Why Aikido is Losing its Power of Attraction

I have been practising and teaching Aikido for more than 20 years now, and as time passes, more and more comments discredit the practice, always quicker to pop up, as sharp as a Katana blade…

by MATTHIEU JEANDEL

“It’s a dance, nothing really works, everything in it is complacency…”

And the list is a lot longer. I feel like countering all these remarks and I would like with heart and faith to be able to defend Aikido against them. Unfortunately, as a practitioner and teacher, I have to agree with many of those remarks, except that I am trying to understand where all this is coming from and what to do, at my level, to reverse this phenomenon.

This reflection is the basis of the following article. I will present here 4 avenues of reflection that may offer food for thought. The 4 chapters are as follows:

  • Track N° 1: Readability of the Technical Proposals
  • Track N° 2: Loss of Martial Sense
  • Track N° 3: Disappearance of the Physical Aspect of the Practice
  • Track N° 4: Pedagogical Ability of the Teachers

Track N° 1: Readability of the Technical Proposals

Over the years, Aikido has become a technical and philosophical catch-all. 20 years ago, I would have talked about a unique Aïkido, a unique Aïkido with maybe different paths, but in any case an art with unique principles. At the time I would have refused to consider talking about styles or “currents” for the practice of Aikido.

I even remember laughing about it with my teacher, Philippe Voarino, when we broached this topic. He told me an anecdote about the famous blue towel from Iwama… The “Iwama Style” towel which had been created to mark the belonging and filiation with the practice of Morihiro Saito Sensei. Unfortunately, the first issuing left a bitter taste, because the writing said “Iwama Stale“.

Beyond the anecdote which was forgotten as quickly as that first impression, I never believed that today I would come to write the following lines. 20 years ago I would have done anything to fight the idea of ​​a style or a filiation. Today, on the contrary, I will do everything to re-establish certain truths and filiations…

As I said above, Aikido has become a big catch-all. It’s like going to a concert without knowing what you are going to hear, Heavy Metal, Rap, Classical Music, Folk Music, Country… Some people argue that “it is music after all”. Indeed, it is music, but if a concert is marketed promising to help to release your negative energies and leave you recharged, some will perhaps think of relaxation music, while others will expect a pogo in a punk concert. Defining Aikido is a complex thing, just gather 10 teachers around a table and ask them the question, you will get 10 different answers.

A martial art, a spiritual path, a physical activity, a social… How can we give a clear proposal if even the teachers do not know what is going on?

Certain practices have made their choices a long time ago and have a clear identity: Yoshinkan is the current based on the teaching of Gozo Shioda, Iwama Shinshin Aiki Shurenkai is Hitohiro Saito’s current, there is even a current which took on competitive practice, Kenji Tomiki’s Aikido Shodokan.

Gozo Shioda, Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito

However, although a few styles exist and they declare their filiation, many more choose to hide under the generic name Aikido. This is where we can find anything and everything. Over the past 20 years, I have seen more external practices integrated into Aikido than in any other discipline: self-défense, krav maga, jujutsu, jodo, kenjutsu, shuriken, iaido, systema and so on.

Don’t get me wrong: each of these disciplines or schools are very good and certainly very interesting to study, but what is the interest in the study of Aikido?

The greatest genius of some teachers was to make people believe that to advance on the path of Aikido it was good to practice everything except Aikido. And this was only possible because Aikido presents a level of illegibility of its technical tools and potentialities. More than anything else, this also shows a lack of ability to understand and teach Aikido.

Having accepted everything and done everything out of open-mindedness and harmony, it took less than 3 generations after O’Sensei’s death for Aikido to lose its content. So, yes, today I think we must establish and re-establish the lineage of Aikido practice.

I will present an example to illustrate my point. The theft of techniques in the practice of weapons has never been more prominent than in this period, and this for the simple reason that isolation and social distancing make it a tool of the first choice.

Funny, when you remember that 20 years ago the practice of weapons was not at all an obligation for the progression in Aikido. Suddenly the “teachers” went to look where the weapons existed… and for many that was in Iwama’s weapons catalogue.

Where this becomes problematic, however, is that virtual teachers feel offended and spectators and followers along with them, when one asks the question: “Who taught you these movements?”.

If we evoke part of the specific catalogue of a school or teacher’s curriculum, then the legitimacy goes to the people who have followed the teaching itself. To say that a certain teaching is wrong shows not a lack of modesty or open-mindedness, but deep respect for the elders and the work they accomplished – and also for all the practitioners who will be deceived by this work devoid of any meaning.

So yes, today to help Aikido, I think reestablishing filiation would be a good thing. This would, unfortunately, highlight another point that poses a problem in Aikido, namely the real competence of teachers… but that will be for later in the article.

Track N° 2: Loss of Martial Sense

The first point made it possible to show that there is an ambiguity in the practice of Aikido. This vagueness leads directly to the loss of martial sense.

Before going any further, we better talk a little about technical points. Technical points are the basis for learning the techniques and this for two main reasons: 
– They are what makes a technique specific.
– They are elements of what is linking techniques. That link is what unites different techniques, or the Ri-Ai which allows building step by step the concept of Takemusu

Let’s leave the technical points issue for the moment and go back to our chapter n° 2 and the loss of martial sense.

Today the image of Aikido suffers from a loss of credibility from a “martial” point of view. As a consequence, many go looking for new techniques in the disciplines which are favourably considered by the students (systema, krav maga, MMA). If a teacher appears with a practitioner of one of these disciplines, in the collective unconscious he becomes a martial practitioner.

The martial reality of any practice today has more to do with a fantasy made up on the idea of martiality than with the “effective” application of principles specific to the discipline.

It is sad to have to justify your own practice through that of others (as respectable as they are as disciplines in their own right), it is sad because this is simply the result of technical knowledge loss. I am going to use two techniques as examples to illustrate my point, kaiten nage and ikkyo omote.

In the first, an essential technical point is to put your hand on the top of the skull. Few understand this and it becomes irrelevant to put your hand on the top of the skull, on the neck or even to grab the collar of the keiko gi, as long as the fall is there and if possible rotating and spectacular, which will reinforce the impression of doing it right.  

However, with a full understanding of the techniques, there is no doubt that to position your hand on the skull allows to achieve the martial form.

Achieving a martial form implies using the lever applied via the cervicals to push uke’s head into the ground and not simply throw him safely. The fall is a pedagogical and safe permission and not the purpose of the technique. Without understanding this though, we are going to need to develop other ways to become martial: kneeing the head to avoid uke rotating, doing a little larger tenkan to increase the impression of power in the fall… But all these answers, all these martial cases are just dressings to a simple reality: technical knowledge has been lost. Then it becomes normal to reinvent the reasons without really understanding what is being done.

Here’s a second example of the lack of understanding that it can regularly be found in the practice of Aikido. This time, let’s study time 2 in ikkyo omote.

If time 1 in the technical execution of ikkyo omote corresponds to front imbalance, time 2 is the rear imbalance. One of the important technical points for this specific moment in the technique is: “Enter with your rear leg (N.B: the rear leg at step 1) in the direction of uke’s foot (N.B: the rear foot if we consider its initial hanmi position)”.

The loss of this practice has several consequences:

⦁ If the frontal imbalance is maintained, uke must be thrown and tori must take large strides to bring him to the ground. This will also change the angle of the arm which must be at 90° in relation to the body – and that without using the rear imbalance this will no longer be the case – which leads to a technical modification of the following times.
⦁ Due to the loss of this martial knowledge, the element “towards his foot” in martial condition becomes “on his foot/ankle”.

The above examples demonstrate how in the most basic practice of learning technical points – hidden behind the veil of pedagogy and safety – lie technical martial applications. Losing the understanding and proper execution of the techniques corresponds to losing the martial sense and leaves with having only 2 choices:

  1. Inventing to find solutions.
  2. Borrowing elements from other disciplines.

In either case, however, Aikido as a discipline in its own right will suffer from the loss of martial sense. Its image will also suffer.

Track N° 3: Disappearance of the Physical Aspect of the Practice

The next line of thought could also be approached from the point of view of the martiality in the practice, but we will extend this to the whole practice of Aikido.

Aikido is a PHYSICAL discipline. In this sense, its practice and progression are intimately linked to the use of the body. To be very straightforward, since the post format does not allow developing much further, many practitioners do not have a body ready to practice AND receive the practice of Aikido.

Aikido has been developed and today is presented as an art of harmony, peace, at best self-defence… Nevertheless, before anything, Aikido is a physical practice. Many of his elements have disappeared making contemporary Aikido often at the image of the body of its practitioners: weak and unstable.

Let there be no misunderstanding, I am not insulting anyone, but it is a long time now that we are in a vicious circle of our own making.

Like other martial arts, Aikido was usually a discipline practised every day, that is to say that Aikido students trained every day and several times per day. When they weren’t training, they took care of tasks or had a job that was often more physical than nowadays.  

The students did a lot more of tanren, exercises of reinforcement using Aikido tools for Aikido practice. In the end, after a few years, this made students “suitable” for training, both to give it and to receive it – because when I speak of practice and reinforcement I am not talking only of brute force but also of mobility. 

Morihiro Saito – Exercices de Tanren

Nowadays many think that by practising 2 or 3 times 1h30 to 2h per week they will be able to forge their body as to make it become their primary tool of progression. This would be possible as long as the proposed training required the body to adapt to challenges. In a few words, the basis of development and adaptation is to propose such a challenge as the body must adapt to, to be able to be more comfortable when the next occurrence of this challenge happens.

In the current kind of training, which is 90% based on dynamic practice, ki no nagare, awase, the students move away as far as possible from all the challenges that would allow their body to develop. When a challenge occurs, very often the blame for this will fall on uke who did not follow correctly. He is then seen as creating an evil spirit in his practice or on tori’s level of practice, when it is tori who is not advanced enough yet for a “perfect ki no nagare”.

Consequently, Aikido has become not a martial art, an art based on body practice, but an intellectual and intellectualized discipline. I do not know any serious physical discipline that does not consider the care of the body, its training and maintenance… Some schools have kept the practice of Tanren, others of Taiso, very few of both and none as an integral part of the practice.

One final thought on this: it is not because you pay your membership fee, get your medical certificate and keikogi and then get on the mats that you are ready to give and receive the practice. In my opinion, this is an important point of reflection for the future.

Track N° 4: Pedagogical Ability of the Teachers

Hiroshi Tada during one of his theoretical presentations on Aikido (Copyright International Aikido Federation)

A final point that I would like to raise is a delicate one, but one that must be addressed.

Nowadays many teachers no longer have the skills to transmit the art of Aikido. Once they have reached the 1st or 2nd dan, many become teachers by their own will or out of necessity for the survival of their dojo.
Unfortunately, the majority of these new teachers do not have the skills to transmit Aikido and quickly find themselves in a dilemma. One day the students will start asking questions: that day the teacher has a few choices, but each of these choices will affect his teaching life for many years to follow.

  • Choice N°1: To answer within the limits of the knowledge for which one has been evaluated.
  • Choice N°2: To answer that he does not have the answer to the question.
  • Choice N°3: To respond with the understanding one thinks to have.  

Let’s have a look at the reasons for those answers and their consequences, starting with choice N°1.

It is common knowledge that a teacher can guide or examine a student for grades up to 2 levels below his own. For example, a 2nd dan can examine a 1st Kyu, a 3rd dan can examine a 1st dan and so on. While this is not a rule set in stone, it is important that we self-question and understand the reasons beneath it.

Understanding takes time. It is often only after several months or even years after obtaining a grade that we accomplish the real requirements for this level of practice. Therefore it is necessary to allow for time between the technical validation of a level and the holding of the ability to teach these technical elements. There is a continuum of progression:

LEARN —> UNDERSTAND —>TRANSMIT

To accept choice n°1 requires several things from the teacher. The first is knowing your own level of practice. Then, the teacher must partake a continuity of learning for him to be able to continue to progress, by concurrently increasing his ability to practice and to teach.

Also in this choice lies the fact that some answers will not be answered until later in the practice. To accept your level means to accept that we do not have all the answers.

This leads us to choice n°2, that of the teacher who does not have the answer and says it.

It requires clarity about what the teacher knows, what he thinks to know and what he gives the impression to know. The distinction is subtle but sometimes makes a whole difference when it comes to the transmission of any practice over time.

In my opinion, this choice requires 2 essential points:

  • To have a person of reference to turn to in case of need, to continue learning or to whom to ask questions.
  • To be able to explain and clearly say what is what when it comes to presenting personal research and reflection or practising the basics.

Having a reflective approach, doing research is not bad at all if built on a sufficiently solid foundation. With this approach, however, the concern is to make people believe that reflection or research is and must be for all.

Sokaku Takeda and Takuma Hisa pictured together on the occasion of the awarding of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Menkyo Kaiden to Hisa in 1939

Classic martial traditions had a diploma called Menkyo Kaiden. It is often known to practitioners as the diploma validating the student’s complete knowledge of the school. What it is less known and perhaps more interesting, obtaining the Menkyo Kaiden allowed students to develop their own awareness of the practice, and this with all the legitimacy of the name of the school. This was possible and acceptable only because the student who achieved Menkyo Kaiden had all the technical foundations to support his research and development from there.

Today the Menkyo Kaiden type of certification has disappeared, while two behaviours have emerged. The first is the failure to differentiate between basic learning and conducting personal research.

As I said above, reflection and research are a good thing, but all those who had this approach know that a phase of one’s research and reflection does not necessarily bring something positive for the practice. Sometimes that research is abandoned as quickly as the reflection is born. And this can be confusing for the students.

Let’s consider a situation that I had the opportunity to witness several times.

Practical paired experiences with a jo

A teacher takes advantage of a seminar to “teach” his research without specifying that it is his current research. The practitioners go back home, to their dojo, to their practice and take the proposed practice at face value even if it is abandoned a few days later by the teacher, who might have come to the conclusion that it does not produce anything or that the research has led to a dead end. This is a classic circumstance.

Another situation, an even more frequent one, is when the teacher in his regular teaching, lesson after lesson, progresses in his reflection without specifying it. As a result, the students following his teaching understand this as their progression and not as teachings which correspond to their teacher’s research. The difference is great and emphasizes an important notion when it comes to teaching: a teacher must teach so that everyone progresses at their level and not to show his/her level of practice.

There are proper occasions when the teacher can offer the above, advanced lessons, black belt courses… No matter the name, two things must be essential:

  • The students should have a sufficient level of practice of the basics.
  • The students should be aware that what is being proposed is personal research.

And here we come to choice n° 3. If a teacher responds based on his research or a theoretical or partial understanding of things, the risk of losing knowledge and changing practice will be greater the lower the level of the teacher and the response based on theoretical reflection.

It is evident why it is complicated to maintain a level of practice that does not gradually decline over time.

Let’s do a bit of a self-check here, for our’s and our students’ sake, and let’s be honest about our choices with all these questions we have to answer and each of the explanations we give.

I believe that today the loss of martial content and of knowledge go hand in hand with the lack of humility of the teachers. This is not about being open-minded, as we can hear here or there, but, on the contrary, it is about not being aware of our own limits and those of our practice.

As teachers, we are responsible for our teaching and the progression of our students.

Copyright Matthieu Jeandel ©2020
All rights reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorized is strictly prohibited.

The article’s main photo is by Richard Payne

Matthieu Jeandel – Bio

My name is Matthieu Jeandel and I started Aikido in 1999 with Serge Merlet at the Belfort Combat School.

Serge Merlet was a passionate practitioner, a student of Tadashi Abe, Minoru Mochizuki, and Yoshio Sugino sensei, who had grouped in his school Aikido, Katori Shinto Ryu, Karate, Yoseikan Jujutsu. All the students had from the start an openness to different martial disciplines.

It was in 2001 that I met the one who was to become my teacher: Philippe Voarino, student of Morihiro Saito in Iwama.

I then stayed as an Uchi Deshi in his private dojo for several months in order to start my learning of Aikido according to the teaching of Morihiro Saito.

The years passed, the internships followed one another and over the years I received my 2nd, 3rd, 4th dan, and in 2011 the 5th dan from Philippe Voarino and Alain Grason.

For more than 15 years now I have had the opportunity to travel to France, Europe and many times to Asia to teach and transmit the knowledge I received under the umbrella of the Takemusu Union group (https://takemusu-union.com/ ) for which I do technical internships and teachers Aikido pedagogical training.


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