Finding a living practice for Aikido- Part II, weapons hold a key
Aikido, live training part II- Weapons hold a key
In the first part of this article I talked about how after passing my black belt test in Aikido I found it nearly impossible to “use” the things I had learned in Aikido in an actual fight. I also talked about how sport martial arts had taught me the power of “live” training and how I felt that if I could add this kind of training to Aikido it might be much more useful for fighting. I also discussed how my MMA training seemed to show that Aikido was not useful for fighting, but a full contact stick fight with the Dog Brothers showed me that some Aikido training was useful in a “live” situation, and gave me hope. In this article I’m going to talk about how I figured out a big part of what made some Aikido training useful- weapon orientation.
Aikido had worked for me in a full contact stick fight, but had not worked in MMA training. Why? What was different? The most obvious difference was the weapon. This really made no sense to me because Aikido taught more Taijutsu (body methods) than Buki Waza (weapon systems). I started to think that by happenstance Aikido taught a useful weapon system (Aiki-jo) but had a miserable unarmed system (Taijutsu). I started training more and more with my jo (short staff) thinking that maybe MMA training and Aiki-jo might be a good combination for an all around fighter, teaching both unarmed and armed methods of fighting. I also started looking more seriously at other traditional weapons. I started playing more with weapon sparring in general, and made another huge realization. Something that was right in front of me all along, but until I had a weapon in my hand and started to spar, I had missed it.
Aikido is known for having a lot of techniques from wrist grabs. which quite honestly when you are familiar with MMA and “real” fighting, seems STUPID. In all the MMA sparring I did wrist grabs were a transitional thing. They might appear for about half a second in an MMA match; doing the kinds of techniques found in Aikido forms just didn’t work. I had tried them while sparring with MMA in the past, and they just seemed ridiculous. I couldn’t even start the technique before my opponent was on to the next hold. One day while weapon sparring it so happened I had a knife and my opponent didn’t, I went to stab him and he caught my hand and was holding on to my hand for dear life (which if this hadn’t been a sparring weapon could be taken quite literally). All of a sudden I did a Nikkyo and bam! I was free and stabbing again. It was brief and not very showy, but it was almost exactly the Aikido form for Gyakute Dori Nikkyo (cross hand grab, second Aikido technique for twisting the wrist). I started using more of the technique for wrist grabs when I had the knife and my opponent would catch my hand- and guess what, these techniques worked.
These common Aikido techniques came in quite handy, and allowed me to clear my weapon hand very nicely most of the time. Another piece of the puzzle had come together. Wrist grabbing technique worked well in situations where you had a weapon and the other guy was trying to stop you from using that weapon. The reason they worked in this context (armed grappling) was because the guy without the weapon was trying his hardest to hold onto the weapon. This was different from the wrist grabbing I had seen in MMA because the wrist grab was no longer a transitional move, but instead was something the attacker had to hold. This was also the first time I started to see practicality from Aikido’s “unarmed” techniques. Wrist grabbing techniques were not out of Aikido’s Buki Waza (weapon forms). Aikido Wrist grabbing techniques came from Aikido’s Taijutsu (supposed “unarmed”) techniques. This started to make me wonder if Aikido’s “unarmed” techniques were really “unarmed” or in fact related to weapon use.
I played more with weapon sparring, and more started to become clear. Another thing that training in MMA had made me wonder about was why Aikido forms don’t universally train from common clinch holds, like bear-hugs, headlocks and waist locks(I say “universally” because some Aikido styles do have these kinds of techniques, not the majority of them). Weapon sparring quickly answered this question for me. Bear-hugs, waist locks and headlocks are horrible holds when the guy you are holding has a weapon in his hand. When I was on the unarmed side of weapon sparring I noticed that I was often modifying my common clinch holds into something that looked more like an Aikido hold, because those Aikido holds were keeping me from getting stabbed. Again we see more use for Aikido’s supposed “unarmed techniques” in an armed situation.
What really started to cement in my mind that Aikido’s “unarmed” technique were actually focused around weapons and not unarmed fighting at all, was when I finally started to understand Aikido’s wrist twisting techniques. While rolling in BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) I had got a wrist lock or two, but they were not high percentage techniques. Even though my Aikido training should have made me quite good at applying them, they were much less handy than a Kimura (arm twisting lock common in ground grappling) or any other common BJJ technique. While doing more armed grappling training I started to realize that I could very successfully disarm using Aikido technique, almost exactly as the movements were taught in the “unarmed” forms. Things like Nikkyo, Sankyo, Gokyo and Kotegaeshi (Aikido wrist twisting techniques) worked horribly in MMA style fighting, but were excellent when you were trying to take a weapon out of your attackers hand.
At this point I KNEW that Aikido technique revolved around weapons. I saw it work for the first time in a serious weapon fight, I continued to see it when I would spar with weapons, but not when unarmed. It was case closed for me. Aikido training was all about weapons work, and not at all about unarmed fighting. This should have been clear when I first started training in Aikido and learned that the techniques found in Aikido are based around traditional Jujutsu technique. Jujutsu was the body methods (Taijutsu) practiced by the Samurai. The Samurai were not running around boxing and wrestling unarmed. They were fighting with weapons. Why would I expect to learn unarmed methods from this herretage? When I saw pictures of Aikido’s founder, he had a weapon in his hand a lot of the time. This should have been a clue, but I was so conserned with unarmed fighting that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. I really didn’t know (and still don’t know) why we so many of us think Aikido has unarmed techniques. Maybe armed fighting was out of vogue in Japan at the time, and more money could be made teaching “unarmed” methods. Maybe the founder quit caring about the martial application of his technique so didn’t talk about it, because it didn’t really matter for what he was interested in teaching. I really have no idea, but I did learn from personal experience that Aikido has a lot of techniques that work wonderfully in armed situations, but are completely impractical in unarmed struggle.
Aikido was shaping up for me,nand a lot of it was becoming very clear. My understanding of the practicality of Aikido’s syllabus had changed from thinking only its “weapons” techniques were practical, to realizing that its “unarmed” techniques were actually weapon centered as well. I started to think of Aikido as an armed grappling system. I worked with it this way for a few years, and much of Aikido worked but there were still a lot of holes in the system. I found that in most sparring sessions, other techniques were still needed; techniques not taught in Aikido. There were also large parts of the syllabus that I found unnecessary for armed grappling. None of this sat right with me.
I had learned about martial context through this process. I saw past this sophomoric idea that “fighting was fighting”. I started to understand that there were many different situations where conflict can arise. These different different situations each being a contexts. I learned that the martial art’s context will dictate the kinds of techniques that will be most useful. Again this should be have been a no brainier, but in the past there was this constant desire for my mind to make all martial arts about unarmed conflict. Because I had failed to understand other contexts I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. I didn’t want to make this mistake again. I didn’t want to try to force Aikido to fit a context I understood, but instead I wanted find the context that Aikido fit in. While many of the techniques found in Aikido worked wonderfully in an armed grappling context, it didn’t fit perfectly in this context. Other techniques were still needed and a lot of the syllabus didn’t make sense for this kind of context. I still needed to find how those other pieces fit in- I was looking for a context where Aikido fit perfectly, needing no extra techniques and having no superfluous technique; did that context exist?
Be sure to read the next installment of “Finding a live practice for Aikido” Part III- A complete context for Aikido.