The Nonviolent Martial Art

Aikido, "the way of harmonizing with the spirit of the universe," is perhaps the most elegant and sophisticated of the martial arts. It is also the most difficult to learn, says Jearl Walker, a practitioner of judo and karate, in the July, 1980 Scientific American. "Its demands for skill, grace, and timing rival those of classical ballet."

In spite of these demands, aikido is growing in popularity. Though it is a direct descendant of bushido --- "the way of the warrior" --- aikido is a reform of the conventional martial arts. Its deeper purpose --- expressed in every technique, every movement --- is to create harmony rather than discord, reconciliation rather than victory.

Modern aikido was founded in the late Twenties by Morihei Uyeshiba, a master of jujitsu and sword fighting. At his death at age eighty-six in 1969, Master Uyeshiba left behind a rich mind-body-spirit art and a legend of extraordinary feats, some of which were captured on film. But he left only a few words. Among them:

  • "The secret of aikido is to harmonize ourselves with the movement of the universe and bring ourselves into accord with the universe itself. He who has gained the secret of aikido has the universe in himself and can say, 'I am the universe.'"
  • "Aiki is not a technique to fight with or defeat the enemy. It is the way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family." "The only opponent is within."

It is practically impossible to master aikido without internalizing its philosophy. And it is a rather radical philosophy: To love and protect the attacker; to cooperate with rather than compete against your fellow aikidoists (contests are forbidden, but examinations are quite challenging); to transcend conventional concepts of time, space and causality; and to sense the interconnectedness of all existence.

Aikido can be practiced by people of every age but can be as demanding physically as it is philosophically. Half the time the aikidoist plays the attacker; in this role no punches are pulled and the attacker is generally thrown or pinned. The seemingly effortless quality of aikido disguises the rigorous training involved in taking a fall safely and gracefully. This aspect of the art --- learning to transform the fear of falling into the joy of flying --- is as rewarding and valuable as is the throwing and pinning.

Since its power does not come from sheer mass or exceptional upper-body strength, aikido is an especially good martial art for women and smaller men. Too much reliance on arm, shoulder, and chest muscles, in fact, can prevent graceful and effective performance on the mat. The startling force of the aikido throw derives from the long muscles that are attached to the pelvis. During throws, the aikidoist's arms and hands are often extended like swords. This is accomplished by sensing ki (energy) flowing through the arms and out the fingertips. Whatever the rational explanation for this mysterious phenomenon, the fact remains that it works; the aikido "energy arm" is relaxed yet remarkably powerful. In aikido, the mysterious and the commonplace often seem to join.

Getting involved in this art is as easy as looking it up in the Yellow Pages --- aikido is generally listed under Judo, Karate, or Martial Arts. Phone and ask if you can observe a class. If not, something is probably wrong; the best dojos welcome visitors. Watch the training. See if it manifests the original ideas affirmed by the founder of the art. Then decide if you are willing to devote time, money, and effort to your practice. Considering the complexity of the training and the fact that classes are generally offered twice a day, five to seven days a week, fees tend to be quite reasonable. Monthly dues at most major dojos range from thirty-five to fifty dollars. You should probably not take up aikido unless you can train an absolute minimum of twice a week on average; three to six days a week would be better.

Aikido training is an ongoing process. You begin simply by putting on your gi (training uniform, generally available at the dojo), tying a knot in your white belt (emblem of the ultimate learner, the beginner), and stepping on the mat. The more experienced students will help you, as will your sensei (teacher). Nevertheless, you'll go through a period of feeling quite clumsy. Take it as a natural and necessary part of the learning process. Getting a black belt will probably take three or four years of dedicated training for the younger person; five years or more for others. So don't even think about that. Just stay on the mat. Keep training. You can eventually gain physical conditioning, flexibility, grace under pressure, confidence, a sense of community. And the moment will finally come --- just when you least expect it --- when a throw works perfectly with no apparent effort on your part and your attacker goes sailing through the air. At that moment, you'll realize there are absolutely no words that can adequately describe why you're practicing aikido.

Copyright © George Leonard, Esquire, July 1983