John Bailey studied Aikido under Tony Graziano and Tom Walker. He is a graduate of Executive Security International and has an extensive background in security and investigations, having worked as a bouncer, security officer, bodyguard, undercover operative and tactical instructor. He is a practical firearms competitor and instructor and has provided tactical training for law enforcement and private security agencies in Florida, Colorado, California and Oregon. John has studied Aikido for four decades, the past two of which have been dedicated to exploring better ways to train and to teach the art in a quickly changing world
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”
A few weeks ago, by a mere strike of luck, I managed to get my hands on “The Magic of Aikido – A Thesis on Progressive Aikido Training Methods”, a work produced by John Bailey in 2000 in quite an arcane format – a pdf e-book saved as an ISO file burnable to a CD. The book is not currently available to the general public.
Bailey’s work references the contributions of Bruce K. Siddle – a law enforcement veteran specializing in training and survival human factors and the founder of PPCT Management Systems – and his documentation of factors like reaction times and how those relate to the size/length of cognitive programs. It talks specifically about how Aikido, in particular, suffers from performance problems, especially in younger (newer) students, owing to the “code-bloat” of the old naming conventions.
The book is based on hard science, that is concrete and measurable principles. It lays out the state of strategies that John Bailey formulated to teach Aikido, with specific attention towards accelerating performance, 20 years ago, when his work was first published. Since then, this exploration has come a long way, as John has explained to me in the informal discussion that we are now happy to share with you.
How come that your teaching interests took a path so removed from what is considered standard or “traditional” in the Aikido community?
I always considered Aikido to be a powerful discipline, to the point that in my book I call it “magical”. I also appreciated its being a path to personal development and harmonious conflict resolution. That said, no matter whether one is more drawn to the martial or the spiritual aspects of Aikido, the truth is that we have to live, survive and thrive in the real world out there.
I realised that there can be no benevolence, forgiveness, or spirituality without credible ability to prevail, violently where necessary. If you lack the actual means to win, you can only submit. Consequently, when I started teaching, I thought I had a duty toward my students to be deeply honest about these things.
I have now studied Aikido for four decades, the past twenty years of which have been dedicated to learning better ways to train and to teach: reading; cross-training; watching hockey videos; and even exploring neuro-linguistic programming. All this has been the basis for a gradual shift from what it is considered a “normal” way of teaching Aikido.
What did you not like about the way you were seeing Aikido being taught?
Along our Aikido travels, my wife and I attended a seminar where no talking was allowed. We saw instructors teaching footwork that was hidden by their hakama. These methods seemed strange to me.
Reading and re-reading the standard requirements for various grade promotions, I could find neither real-world relevance nor any logical pattern to them.
I began to question traditional teaching practices, comparing them to modern sports training technology. After reading Bruce Siddle’s studies on performance under stress, I experimented with new training methods, changing students’ habits — then testing student reaction times and performance. I rewrote grade requirements based on a logical pattern and real-world relevance. I am talking about hard science, measurable stuff.
Most of your reflections come from real-life experience, am I right?
My background includes a career in hands-on work with violent people and training law enforcement. I’ve experienced practical application of Aikido literally more than 1,000 times in the real world. So, yes, I have been connecting academic theory and scientific study with real application.
The whole topic sounds extremely interesting, especially for those who have realised how our environment has become full of prejudices about the art, with an accompanying zero scientific approach to its learning tools and hiccups on the other.
I read your work and was impressed with your approach and methodology. It shows a holistic vision of Budo training without the traditional constraints of it, at a time when everyone is learning thousands of techniques as separate entities… I believe that the (many) grey areas in Aikido are just too handy for those teaching it. It’s easier to keep drawing letters one by one than to understand how to compose words with them.
It seems to me that the entire Aikido community is sadly passing down the same didactic mistakes from one generation of students to the next. Then you wonder why someone is accusing contemporary Aikido practice to have become an insipid jam of everything: nobody really knows what they are doing. We are only collecting techniques!
The founder didn’t care much about passing on an Aikido pedagogy, his son Kisshomaru chose this reductive approach, his students were young men sent into a foreign word, the first two generations of non-Japanese teachers are too wrapped around the whole philosophical approach to ask any question about the physical aspects of training…
Glad to find an exception!
Thank you for your kind assessment. I hope it provides some ideas you may find useful to open your own experimentation.
“Easier to keep drawing letters one by one than to understand how to compose words with them”, this is an excellent way of putting it. Concerning the current technique collecting habit, Tony Graziano Sensei used to say: “A man with a bag of tricks is not a complete man. If that’s all we produce then we are a failure.”
One of the reasons, I think, Aikido is waning in popularity is that it’s becoming a “dead” art. Most people won’t explore the Aikido universe creatively, so can’t use creative methods to teach.
The material I shared with you is 20 years old, now. We have continued with the development of our training methods, adopting and adapting some methods from Filipino martial arts. We also don’t do “polite” randori. We pile ukes on top of ukes, and carry a percussive fight to them in a randori setting. This is training for the real world. It is dangerous training, even with energy being moderated – which we do. Care for training partners can remain paramount while still conducting dynamic and effective training. We’ve been very happy with the outcome, in reaction times, in the ability to apply waza in conflict environments – and also in fun on the mat.
Many are starting to ask questions these days. Maybe the lockdown and subsequent inactivity in Budo has helped people in rationalising that they have a teaching problem – even though there seem to be very few factual proposals.
I think I would mostly try to answer questions that people may have based on my background from hands-on professional work to my work as a clinical hypnotist in understanding neurological factors, and having spent decades experimenting with different training methods and testing outcomes. Everything I do is science-based, and I recommend to everyone I share with to do quality experimentation – to make a reasonable investment in a method, and to see what the outcomes of that are for their context.
My personal context has always been both self-protection and self-development. So, we’re concerned that things work in the real world, reliably – and, we’re concerned with the long-term mental and physical integrity of the practitioner and the dojo community. We train to fight, and we also train with great care for our partners.
This I got from my first two Aikido sensei, one of whom was a SWAT commander and very scary. He once threatened to beat me if I didn’t stop going to the local Karate dojo to spar because he said it was going to instill bad habits. At this point in my career, I understand he was right.
That’s what we need, a verifiable approach, maybe not necessarily one that is exhaustive, but somewhere to start from. The swamp of pseudo-Ueshiba pacifism of the last 2 decades has, in my opinion, left a terrible void. At best, everyone is trying to repeat stuff they have seen from one of the Japanese shihan in the 70s and 80s. There is no clear sense of path and progression. If we look at all Aikido associations, they also have one approach only: just do this and the certificates will keep coming.
Everyone has their own criteria for practising “martial arts”; many have their own idea of what that even is. I think that being clear about outcomes, and understanding that in the frame of “well formed outcome” is a necessary beginning.
Past that, I think what one can probably produce – and also probably transmit to others – can be called “a system”. If only one person – or just a few extraordinary persons – can do something, it isn’t really “a system”. This concept came from Tom Walker Sensei: “You are only as good as what you can pass along.”
One of the concepts I talk about often – and explicitly, when I teach – is the “level of contrivance”. ALL “training” is an interaction that is to some extent contrived or constrained. Even in randori, we don’t kick-out knees, or groins – or gouge eyes. And, in most dojo, it’s considered wrong to throw ukes ONTO or INTO each other. Most Aikido practice is done at a high level of contrivance: kata with a partner.
One of the things that are missing in traditional Aikido practice is a method for bridging from high contrivance to relatively low contrivance. We look at the learning curve and the stress when people first begin randori…
Agreed. It is pointless for Aikido teachers to continuously point out that Ueshiba sensei supposedly did this and that, when we cannot. How can you base a teaching system on outcomes you cannot reproduce?
It also leaves the door open to all sorts of baloney to justify how to get to what he was doing and we are not.
I cross-trained with people from Filipnio systems that have a strong intermediate-contrivance practice that bridges the gap. I stole the methods, adapted them to Aikido. This is much of the material I’ve been working in the 20 years since the book material I shared with you.
On your notes about Ueshiba… People often ask me about “the spiritual side”… And, I ask “of breaking someone’s arm?”
I explain how easily sankyo osae breaks the arm. I’ve done it multiple times. I explain how it sounds; how it feels when you snap another human’s bones in your hands. Not very “spiritual”. Not what they were seeking.
Then, I talk about the emotional factors afterwards. And, that’s what they’re concerned about – wanting to be “effective” but never suffer spiritually/emotionally from having harmed someone else. The discussion deepens…
My personal conclusion, and structurally, is that “mercy” or “benevolence” has a prerequisite of credible destructive capacity. Without that prerequisite, it’s a facade. And, a facade one presents to oneself is a delusion. To me, the purest “real” Aikido is doing one’s best not to cause undue harm – and when the aggression of an attack literally (not figuratively or philosophically) rebounds to the attacker to cause them the injury.
Again agreed. You can’t offer mercy if you don’t know how to not to. To be harmonic, you must know disharmony and decide not to go there.
Yes. To me, Aikido contains a large number of “booby traps” – where an opening seems available to a would-be aggressor – but if they pursue it with commitment and intent, they will break their own body. The most direct example of this I think is sankyo osae.
The first time I broke someone’s arm, I saw they were going to pursue the punch, and I tried my best to release the sankyo. I was moving to chikaku and I was safe from the punch because of my positioning. I suspected they would be injured and did my best to release. They were very fast – and very committed – faster than I could release…
The arm broke like a pencil in my hand, with a stunningly small amount of force. I was in a professional environment and fighting hands-on every day. I was not adrenalized at all. Very calm. So, I wasn’t over-muscling, etc.
The aggressor broke himself.
Exactly that. I felt very badly and, as a consequence, I became quite skilled with yonkyo. That was my adaptation.
Today, I see the event as very pure “aiki” concept playing-out in physical reality.
Do you realize why this cannot be digested by mainstream Aikido? People have built a fantasy world where Budo is possible without harming and being harmed by simply de-constructing every martial aspect of training. This is why today Aikido is so often an empty dance mimicking medieval Japanese martial applications.
Yes, and it’s difficult to have the conversation around “real application” – in part because many people doing hands-on violence professionally – or who have – are wrestling with demons around it. They tend to have a frightful (from fearful) outlook and presentation. To me, it’s a departure in the opposite direction. To me, this is where “self-development” begins to show itself – not in terms of mere physical strength, flexibility, skill – but on the psychological plane – in terms of reconciling all that our humanity really entails – which includes binocular vision, canine teeth, tribalism, territoriality, etc. Denial of these things is not “development” but delusion. Suppression of them is not “developmental” – and not part of RECONCILING them.
This is where credible and martial factors are an integral part of “development” – for which there are no shortcuts past the dark places. Fixation on them – or being enthralled by them – is a pathology. Likewise, denial or repression. They must be dealt with appropriately.
That’s an entire collection of challenges – of different kinds, whether one goes out and does violence professionally – or one wants to never experience that outside a controlled dojo. On one path lies dangers of PTSD, moral injury, physical injury – or just becoming a violent person. On the other, various delusional nonsense.
And psychological abuse of the self and the students. Aikido is a perfect hiding place for sneak violent people who do not want to risk being challenged. Many teaching or seniors in it are like that: abusers at a physical and psychological level
My sensei was Tom Walker. He came up in a very harsh dojo. He could be a bear to take ukemi for but was never abusive. He just DID Aikido.
He had a rift from one of the big organizations and sent me to a seminar by the senior student of one of the other Shihan, to feel-out their general way of doing things. The guy was a perfect example of what you describe – cruel to a teen-aged student to the point we walked out of the seminar.
And that is the real face of many seniors in Aikido who, behind their peaceful words, hide all their unsolved issues – after decades of training in a supposed conflict resolution art.
You see a great deal of that garbage in people who profess “real Aikido” – or “effective”, etc. It’s one of the things we have to contend with – also because we integrate a load of percussive techniques. There can be a perception that it’s “harsh”. We don’t do it abusively, but rather carefully – and emphasize that “ukemi” is inherently the practice to manage being struck.
This gets to some of the videos of O’Sensei, where people say uke were jumping for him. They were in many cases evading the strike he had shown them was there – could be there – and which might be if they stuck their nose over there.
Aikido “works” in many ways based on strikes – or uke’s response to a strike – that’s NEVER shown – and that many “sensei” don’t even know is there. You have to explore that part of the art to even know what’s there (or not). And, you can not do in the real world what you never practice. So, it’s necessary to practice – which doesn’t mean brutalize your partner, either.
Maybe there is not enough time spent training for both students and teachers to develop anything? Modern lifestyle doesn’t exactly help personal development after all. And if the training methods are old, confused and cumbersome, that development may never come.
I think there’s plenty of time available. I think 3 classes a week are plenty for progression. I think time is not efficiently used. Too much formality, for one thing – sucks up time.
Another issue: number of iterations of stimulus-response. High levels of contrivance reduce this count. Possible solutions?
- Balance of practice at different levels of contrivance. We typically see 90+% of a training month spent in the highest levels of contrivance. Low iteration count, and a semi-static type of energy/interaction.
- The simple shift into intermediate levels of contrivance can 5x or even 10x stimulus-response iterations, the ability to work with more dynamic energy, and more importantly the ability to bring techniques from “live” interactions.
So, again, it is the standard or “traditional” tools that are not adequate. Do you think that mainstream Aikido will ever conceive abandoning icons like the Aikido etiquette and traditional technique names? The attire and all the typical class rite? Most would probably tell you that that’s what Budo is really about. Personally, I really doubt it will ever happen.
Aikido is all about flexibility, right?
It is not!
The more people get up the ladder, the less they become available for change, even though they teach it verbally on a daily basis.
I think I quoted O’Sensei in the book about building on the foundations and adapting new forms. In the book I also covered the naming convention problems. All of that is just science and proven outcomes.
Ton Walker Sensei used to talk about “2% rule” – that only 2% of most people in a given profession are excited enough about it to constantly seek adaptation and innovation and improvement. Everyone else just wants to punch the clock, go through the motions, and collect their “pay” – even if it’s social. He said this applied to Aikido as well.
I think this is not a reason to remain with one’s feet stuck in the concretion of “tradition” – which really means “dogma and sloth”, from my POV.
There is also the question of money-making connected with providing “tradition” in times of difficulty and doubt.
It’s interesting, the degree of resistance to simply arranging the words differently (again, material in my book) – to practicing the exact same movements in a different order or organization. It’s interesting, the degree of resistance to doing something more dynamic and interactive not instead of, but in addition to, the higher level of contrivance formalized movements.
I’ve tried to promote these ideas to people I know – into the old dojo that persisted after my sensei passed. I’ve taught some of this stuff there. It was received with interest, curiosity, etc – but was not adopted or integrated.
It is not certificate material, my friend.
It is in my dojo.
And that’s the way to go. One dojo at the time.
My certificates are not recognized anywhere else. My student who lives in Portland has a dan rank from me – and also one from a federation dojo there where he trains. Two dan ranks for the price of one.
Certificates in Budo only mean anything if issued directly from the person responsible for your formation. Modern postal diplomas from Tokyo are just an aberration.
Agreed. A money-mill. A pyramid scheme.
At this stage, mostly Ponzi-style network marketing in keikogi…
Thanks a lot for the very inspiring conversation, John. Let’s find a way to serialise your book and share it. There are people who will listen.
Thank you as well. I’m open to ideas and happy to participate.
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