Why would anyone spend hours every week (or if you are really keen, hours every day) for many years (quite possibly until you finally shuffle off this mortal coil) learning Aikido?
What, in other words, is the point?
Here are some of the reasons that I’ve heard people give:
There are probably others too, but that’s enough to be going on with. The trouble is that, taken on its own, no one reason is sufficient. Let’s consider them one by one.
There are many arts of self-defence ranging from Karate to boxing, a can of mace-spray to a pair of knuckle-dusters. What do people mean when they say they want to learn ‘self-defence’ anyway? Maybe they have a fear that a mugger will leap out down a dark alley one night and demand all their money? Well, yes, that might happen. But for most people most of the time it won’t. And even if it does, the simplest form of self-defence would do give the mugger your money and worry about it later. To be honest, that is probably going to be a lot cheaper than spending years of your time and money learning Aikido.
Once again, there are innumerable ways of getting fit – play a sport, take the dog for long walks, go swimming. It’s true that Aikido, practised regularly, builds both stamina and flexibility. Then again, as with any dynamic physical activity, there is always the risk of injury. Years ago, I hurt my knee after some particularly vigorous multi-person attack practice. When I saw the physiotherapist, I said, “Maybe I should give up Aikido?” His answer was: “Definitely not! While it’s true that people get injuries from physical activities, by far the worst problems I have to deal with affect people who don’t take regular exercise.” OK, so Aikido is generally good to maintain fitness. But not good enough, in my view, to make it worth practising with that goal alone as your ultimate aim.
Aikido definitely is a great way of learning to keep calm under pressure. I can tell you from my own experience, that when I practise Aikido regularly, I can cope with most of the problems life flings in my direction. When I don’t practise Aikido regularly (and there have been long periods in my life when I haven’t had the opportunity) I react much more negatively to pressure. Trivial concerns of everyday life may seem like major problems. I remember when I was editing a magazine once and we were on deadline and everything and everyone was in a terrific panic, the deputy editor looked at me and said, “How can you stay so calm at a time like this?” I looked at her and said, “Last night I was being attacked by four black belts with knives. Believe me, editing a magazine is child’s play.” I was joking - but only slightly. The point is that just as Aikido had taught me to stay calm in a multi-person attack so it had taught me to stay calm in any high-pressure situation.
The enjoyment you get from an activity is entirely subjective. Some people love weight training. I don’t. I used to do it regularly but found it essentially dull. Other people like swimming or playing team sports. I don’t. I don’t get a thrill out of doing lengths up and down a pool or kicking a ball and scoring points. But I do find Aikido a lot of fun. Partly it’s the pure adrenaline rush: the joy of fast movement and dramatic break-falls. Partly it’s the intellectual fun of dealing with complicated and difficult attacks. It’s the same sort of joy some people get from playing chess. It’s puzzle-solving. But at high speed.
There are lots of other things that people get out of Aikido. For some it is learning coordination – becoming aware of exactly how to place their feet, move their arms and maintain a good posture with perfect balance. Or it may be that Aikido provides a purely mental pleasure – the meditative quality of working precisely on formal techniques such as katas. Or it may be simply the beauty and fluidity of movement – the dance-like grace and elegance of masterful Aikido.
So what is it about Aikido that continues to draw me to it after all these years? The simple answer would be “all of the above”. I enjoy learning practical defence techniques to maintain fitness, develop calmness and have fun. And, up to a point, that answer is true. But it’s not the whole truth.
The real truth is that my reasons for doing Aikido have changed over time. When I first took it up, in the early 80s, I was looking for a way of getting fit. I wasn’t looking for Aikido specifically. In fact, I tried several other martial arts (Wing Chun, Taekwondo and Karate) before chancing upon an Aikido class taught by Sensei David Currie. Sensei Currie was quite unlike the other martial arts teachers I’d practised with. He was so laid-back, so quiet and self-effacing, that I rapidly came to the conclusion he must either be very bad or very good and I’d better hang around for a few lessons to find out which. Luckily for me, it was the latter.
Once I’d committed to Aikido, I (as many new students do) started on the assumption that I would learn lots of self-defence skills with which to defeat ruthless criminals down dark alleys – and that was the whole ‘point’ of it. But the more I practised, the less important that began to seem. Soon I was getting so much of a kick out of doing the Aikido itself that my main reason for learning came to be, well, for the pleasure of learning. Aikido of itself became a sufficient end result. And that, fundamentally, is the joy that has stuck with me to this day.