The Place of Aikido in the Age of Zumba and MMA

The fathers of Aikido are almost all gone. It is now up to their children to take the responsibility of placing our art in a profoundly changed world. Where is Aikido going in the 21st century? What is our place in the age of Zumba and MMA? What are we to do with the wonderful legacy that our tatami foster fathers left us? It is about time that the new generation of senior Aikido teachers begins to wonder, because the future is now


Gradually, with the inexorable passage of time, we are moving further and further away from the direct sources of original Aikido. On the web it is not unusual to read of “Aikido 2.0”, an apt definition of the phase that opens before us. It is especially in these times of transition that it becomes essential to understand what is being done, hoping that we are taking the right path in keeping with the new times that advance.

When times are uncertain and instability rules, historically parts of society have always shown a tendency to stiffen, be it at physical, psychological and/or social level. This has commonly been followed by the consoling return to cultural forms seen as more traditional, or more “powerful”, or reassuring. Pub-style psychology is enough to explain this trend and we won’t dwell on it.

The above picture, in Aikido often translates into a return to a pre-Aikido vision of Budo: the present times have produced a type of Aikido practice that differs only slightly from the Zumba practised next door, therefore, as a reaction, Aikido must return to being a fighting method. If I do this, I can signal my being different from any dancer in hakama, while at the same time competing with the MMA bad boys.

The diatribe on the effectiveness of Aikido is as old as Aikido itself. It is in these periods of confusion, however, that peeps back with force an ideology that would bring our discipline back to what it was before the Founder: a mere means for counter and hurt. This would in one fell swoop deny Morihei Ueshiba’s brilliant contribution and also the work of three generations of teachers, who have managed to transform a series of violent medieval martial techniques into a method aimed at enriching personal knowledge and improving the self.

O’Sensei performs Tai no Henko, uke TK Chiba

Historical revisionism is an inevitable evil and occasionally re-emerges, especially when things are not going well. It might be good, however, to repeat loud and clear that Ueshiba’s Aikido is not self-defence. Ueshiba’s Aikido uses techniques once exclusively utilised for self-defence for a DIFFERENT PURPOSE. Some may not agree with this postulate, except that they should have the courage to call their practice by a different name, because it is not Ueshiba Aikido, however they bow to Ueshiba’s picture… Those who wish to rewrite the genesis, history and philosophy of Aikido are free to do so. Nonetheless, there are too many of us who trained for decades and studied as much where Aikido comes from; it can’t be expected that we just go along when we hear nonsensical arguments about it.

Too many are obsessed with the idea of ​​self-defence. The martial styles that are the most popular are always and invariably those that hit the hardest (or pretend to hit the hardest). Even among aikidoka, this effectiveness-concern disease is something that seems to take the sleep out of many colleagues of all ages and rank. Personally, I think that in a civilized and organised society the best form of self-defence is based on two neat moves: quality education and absolute certainty of punishment for those who do not abide by the rules… two things that contemporary Western society does not feel it should commit to doing. However, the fact that the social system around us is not working properly cannot justify returning to the stone age. We martial artists must dissociate ourselves strongly from any expression of violence outside the parameters of minimum force.

And here we get to the heart of what we are talking about. The right to self-defence is recognised by the law under all skies; defending oneself from those who attack us with animal violence as animals, simply means being of the same substance. There is no difference between pork and ham… In a world that is becoming more and more confused and contradictory, an aikidoka cannot afford to feed the flames with petrol. When a hand grips your wrist, don’t stiffen; when a punch brushes your face, do not react by breaking the attacker’s nose; when an individual behaves with you like an animal, do not react by becoming a larger animal. This is Aikido: not to turn into the evil that is received, but neutralize and redirect it, possibly towards recomposition.

“Don’t react by becoming a superior animal” is a very different statement from “don’t react, becoming a superior animal”. The absence of a comma makes a huge difference. It is not argued here that aikido people should turn into non-violent Gandhian individuals – even if as a good Christian one should turn the other cheek. Aikido’s message is not the honourable one of passive resistance. Ours is an active approach, but the line on which we should be moving is a thin one: we must be careful not to fall back into the Middle Ages of conflict resolution: he hurt me, I break him; because on a social level this contains the community disintegration germs of which we all declare to be horrified. I have the suspicion that today’s lynchers would belong to the category of tomorrow’s lynched, given the moral level of what they are prepared to do.

Avoiding Medusa’s touch

We need correspondence between action and reaction, that’s all. Aikido people must avoid Medusa’s touch, which transforms us exactly into what we fear the most. Where is the justice of beating to near-death a violent aggressor? Is this the model of behaviour that we wish to support in the community that we are going to leave to our children? No, thanks. The violent, the aggressor is him, not me. An aikidoka must be able to put him in a condition not to harm, pack him up, and deliver him to the authorities using minimum force. The authorities have the role and duty to punish him according to the laws that the community has given itself. The culprit must pay his debt of him IN FULL, WITHOUT DISCOUNTS, but always in order to return to society. If this doesn’t work properly, change the way you vote, not the way you think.

Tickling our revenge instincts is not Aikido. Aikido people don’t retaliate by mutilating. Thanks to Ueshiba’s Aikido we are advanced martialists, and that’s not an easy thing to be. It is certainly easier to give in to the first instinct that assails us when faced with the horror of physical or psychological aggression. The easy way is to fight to the death with everyone we disagree with. What power on earth gives us the right to be judge and executioner? Are we without sin? I don’t, so I take a step back.

An experienced aikidoka studies warfare techniques to use them, but using them does not mean maiming or near-killing. We should know them and, in case of aggression, we should know how to use them as needed, not an extra ounce of power added.

On the other hand, I find it also unacceptable that gestures of distinct martial origin are used with the martial competence of a ballet dancer. If I went into target practice and hit anything but the target, it would be okay for me to get suspicious about my actual abilities. If I shoot at a target, I want to hit the target, otherwise what do I shoot for? When I am finished and leave the shooting range, I don’t shoot anyone, but this is my choice, made on the basis of what I have in power, not because I’m not capable of it.

Pacifism and the harmonising with the other are conscious choices made by those who are capable of being disharmonic, hurt, kill, but have the moral strength, derived from training, to choose not to. This is my own version of masakatsu agatsu. Peaceful individuals due to their weakness are not peaceful at all, only defenceless. In their being peaceful and harmonious there is nothing moral: give them the tools and you will see what they truly are…

The problem of effectiveness in Aikido is simply a non-problem. Humans cannot become invulnerable; by simply thinking about defending, we become weaker. Whether the attack is real or “dojo-style”, the answer cannot be relative. The answer is always and only absolute, as per Tada Hiroshi sensei’s teachings. Otherwise, in the case of a real attack, if the answer is relative, one either kills because too excited or wet himself because too afraid.

I haven’t been in a street fight in a lifetime, but I’ve been there and didn’t like myself at all. This is why I have been studying and study control: the point simply lies in the extent of the reaction. With a cool head, I made the decision that I would not react like a cave-man in the future and went to study the techniques necessary to do so. Our daily controlled practice in Aikido is oriented towards this end, otherwise, why don’t we destroy each other’s joints in every technique we apply? What would be the use of studying control, if we are to react in an uncontrolled way when there is a real-life struggle? Whether this is easy to achieve, or whether this is successful it’s another matter.

Aikido in the age of Zumba and MMA should serve to transform hatred into civil coexistence. Those who want to train in a pure and simple self-defence art should look elsewhere, as there are disciplines that are a million times faster than Aikido in providing effective action/reaction tools, but that’s where these arts stop. Striking does not allow control. Striking doesn’t leave room to the use of minimum force. Striking doesn’t involve any modern conflict resolution concept. Aikido was born on the ashes of a similar violent world but turned its martial techniques for moral purposes and personal and social betterment.

All the above considered, it is also not the Aikido teacher’s job to brainwash others as to be the one with all the right answers in the end. We can provide information, logical arguments, motivation and a good example by acting on them in person. After that, it is up to those who follow us to use the lot as they see fit. We recommend the tools that we are using, it is for the general public to decide whether to use them. If some don’t want to and laugh at us, that’s okay for me, I am not an Aikido missionary. However, I am not going to change my art to appease aggressive outsiders by transforming into them.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2012
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