Finding a living practice for Aikido- Part III, a complete context
Finding a living practice for Aikido- part III, a complete context.
This is the last in a three part series. In the first part I talked about my venture into sport martial arts and how they made me realize that live practice is essential if you wanted to learn how to “use” your system. I also talked about how in a fight with the Dog Brothers, I got my first taste of Aikido technique working in a fight. This lead to my understanding of Aikido as a weapon oriented system. I began using Aikido as a kind of “armed grappling” system, but many parts of Aikido didn’t fit into this context. This left me with the feeling that I still didn’t quite understand how Aikido was meant to work. That is where this article takes off, finding a complete context. This article is going to talk about the context I discovered and how that context seems to fit Aikido perfectly. This context didn’t leave anything found in Aikido’s syllabus out, or require any new techniques not already found in Aikido.
I worked with Aikido as an armed grappling system for awhile. Studying the way it played out in live sparring. I started to discover that techniques would more often come up when one person had a weapon and the other person did not. This “mismatch” seemed kind of strange to me. Sports martial arts is often about creating an equality to better test your skills. So why did more Aikido technique show up when there was an inequality? This forced me to start thinking differently. I started to realize that in a sparring situation you could have a symmetrical match, where two people have the same goals ( like: I try to throw you while you are trying to throw me), or we could have asymmetrical matches where we have different goals (You try to stab me with the knife, while I try to get away). This realization might not seem like much, but it made all the difference for me in terms of creating a live practice of Aikido.
At first this asymmetry made sense because of the nature of what I was most trying to get at. When I fought with the Dog Brothers, It was without a doubt a weapon fight. We were both armed with the same size weapon, each of us using this weapon against the other. Some of the technique I had learned in Aikido fit nicely into this fight. And the feeling, distancing and timing were much closer to what I had practiced in Aikido training than anything I had done in MMA. However I wanted to see more of Aikido’s taijutsu (often misunderstood as “unarmed” methods) appear. I knew this would only happen if one person was trying to take a weapon, and the other was trying to clear grabs. There was a natural asymmetry in this, at these asymmetrical moments you get the set up type that is found in Aikido- wrist grabbing and wrist clearing techniques. Many of Aikido kyo waza (basic lessons) and Aikido’s nage waza (throwing techniques) started to appear in this asymmetrical situation. But this was originally meant as a kind of “hack”, a way of getting at the stuff I wanted to work on through this asymmetry. This “hack” ended up to me learning much more.
Understanding the concept of asymmetrical conflict was essential when I started to look at the nature of Aikido theory and making that theory work with a live context. By nature Aikido is not an aggressive martial art. The theory of using Aikido starts to fall apart if you are forced to be the aggressor. This idea is really woven into the fabric of the Aikido system. While this idea is very lofty and altruistic, it makes live practice very difficult. You don’t get much training done when your live practice consists of both competitors standing there being non aggressive. Aikido technique needed a situation where one person would always be the aggressor allowing the other to use this aggression to his advantage. This aggression creates the imbalance used in Aikido technique. Without one person being overly aggressive the “Aiki” techniques that lead the attacker to his own destruction just wont work.
I had been trying to find a way to create a live practice for Aikido in a symmetrical way. I was trying to find a way that two guys could evenly oppose each other and find out who was better in a context that Aikido was built around. The problem was Aikido was designed for a context that never directly opposes anyone. I had been trying to make Aikido do something that at it’s core, it was never meant to do. In this asymmetrical situation however, we could make one person more aggressive and give the other the opportunity to use that aggression against the attacker.
Let me give you an example of some of the advantages that can be exploited during asymmetrical conflict that might not be afforded in symmetrical conflict. I’ll use an example that hopefully many of you will be familiar with. In American Football, a player from one team will try to carry the ball from one side of the field to the other, in order to score a points. Players on the other team will try to tackle the ball carrier in order to stop him from scoring points. If the ball carrier is clever, he can often use a move called a “juke” to keep those player from tackling him. A “juke” enables the ball carrier to, without physical contact, cause the players trying to tackle him to miss their tackle attempt, stumble and sometimes fall flat on their face. The ball carrier can do this because of the asymmetrical nature of their conflict. The ball carrier never wants to tackle the people coming to get him, he simply wants to carry the ball to the other side of the field. Because his desire is different than those attacking him, he can exploit the natural difference in their goals. A move like the “juke” is only available to the ball carrier because he is not trying to “get” the other players. He can exploit their desire to get him, because he himself is free of this desire. The “juke” is what Aikido people would call a “no touch throw”. When you hear of Aikido people who are able to throw with no physical contact, it sounds mystical and magical (or if you’re a realist, like a bunch of B.S.). However “no touch throws happen constantly in sports featuring physical asymmetrical conflict. You can see “no touch throws” regularly on the football field. I had to create more of this asymmetry in my live practice if it is to work with Aikido.
I came kind of close to a live practice with armed grappling but it didn’t perfectly fit Aikido. The nice thing I got from working with armed grappling was I saw Aikido techniques start to work for the first time. Techniques like Nikyo, Sankyo, Gokyo, Rokyo, Juji Nage, Kotegaeshi, Kokyu Nage, Shiho Nage and Kaiten Nage started to happen quite naturally, and with increasing regularity. However many things still seemed strange with Aikido in this context. Aikido has 6 attacks that hold the arm, attacks that were good for controlling a weapon hand. Aikido also has 5 grabbing attacks that weren’t really good for controlling the weapon hand, why would an armed grappling system have techniques for these kinds of attacks? Some of them could be explained as a hold that the attacker might use while stabbing you (a shoulder grab and a lapel grab for example), but others made no sense for this kind of use. Some of the attacks didn’t make sense in an armed grappling context at all. If Aikido were to be an armed grappling system, it would also need better controlling holds. In a few sort years of sparring with Aikido as an armed grappling system, our small school found 8 necessary grappling holds that didn’t exist in Aikido at all. Grabs that did exist in traditional Jujutsu but weren’t used in Aikido for some reason. Aikido’s pinning techniques were also very weak for an armed grappling system. The pins described in Aikido technique just don’t have enough control to really hold an aggressive attacker. These were just a few of the problems I was having when I tried to force Aikido to be an armed grappling system. It just didn’t add up. I had to accept the fact that I had yet to find a perfect context for Aikido. The Further I explored asymmetrical conflict the more I started to see another context that made all of this clear to me.
Something that is often demonstrated in Aikido is the ability to deal with multiple attackers. This is something that is very natural in the Aikido world and just about every style of Aikido teaches multiple attacker situations. The O-Sensei (Aikido’s founder) is often seen in old films being attacked by several people at once. Dealing with multiple attackers is something that many martial arts systems think of as impossible, yet in Aikido it’s practiced it all the time. As an Aikido practitioner and a student of sport martial arts, I could see both sides of this controversial subject. Could I deal with multiple attackers when I did Aikido, yes. Could I do it if the attackers came at me like they do in MMA- I felt that was impossible. It is hard to deal with one attacker if they are close to your ability level, how could I ever deal with several? Because Aikido lacked a live practice I could do this in an Aikido Dojo because the attackers were not really trying to “get me”. In Aikido the attackers give little resistance to Aikido’s techniques. This is not to say that there is no skill to multiple attacker practice in Aikido. New Aikido students can seldom deal multiple attackers. It’s really hard to deal with several people at once even if they aren’t trying that hard in their attacks. How could I possibly do it if the attackers were really serious?
I started trying to tackle this problem. I would have my students come at me and try to take me down or pin me against the wall. My first attempts sucked. Even though I could usually best my students when grappling, boxing or weapon sparring, one-on-one, when there were two or more of them, they would beat me. at first I was using the kinds of techniques I would use in sport martial arts, I would go right at them, trying to push them or throw them as fast as I could. This got me caught time and again. When they would grab me I would try to “get them” by applying technique, this only slowed me down and made it easy for the second attacker to come in. I had to start to think differently, I had to start thinking like Aikido. I decided to make movement my key goal and not applying technique. I started moving more and stopped trying to “get them”. Sometimes I could manage to trick them into slamming into each other or the walls. I couldn’t do the beautiful Aikido throws that I could do if they were attacking in the Aikido way, with much less aggression. But in this practice they could actually try their hardest to attack me, we could make a live practice out of this. In the end they would still get me, but with good movement skills (those taught in Aikido) I could make the time it took them to get me longer and longer.
With the ability to keep my attackers from grabbing me quickly, I had lot’s of time to hit them with a weapon. We were using training weapons, so they were never actually hurt by my weapon strikes, but I could often hit them each upwards of ten times before they could get a hold of me. This wasn’t possible when I was using the symmetrical idea of “getting them” if they tried to “get me”. The practicality of a system like this seemed very sound to me. Using this strategy with a serious weapon (heavy baton or a blade) would enable me to stay free for a long time and use my weapon very effectively. A practical application for Aikido technique was becoming very apparent.
At this point the attackers goal was simply to knock me down, or trap me- either by holding me or pinning me against a wall. We added another way the attackers could defeat the defender, if they could successfully disarm the defender, they would also win. This made the attackers try to grab a hold of the defenders weapon or wrist, when they would do this the defender can use their desire to grab the weapon hand to lead them in many different directions. Sometimes this would even cause them to fall over (“mystical” throws seen in Aikido demonstrations). Their desire to grab the defenders weapon helped the defender use “Aiki” exactly as prescribed in Aikido technique. This multiple attacker, weapon oriented asymmetrical context showed the first real potential as a good live practice for Aikido. It also answered all of the problems I was having with Aikido in an armed grappling context, and it also provided a real world, martial situation that one might find themselves in.
I started to dramatically change my view of the goals of Aikido practice. Instead of looking at applied technique as the goal of Aikido practice. I started to understand Aikido as a movement art. A system that is designed above all to stay free of the attackers desire to grab hold of me, and to never commit to a grab that I cannot quickly escape. There is an old mysterious statement made by Aikido’s founder, “Aikido is 90% striking”. This has long lead to much confusion in the Aikido community, because Aikido isn’t a boxing style art. We don’t have lot’s of punching and kicking techniques- but when you look at it from this multiple attacker weapon context, that statement makes perfect sense. If you stop thinking of Aikido technique as being the throws and holds we do, and start thinking of Aikido as a movement art that is about blending to stay free, using your attackers aggression against them, we see something that Aikido is pretty good at, and it has practical application. This is something that is openly talked about all of the time in Aikido circles, yet when we think about how we would apply our art in a “real fight” our attention goes away from movement, blending and asymmetrical situations and turns back to twisting wrists or trying to make a big throw. We try to do this because this is what we see in other “effective martial arts systems”. In systems that have a symmetrical nature, the goal is to make a big throw, pin your opponent to the ground or land the big punch. We are deceiving ourselves when we try to make this the goal of Aikido. We are not understanding the real roots of Aikido practice. We don’t want to “get” the other guy, we want to ourselves be safe. This is what our techniques are designed to do. The wrist twists and fancy throws are simply supplements to our real art, the art of Aiki- the ability to use our attackers aggression against them.
It’s very difficult to make a live training practice for this kind of situation. However if you look towards multiple attackers and weapon oriented conflict it can be achieved. I have created several drills and even a competitive practice that can be done using Aikido as it is described in the forms and training methodology. But you must look outside of what is familiar, you must understand asymmetry and conflict outside of ego and one-on-one competition. We must understand the art we practice instead of trying to make it something else.