Saturday, 23 June 2018

Aikido Weapons - Martial Arts training in North Devon

The study of weapons in some styles of aikido is almost ignored. In fact, weapons are at the heart of aikido. Working with the bokken (sword) and jo (staff) teaches you balance, correct distance, dynamic movement, whole-body movement and it helps to build in many other important qualities such as being centred, fluidity, blending and much more.


Saito Sensei shows an 'Iwama-style' jo kata

Of all the 'schools' of aikido, it is perhaps the Iwama style, based on the teachings of Saito Sensei, that is best known for its strong emphasis on weapons training. Iwama aikido has a very large weapons training syllabus with katas, jo-taking, jo-throwing, paired bokken exercises and much more.


Tohei Sensei shows a 'Ki-style' jo kata

Ki Aikido, based on the teachings of Tohei Sensei, also has katas and other exercises though in my experience, Ki aikido practitioners usually devote much less study to weapons than Iwama students. Even so, the Ki style has much to offer. Its katas tend to be more dynamic and 'flowing' than those of the Iwama tradition. In fact, however, the two style overlap considerably - hardly surprising since both Tohei and Saito were long-term, high-grade students of The Founder.

Remarkably few students of aikido have experience of both the Tohei and Saito style of weapons practice. Which is a great pity. If you study both you will soon appreciate how well they complement one another and how much you can learn from both traditions.

Well, here in North Devon, you have the rather unusual opportunity to study both styles. The Sensei of the Hartland Club, Huw Collingbourne, has studied in the Ki tradition since 1983. For the last six years he has also studied Iwama weapons with Sensei Richard Small of Bideford Aiki-jo. And recently Sensei Small has been studying the Tohei-style katas to add to his extensive knowledge of Iwama weapons practice (which he has studied and taught since the 1970s).

Both Sensei Richard and Sensei Huw welcome practitioners of all styles of aikido. If you have studied Iwama style, Ki style or a style with its own weapons syllabus or no weapons syllabus at all, we hope you may find something of interest in the sorts of aiki weapons that we both teach.

Please, come and join us!

Friday, 8 June 2018

Aikido and the Decline of the Martial Arts


It is increasingly difficult to attract new students to the study of aikido. Out here in the wilds of North Devon we face the additional problem of a relatively small local population spread out over a large area.  But even dojos located in big towns often struggle. The Aikido Journal conducted a global survey among aikido teacher a few months ago and found that, on average there is a ratio of student to teacher of 1.5-to-1 – yes, really. That means that there are almost as many teachers as there are students! ( See: ‘Aikido: Confronting A Crisis’)

Why is this? When I began aikido, in the early ‘80s, it was a fast-growing martial art. How has it entered such a sharp decline over such a short period?

George Ledyard Sensei (7th dan) argues that “MMA, or mixed martial arts, dominates the martial arts scene. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is its tamer and healthier cousin. Young men these days do not seem interested in the more traditional martial arts. They want to fight. And, of course, it is impossible for any of us to compete with the fact that MMA is shown on prime-time cable seven days a week.” (See: ‘Aikido: An Aging Art and its Future’).

But it’s not just aikido. I’ve heard from teachers of other ‘traditional’ martial arts that they too are seeing a sharp decline in interest from potential new students. This Chinese Martial Arts site says:
“Traditional Chinese kung fu is a gutted hulk of its former self. While masters struggle to market their increasingly diluted styles, prospective students are being lured away by mixed martial arts (MMA), a combat sport that is exploding in popularity across the world. As a result, few fighters think of kung fu as a legitimate martial art.”
Another Chinese Martial Art site  used Google Trends to try to determine public interest in various arts over the last decade or so.
“Judo saw massive declines in popularity in the 1980s, and apparently that trend continues into the present decade.  Aikido showed perhaps the most dramatic declines in searches,” and “there has been a marked decline in the number of people searching for information about Tae Kwon Do on the internet over the last decade. 
“It should come as no surprise to anyone that the biggest winner over the last decade is the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as promoted through the Ultimate Fighting Champions (UFC).  The rising popularity of this sport, both as a form of entertainment and as a distinct style of actual combat training, has been a shock to the American martial arts community.  There is absolutely no doubt that many of the young adults that in a prior generation would have been the backbone of a Judo club or a Karate Dojo are now lifting weights and working the heavy bag at their local MMA gym.”
My feeling is that the rise in public exposure to MMA is particularly bad for Aikido. MMA is competitive. Aikido has no competitions. MMA fighters use strength and aggression. In Aikido we deliberately avoid using strength and emphasise calmness at all times. MMA goes on the attack. Aikido is defensive only. In MMA winning is the end goal. In Aikido, the quality and elegance of technique are valued above the ‘mere’ defeating of an opponent.  It is not easy to explain this to someone whose only exposure to martials arts comes from MMA!

Before people choose a martial art, they must have some idea of what a martial art is.  Back in the 1970s, the Kung Fu TV series emphasised that the true master followed a philosophy of life. He didn’t simply fight. This is a typical example:



In the 1980s film, The Karate Kid, the philosophy of the martial art also played an important part…


Occasionally, even today, the idea of the philosophy at the heart of the martial arts still makes it into popular TV shows.  Google Searches for “Aikido” blipped upward when aikido featured in The Walking Dead TV series.  And Amazon’s science fiction series, The Man In The High Castle, also features some aikido and this account of its core philosophy…


But, sadly, these modern examples are few and far between.  So for most people, most of the time, the idea of a martial artist is a man fighting another man in a cage. That is so far away from aikido that anyone who is looking for MMA would very likely have a big problem even understanding what aikido is about. No competitions, no aggression, no strength…

Can aikido (and other traditional martial arts) recover from this decline? In the short term, I think probably not. In the long term, yes, I believe absolutely they can and will. Why? Because they have a power, logic, elegance and philosophy which has not only stood the test of time but which continues to fascinate and intrigue generation after generation of people.

But, for the time being, we simply have to acknowledge that aikido is unfashionable. We can only hope that something will arise to help explain to the general public, the philosophical underpinnings of the traditional arts. Not everyone wants to fight competitively. The problem with the popularity of MMA is two-fold for aikido. 1) Those people who want to fight don’t appreciate aikido as a non-competitive, non-violent art, and 2) Those people who don’t want to fight think that aikido, being a ‘martial art’ must be aggressive and violent.

Once upon a time, the seeming paradox of a martial art that is peaceful was the thing that most attracted students. It can still attract students. We just have to work harder at getting the message across to them. How we do that, however, is a problem to which I don’t have an answer.

Friday, 11 May 2018

The Physics of a Punch!

Or why you should try not to be the recipient of an attacker's momentum! Professor Louis Bloomfield here describes the physics of punching. I recently studied Professor Bloomfield's excellent (and free!) course How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics on the Coursera site. As martial artists we should have at least a grounding in basic physics so even if you aren't a scientist by training, I strongly recommend that course to you. If only Professor Bloomfield taught a series on the physics of Aikido my happiness would be complete. Anyway, here he is explaining why a punch hurts - and why some punches hurt more than others...

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Class Updates

There are no longer classes in Holsworthy. The Bucks Cross classes on Thursday continue as normal. We'll also announce some new classes soon.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Too old for aikido? You must be kidding!

Here's an inspirational video from a man who is still practising and teaching judo at the age of 94 (he also does karate and aikido). Come on now, what is this silly excuse people give me - "Oh, but I'm too old to do aikido!" --- nonsense!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Learn Aikido in 2018

Just a reminder that if you live in the North-west of Devon, you have some great opportunities to learn the beautiful art of Aikido. All skill levels (from complete beginner to expert) are welcome. And if you already practise with some other Aikido club, please don't let that stop you. We place no barriers based on an 'approved style' of Aikido.

Anyway, you can join us at the following classes:

Bucks Cross Village Hall (between Bideford and Hartland) every Thursday from 7:30 to 9:00
Holsworthy Leisure Centre every Friday from 7:30 to 9:00
Bideford Aiki-jo (Aikido weapons taught by Sensei Richard Small) every Wednesday from 7:00 to 9:00

I hope to meet some of you during the coming year!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Arrogant Aikido

To do aikido well you need to be arrogant. What? Really? Surely not!

I promise you, I mean it. In order to do aikido well you need to act with total confidence. A confidence that your aikido skills are so magnificent, so unassailably wonderful that they absolutely cannot fail. A confidence so mind-bogglingly vast that it really does amount to arrogance.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this might be misplaced confidence. Just because you believe your technique cannot fail does not mean that it will not fail. But nevertheless in the moment when you do that technique you must be completely and utterly certain that it will succeed. Only with this absolute confidence can acquire the quality, the softness and the fluidity that makes for really good aikido. If for one split second you doubt that you will succeed, you will surely put in some unneeded effort, add an extra little bit of strength, or fall back on the crutch of basic technique.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Years ago I was lucky enough to see the great operatic tenor Nicolai Gedda give a solo recital at Covent Garden in London. The opera house was packed, all eyes and ears were focussed on the very unremarkable-looking man who had just walked on stage. I remember thinking that Gedda looked like someone to whom you wouldn’t give a second glance if you saw them in the street. He looked rather small and, well, ordinary. He stood next to the piano and seemed to shuffle his feet as though he had no idea what he was doing there. Or, if he did, then he was perhaps too nervous to sing… and when he opened his mouth, what would come out? A tuneless croak perhaps?

And then the piano played the notes introducing the first aria and, in those moments, Gedda grew visibly. He actually seemed to expand, to become taller. Suddenly he was clearly filled with complete confidence. Before our eyes he had transformed from a nonentity into a great operatic tenor. Even before he opened his mouth, we could see that he was going to sing magnificently. And, of course, he did.

Nicolai Gedda – flawless technique, of course - but his greatness lay in his ability to transcend technique. He was not an especially striking-looking man when not singing but as soon as he opened his mouth he was utterly transformed.

I feel sure that Gedda in those moments prior to singing had become filled with precisely the sense of confidence – of arrogance – that I am talking about. If he had for a moment doubted his ability to sing that aria he would have struggled, put in effort where effort was not needed, reverted to basic technique rather than sing from his soul and his heart.

And that is what I mean by arrogance in aikido. Once you have studied long enough to have mastered the basic techniques you have to let go of them. They were once a help but now they are a hindrance. What you should now be looking for is quality – fluidity, harmony, blending, softness. But if you are worried about failing, you will be too focussed on using technique to ensure success. And when you focus on technique alone, you will not be fluid, you will not be in harmony, you cannot really blend. And worst of all, you will be tempted to use strength rather than softness.

And so it is my strong belief that an experienced practitioner of aikido needs to internalise a sense of absolute confidence – yes, arrogance – a certainty that the technique will work because we already know that technically we can make it work and now we need to find an ever greater quality to make it work more truly in accordance with the principles of aikido.

But what if it doesn’t work?

Then we need the humility to admit it. The arrogance only needs to be there for those moments when you need total self-confidence in order to avoid spoiling your aikido by struggling to make it work at all costs. But if you fail even so, well, that’s all a part of the learning process. Very few of us can realistically expect to achieve in aikido what Nicolai Gedda achieved in operatic singing. Think of it this way: we can be simultaneously arrogant in our belief in the power and beauty of the art of aikido and humble in our knowledge that we have a long way to travel in trying to master that art.