Aikido was formally developed in the late 19th Century in Japan by Morihei Ueshiba, affectionately and reverently referred to by his pupils (as well as contemporary Aikido practitioners) as O Sensei. Ueshiba was an accomplished martial artist, a master swordsman, and a spiritual leader, and all of those forces come to bear on the philosophy and practice of Aikido. It may not enjoy the same iconic status as Karate or Tae Kwon Do, but Aikido is a deeply complex and difficult martial art that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the arts of the body and of the spirit.
What Is Aikido?
Aikido is a martial art that, like most Japanese martial arts, was based at least in part on Bushido, the martial way of the Bushi or Samurai. Arts as different as Jiu Jitsu and Karate are also based on different parts of Bushido, as well as swordplay arts such as Kendo and Iaido. Aikido is more similar to Jiu Jitsu than it is to Karate, and like Kendo, it includes sword kata. It is, however, quite different than all of the above.
What sets Aikido apart from Jiu Jitsu, besides the fact that it does not in general promote on-the-mat grappling, is that its movements reflect the philosophical commitments of Ueshiba (the commitments of Japanese religion, including Zen Buddhism and Shinto), which means that the art is performed slowly and with a flowing, loose body. Its movements are not hard, but soft, more like the Chinese art Tai Chi, and it does not in any way muscle its way through its maneuvers.
Like Judo, and its predecessor Jiu Jitsu, Aikido is about using balance and physical energy to put an opponent off balance (and ultimately off of their feet and out of commission). In Aikido, however, this principle is taken to quite an extreme, with large, flowing, looping movements that are designed to keep an opponent from ever gaining their feet. and sudden, but still somehow gentle, reversals of direction to take opponents off of their feet. There are, like in Jiu Jitsu, many wrist, arm, and shoulder locks, but in Aikido, they are performed with far less physical strain, more emphasis being placed on angles of attack and defense, body position, and timing.
There are sometimes strikes incorporated into Aikido, but they are generally used in order for a practitioner to respond to them with a more fully traditional Aikido lock or throw.
For its slowness and perceived ease of motion, Aikido is generally not seen as a practical self-defense art. To be sure, Aikido is focused on personal spiritual growth, the virtues of peace and harmony, the promotion of social welfare, and the balance of inner forces, and to that end, its slow movements are themselves spiritual, meditative practices. That being said, it is undeniable (if you have ever tried to spar with a truly accomplished Aikidoka) that Aikido principles, when set into practice at a faster pace, are extremely effective. Fighting a great Aikidoka can be as difficult as fighting an empty shirt, and you will likely find yourself on the ground before very long.
The philosophy of Aikido
Aikido is a martial art that emphasizes the second half of that phrase—it is an art in every aspect. For Aikidoka around the world, this means making certain very important spiritual and philosophical commitments. There are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of Aikido taught in every corner of the world, and each may try to lay claim to being the definitive technical art, but what they all share (at least in principle) is a philosophy.
The philosophy of Aikido is evident in its physical practice. The slow, deliberate, smooth movements are indicative of a meditative tradition, and indeed Aikido promotes meditation (often in the Zen Buddhist tradition) and sees its kata as meditative practices themselves. These practices promote balance and calmness of mind, the unity of the body and spirit, patience, emotional flexibility, slowness, relaxation, and focus. Completely apart from any martial principles, these are extremely valuable tools for developing what Zen Buddhists call “Zen Mind,” which is an expression of complete acceptance of and love for the multifaceted, and sometimes difficult and painful, lives that we live.
The Zen Mind is a state of emptiness and utter passivity, and yet it is focused, attentive, and ready to respond actively to the world. This paradoxical state requires harmony and balance within an individual, not to mention years of meditative practice, to even begin to approach. Aikido is about developing something like this state of being, and its movements are expressions of the patient balance that it seeks to encourage.
Aikido and spirituality
Buddhism and Shinto are each important to the Aikido community. There is no Aikido without religious commitment. Even if the individual Aikidoka does not feel a religious attachment themselves, they are practicing the living expression of those attachments if they are devoted to the art of Aikido as it was intended—which is to say, as it encourages spiritual and meditative practices above all else.
The religious and spiritual aims of Aikido are simple: On one hand, it promotes individual growth and meditative peace, which, both in the dojo and out, is the ultimate aim of the Aikidoka. And on the other hand, by promoting such individual peace and harmony, it promotes the joy and balance of the community at large. Aikido principles are, as expected, most at work when people are treating each other with love, compassion, and in the name of joy.
Is Aikido good for self-defense?
The question remains: Is Aikido good for self-defense? Much could be said of this, but for now you will be left with a simple question—What good is a boxer, a grappler, a Karate expert, or a street fighter, when they are too off-balance to execute their attacks? Isn’t the principle of harmony and balance of spirit equally applicable to bodies? If I am truly at peace, and truly balanced, and if I can maintain that balance physically while ensuring that my opponent cannot, haven’t I won the fight?