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Beyond Ritual

By John Messores
Originally published in Aikido Today Magazine, #81 Vol 16 Number 3, May / June 2002.

Where do you think you will be if you are attacked? In a well-lit space, barefoot, with mats, wearing loose fitting clothes, completely warmed up, stretched out, alert, well-rested, facing your attacker with ample time to size up the situation? Do you think a real attacker will step back and indicate with which hand he will begin his attack?

Why are the martial aspects of our training necessary? Because they give an edge, a spark, a push to our training. Even if your Aikido is a metaphor in the study of conflict resolution, it’s necessary to push to the next level by more intense training.

That doesn’t mean rougher. If you are stuck trying to be stronger, faster, and harder than everyone else, the higher aspects of Aikido training will never have a chance to grow.

How do you know when you are training with enough intensity? Hard training is done with focus, without preparation, and by training outside the “comfort zone.” Intense training should feel just a little frightening to both Uke and Nage. Aikidoka should explore beyond their limits, and remember that every action for Uke and Nage come from battle techniques intended to kill or disable an opponent. One of my Japanese seniors, Shigeru Suzuki Sensei, once told me that without hard training my Aikido would never “higher up.”
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O-Sensei prohibited competition from our training. Our training Is not for dueling, which is a form of competition. A duel has a mutually agreed upon time, place, and number of participants. Here or someplace else, now or later. Too often our training looks like a duel. Two students stand in front of each other and agree to begin. Because they have agreed upon an attack and take turns defending we say that they are not competing or dueling.
But we do not just train for combat. We train to refine ourselves. To change the world we must improve ourselves. We use this martial way, Aikido, to polish our hearts, our character. The more pressure we have in training, the greater the opportunity we have to grow. Aikido is not just a dance, exercise or metaphor for life. A purpose of our training is character development.

Aikido technique is derived from martial training. But that does not mean we practice for street fighting. The technique we train with in the dojo is not exactly the technique I expect to use on the street. The dojo is a place to train in principles, not specifics. I am not trying to imagine every possible attack and memorize a list of all possible responses to be brought up under the stress of an immediate life or death situation. I won’t know the specifics of a real attack ahead of time. I won’t know the when, where, how, or how many. I do know that I am more likely to be attacked in certain places, times of reduced light, and when I am distracted (such as taking money for my wallet).
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In Aikido we train against generic attacks. Shomenuchi and katate dori seem unrealistic and useless to people who have seen a boxer’s jab, hook, roundhouse and uppercut. Karateka attack with a variety of punches, kicks and strikes. Wrestlers throw and immobilize, judoka throw, immobilize and choke. Which one will your attacker use? Which method will you train against? If an attack comes at you in the dark, from the side, will you have time to decide whether it is a roundhouse punch or a yokomenuchi? There are differences between yokomenuchi and a roundhouse punch.

Every attacker throws a punch a little differently. Each punch is a unique event, never to be repeated exactly. Our task is to respond to this unique punch in exactly the right way. Being human we won’t achieve 100% perfection – but we try.
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When teaching Aikido seminars I often see Ukes step back in a traditional Karate stance before beginning their attacks. Training in Karate can certainly result in powerful attacks, but is it necessary that we train against it in our everyday training? Or against a simulated boxer’s hands-up position?

When training with beginning Aikido students, seniors frequently indicate which hand (left or right) they will attack with. This becomes a habit that the beginners pick up. It is not necessary to telegraph to a senior student which side the attack will come from. This overzealous concern to make someone look good in practice actually hinders the growth of our fellow students. Learning to sense a real attack is absolutely basic to our progress in Aikido and should begin soon after our introduction to basic movements.

A real attacker on the sidewalk has no intention of letting you know that he’s going to attack. Yes, there are other scenarios where an attacker might be angry, shouting that he’s going to kill you, but let’s continue to consider someone who isn’t as helpful. In our training we need to sense the subtle indications of the impending attack. An attacker standing in front of you. Don’t just watch his hands or listen to his verbal abuse. Watch his overall position. Weight shifts, hips begin to move, the eyes suddenly look from your face to another part of your body that he intends to attack. He has stopped yelling and his breathing has changed. This is all happening as he is curling his fist, coming in with a punch to your stomach. Don’t try to analyze this. Learn to intuitively decipher the message.
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Instead of the Aikido hanmi, Karate’s Zen kutsu dachi, or a boxer’s or wrestler’s crouch, try a more natural, relaxed, unaffected position. Narrow the distance between your feet, leave your hands at your side, your head and back straightened, not in a crouch. Your fingers should be relaxed in a slight curl, not straightened, spread apart or curled into a fist.

Both Uke and Nage need to start from this relaxed position. You won’t be able to assume your “fighting” stance if you are attacked for real. Nor will you be able to choose which foot you will have forward, or which hand your attacker will lead with. Get used to training with the “wrong” foot forward. Train from awkward positions or angles. Encourage Uke to attack from either left or right hand. Front or rear hand, This doesn’t require blindfolds or turning out the lights.
Uke, as you begin, try to minimize telegraphing of your movements. Don’t pull your hand back as you form a fist, shift your weight, or habitually flip your hair out of your eyes. Don’t suck in air so that it can be expelled dramatically. By reducing Uke ’s telegraphing, Nage will have to learn to read the smaller and more subtle indications of attack. This refinement will also improve Uke’s speed, overall control of the center and the whole body.

Remember that ma-ai (distancing) is not a fixed distance. The distance and angle from which he can attack will change with various types of kicks, punches and grabs. With an Uke, learn what is practical and what is possible in terms of attack. Don’t try a jab from ten feet away, or a roundhouse kick when you and Nage are nose-to-nose. If Uke is close, is he more likely to jab, or throw an uppercut? Watch Uke!
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Please don’t turn this type of training into another ritual. A real sense of an attacker’s intentions will come from being attentive and allowing the subtleties, the total sum of your attacker’s physical movements to educate your instincts.
The purpose of the traditional Aikido hanmi is not necessarily to practice placing yourself in the perfect position. The purpose is to train the mind. After training in hanmi take that attitude and awareness with you as you live your daily life. But you don’t have to assume an affected posture to ride on a lawn mower or wash your car. Take the presence and awareness of hanmi with you. Posturing and affected attitudes are colorful and entertaining in the movies, but they interfere with learning.

Irimi – Tenkan

In Balance: A Series of Thoughts (Part One)
2004 by Sensei Gene Martinelli

Irimi – Tenkan

rocksinbalanceBalance is defined as a force counteracting the effect of another force. Harmony is defined as an internal calm or a pleasing arrangement of parts. Uke attacks and nage blends with the force in a pleasing arrangement of parts and then through balance nage’s force upon uke is counteracted by the effect of the earth on uke’s body in nage’s technique. Through good ukemi uke brings balance or counteracts the effect of the earth. If uke’s fall is bad or incorrect ukemi, he or she will discover harmony or cause a pleasing arrangement of uke’s parts (pleasing that is to nage) through the impact with the earth.

I understand that this does not seem the usual way we understand or interpret the words’ balance and harmony. Similarly the way we interpret or understand irimi-tenkan is to shorten the term, just like we do when my first name Eugene becomes Gene, irimi- tenkan becomes tenkan. However, I see this habit we all have has become more than just shortening the spoken technique name. The very power and meaning of the technique’s name is out of balance and the full concept of irimi-tenkan seems lost.

I only recently came to understand the effects of our technique name shortening habit while attending a Saotome seminar. During that seminar, Saotome Sensei had mentioned watching a well known Hong Kong martial artist in a martial art film. And even though Saotome knew the fighting was for entertainment, Sensei said he kept wondering why the actor did not do irimi-tenkan. Irimi-tenkan! I never remembered Saotome calling it tenkan! The term was always irimi-tenkan. But it seems like all the students, including me, shortened the term. Back at the Dojo, Messores Sensei always described tenkan as irimi-tenkan, in other words entering or meeting then blending with the attack. In order to have balance one has to meet the uke’s force in order to counteract the effect. Let us take a moment to look at or think about balance and in doing think about irimi-tenkan.

Enter East, Turn WestThe Asian symbol for yin and yang is well known as the two opposite colors and equal shapes. Balance. This seems true in every aspect of Aikido this “constant of opposites” this harmony. Irimi is often referred to as choosing to enter and face death. The moment of Now becomes the moment of creativity or life, or the moment becomes death. Life or death in that moment it is in balance. That moment is occurring on several levels all at once in the body, mind, and spirit. In regards to the spirit I suppose we might find references in Buddhism regarding that moment, instead let’s take an intellectual irimi-tenkan, step forward east and turn west. In Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist the Eastern and Western Way by D.T. Suzuki, (Macmillan 1957) Suzuki Sensei writes about Meister Eckhart’s (a western Christian thinker/teacher/minister) sermons where Eckhart talks about God’s day and soul’s day in which in God’s day all time is contained in the Now-moment. The balance of God in that Now is isticheit -western or tathata -eastern, God’s is-ness (forever is) and enlightenment in understanding God’s being – non being. Balance. What, you may be asking, does this have to do with irimi-tenkan and Aikido? It is irimi-tenkan. In regards to the mind within that moment when uke’s attack begins and nage’s response occurs, the first paragraph’s explanation of balance and the resulting harmony help explain how to see the moment. The harmony or internal calm of your spirit entering and becoming life and death. Your life, his death. In The Principles of Aikido by Mitsugi Saotome, (Shambhala 1989) Sensei asked who would know more of the true value of life than the one facing death. In entering free of the entanglement of possessive thoughts (i.e.” I have this to lose if I do not do this right!” or ” I will not look good if I do not do this right!”) Instead one steps forward past their fear, steps forward past the hate of the enemy, into and past even the realm of control the enemy’s spirit and into that moment of is-ness that is the Way of Aiki!

Wait! What about the tenkan part of irimi-tenkan? That has not changed. You have counteracted the effect of the force attacking using irimi and gained balance. Tenkan directs the force to its harmonious conclusion. Harmony and balance occurs from beginning to end in the technique called irimi-tenkan.

Gene Martinelli. Copyright © 2004 Jihonjuku Academy of Warrior Spirit.

Soft and Hard, the Spirit of Aikido in Irimi-Tenkan

Soft and Hard, the Spirit of Aikido in Irimi-Tenkan

In Balance: A Series of Thoughts (Part Two)
Soft and Hard, the Spirit of Aikido in Irimi-Tenkan
2004 by Sensei Gene Martinelli

If IRIMI is the yang of the movement, then TENKAN must be the yin. Hard and soft bring/is balance. IRIMI-TENKAN brings/is balance. Exploring further into the point made in the first part of this series; we continue to look at how our understanding and interpretation of a word or words may have a profound effect in our ability to do the AIKIDO technique correctly. Our choices in accepting certain definitions color not only how we approach those techniques, but also limit our options and our growth in AIKIDO.

In part one of this series I wrote regarding IRIMI-TENKAN:
You have counteracted the effect of the force attacking using IRIMI and gained balance. TENKAN directs the force to its harmonious conclusion.

Blends/directs/leads/controls/ all are words used to describe the action of TENKAN. It is so easy to take the hardness of your spirit and the power of your force in IRIMI and drive right through UKE (remember IRIMI is also blending). In some situations and position of NAGE and UKE relative to their environment, driving through UKE would be the correct choice. Why then in certain situations do we as AIKIDOKA appear to choose to soften our spirit and blending with UKE, we turn ourselves?

In entering UKE”S attack with a calm acceptance of death, either UKE’s life or yours, the mind and spirit become open to other possibilities. NAGE has taken control of the moment. But in this moment NAGE has done more than those few words seem to imply with the completion of IRIMI-TENKAN. MUSUBI, true martial harmony, must occur to actively choose TENKAN and complete the movement. Through MUSUBI (or in other words blending) we are given the opportunity to create life or perhaps a better choice of words might be an opportunity to spare lives, UKE’s life and your life. Your life however will be quickly over, if you think you will succeed by just having the proper mindset or a strong spirit without correct positioning and movement of your body. Nor will you be successful without correct distance, MA-AI, and timing, DE-AI. What seems the simplest of moves and the most basic of AIKIDO’s techniques contains all that is “AIKI.” IRIMI-TENKAN is often (if not always) the first move practiced. Why? All eight powers of the heavens are there in that movement: stillness and motion, powerful and relaxed, contraction and extension, hard and soft. So the simplest, easiest, and most basic move in AIKIDO encompasses everything that makes this an incredible art. Yet, in my opinion many of us as AIKIDO students tend to skip past the concept and principles in the IRIMI part of the movement and not quite grasp that the TENKAN part can be or is a strategy and a tactic in movement.

I once heard TENKAN (shortened on purpose) described as AIKIDO’s version of retreating or back stepping. I really like that description and wish I could claim it as mine. In any conflict we must not only be able to react, but our mind and spirit had better, in that instant, have created and developed a strategy for defeating our opponent or UKE, too. Whether you are facing one opponent or many there is or should be a purpose to your response in your movement and choices. In having “Hard and Soft” in the title of this article I chose to focus or pay particular attention to these two aspects. When I was in the Army, back farther in time than I care to admit too. Retreating was never taught or described as retreating; it was called “Advancing to the rear” and the reasoning behind this was, it demoralized the troops’ psyche and put them in a defeated mind set calling the action “retreat.” This defeated mind set does not occur when we use TENKAN. Quite the opposite, what may have appeared overwhelming is now controlled by your center and your choice of action (technique). You had entered hard of spirit, not hard, tensed, and stiff of body. The force coming at you is strong and so you choose a soft response, TENKAN. Soft here does not mean or imply weak, limp, or non-martial. Rather it is a solid martial response and by choosing TENKAN we have redirected the force attacking us and thus negated the attack and taken control of this force. In that moment your choice becomes either life giving or life ending, for example you begin to flow into SHIHO-NAGE and by deciding in very small degrees of angles in your body position, UKE”S arm position, and the direction and force behind that throw the difference quite literally becomes life and death. One can see that the soft movement not only gave us multiple choices within the throw, but it also is a devastating power. Again, because it bears repeating soft here does not imply weak, limp, or non-martial. Choosing a soft response to a hard action you are able to control the balance and the moment! In addition, the technique happens because of the hard and soft choices you make in IRIMI-TENKAN? It is an amazing strategy that Aikido has in its ability to redirect rather than to always meet a hard force with a hard force. Softness means flexible, relaxed, and breathing and seeing with a clear mind. Your mind, body, and spirit can together or separately be hard or soft and not all in the same choices at the same time. It is in this state of relaxed clarity that one realizes that from the moment of contact and as you turn in TENKAN you are controlling and directing both yourself and UKE. Balance.

So in certain situations as AIKIDOKA, we do indeed turn soft and turn ourselves blending and redirecting the force from UKE and therefore controlling and reaching balance. Ever notice that within the Yin and Yang symbol in the Yin or soft side there is a perfect circle of Yang or hardness, and within the Yang or hard side there is a perfect circle of Yin or soft side within. That is how balance is achieved. A hard exterior force is matched by a soft internal force and balance is restored. Water is often used in describing techniques or principles in martial arts. A favorite of mine is KOSHI-NAGE described as a wave crashing on a rock. In my mind, IRIMI-TENKAN is like a falling rock meeting the ocean. Unlike when a rock falls on land it leaves a mark to show where the rock impacted. When a rock hits the ocean, it is simply swallowed up by the water no matter how great the force of the falling rock. What really is the hard object and soft object in this analogy of the rock hitting the ocean? Because we have learned in science or more personally if you’ve ever taken a belly flop diving into a pool, that the soft surface of water actually causes a harder impact. Soft may well be the harder force, or the more correct frame of mind and spirit when doing IRIMI-TENKAN. You are seamlessly shifting from feeling like a hard driving force in that moment of IRIMI. Into a soft flexible redirecting force and like the overwhelming wave of water finding the weaknesses in UKE’s attack and exploit it.

In order to move fluidly and be flexible in your timing and movement your body must stay soft to respond to an attack. In the core of that softness lies the crystal hard knowledge and strength of spirit to succeed and restore balance. IRIMI-TENKAN, the most basic of AIKIDO techniques contains a seemingly unlimited number of choices and incredible power. This becomes open to you if you do not limit how you understand and interpret the words used in describing AIKIDO and AIKIDO technique. Harmony and balance occurs from beginning to end in the technique called IRIMI-TENKAN.

Credit & Thanks: I can claim to be the author of these series of articles, but without the editorial assistance, guidance, and down right straight-up and often heard saying, “Is that really what you meant?” help of Don Modesto. The two pieces of this series would not have been written. Don, thank you.

Gene Martinelli. Copyright © 2005 Jihonjuku Academy of Warrior Spirit.

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.

Chin Kon Ki Shin

Chin Kon Ki Shin

2004 Article by Dan Penrod

“A practice intended to aid one in joining with the universal spirit and to help one understand the devine mission that is one’s life goal to fulfill.” – From the glossary of… The Principles of Aikido by Mitsugi Saotome

Chinkon is defined as… to settle down and calm the spirit and Kishin is defined as… returning to the divine or kami, which refers to achieving a profound contemplative state where one is grounded to the divine universe.  Chinkon and kishin are generally practiced together where the first part, chinkon, involves revitalization of the senses and the gathering of spirit, while the second part, kishin, involves an alert meditative state.  It’s been said that chinkon and kishin together form a method of achieving unity with the divine, although each has it’s own function.  Chinkon is said, by some, to gather the spirits of the souls wandering the ether into the tanden (abdominal center) while kishin activates those spirits.

Chinkon-kishin has ancient roots that are referenced in the old Shinto texts such as the Kojiki.  The shamanistic practice of mystical breathing and meditation of uniting the divine and human spirits was often used in old times in the preparation of waterfall misogi, an ascetic practice of standing under a freezing waterfall for long periods of time, in meditation, with the objective of cleansing the mind, body, and spirit.  O Sensei often practiced this kind of misogi (spiritual cleansing), but to O Sensei, aikido was his daily misogi practice.  For this reason the founder would prepare for the misogi of his aikido training by performing chinkon-kishin techniques in his warmups.

Masumi Matsumura and Morihei Ueshiba performing chinkon kishin in Mongolia, 1924The practice of traditional chinkon-kishin largely fell out of practice in the Shinto tradition until Onisaburo Deguchi and revived the practice within the Omoto Kyo Shinto religious sect, in the early 1900’s.  When O Sensei met Onisaburo and embraced the Omoto religion he also embraced the practice of chinkon-kishin as taught and practiced by Onisaburo.  O Sensei had embraced the rich Shinto culture and mythology since his childhood.  Omoto Kyo, as a new form of an ancient religion and the charismatic leadership of Onisaburo, had a profound effect on O Sensei’s spiritual path.  The founder and another Omoto follower are show here practicing kishin meditation with their hands folded into various mudra or hand postures.

According to Yasuaki Deguchi, grandson of the Omoto leader Onisaburo Deguchi, Onisaburo’s received his knowledge of chinkon-kishin from a revelation he had while engaging in ascetic practices on Mt. Takakuma.  He also referred to a method of kishin mentioned in the section concerning Emporor Chuai in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and in the record of Empress Jinko in the Ni-honshoki (Chronicle of Japan).  In later years the practice of chinkon-kishin was abandoned in the Omoto Kyo religion because of the profound and often surprising effect it had on its practitioners.  However, the practice was never abandoned by O Sensei and is found mixed into aikido warmups in dojo everywhere today.

There are several forms of chinkon-kishin that O Sensei integrated into the warmups of aikido training.  These exercises, although generally not clearly understood, even by uchideshi of O Sensei, are still practiced in many aikido dojo around the world.  They are practiced largely for their obvious physical benefits.  They are also practiced, in part, for their historical significance.  The founder’s students who retained the practice differ significantly in the details as well as the level of importance they place on this practice, and most of them profess not to understand it.  One student of O Sensei said… “We practice it because it is very important… Sensei said that we would discover the meaning of these techniques for ourselves.”

FuritamaFuritama: “soul shaking”, “settling the ki”, or “vibration of the spirit”

Furitama is practiced standing with the legs shoulder-width apart.  The hands are placed together with the right hand over the left.  A small space is left between the hands.  The hands are placed in front of the abdomen and shaken vigorously up and down.  Inhale to the top of the head rising up naturally.  Then exhale to the bottom of your feet as  you continue shaking your hands up and down.  The exercise if finished in silent and still meditative kishin.

This chinkon exercise was intended to gather the spirits of the divine into ones center… calming the spirit… vibrating the soul.  It’s an effective way to gather your thoughts, center your mind and focus your intention.

Another form of “vibration of the spirit” can be seen in the practice of raising the hands over your head, shaking them vigorously while fingers are extended.  Then throwing the hands down toward the ground.  The founder would speak of shaking the dust from the joints when referring to this wrist loosening exercise.  For him it was a vitalizing movement to shake the impurities from the body… a form of misogi to prepare for aikido practice.

Torifune: “rowing the boat” or “bird rowing”

Torifune, also know as kogi-fune or the rowing exercise involves the arms and body moving in a boat rowing motion.  According to the Kami no Michi, an important text on Shintoism, the hands were clenched in fists, with the thumbs inside, and hand movement was very linear.  Pictures of O’Sense show him with his hands in traditional punching fists, with the thumbs outside.  In old video footage he can be seen practicing  torifune with both linear punching movements as well as sweeping, rowing movements.  Today torifune appears to be mostly practiced with open hands, fingers pointing down, writs being thrust forward and drawn back to the hips.

It’s practiced by first placing the left foot forward.  While thrusting the hands or wrists forward you vocalize the sound “eh”.  While drawing the hands back you vocalize “ho”.  This push / pull is performed rhythmically 20 times, then the right foot is put forward.  Now as you thrust forward you vocalize “ee”.  While you draw back you vocalize “sa”.  In some schools they’ll will do a 3rd set back on the left leg.  “eh” is sounded on both the pushes and pulls.
Ibuki Kokyu: “deep breathing”

Ten-no-kokyu: Breath of heaven
The breath of heaven involves the deep inhalation, with the hands together in front of us, raising the hands in ten-no-kokyu (breath of heaven) posture, together and over the head.  We then proceed to the breath of earth

Chi-no-kokyu: Breath of earth
The breath of earth involves exhaling slowly and bring the hands down in chi-no-kokyu (breath of earth) posture.  The hands are brought down the sides of our body as though pushing down the universe until the hands come back together in front of our abdomen to complete the circle.

Generally, the cycle of ten-no-kokyu and chi-no-kokyu is repeated 3 times in succession.  When practiced by itself, there is usually a quiet pause of kishin at the end of the breathing cycle.  When combined with the other exercises the transitions change and the kishin may move to the end of the combinations.

Furitama, torifune, and ibuki are often practiced together in various combinations.  Sometimes the furitama is interwoven with ibuki.  Other times furitama is interwoven with torifune.  These practices vary a great deal from aikido association to aikido association as well as from dojo to dojo even within associations.

It’s interesting to note that aikido associations heavily influenced by Koichi Tohei practice a great many other kihon undo exercises that Tohei embraced and extended… said to help manifest ki.  As his interests shifted from the old Shinto ways and his attention became focused on the principles of ki, he took some of chinkon-kishin exercises and modified them to compliment his newly codified catalog of ki exercises.

When I began practicing aikido, almost 20 years ago I can’t recall ever seeing Mitsugi Saotome Sensei ever lead us in any of the chinkon-kishin.  This may be because O Sensei de-emphasised the practice in his later years.  Or, it may be because O Sensei left his students, especially in the later years, to wonder about or ignore the older Shinto practices which were seen as increasingly anachronistic in a modern Japan.  It was some years later that I noticed Saotome Sensei introduce his students to furitama, torifune, and ibuki kokyu, possibly as he was rediscovering his own roots in aikido and paying respect to those early traditions.

Movements of Aikido

Movements of Aikido

2004 Article by Dan Penrod

Movement in aikido is often categorized by 4 words; Irimi, Tenkan, Omote, and Ura. These 4 words can be used to help describe any attack combined with any defense. I hope to clarify the meaning and use of these words and describe the subtle relationship between these terms.

Before I begin, I should mention that I’ll be using the words nage and uke repeatedly. For the unitiated, nage means thrower and is generally the person who receives the attack and provides the throw, pin or neutralization. Uke means receiver and is usually the person who initiates the attack, but more specifically is the one who receives the throw.

Let’s begin with some basic definitions. You should pay attention to which words are verbs and which words are adverbs. This is the first clue to their relationships.

Irimi: verb. To enter. Refers to nage’s movement in relation to uke. Nage enters on a line toward uke as he receives an attack. Irimi is well represented by the symbol of the straight line.

Tenkan: verb. To turn. Refers to nage’s movement in relation to uke. Nage turns in a circular motion as he receives the attack, usually by pivoting on the front foot and describing a 90 to 180 degree semi-circle with the rear foot. Tenkan is well represented by the symbol of the circle.

Omote: adverb. In front of. Refers to the positional relationship of nage in regard to uke. Nage has moved in front of uke.
Ura: adverb. To the rear of. Refers to the positional relationship of nage in regard to uke. Nage has moved behind uke.
Ura is sometimes defined as the area outside or behind uke’s leading hand or foot while omote is viewed as the area inside or to the front of uke’s leading hand or foot. The most important thing to notice here is that as adverbs, omote and ura describe the verbs irimi and tenkan.

There is a 3rd verb we sometimes use which I’ll just briefly mention and leave at that because it falls somewhat outside the scope of this discussion.

Kaiten: adverb. Roughly translates as rotate. It’s applied when uke rotates 180 degrees… but unlike tenkan where the rear foot sweeps in a 180 degree semi-circle… the feet don’t move in kaiten. They pivot in place and the hips rotate to look in the opposite direction. Kaiten is, of course, used in kaiten nage, the rotating throw. It is also frequently used in conjunction with irimi to allow nage to reorient himself in the same direction as uke.

It’s important to notice that irimi and tenkan are diametrical opposites. Omote and ura are also opposites. Omote and ura share the x-axis while irimi and tenkan share the y-axis. Viewed as a compass, irimi is north, tenkan is south, omote is west, and ura is east. This compass model brings into focus not only the 4 compass directions, but more importantly the 4 quadrants movements between them; irimi omote, irimi ura, tenkan omote, and tenkan ura.


Irimi omote: Nage enters in front of uke.
Irimi ura: Nage enters to the rear of uke.
Tenkan omote: Nage turns to the front of uke.
Tenkan ura: Nage turns to the rear of uke.
These quadrants can be used to accurately describe the movement in an aikido technique. Let’s look at the syntactical structure used to describe an aikido movement.

syntax: <attack> <quadrant movement> <throw> <quadrant movement>
example:<yokomen uchi> <tenkan omote> <shiho nage> <tenkan ura>

The first quadrant movement describes how nage receives the attack. The second quadrant movement describes how nage throws uke. In our example here, nage receives the attack (side of head strike) with a tenkan omote or turning to the front of uke. Then nage throws with a shihonage (4 direction throw) using tenkan ura or turning to the rear of uke.

It is not uncommon for people to abbreviate terms by saying something like, yokomen uchi shihonage tenkan. While this description is accurate, it is not precise. There is more than one way to perform yokomen uchi shihonage tenkan. Specifically, there are 4 ways. Nage could receive the attack (yokomen uchi) with tenkan omote or tenkan ura. Also, nage could throw with a tenkan omote or tenkan ura movement (of shihonage).

Since there are 4 possibilities that can be applied in receiving the attack (first quadrant movement) and there are still 4 possibilities that can be applied in executing the throw (second quadrant movement) there could be a mind-numbing 2 ^4 = 16 possible combinations for just one technique. In practice there will be many fewer do to specifics characteristics of each technique. In the case of yokomen uchi shihonage, I submit there are 4 possibilites.

For other techniques the number of combinations will be different. How many for tsuki kotegaeshi? Or shomen uchi irimi nage. I’ll leave these calculations as an exercise for the reader.

Taking the time to fully recognize this model is more than an exercise in semantics. It opens the students mind to the possibilities and provides a tool for the student to discover techniques they may have never seen before.

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.