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Balance From Destruction: Secret Teachings of O Sensei

Balance From Destruction: Secret Teachings of O Sensei

The term koppojutsu (“bone technique”) is most frequently used in traditional Japanese martial arts to refer to “breaking” techniques.  They are the joint-breaking techniques of koryu Jujitsu and Ninjutsu, and the kicks and strikes of old form Karate designed to break bones and ribs.  For the purposes of this article, koppo specifically implies the intentional study and practice of the ability to harm and destroy, in contrast to mainstream Aikido practice in which only peaceful technique is practiced in support of the moral vision of the Founder.  Koppo is the emphasis of battlefield technique, of which modern Aikido “safe” technique is a limited manifestation. Koppo focus requires very serious intent, treating training as situations of life-and-death severity, and intentionally setting aside comfortable focus, attitudes, and energy in training.  While the concept of atemi also can include striking disruptive or sensitive targets, Saotome Sensei’s usage of koppo refers to a specific mindset beyond augmentation of technique.

In recent years, Saotome Sensei has spoken increasingly of the importance of studying koppo for serious students of Aikido.  In keiko, he often uses it while demonstrating pressure point strikes and controls beyond the typical Aikido syllabus (e.g., sankyo, yonkyo), and an attitude of severe martial intent.  After an extensive class on the topic at the 2016 ASU Winter Intensive, I had the opportunity to interview him at length on what would be, for most Aikidoka, a very controversial topic.  The following article is written in Sensei’s voice based on that interview, and to match the flow of the conversation as much as possible. It is also written to convey Saotome Sensei’s deep convication and explanation about how the study of destructive techniques can be not only consistent with Aikido moral philosophy, but requisite for a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Founder.

The Light Side and the Dark Side


Koppo is the “dark side” of Aikido training.  Yes, the purpose of Aikido is healing; healing is the “light side” (as Sensei describes this, he holds his hand out and shows the top, then the bottom of his right hand).  The koppo side of Aikido studies destruction, and knowledge of how to destroy an attacker in order to save your life and the lives of others.

Most Aikido practitioners do not have an understanding of koppo, and think that they can choose to practice only the light side.  They are not attracted to dark side techniques and concepts, they don’t even like the idea.  But the light side and dark side, ura and omote (front and back) are not different things.  True Aikido light side must also contain the dark side.  Without an understanding of koppo, an ability to destroy, then Aikidoka have no actual ability to defend themselves or others in true life-or-death situations.
“Aikido is not dancing!” – Saotome Sensei”

This was taught to me by O Sensei.  O Sensei never discussed koppojutsu concepts and weapons koppojutsu to regular students or at seminars, only to his closest uchideshi (apprentice disciples).  Only three people – Tamura, Chiba, and myself.  Maybe to some of his original uchideshi too.  But koppo understanding, awareness, capability was part of all of his movements.  It was part of his power, it was always there in his open hand movements, always in his kumitachi and kumijo.

Every time he picked up a jo (staff), every time he picked up a ken (sword), there was the harnessed power to kill.  All Aikido techniques contain the power to kill or deeply injure (at this point, Sensei demonstrates a kotegaeshi on me; then he repeats the technique, only against my thumb, and then again with my finger joints crumpled).  With proper understanding our techniques are not “safe” versions of historical battle techniques, they are full-power battlefield techniques that nage is strong enough to contain for the sake of uke. The technique that O’Sensei manifested was like a tiger biting gently with its teeth; compassionate but with reservation of incredible power that one felt at a primitive level.  Nage should always be aware of this.

There Are Not Two Swords, Only One

This is one of the deeper meanings of katsujinken / satsujinken (the philosophy of the “life giving sword” versus the “death giving sword”) – that there are not two different swords, but one.  O Sensei talked about these concepts to me during private times, when I was cooking for him, when I was attending on him, when I was caring for him in his home as otomo uchideshi (live-in servant apprentice).  O Sensei never taught these concepts or movements to regular students; this is why most of the world only understands Aikido as a defensive, pacifist art.

Why did O Sensei decide to teach only a few inner students this message, if he considered it so important?  First, O Sensei’s vision was to heal the world, and for most Aikido students it is enough to study the “light side” and find ways to bring harmony into their lives.  True understanding of katsujinken / satsujinken is difficult to explore, it is a difficult concept; putting it at the front would limit the growth of Aikido, how much of the world it could impact, and would lead to confusion by many students who did not have access to a teacher with deeper knowledge.  O Sensei made a differentiation between two types of Aikido students; the student who seeks to manifest the message of Aikido in their own lives, and the student who is a carrier of the Ueshiba vision and shoulders a burden to preserve the heart of Aikido for future generations.  It is the difference between student and deshi.  The deshi has a much harder path, it is harder training.  Another way to think of it, most students only read Aikido books, or only come to the dojo as recipients of Aikido instruction.  The deshi has to struggle with filling holes in their education, has to train outside of the dojo, and has to learn how to create Aikido instruction instead of just receive it.  There are many more bruises and aches and pains involved in studying the dark heart of Aikido knowledge, and it has to be embraced with serious determination.

Inflammation is your immune systems defense, helping you heal from an injury, attack infection and even create stronger muscles after a workout like strength-training or a cardio. You see when you workout you create mini-traumas in your muscles. These mini-traumas trigger a chemical response in your body that creates the inflammation needed to repair these mini-traumas making the muscles and even the bones stronger. A recent study even suggests that workout induced inflammation may help the immune system work more efficiently.

Deeper Knowledge Requires Study of Both Harming and Healing

What do I say to students who are afraid of koppo?  Koppo has a purpose.  Its purpose is not to damage others, but to gain a more profound understanding.

O Sensei had many students, many deshi, but most deshi never massaged O Sensei’s back.  O Sensei’s back muscles were so strong, so tough!  I had to become much stronger for him to feel my massages, and it was very hard on my hands at first.  He used to say, “use more ki Saotome!  Use more ki, don’t just rub the surface!”  O Sensei taught us these ideas so that when we massaged him, we would have deeper knowledge.  Koppo principle takes Aiki knowledge to the inside.

Aikido jutsu, koppojutsu, is the “yin-yang” of shiatsu (Japanese massage; note, Saotome uses the term “shiatsu” to generically refer to manipulative/massage-based healing arts, not specifically to the shiatsu tradition).  But these are also not two things, they are connected.  Together, they are the deeper study of body systems, of living biology.  For example, classically, martial arts teachers often were encouraged to learn to be therapists in order to further their knowledge.  Martial artists and their students would get injured, and teachers would gain a familiarity with how the body worked and in what ways it had weaknesses or could be encouraged to heal.  Joint injuries, strains, broken bones come from classical martial art training, and the teacher would take on a responsibility for learning how to heal those injuries so they would not hinder training. Shiatsu enables a deeper knowledge of martial technique, and martial technique teaches a deeper knowledge of shiatsu.  But an ability to penetrate the body, to destroy, is required to study this knowledge, not just shime (pain control) or nice massage.

Saotome sensei demonstrates a meridian pressure point on my arm which causes pain, but which can also be used to treat shoulder and stomach pain.

Yin and Yang

True Budo is balance, yin and yang in balance. Consider beer, or wine (Sensei broadly indicates some of the patrons at the restaurant drinking).  Beer can be good for you, or it can be poison.  It is not two different types of beer that makes a difference, the difference depends on knowledge and how it is taken into the body.  With no control, it is bad for you.

Kokyu (breath) is the same. Kokyu is the manifestation of balance, it contains in/out, yin/yang.  You cannot just inhale! You must also exhale.  We forget this in conflict. We forget what this means, but power comes from this balance.

Human beings are wonderful creatures, but we also know human nature has another side, very nasty, dangerous.  We must understand this and not only train for peaceful, gentle situations.  One must study the whole of human nature in order to cultivate and apply Aikido concepts.

I don’t talk specifically about koppo in my book (Harmony of Nature), but it is in there.  I talk about tidal waves, hurricanes; they can be very destructive, but they too are part of the yin and yang of nature.

Body, Spirit, Future, Mission

Why am I teaching koppo concepts to a much larger group of students than O Sensei did?  (laughing) Well, I’m not, completely.  I’m just challenging more of my students to study the idea, to think about the “inside” of intent and biology that constitute martial arts, and to understand the reason behind the movements we practice and that have been given to us by O Sensei.  My purpose is to guide Aikido students away from the “dancing mindset’, from training in a comfortable way mentally and physically.  I want to make them think about the real meaning, the real application of “harmony” – it comes from the moment of being in front of an enemy who can destroy you, who is not going to participate in your harmony. This is the essence of O Sensei’s Aikido meaning, and without this understanding Aikido is missing something important.  I often ask my students, “can you defend your life?” Because if your answer is “no”, then your Aikido has no real meaning and you have no real understanding of Aikido principle.  If Aikido is just dancing for you, then your Aikido is shallow, and it has no ability to either defend or heal.
On the other hand   shugyo    (training) is not just about fighting either. I show koppo so students can find understanding about the destructive aspects of Aikido jutsu, and to also discover the healing wisdom hidden in destructive technique.

O Sensei did not use a special word for these concepts in his special teachings to us (myself, Chiba, Tamura), he did not use the word “koppo.”  He did not show any special breaking techniques, just the same strikes and throws and atemi and finishing moves he showed in his weapons and open hand techniques to all of the students.  It was not necessary for him to use a special term, it was enough for him to reveal the deeper essence, the secret meanings to a few of his deshi so they would understand what he was always doing, what was inside all of his movement.  Koppo is simply the word I have chosen to be able to communicate these ideas to a larger group of students beyond my own close deshi.  I am challenging them to change their own Aikido, because I believe it is important to the future of Aikido and the future of ASU to remain true to the heart of O Sensei’s teachings.  I have a responsibility, my own deshi have a responsibility to carry O Sensei’s mission forward, it is his legacy, it is my legacy.  Without holding true to this deeper knowledge of both sides of Aikido, Aikido will eventually wither and lose meaning.

Just as bujutsu (martial techniques) teach shiatsu understanding, destructive intent teaches Aiki healing intent.  One teaches wisdom about destroying and healing the body, the other teaches wisdom about destroying and healing the spirit.  These concepts and wisdoms are intertwined, and together they bridge the physical training aspect of Aikido to O Sensei’s vision of healing the world.

– Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, December 2016

Saotome Sensei’s Significance of Leadership (Part 1)

Saotome Sensei’s Significance of Leadership (Part 1)

Saotome Sensei in the kitchen of the Aiki Corral Ranch, Myakka City Florida, August 26 2015

This the first of a few articles that Saotome Sensei asked me to help him write on the subject of leadership.

“Leadership” is an important concept for Saotome Sensei, and one that he thinks has critical significance for all teachers of martial arts.  He frequently mentions the term in his seminars, and at recent instructors camps for ASU it was a point he repeated and emphasized at length, often in the context of military history and culture.

The essence of what Sensei tries to convey to ASU dojo cho and teachers is that they are no longer students for themselves, and their training is no longer for their own enjoyment, benefit, education or edification. When he feels his students are not training with a sufficient sense of seriousness, intensity, and appreciation for the life-and-death implications of every instant in the dojo, it becomes upsetting to him.

I once had a conversation with a friend and officer who is responsible for performance and curriculum development at the US military academy, which I feel captures Sensei’s sentiments precisely.  I asked him about the essence of his job, and he replied that it was very simple to define but took all his focus to accomplish.  To him, success was measured in the number of special forces soldiers who came back from deployment alive and uninjured, and the objective of his job was unequivocally to improve that number every year while simultaneously teaching each year’s soldiers more skills than he taught the previous year’s soldiers, in less time.  He made it clear that there was simply no possibility allowed for failing at this objective, and that all of his actions, decisions and efforts were measured in nothing less than human lives.

In the military, the job of instructor is defined as providing new soldiers more measurable skills in less time, every year; success is measured in lives.

It may help to remember that for a number of years, Saotome Sensei was a consultant to the US Pentagon and helped to train the US Special Forces at a location in Northern Virginia, and he was always impressed by the sincerity and determination of the soldiers and officers he encountered to extract as much value from every moment of their encounters with him, because they knew one day their lives may depend on it.  Of course, as martial artists most of us are not soldiers, and we do not pretend to be.  We have no expectations of going into combat, and Sensei is not trying to make us into soldiers.  What he is trying to get us to take into our hearts is the deepest awareness and conviction that everything we do in the dojo as teachers has the same potential for life or death consequences as a military academy instructor.

We are all human, we all crave respect.  But too often, many look at martial teachers who are accorded the highest levels of regard and admiration, and conclude that the respect is accorded to (or generated by) the ranks or titles those teachers bear.  As a result, many push for these external symbols, and feel they are entitled to them because they have students and they have “hung around” long enough.  But Saotome Sensei says that those who truly crave rank, authority and positions of leadership rarely have a proper understanding of what those ranks imply.  A week or two after Saotome Sensei awarded me the Ueshiba Juku designation, we were visiting at his house and he told me,

“Guy, I am giving you Ueshiba Juku.  I apologize, I am sorry, this is not a reward, it is a tremendous burden and serious responsibility. I give this to you because you are already taking this responsibility for ASU, because I think you understand the seriousness of the mission given to me by O Sensei.  Ueshiba Juku means you take O Sensei’s mission into your life too, and like me you cannot rest ever again because our duty is so great.”

When we transition from being students to teachers, we often find our new status exciting and satisfying without realizing that we are crossing a very significant threshold.  Sensei asks, how many martial art teachers are mindful that their every word, every action, every lesson and choice inside the dojo might be measured in the lives of their students some day?  How many teachers never leave their comfort zone, or think of teaching time as time to play or bask in the respect of the students?  How many teachers are prepared in their heart to get a phone call at 2 in the morning to learn that one of their students died in a robbery or a moment of violence?  Will they make excuses to themselves how it wasn’t their responsibility? Will they be able to tell themselves that they did everything possible to prepare that student, that they were a good enough teacher, that they themselves had built their martial wisdom with all their body and soul so they could prepare that student enough?

Several years ago, I had sought counsel from Sensei when one of my students had killed himself.  The student was a Korean War vet, and he had suffered greatly from PTSD and deep childhood psychological problems that made our student-teacher relationship exceedingly complicated, difficult and unpredictable.  He was nonetheless an important part of our dojo family, and the suicide hit us all very, very hard and shook me up on levels I had not prepared for.  Sensei put his hand on my arm and very somberly told me, “this is very hard.  I have known this many times. Until a student dies, you do not truly know what it means to be a martial art teacher.  You understand now.  You must be the strong heart for the dojo so it can heal. Now you will be a better teacher.  Now you will build a stronger dojo.”

Sensei often tells his teachers, “you are not a student, there are many behind you”.  When he says this, he is hoping to convey that accepting the role of teacher means that every time you are teaching a student, you are in a meaningful sense accepting the responsibility of standing beside her in front of a knife or a gun.  That when you are practicing or training at a seminar, you are not doing so for pursuit of some abstract perfection of technique, but with the ever-present conviction that in this instant, your focus and your investment of your entire soul and guts may make the difference of whether or not one of your students dies some day.  When you train as an instructor, the quality and intensity of your training impacts every single student you have taken responsibility for and whether you manage to surpass your limits even briefly or bring home a new insight will define your dojo and all the students in it.  Every opportunity to train with our shihan must be approached with the mindset that it is our last opportunity to make a difference.

When Sensei says “there are many behind you,” he means you must be desperately, determinately committed to prepare and rescue the lives of many people you care about with every drop of sweat, and to drag every bit of insight possible out of every repetition, every technique.  “Students put trust in their teachers, that the teachers are honest in their attempt to lead them to martial wisdom.” It doesn’t mean that we cannot smile and enjoy our training, but it means we can never take our time on the mat lightly, especially our time learning directly from Saotome Sensei.

“This is your duty!
This is your responsibility!

This is the reputation of ASU and your teachers!”

It may seem like a grim philosophy for guiding a lifetime of training, and indeed O Sensei said that Aikido must be joyful.  There is a uniquely Japanese philosophy, mono no aware, which refers to a deep appreciation and aching sadness at the poignancy and transience of beauty and life.  At its heart it recognizes that the falling sakura (cherry blossom) is all the more beautiful and sublime precisely because it is so temporary, so ephemeral, so fleeting.

mono-no-awaremono no aware

The path of Aikido is a martial path, it must be trod with knowledge and appreciation of our fragile mortality so that we can gain the strength and wisdom to understand how to build a path of healing.  Our ability to bring healing to our students, to others, to society will be limited if our appreciation of death is shallow, and if we train ourselves in the words and actions of aikido stripped of the life and death meaning that was the foundation from which O Sensei built the vision… and mission… of our art. To be a leader means that our actions are motivated and guided by our determination, and our knowledge of our responsibilities and the ripples that result from our efforts.

Photo: Saotome Sensei in the kitchen of the Aiki Corral Ranch, Myakka City Florida, August 26 2015

Shihan Mitsugi Saotome and the Healing Breath

Shihan Mitsugi Saotome and the Healing Breath

In 2013, I was visiting with Saotome Sensei at his Aiki Ranch in Sarasota over lunch. We took our conversation into a stroll through the acres of beautifully landscaped property surrounding the Aiki Shrine and the home he shares with Patty Saotome Sensei.  As we walked, he pointed out how his “garden” has changed since they bought the undeveloped property, the different varieties of plants they were cultivating, which plants and environments attracted which animals, and which were his favorite spots.  “We have nine varieties of bamboo!”

Eventually, the conversation turned toward some philosophical and training questions that I was struggling with, and he provided some answers that were surprising and profound, particularly as they showed how Sensei linked the applied philosophies and principles of Aikido to all aspects of life.

I asked, “Sensei, you often use me, Don (Ellingsworth, my peer and co-founder of my Dojo), and Rick (Rick Hotton, an internationally-known Shotokan Karate teacher and student of Saotome Sensei) as your ukes (attackers).  It’s clear that during instruction, you prefer really strong, clear, martial attacks from your students.”

He nodded “yes,” with a bit of an “of course” expression on his face.

I continued, “Sensei, what is going on inside you when you are being attacked?  Does your spirit, heart rate or breathing change at all at the moment of powerful attack?”

To respond, he gestured around the serene slice of nature that was his home: “Like walking through my beautiful garden – my breathing not change, my heartbeat not change.”

We continued walking for a few moments while I digested this.  I could understand that a Shihan – an archetype instructor and Aikido genius like himself could maintain this sense of meditative serenity while being attacked by large and fierce opponents; however, I had felt it was part of my study to learn to attack my teachers more fiercely and martially each time I stood before them, and that this ran in opposition to internal training.

I then asked, “Sensei, what about your attackers then?  When they are attacking to destroy you, what should their spirit, their heart rate, their breathing be like?”

He again responded, “like walking through garden – breathing not change, heartbeat not change!”  Smiling, he continued “of course, young people have high spirits, great energy, exuberance, of course it’s natural that their spirit and heart change when they attack and train.  But later, as we follow Aikido, we must learn not to get excited by the conflict.

When attacked, your breathing should not change – as if you are walking alone through a beautiful garden.

Guy, you already very powerful.  Most Aikidoka already powerful enough, but still try to be more and more powerful.  But muscle power stops ki (energy), stops perception.” Sensei very carefully articulates this word, “per-cep-tion!”  “You imagine doctor crushing your wrist and listening your pulse?” While saying this, Sensei had picked up a branch, and mimes clenching it in a death grip, his facial and neck muscles straining.  “Ridiculous!”

“This is paradox, intensity while calm,” he said.  “But it is important paradox at the heart of our training.  Our desire, our want, our fear and struggle, this stops our breath, it stops our ki, it stops our perceptions. When we attack, we go outside ourself with our want to change others.  When we defend against an attack which might hurt us, we go outside ourself with our want to change others.  But you can’t change enemy!  Enemy never obey you!”

 Sensei went on to explain that one must look inside and become aware of one’s physiological reactions to stimuli of all types – good and bad – and learn to recognize when things draw us away from our centers. Alternatively, we must find our gardens – the environments and memories that help us be connected to our surroundings and cultivate a sense of connection with the universe.  “I am part of this garden.  Guy, right now you are part of this garden. There are countless things happening in this garden right now, insects, squirrels, birds, that do not care about our talk.  This garden is very beautiful, it is my treasure.  I am a rich man.  I let that feeling guide how I respond to my uke.  Appreciation.” Sensei articulated “app-rec-i-a-tion” like he did “perception”, making it clear he wasn’t talking about “finding one’s happy place” so much as learning to cultivate a constant internal mindfulness, appreciation, and connection that is not disrupted by an attacker’s actions or one’s response.

Sensei explained “when you can train with this feeling and calmness of breathing – kokyu – you will have begun to study the healing breath.  You will be able to perceive where others’ energy is stopped, where they are weak, where their health is failing.  It is not magic.  Physics!  Awareness!  When you can perceive better, you can find compassion, you can discover your freedom.

This is the true center of Aikido training, that cannot be taught by words or listening, only by gathering proper kokyu under hard conflict.”

When you have begun to be mindful of your breathing while under attack, you will have begun to cultivate the perception necessary for healing yourself and others.

In his writings, Saotome Sensei translates “Aikido” as the “way of harmony and the unification with the forces of nature and the universe.”  Scholars of the art certainly have observed that this is far from the most typical translation, but after having this conversation with Sensei I think it illuminates that he views “harmony and unification with the universe” not as an abstract philosophy or ideal to be reached through our actions, but should be the actual process by which we understand ourselves, practice our art, and cultivate our ability to help others.  That we should learn to recognize when we feel calm and connected, and let the memory of that harmony guide our reactions and actions in all things.

I have found that this can be a very concrete and experiential concept, which can be explored “on the mat.”  Students can be encouraged to spend time at the beginning of training breathing and meditating, and learning to feel their pulses and explore expansive, relaxed breathing.  Then, it is possible to introduce training of familiar techniques, slowly, that allow nage (the one who executes the technique) to focus not on how the technique is performed or what happens to uke, but instead focus the entire time on maintaining uninterrupted breathing and posture.  I find it’s also important as teacher to monitor all the students and help them realize when they have lost focus (in Zen meditation temples, this is the responsibility of an assistant with a bamboo switch!)  However, it can be rewarding and surprising for students to discover how maintaining a strong mental center can transform an attack into an effortless technique!  As a teacher, I am additionally gratified that this exercise also lets me study how well I have cultivated the ability to perceive interruptions in others’ breathing and harmony.  Perhaps if I train hard enough, I can become a true healer.

But first, I’m going to focus on my breathing.

Illness and Insight

This article was written by Guy Hagen and published in the Aikido Journal in 2004.

I’ve written this to capture and clarify, in my own mind, how some unexpected medical problems have profoundly affected my training. I’ll start by stating that I’m 6’4” and about 210 pounds – easily in the “big guy” category. I am 35, not heavily built, but I like to think that I’m relatively fast and limber. I’ve been in martial arts for about 23 years in a mish-mash of hard styles. I’ve been doing Aikido for 15 years, receiving ikkyu rank under Kushida Shihan’s Yoshokai Aikido before continuing my yudansha training under Saotome Shihan’s organization. I am a deshi of John Messores Sensei and Saotome Shihan, and am one of the instructors for the University of South Florida Aikido club.

In the Fall of 2001, I underwent extensive plastic surgery on my sinuses to correct a number of conditions affecting my sleep quality and breathing. From the perspective of the surgeons, the operation was successful; I had been “reshaped” to their satisfaction. However, the procedure left me with severe complications that dramatically affected all aspects of my life, leaving me considerably worse than before surgery. After seeing a battery of specialists in a variety of disciplines, I was eventually classified with vasomotor rhinitis (VMR). VMR is a catch-all category that basically indicates that something was wrong with the circulation in my sinuses. For me, this resulted in difficulty breathing, excruciating sleep deprivation, and more. Post-op diagnosis and treatment took months.

Like most of you would have, I took my first opportunity to return to the dojo. I attended a beginner’s class to ease back in slowly, but was shocked when I suddenly passed out, for no reason and with no warning, standing on my own two feet! This marked the beginning of a frightening and difficult period for me. From then on, I found that if I ever sustained exertion for even a minute in the dojo, I could black out again. If you have ever been choked out – the feeling was nearly identical; a quick fading of vision and then ‘out.’ The doctors referred to these as “syncopatic episodes.” I learned to sense when blackouts were imminent, and to quickly take a break until the moment passed. Sometimes I was too slow, and would lose my feet again. Even with care, sometimes I would have to remain sitting for 20 or more minutes before I felt safe to get up (especially after class). Although the blackouts felt like they were always waiting to pounce, this precarious balance (between not pushing myself and stopping at the first hint of danger) allowed me to keep training.


Nobody could help me, and even acupuncture and Chinese medicine did little to help. The bitterness and frustration I was feeling was completely demoralizing, on and off the mat. I suddenly had become a different person, one I didn’t like; unfocused, ineffectual, unhealthy, and prone to hair-trigger anger over the smallest things. At one point, an uke (a very good friend) pushed through my weak technique and accidentally “bopped” me in the face. I literally caught myself in a red rage, going after him with serious intent to injure. That moment deeply frightened me; I never knew I had that kind of violence inside me at all.

At the end of every class, I felt like I had learned nothing, and that I hadn’t trained at all. I was eventually forced to realize how much I instinctually associated good training and learning with exertion and sweat, with the rough-and-tumble, hard and martial workouts that I had become used to. I also learned how difficult it was to restrain my natural impulse to “rise to the challenge” when Sensei called me to be uke, or some tough, young yudansha came to train and expected me to join him in knocking each other down. I loved that kind of training, and having a challenge before me would instantly bring out a competitive response that I could no longer afford.

Aside from learning how my instincts were programmed, however, I was surprised to discover something more profound. I learned that sometimes the technique worked just as well without my interference! I sometimes encountered a feeling so tenuous and ephemeral that I could only describe it as a “taste.” Sometimes when I touched that feeling, uke would crash to the mat, or my weapon would snap out faster and crisper than I’ve previously experienced, and I would have barely moved at all.

It wasn’t mystical or anything, just a subjective awareness on a deeper level than I’d ever been used to. Uke did all the work, the bokken did all the work, something else got the job done for me. Which was fortunate, because I was using all my energy to stay conscious. One example stands out in my memory. A visiting yudansha (even bigger than me, and usually a tough challenge for me) “ikkyo imote-d” himself into the mat hard enough to wrench his neck. Keep in mind that the first two times, his shomenuchi went through me like a house of cards!

I used to think relaxed technique was something I was good at, but there was a level far beyond anything I had ever guessed despite my best previous efforts. Sure, we all remind ourselves about the importance of training in a relaxed state, of not “muscling” uke. We have all heard how we should be able to do “little old man” style Aikido, and only uke should show resistance or force. Even my old Tai Chi instructor used to tell me to “relax, relax” until I felt loose enough to fall over. But I assure you that it is another thing entirely to have a switch in your head that goes “oh, you tried to push, time to pass out.” I’m sure many of you are thinking, “I am very sensitive and relaxed, I have experienced what he is writing about”… but the point of my article is that you probably haven’t.

There was a sense of – essence?—where I sometimes didn’t feel I was doing technique at all. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t transformed or anything. I usually screwed up, and generally uke still knocked me down or pushed me around. My frustration never went away – every class was a barely controlled conflict of instincts, habits and malfunctioning feedback mechanisms. But I began to suspect that there was something deep, mysterious and compelling, the surface of which I was just beginning to scratch.

Finding this feeling required total passivity and patience, intense concentration, unending curiosity and attention to what uke wanted to do. It demanded a total lack of interest in what was happening, which I sometimes compared to training with the same attitude and lack of concern I would use to flip channels with a remote – even if a 250 pound uke was flying at me with intent to crush. It was a difficult state to put myself in, and my success in tapping into the “feeling” was infrequent at best. But when it happened, it would leave me wordless and thoughtful for hours. And still I would have given it all up in a heartbeat to feel “normal” and healthy again.

I trained this way regularly for about six months – trying to be totally languid, and achieving relative success in staying conscious despite the fact that a “fade-to-black” threatened me every moment I was in my dogi. In Spring of 2002, I saw yet another specialist, who took me off my medication. I had been on strong prescriptions of pseudoephedrine/guafin (a decongestant), as it was the only medicine that had helped me breathe, sleep and maintain a semblance of normalcy.

After the medication was out of my system, the blackout pressure stopped! My doctors suggested that my reactions were very unusual and pronounced, and that the drug was probably causing heart arrhythmia when I trained. I even got to wear a portable electrocardiogram monitor to the Dojo to see if my heart was damaged. My chest was harnessed and wired all over, although not all the contacts stayed in place through class. Fortunately, it seems my heart suffered no lasting damage. Then, in late 2003, I had corrective surgery which further improved my quality of life.

So while my health was still messed up in other ways, my old level of training could resume. I currently am no longer haunted by the threat of black-outs, and am left with only the memory of the taste of something indescribable. I can’t honestly say I’ve replicated the experience since recovering. But the experience has definitely changed my training. I find myself uninterested in technique – the particulars of better arm-twisting and wrist-bending. All I want is to look inside what’s happening, to try to find that feeling of communication and effortlessness and magic.

I had received difficult, unrequested lessons from a very harsh and scary source, and even now I can’t say that I’d do it all over again. My instructor tells me I should just consider myself fortunate, that most people have to become old and incapacitated before they are exposed to that side of the Art. Certainly I am still early in my aikido development – I am a sandan, and lay claim to no special level of skill or talent. But I can say that for the next 20 years, my hunt will be for something that I would simply never have encountered without experiencing incapacitation.

Aikido and Rank Comparisons

Aikido and Rank Comparisons

2004 editorial by Guy Hagen

I had a recent discussion with an ASU black belt, who was turned down to fill in an opening for an Aikido Instructor at a large multi-style martial art school. The main reason, we felt, is that this person’s rank – a nidan (2nd Degree), probably didn’t sound as important as the ranks of the other instructors… who were all 6th degree black belts or higher in their respective martial arts.

This has bugged me a little, becauseit speaks to a hidden bias or assumption that we face every day, as aikidoists, and especially ASU aikidoists. And that is the assumption that the “black belt” is a uniform standard of quality and merit, as are the higher ranks.

However, this isn’t even remotely accurate; I believe ranks are incomparable for at least the following reasons: (1) imcompatible traditions and history, (2) incompatibility due to scale, (3) Western mentality, and (4) merit-based assumptions.

Tradition and History

First, rank is not equivalent across styles and arts because few arts even share much historical background. How can a quality standard be equal, when some arts emphasize athletic prowess, and other emphasize internal subtlety? I have friends from perfectly valid Korean schools where one could reasonably expect to earn one’s black belt in two years. Yet the average period in Aikido is five to six years! Ignoring other variables such as the caliber of instructors and individual students with high potential, this simply means to me that the art that requires more time (or has otherwise more difficult requirements) creates a higher caliber of black belt.

All “belt ranking” systems originate from the Japanese game of Go sometime around WWII; what I was told was that Karate Soke Funikoshi and Judo Soke Kano were involved in a process to open their arts up for the benefit of the public. Go has 30 kyu (“white belt”) ranks… some martial arts have 5 or 6, some considerably more (my first aikido style had 9). Some Chinese schools offer black belt ranks, and belt ranks are historically not even a part of Chinese systems! How can there be consistency when there are different levels of requirements between organizations? Many styles have a “panel” approach for advanced rank that helps maintain internal consistency in the quality of the ranks awarded. In fact, I understand that advanced ranks in Iaido in Japan require a panel of top instructors from different styles to critique the candidate, and this was implemented to ensure quality and consistency. We have no system for doing this across the dozens of styles of Aikido, much less with other martial arts. So, it’s valuable to learn the lineage and history of the martial arts that interest you, and how they connect to and interact with other styles and organizations.


Martial art organizations, of course, differ greatly in size – the number of their members. This may be because some arts are difficult, dangerous, or unpopular for any number of reasons. It may be because the organization or art is relatively recent, because a talented or ambitious instructor wanted to create something in their own style or because they just no longer fit in or got along with former colleagues for political or other reasons. Many such reasons are valid; historically, the most respected martial arts founders started out this way. Sometimes, however, I suspect such a system or organization is founded for less than valid reasons such as self-promotion; but that is beyond this article.

What this means is that some styles and organizations are relatively small, with only a few practitioners – maybe a few dozen, maybe a couple thousand. The simple fact is that every art or style is going to have a “rank pyramid”… with only one or two at the very highest ranks, a handful at the next rank, and more and more as the level of rank decreases (depending on the usage, the highest rank is either 8th or 10th degree, which may be reserved for the founder). By simple extension, the competition” is just not going to be as fierce to become a fifth-degree black belt in a family art that has only 40 practitioners, as it the competition will be in Aikido, which has tens of thousands of practitioners (my passbook lists my 1995 Hombu membership number at 125,588, if that’s any evidence). Pay attention to what an organization is comparing itself against, and how far and wide it is recognized.

Western Mentality

Western culture has had some good influences on the martial arts; I believe it has helped martial arts to be more open, critical, and dialog-based in instruction, and helped remove prejudice and secrecy from many systems. But our culture has had some very negative influences as well, I believe.

I think our schools and sporting systems have taught most Americans that all effort must be rewarded regularly, with concrete external proof. In elementary school, you got a “gold star”. In college, you got grades and a degree, which was “proof of mastery”. Unfortunately, this translates into expectations that conflict with martial ways as paths of internal development, that never end and only “reward” in subtle ways that may be difficult to explain.

This has created a situation where many Dojos (especially commercially-oriented ones) pander to a short-attention-span mentality to increase their student base and revenue. Arts that focus on competition (and hence, trophies), will always be popular. And it must be recognized that often, Dojos like these are wildly successful and well-attended compared to traditional Dojo. But these schools sell lots of ranks, with lots of visible color distinctions, and hold the black belt as the standard of mastery – once you’ve gotten your black belt, you’ve reached the top. Most of you know, however, that “shodan” (black belt”) means “first step” in Japanese… meaning, now that you have internalized the fundamentals, you can start paying attention to the real important stuff. So, pay attention to what a school is really “selling”… how often do they mention “black belt” in their sales pitch?


Finally, there is the assumption that black belt rank promotions are, of course, always based upon technical proficiency and skill in performance. While hopefully most rank is measured to the greater extent based upon the ability to demonstrate and perform the art, it is a long-standing Japanese tradition to also promote for “social” reasons. Like good coaches, sometimes an individual demonstrates a teaching ability that transcends their physical ability. Or, an individual has made a contribution to the art that deserves deserves or demands recognition. Frankly, no large martial art organization can survive without people like these; and as you know, a little recognition can go a long ways, especially in a martial art that downplays advancement or ritual acknowledgement of rank or skill.


So why did I bother writing this? I would like our students to be discerning and informed when discussing rank. I would like potential students to be prepared when asking themselve if they should try Aikido, or this other martial art under Grandmaster Whomever. And I would like our students to be comfortable when students from other Dojos ask them “what color their belt is.”

Rank is a complex subject, and when it gets down to it, the only way to measure somebody’s actual skill level is to have an open mind, and train with that person without ego getting in the way.

Being Uke

Being Uke

2004 editorial by Guy Hagen

Ukemi – training as Uke, being the attacker, taking the falls — is probably the most important part of your Aikido experience. 99% of your interaction with your Sensei will be as an Uke. More importantly, Uke and Nage are two sides of the same coin. The way you train as Uke will shape the way you perform technique as Nage, and in the end how good of a martial artist you will become.

Unfortunately, students — and I mean our students too — fall into limiting, destructive patterns as Uke.

The best way to avoid these patterns is flexibility in our training styles. There is a saying in Tai Chi Chu’an: “train low center, train high center; train strong, train weak; train fast, train slow.” The message is that we must learn to “switch on” different ways of moving that best fit the situation and increase our understanding of the art.

Based on the different styles and Dojos that I’ve trained in and my own training and teaching, I’ve categorized a few important “ways of being Uke.” none of them is really better or “higher level” than the others, and I strongly urge every student to try each style with determination and sincerity. In my own training, I would often try to “be” each of these Ukes to the best of my ability for a couple weeks or a month at a time.

(1) Passive (Empty) Uke.
This Uke is essentially just “there” for their partner. No real resistance, no aggression, and they just let themselves be thrown. When working with new students that have enough difficulty getting their own hands and feet straightened out, it’s often best to “be” this type of Uke.

However, this doesn’t mean you get to sleep through the technique. Now is the chance for Uke to practice perfect posture and alignment, and deep, centered breathing without distraction. Don’t let your attention wander – you can still get hurt. I had my knee almost destroyed (literally) in Judo when I got confident and sloppy being a “passive uke” for a beginner student.

(2) Sincerity Uke.
This type of Uke also gets to focus on posture and clarity — and ferocity of attacks. A sincere Uke strikes or grabs with all their intent, focus and energy. This should be an intentional overcoming of laziness and fatigue (which we all experience). The attacks should never be sneaky, or have the hidden purpose of making you look good or your partner look bad.
A sincere attack prepares your partner for realistic situations. You may have to “tone down” the force of your attack to what your partner can handle; but too many “soft pitches” will give your partner a false sense of confidence and rob them of the growth that comes from being challenged.

After your sincere attack, continue your force and effort into the original direction of your attack (upon contact, press toward your partner’s center) until you are thrown or pinned. Sincere attacks are characteristic of all good Ukes.

Practice your punches! Practice ferocity! Don’t telegraph your attacks! Break up your timing!

(3) Acrobatic Uke
Believe it or not, it’s beneficial to exaggerate your attacks and falls sometimes. Attack fast, throwing all your center into your strike or grab. Abandon safety. When you are thrown or pinned, fling yourself as dramatically as you can ahead of the attack. Learn to feel what it’s like to accelerate out of your partner’s technique (by speeding up your center, not using force), and let your partner feel what it’s like to have done a technique masterfully.

This type of Uke will make you a popular training partner, and teach you to make big, pretty falls. If it’s all you ever do, however, you will never develop any real center, or learn how to “change your mind” mid-attack to protect yourself or change to a different attack. It definitely puts you at the mercy of your Nage, and if they step it up or act cruelly, you may suffer for it.

(4) Resistance (Static) Uke.
This type of Uke attacks with clarity and force, but actively resists when their partner begins a technique. This type of training builds strong centers, and reveals the flaws in your partner’s technique. For it to be honest, however, you must erase your memory before each technique, always attack honestly, and never begin countering a technique early just because you know it’s coming. This is important! It’s easy to block almost any technique if you know it’s coming, and the “You can’t throw me” game gets old really quickly. It also rapidly results in pointless struggling, no real learning, and crappy technique. If you and your partner begin “butting heads” this way, it just gets ugly and nothing more.

However, this type of Uke is also one of the more common and dangerous traps, to my observation. Many students somehow get the idea that being able to resist a senior partner’s technique demonstrates how good they are. Real resistance destroys any sensitivity and subtlety you may have, so you are unable to feel your partner’s technique — they may be trying to show you something, and you may be leaving them no resort but smack you on the head! Do this enough, and all your technique as Nage will look exactly like this – straining, forceful, ungraceful and violent, with a grimace on your face and every muscle in your body tense. Learn to recognize these symptoms in yourself before your growth becomes stunted. if your partner brings out these reactions in you, switch to being another type of Uke.

Too much of this is the antithesis of Aiki, and if I ever see a shodan test by someone in our Dojo where the candidate Nage looks like “resistance” Uke, I may cry.

(5) Reversal (Kaishi) Uke.
If you have become sensitive and skillful enough, you will begin to sense moments of weakness in your partner’s technique. If you can take advantage of that opening with a small, subtle and clean reversal, this is good training. Done correctly, this “kaishi” will flow naturally and spontaneously without force or struggle. It should never be situation where you overpower or yank away from your opponent’s technique — if both you and your partner can maintain this mindset, one reversal might simultaneously flow into another, and you both may experience continuation training, which I believe is one of the higher levels of training in Aikido.

(6) Guiding Uke.
Don feels there’s at least one more way to train as Uke, and after thought, I agree. Usually when our partner is having difficulty, we all like to give spoken advice – to teach (often after our “bad uke” caused the difficulty to begin with). Sometimes this is OK — but remember, this is Sensei’s class, not yours, and people generally want advice from you less often than you think. What you can try instead is to let your partner do the technique, while practicing the opposite of resistance. Without grabbing your partner or becoming Nage, shape and off-balance your body so that your partner performs the technique correctly. In a sense — Uke does the technique from start to finish, and Nage sort of “holds on.”

While reading this, you’ve probably told yourself several times “Oh, I already practice that way” or “yeah, I see other having problems with that.” Well, I think there’s only a handful of people in our Dojo who are truly proficient in ‘being’ all of these types of Ukes — and they are all yudansha. I personally look to improve myself in each of these, all the time… and maybe in a couple other ways too.

I believe that becoming the type of martial artist that people admire requires determination and discipline. It also requires constant self-examination and adjustment.

I’ve been told that students in our Dojo sometimes joke, “what kind of Uke is Guy going to be today? The sweetheart or the son-of-a-bitch?” Frankly, I take this as evidence my flexibility in training styles is clear enough that others can easily recognize it. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from your Nage — “Am I resisting too much? Was my attack good enough?” Remember, 50% of your training is as Uke, so you should be using that time to improve and practice every bit as much as when you are doing the technique!

Use your time as Uke to focus on the things that you aren’t able to focus on as Nage. Learn to switch from an invisible center to a powerhouse center as needed. Learn when to pour on your power, and learn when to be super-sensitive in your training. All these characteristics are important to being a well-rounded Aikidoka.

Aikido and Atemi

Interview with John Messores Sensei: Aikido and Atemi
Conducted in 1997 by Guy Hagen and Adam Silverman.

H/S: Sensei, can you describe some of your background in Aikido?

Sensei: I began my training in traditional Karate in 1968.  I was introduced to Aikido in 1973 by a fellow Karate student.  At that Dojo, I was part of the original group that helped bring Saotome Sensei to the United States.  Iíve been Sensei’s student since 1975.

H/S: Like you, many of your students have backgrounds in other martial art styles.  Do you feel that having experience in other martial arts contributes to learning in Aikido?

Sensei: You can get personal inspiration from other martial arts.  I get inspiration from boxing and my background in Karate.

H/S: Instructors can be reluctant to let their students explore other styles and martial arts.  Do you encourage experimentation?

Sensei: Most people start their training at the most convenient school, selecting the Dojo up the street, according to price or convenient hours.  Few beginning students make an informed first choice.  However, people should not be bound to one instructor their entire career.  If they are attracted to another art they should follow it; students should always be given freedom.  They’ll do what they want anyway; and as people mature as martial artists, they explore more.  For those reasons, an “open door” policy is best; as students explore other martial arts, they may get tired and return.  Another important point to remember is that while other martial arts can provide inspiration for a student, or round out their training regimens, when the student comes to the Dojo they should be committed to doing Aikido.

H/S: What effect has your background had on your own technique and style of instruction?

Sensei: I enjoy working with atemi and more angular, sharper and harder moves in my Aikido. These sharper moves–Atemi, or what some people call “killing techniques”–provide a different way to explore Aikido.  Practicing nice circles can be good training, but  I feel there are other aspects to consider.

In the United States, many people have embraced just one aspect of aikido–the pacifistic variety for example–but that’s just one path.  There’s plenty of room for us all to find our own path in Aikido.

H/S: So you look at atemi and martial techniques as training tools?

Sensei: Each person has their own approach.  Training isn’t abstract or general, but applied; the “martial” aspect of training-the grinding against each other, pushing hard and fast against each other-helps students realize their training goals faster.  Other than atemi, you can even include things like chokes (shimewaza) or groundwork (newaza) to help illuminate a particular technique. Atemi can be as equally informative as evasions, wrestling, boxing, or other martial techniques.

Karate shows that there are many types of attacks.  However, many of them take a lot of time to hone.  If you don’t practice a lot of kicking, for example, you won’t have an effective kick.  If you don’t spend a lot of time developing a strike, it isn’t useful to pretend that it will stop anybody.

H/S: Short of studying another martial art, then, how can Aikido students incorporate these ideas into their training?

Sensei: Students should pay attention.  They shouldn’t just run in when attacking; in addition to being fast and hard, they need to learn to be sensitive and flexible.  Some guy off the street won’t attack with a clear, classical strike; you have to consider wild punches or jabs.

However, atemi is not just a punch or strike.  Atemi grows out of other parts of an aiki technique–part of the whole, not a separate component.  It is part of the variety of Aikido.  As you perform variations of any technique–shihonage for example–you should consider how atemi could be a component.

Another important aspect of this is that it leads both nage and uke into being sincere.  As a result nage delivers true atemi, atemi that keep uke on their toes.  This sincerity prevents students from viewing being uke as just making time until they get to be nage again.

H/S: “Finding your own path” in Aikido does not stop upon becoming an instructor.  Sensei, as a teacher, how do you continue to learn?

Sensei: Aikido can become the “jazz music” of martial arts.  When you are demonstrating in class you’re exploring as you teach; looking for new ways to express your technique, or to express old techniques better.  Eventually, you build a repertoire of effective teaching “tricks” that grows over time.

As a teacher, you can do what you want to, you can explore anything you want.  Students have to try and mimic their teacher.  Because of that, instructors can gain feedback by paying attention to their own techniques reflected through their students. If you look around the room and realize that all your students are doing poor ikkyo, you have to ask yourself why.  You have to ask yourself how you can perform and teach ikkyo better.  As a teacher, you students are your product.  As a student, you are your own product.

By watching your students, it’s like watching 20 people perform a technique incorrectly.  It’s good to watch everybody’s version of a technique; but its not good to say “this is the best way to perform shihonage” but rather “this is a good way to perform shihonage.”

There’s a fine line in teaching students while demonstrating techniques.  Instructors often select ukes according to their personality of attack, to better demonstrate a particular technique.  However, the students are not there to be killed or make sensei look good.

Every person has their own characteristics.  It’s easy for an instructor to rationalize away his or her idiosyncrasies.  But the public deserves professional behavior.  If this was old Okinawa, we would be training in a traditional Dojo, probably inside the family.  But here, we have to be aware of our public image-not just as a teacher of a self defense form or exercise, but as having something more to offer society.

Eventually, however, you have to take your Aikido off the mat.  We graduate from being a recipient of Aikido to a giver.  We grow by taking more and more responsibilities– for ourselves, for other students, for teaching, for the Dojo.  Eventually we graduate to our own Dojo, or to multiple Dojos.  These are all part of your growth as a technician–but the goal of aiki is not to be a great technician.  Technique is a “means to the end” of personal growth.

Things like life, jobs, families, can each take time away from your training.  So will things like the frustrations of running a Dojo or organization; we all have the same hassles.

This is the need for professionalism.  By professionalism, I don’t mean simply “businesslike”, but a balance between business and martial professionalism.  “Professional” includes the image an instructor presents–the haircut, the dress–but itís most important to consider conduct.  Professionalism requires earning the respect of the public, not just students–students have to be respectful!  You’re not professional until the public in general sees you as professional.

However, everybody has only so much time to train, and everybody has to find their own path, what fits them best.  One goal of Aikido is to find the form of aiki that best fits you.