Saturday 31 March 2012

What is the point of Aikido?

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:

  • Self-Defence
  • Fitness
  • Calmness
  • Fun

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.

Other Things?

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.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Aikido in the dark

At last week’s aikido class in Bucks Cross we did about ten minutes of practice in the dark! Some sort of strange punishment for my students? Nope, a power cut.

In the wilds of North Devon, power cuts are fairly regular occurrences. You learn to live with them. When one happened half way through our class we had two choices – either struggle to stack the mats away in the dark, or just carry on. We opted for the latter. There was a very dim emergency light still in operation so we could just about see where people were, but not much more than that. And, surprisingly, the absence of light was no obstacle to our practice. On the contrary, in fact. It was my impression that, if anything, the techniques were executed more smoothly in the darkness than when the hall was fully lit.

By chance, I happened to be reading a book called “Aikido exercises for teaching and training” by C. M. Shifflett this morning (a great book, by the way, which has much to offer to students as well as to teachers) in which there is a discussion of the problems of relying too much in aikido on what we see rather than what we feel or hear. What you see is obviously vitally important. On the other hand, sometimes, if an attacker is punching (for example), it is all too easy to concentrate too much on the hand rather than on the whole body. In darkness, that’s not an option.

I was struck by this observation from Shifflett’s book:
“To decrease the emphasis on the visual, simply turning out the lights and practicing in the dark can change everything. Classes held during power failures have been some of our most memorable experiences. Awareness of surroundings actually improves when students must rely on alternate senses.”
I’m tempted to practise ‘aikido in the dark’ more often in future. You have been warned!

Saturday 17 March 2012

Bucks Cross Aikido – the story so far

Well, we had our first meeting last Thursday. Many thanks to everyone who came. I hope you had as much fun as I did!

Meantime, I’d also like to thank all those people who’ve helped us promote our new club. First and foremost, Torridge Council who, through the Active Villages project, has been instrumental in helping us to get the club going. Without their help, the club would not exist.  More info on their web site.

Thanks too to Shep and Jo at BBC Radio Devon who interviewed me live on air this week – actually, they phoned me about 25 minutes before I had to rush out to teach the class. Look upon that as a test of my ability to relax under pressure. Well, that’s one of the benefits of learning Aikido, after all… The Shep and Jo interview is still available online (if you are quick). It’s the show of 15/03/2012. I’m on at around 3:29:50 into the show.

The Bideford Buzz has been very supportive too. This is Bideford’s local community newspaper. They also have a web site here, where you can read about the Aikido club.

The local radio, Voice of North Devon, has also been generous enough to mention us and has posted an announcement on its web site.

I’ve been told a few other local newspapers and newsletters will be giving us a mention too. As soon as I see these, I’ll let you know. If anyone spots any mentions of the club which I haven’t noticed, please let me know.

In the meantime, remember we’ll be practising again at 7 o’clock this Thursday evening. If everyone could arrive a few minutes early, you will be able to help me put out the mats so that we can get the lesson started on time. See you then!

Sunday 11 March 2012

Ki Exercises (a resource for learning)

Before practising we generally go through a series of exercises that help us to warm up, get into the right frame of mind, practise relaxation and get ourselves ready to do some Aikido. At first even these exercises may be quite confusing and hard to remember. I've just discovered a very useful guide to the exercises created by the Aikido Kokikai Rochester Dojo of New York. If you are having problems remembering the warm-up exercises, you might want to take a look: