What Is Aikido?
An excerpt from In Search of Harmony
A book by Lori A. Parker, GCFP, SEP, Ph.D.
What is Aikido? One answer is that Aikido is an extremely powerful and effective form of self-defense - a superior form, according to some people, since it aims ultimately at the end of all conflict. From a self-defense perspective, one seeks only to defend oneself without harming the attacker. But there are many answers to the question "What is Aikido?" One might be inclined to say that it depends on whom you ask. We can start, nonetheless, by distinguishing Aikido from other Japanese martial arts.
When taught as the Founder of Aikido envisioned it, Aikido differs fundamentally from other martial arts in that it is wholly defensive, non-violent, and non-competitive. One does not learn offensive techniques to be used against another person - to be used to attack another person. Another way to state this is that Aikido techniques are designed to be used as a response to an attack, rather than to initiate an attack. Additionally, there is no desire to overpower the aggressor. Those who study Aikido attempt to blend with the aggressor's power, rather than oppose it.
The attacks are, then, in their strategic dimension, based upon the total coordination of one's own reaction to an aggression with the aggressor's own power. However, as Ratti and Westbrook point out in Secrets of the Samurai: "In Master Ueshiba's method, coordination is not intended merely in a strategic sense." In other words, it is not viewed solely as a means of achieving the single or restricted purpose of self-defense, through an intelligent employment of natural or anatomical laws. This would restrict the value and significance of the principle and its techniques to the problem of physical conflict alone. Ueshiba Sensei desired to "further the development of an integrated human personality, truly balanced in a continuing condition of harmony".
When taught as the Founder envisioned it (as opposed to a modern sport), Aikido is a rigorous and demanding physical discipline that serves as an educational process for training the mind, body, and spirit. The physical self-defense techniques are not the true object, but a tool for personal refinement and spiritual growth - a tool for integrating and balancing the human personality - a tool for harmonizing individuals within a society - a tool for harmonizing individuals with nature.
Nonetheless, there are those who profess to teach Aikido who view it as no more than a system of self-defense. Their concentration is on the practical, technical, and/or strategic aspects of the art - leaving out any reference to Aikido as the Founder envisioned it. In fact, they seem to ignore the very thoughts of the Founder, who said: "Emphasis on the physical aspects of the warrior is futile, for the power of the body is always limited."
So, in teaching Aikido as merely a collection of self-defense techniques, these individuals seem to shed light on their own ignorance - ignorance of the martial arts in general as they were passed down from the masters, ignorance of Aikido as the Founder developed it and envisioned it, and (perhaps most importantly) ignorance of the difference between BuJutsu and Budo.
There are also those who profess to teach Aikido who teach it as a competitive art (despite the fact that the Founder himself developed it as a non-competitive art). "The world," Ueshiba said, "will continue to change drastically, but fighting and war can destroy us utterly. What we need now are techniques of harmony, not those of contention. The Art of Peace is required, not the Art of War. There are no contests in Aikido. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests nothing. Competing with, and criticizing others, is weakening and defeating. The only thing to defeat is the mind of contention that we harbor within" (Stephens, p. 33, 63).
Undeniably, Aikido is an extremely powerful and highly effective form of unarmed self-defense. It also offers all-around physical conditioning, involving the elements of strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, relaxation, and concentration. The wind training in Aikido can be anaerobic or aerobic, depending on the intensity and duration of the practice sessions.
But, just as Aikido is much more than a self-defense system, it is much more than a way of keeping in shape. It is, according to the Founder, "a form of prayer that generates light (wisdom) and warmth (compassion). It is the expression of the Infinite Spirit and of love" (Ibid, p. 116; Saotome 1993, p. 31).
People often ask, "Is Aikido for everybody?" It may not be. But for those who are drawn to Aikido, the training promises many benefits beyond the ability to defend oneself. Many of those benefits have already been mentioned. Aikido can, quite simply, be considered a process of self-discovery and positive dynamic change. One senior student expressed it this way: "The purpose of Aikido training is many-fold. But perhaps it can be best summed up in the expression: self-discovery. For me, Aikido has been a vehicle for questioning who I am and what I am capable of." And another said, "You will find your sleeping patterns will change, your diet will change, and your energy levels will change; your relationships, if they do change, change for the better." So, while it is true that the techniques of Aikido can be used to defend yourself, the techniques are no more than a means to an end - not an end in themselves! "Aikido," the Founder said, "is the study of the spirit."