Skip to main content

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.”
✥ ✥ ✥
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).
✥ ✥ ✥

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.
✥ ✥ ✥

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.
✥ ✥ ✥
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!
✥ ✥ ✥

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.

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.