Effectiveness is Aikido’s perennial skeleton in the wardrobe. Some don’t care about the eternal debate over it, some deny it is an issue and dream of being ready to take on anyone anywhere, some, like Bruce Bookman, are actually studying ways to integrate a new combative approach into Aikido while still respecting the feeling of Aikido as the first condition of any innovation
by BRUCE BOOKMAN
Aikido is most notably criticized for not being realistic because of the lack of true adversity during practice. No competition is involved. In striking and grappling arts there is sparring. A practitioner who wants to use Aikido for self-defense or harder yet against other highly skilled martial artists has to take his training with stylized attacks such as katate-dori, shomen-uchi , etc. and apply it to a situation for which he never trains. There are teachers who show practical application. That helps to some degree. The part that nobody truly addresses much is how to develop skills to close the distance on random (skillfull) attacks/strikes without getting knocked out.
The Gracies took the martial arts world by storm when they came up with “the Gracie Challenge” inviting martial artists down to their studio so that they could (with much success) prove to the world how effective Gracie Jiujitsu/BJJ could be. What inspired me about what they were doing was that they had a systematic approach to closing the distance on a grappler or a striker, clinching and doing a takedown, often without putting a scratch on the opponent. I was very impressed and started with the Machado Brothers (cousins of the Gracies) making trips down to California to train whenever I could get away.
I’d done a couple of years of Judo and Taekwondo as a teenager. After returning from Japan (before I started BJJ) I trained at a boxing gym in Seattle for a couple of years. It was very good for me. Taking hard shots to the body and face and still being able to come back after having my world rocked was a good experience. I loved boxing. I learned to slip punches and retaliate spontaneously. I also learned the value of a covering block when I was being pummeled. I learned how to clinch and tie up a fighter when I got tired. I noticed that I was getting a few floaters in my eyes and then I would see white flashes when I went into a dark room. The doctors said no torn retina but at 35, it was not good to get repeated blows to the head.
I got into BJJ and totally loved it. It opened an entire world for me in terms of grappling. All this cross training I did while making my living as an Aikido instructor running Tenzan Aikido in Seattle. I started BJJ at age 36 and here I am, at age 63 and after a hip replacement (5 years ago), I’m still very active. At least I was until Covid.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve been developing ways to close the distance using boxing slips and BJJ entries to get close enough to an opponent to do an iriminage, kotegaeshi or kaitenage in a light sparring situation. My goal here is to add a degree of spontaneity to my Aikido training and to begin to put these skills, including some light sparring on the Tenzan Aikido curriculum. In order for my students to pass their shodan test, they have to spar a little where they need to respond to jabs, crosses, hooks, and low round kicks to the legs with Aikido techniques and basic jiujitsu/wrestling. This is in addition to a full curriculum of classical Aikido. They have to be able to block, duck and slip punches. They may open an encounter with their own punch or kick just to close the distance as a segue into an Aikido technique or double or single leg. It’s still in the embryonic phase. My work with Aikido Journal’s Aikido On-line Academy, Aikido Extensions is based on this work that I’ve been doing. I make no claim to my students that they are going to become or deal with mixed martial artists or hardcore fighters with ring experience. But what I do emphasize is that they will have strong self-defense skills by the time they are shodan. At least that’s my goal for the dojo.
There are pitfalls to this type of work that must be avoided if this will take as an evolution of Aikido. Sometimes you will see a Karate person or a grappler try to employ Aikido techniques. They look like strikers or grapplers doing Aikido movements. They don’t have or lose the feel of Aikido. That is almost an indescribable quality that I feel at home with. Whenever I grabbed a hold of Chiba and even Shibata Sensei’s it was definitely there. That soft yet firm feel with freedom to move. Use of spirals and the ability to go from standing to sitting so smoothly from a very powerful center. To win a confrontation would be great but not enough. That unmistakable feel that makes it Aikido is critical and easy to lose when working outside the box of standard Aikido practice.
Feel and how I run energy through my body is where I focus my attention, much of the time when I demonstrate or when I go up and down the mat, practicing with my students. In my personal practice I concentrate on where I hold excessive tension and to consciously let go of unneeded tension. I work on how I spiral down to a knee and back up to my feet again. Shift in weight distribution and timing. It’s a deep study and one that I find extremely difficult. It is so easy to have perennial problems with which I’ve been dealing with for decades, rear their heads again. Postural problems, tension, too much reliance on strength and the list goes on-and-on. I want Aikido to seep into every cell in my body and consciousness. Anything that I add to my regime from cross-training in BJJ or pugilism must take on the aiki feel that I’m searching for. It’s a tall order. Without the aiki feel, even if we do manage more martial effectiveness we’d be better off doing mixed martial arts.
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