confrontation. From his belief in Omoto-kyo, Ueshiba received a life-long belief in kotodama (sacred sound theory), misogi (purification by ablution), and non-violence. Ueshiba sought to make the martial way (budo)compatible with these principles, and spent his life in the effort.

Aikido techniques are designed to blend the energies of attacker and defender, rather than having the two collide. The energy of the attacker provides the energy for the technique; the attacker, in effect, throws himself. Teachers sometimes speak of breaking the 'fixation' of the attacker- not only distracting his attention by atemi, but raising his awareness from the limited world of the attack to his wider environment. Functionally, this involves the control and manipulation of the attackers point of attention and center of balance.

With respect to non-violence, aikido seeks to preserve both attacker and defender from harm. This depends on several factors; the skill of the person performing the technique, the willingness of the attacker to look out for his own well being, and the circumstances of the attack. Furthermore, aikido doesn't teach you good ways to start a fight, other than holding out a hand and saying "here, grab my wrist." Of course, the truly determined will find a way anyway, but the fundamentally reactive nature of aikido gives it an orientation towards ending violence, rather than initiating it.

As mentioned above, O-sensei's own philosophies were lost even on many of his most ardent Japanese students. T.K Chiba, head honcho for the Western region of the U.S Aikikai Federation has written about the relation between Zen and aikido training- translating Ueshiba's principles into an idiom more understandable to many of aikido's current students- both Western and Japanese.

Some Notes About Aikido Training

wherein the author shoots off his mouth about aikido teaching and training techniques.

The system of teaching and training employed in aikido is unique. It's not the way you learned to play baseball, it's not the way you learned to play Nintendo, and most likely it isn't even the way you learned karate, tae kwan do, or kung fu. You will train, from the beginning, with people who know a lot more than you do, and who can really help you, having Been There Themselves. From very early on, you will train with people who know less- who you yourself may be called on to help, rather before you feel ready or qualified to do so. You will fly through the air, and land with a resounding splat. Your knees will get sore- first from sitting in seiza, later from getting up and down a hundred times during an intense session. It can be fantastic. It can also be irritating as all hell. What follows are my opinions on a few subjects relating to making aikido training Work. They have nothing to do with 'reforming' the way that aikido is taught, or changing the way training is done, and everything to do with the attitude that people bring to the mat. My hope is that by following them, we all become one of those great people that everyone looks back on and is glad to have trained with; not that we should judge everyone that we meet, and find them wanting.

That Old Time Instruction

Pros and Cons of traditional-style instruction

Well, okay, maybe it has a little to do with changing the way aikido is taught- but really, it's just about extending a trend. Most people teaching aikido now a days do not teach it in the traditional way- where students are expected to simply watch and copy, with no verbal instruction. I think that this is a good thing. I am not about to criticize this as an abandonment of the tradition, as some might. Rather, I would say that this is a trend that needs to be extended, wherever possible.

We know a lot more about learning than the Japanese did in the Good Old Days when techniques of instruction like the watch-'n'-copy method were crafted. And while it can be argued that the 'old way' was good enough, and worked for a long time, there is every reason to think that it can be improved. Different people learn different ways. This is particularly true of corporeal disciplines like martial arts, where the learning may be quite unlike any learning that we have done before. So in my view, the more ways that techniques can be presented, the better. Watch and copy is good. Describing techniques is good. Physically taking hold of people, and moving their bodies in the right way is good. Piece at a time is good. Do-it-all-at-once is good. Fast. Slow. You get the picture.

The problem is, there are a lot of teachers who still, somewhere in their minds, think the old way is best. They shy away from talking too much, or doing too many different things. The conventional wisdom remains that it is the student's job to learn how to learn by observation. And there is some truth to this- there's no reason why you shouldn't stretch yourself, and work hard at learning as much as you can, as many ways as you can. But let's face it. There's little sacred about any one way of learning. Varying instruction styles helps everyone.

Attack of the Limp-Wristed Attacker

The importance of Uke

As I mentioned above, it is of great importance to learn how to uke properly. Too many people think that the 'fun' part is where you get to 'win' and give uke a toss. Often, this is because they are slightly scared of being thrown themselves. The way to counter this is with better ukemi, and only practice can guarantee that. But lets look more closely at the uncooperative uke.

Unhelpfull ukes come in generally two varieties. One is the timid attacker. Because he is either scared of taking a real fall or roll, or scared of hurting you, uke gives you an attack with the consistency cold, damp oatmeal. Believe it or not, this may be more dangerous to uke than a real attack. A weak attack does not provide the momentum to allow an undertrained aikidoka to get into a real (read 'safe') roll, and may result in them being dropped on their head or neck. Bad news. Furthermore, it's just damn irritating to nage, and may result in them pulling or pushing a bit harder than they should- especially if they are as undisciplined as uke!

The timid uke is also likely to be a little bit too eager to respond to a technique. Before the throw is even begun, they drop to the floor- and then get back up shaking their wrist and grimacing, like you just did them a terrible injury. Make no mistake- nage's determined to demonstrate their Death Grip (&tm) at every opportunity are a menace, and should be informed that they are manhandling their charge. But frankly, if you were looking for non-contact sports you should have picked something else. You are going to get pulled, pinned, thrown, and bent. Your wrist will be manipulated in ways designed to cause you some (but hopefully not too much) pain. The guideline is to wait until you actually feel that the technique has worked, and then react. Obviously, this will come at different times for different folks. But it does nothing to help nage if you drop, roll, or fall when the technique has not yet been applied- or not yet been applied correctly. Stay up until the technique is done correctly. Doing otherwise helps no one.

The other sort of uncooperative uke is the stubborn uke, or the 'it's not working' uke. This bright bulb refuses to respond to correctly applied technique. He is determined to show that his centering is 'better', or that he knows how to 'counter' the technique. If nage was doing it right, he reasons, I would have no choice but to go down. True enough- if the initial attack is sincere, and if uke does not respond to the technique with a strength contest. Most techniques can be frustrated- temporarily- by attempting to out-muscle nage. This is particularly effective with new students; be warned, ye uncooperative ukes, that more senior members may 'counter your counter', and you will end up taking a flying fall in a rather unexpected direction, with no one to blame but yourself. Some argue that it is important for students to learn how a 'real' attacker might respond to a technique, which has merit. But there is a time for such learning, and it is not during the period when a student is struggling to understand the basic form of the technique. Such concerns are for later learning, as one continuous to progress towards full competency. Resisting correctly applied technique comes of an attitude that regards training as fundamentally adversarial, rather than cooperative. That is not aikido training. Furthermore, it can result in injury to the offending uke; almost every technique provides a mechanical or anatomical advantage to nage. You WILL go down eventually- it's a matter of whether you go down with the simple application of pressure, or whether you need some tendons strained or a joint or bone seriously damaged before you get the picture. Of course, a trained and disciplined nage would never go to such lengths- but an untrained one might not know any better, and an undisciplined one might have an 'accident'. The ideal of aikido is to prevent injury to both attacker and defender- but it is only possible if both parties correctly assess what is in their own best interest.

With all this talk about bad ukes, let me pause for a moment and recognize the good ones. Training with someone who knows how to uke properly will be the best experience of your aikido career. Period. You will learn more in fifteen minutes with someone who refuses to go down when you botch the technique, always responds to correctly performed technique, and knows the difference between the two, than you will learn in a week with someone who confuses these points. A good uke will insist on correct form, and will frustrate badly executed techniques. They will help you correct mistakes, but also challenge you to correct yourself and recognize your own errors. Good partners who know how to act as uke can mean more than the instructor, and come in second only to your own effort in helping you learn. Appreciate them, thank them, and take good care of them. A periodically quoted aikido proverb(attributable, I believe, to author and Aikido-L member Carol Shifflett) reminds us that uke is, essentially, someone who has loaned us their body so we can learn something. Trust, needless to say, is essential. Which brings us to. . .

The Blunder Years

Placing your life in the hands of an idiot man-child

Into every life some rain must fall. And into (almost) every aikido career come a couple of periods in which you will pose a serious danger to those around you. I have humorously titled these periods 'The Blunder Years', but they may last for only a few months, weeks, or even for only a few classes. Someone in one of these stages is most likely not ever going to kill or seriously injure a partner. What they are quite likely to do is inflict a little more damage than their uke expects, resulting in bumps and bruises, lost wind, strained muscles and joints, and, most seriously, cranky partners. Let their identification and classification serve as a warning on two fronts:

  1. Look for these tendencies in yourself. You may be able to prevent someone's Bad Aikido Day by heading off your bad attitude at the pass.
  2. Look for these symptoms in your partners, and guard yourself appropriately. You are always responsible for your own safety in aikido. Your partner is also always responsible for your safety. If your partner fails in or neglects his responsibility, you had best not fail in yours. Bad Things will ensue. Having a dodgy partner is not an invitation to bad uke-ing (see above), but it is a good time to pay attention to your own safety. Look carefully at the number of things that you are relying on your partner to think about and take care of- the direction you will be projected, the amount of space you will have before encountering a wall or other obstacle, whether or not you are about to collide with another student. If your partner gives any indication that he is not thinking of these things, you will either think of them, or suffer the consequences.

Surprisingly, raw beginners are not particularly dangerous. They are just learning their techniques, and probably can not execute them with enough energy to throw you out a window or into a wall. They are a little frightened of everything, which can be to your advantage- they are probably really, really frightened of hurting you, unless they're heartless bastards.

In fact, the first time things get dangerous is when beginners are beginning to reach competency. The time of onset varies from person to person- a few months, a year or two, maybe after passing their first kyu test. What happens is this: they begin to get very close to doing things right. Maybe they do them completely right part of the time. They want to incorporate more correct things into the technique. They think more about their posture, their centering, their ki extension, their footwork. . . It's a lot to think about. Wait, was there something else? Oh yeah, forgot to think about 'don't damage partner'. Crash!

Students thinking hard about their own technique are likely to forget about the safety of their partner. They may be capable of doing the technique, but as yet incapable of performing the little additional feats of timing and technique that will help keep their partner safe. They will forget where they are in the room, which way their partner is pointing, which way the technique will come off, and, perhaps most critically, how far it is to the nearest wall.

Two people in this stage of development practicing together can be murder. It's like the rule that every teenager in a group reduces its I.Q by half. When I was at roughly this stage of development, and when a friend and partner was at roughly the same point, we managed to wander back and forth across the room several times while performing a kote-gaeshi technique that ended in a simple backroll. My partner forgot to look at where we were, and which way I was going to roll when the technique was applied. I did the same thing. The result was that I rolled back, forcefully, and smacked my head into the wall of the practice room with a crash that shook plaster from the ceiling next door. I was dazed, but managed to avoid a concussion or other serious injury by virtue of the thickness of my skull. And mom said it would never come in handy.

A few months later, someone gave me a forward projection that resulted in a forward roll directly into a large post. Whoops.

The next time things get dangerous is, oddly, right after someone passes their black belt (or shodan) exam. It seems counterintuitive: surely these guys know better, right? And yet, it seems to be universally true. It's called New Shodan Syndrome (NSS), and it has been observed across the world. An illustration in the popular Aikido Student Handbook illustrates common mistakes made by new students in trying to don their gi: jacket closed the wrong way (indicating that you are dead), pants on backwards (kneepads know protecting the knee pit), belt tied wrong, wearing a ninja costume, etc. On illustration shows a person wearing a gi and hakama facing the wrong direction; the caption reads 'New shodan- uniform on correctly, head on backwards.' This pretty much says it all.

New shodans often seem to think that they have just graduated from the Marine Corp, or B.U.D.S or something, and that it is their duty to be All Out, All the Time. They do not wish to trifle with those whose skills are beneath their own; they feel it slows their learning. They are the most likely to forget to pay attention to their partner's level of ukemi. Once uke shows any signs of being able to perform elementary levels of rolls and falls, the new shodan assumes that, since he is practicing with them, he must know what he is doing. They will respond to attacks with undue force without warning, and seem to take a certain amount of pride in this 'skill'. Paradoxically, after they gain their black belt, shodans seem to have more to prove than they did before they took the test. People preparing for the shodan test (1st kyu students), on the other hand, are often some of the most conscientious and helpful partners you can have.

People suffering from NSS will not spike you into a convenient wall the way a neglectful junior partner might; they have too much skill for such crudities. Rather, they will slam you to the mat in neglect of the limitations of your ukemi skills, bouncing your head on the ground, knocking the wind out of you, and generally knocking you about. They may suddenly switch techniques on you without warning- disorienting you before bouncing you on the floor. You will be annoyed.

NSS may last for only a few weeks, months or days following the shodan's assencion to the ranks of the black-belted. It may last until they make nidan . It may never end. They can be quite pleasant to train with, if one is of equal or higher rank, but are in many cases more of a menace than a help to lower ranked students.

That's the end of my commentary. All of these observations may apply more or less to your own experience. YMMV. Variation between dojos can be extreme in aikido, as with any martial art, reflecting the temperament of the instructor, and the attitudes of the students. Maybe the feng shui of the dojo too. Who knows. Some dojos are better than others, and some may just fit your own style and personality better than others. It's your money. Find somewhere that works for you, but be ready to learn and adapt.

Bibliography

There are a lot of books about aikido around. These are a few with which I have personal experience. Consult your local Book Depository for further reading, and a convenient sniper nest.

  • Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, by A. Westbrook and O. Ratti. The classic systematic examination of the philosophy and mechanics of aikido, written by two long-time students. Considered to be the most complete study of aikido available, and perhaps the finest book on any martial art. Includes training exercises, a complete examination of techniques and theory, and numerous illustrations, classifications and diagrams.
  • The Aikido Student Handbook, by Greg O'Connor. A small book containing a great deal of practical information for students of aikido. Dojo etiquette and courtesy. How to properly don a gi and fold a hakama. Helpful vocabulary, and what to expect from as aikido class.
  • Abundant Peace: The Biography of Morihei Ueshiba, by John Stevens. Understanding Morihei Ueshiba's personal history can aide greatly in understanding the philosophy and formulation of aikido. Stevens, author of a well-known biography of the Zen swordsman Tesshu, provides a concise, insightful look at Ueshiba's life, illustrated with numerous photographs of the man and his students.

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