A Consideration of Aikido Practice within the Context of Internal Training (Revised) by Ellis Amdur

Ellis Amdur training with Bruce Bookman

“High-level training requires high-level people, and
high-level skills will only be acquired by an elite few”

This essay has been published before: originally, in somewhat different form, on Aikido Journal and in its current form on Aikiweb.

Author’s Note: I am not an aikidoka. I formally withdrew from Kuwamori Dojo in 1978. But previous to that, I trained well over 7,500 hours in the art — on the mat, under the tutelage of some of the finest aikido teachers alive. I owe a tremendous amount to aikido, for it led me to a number of other things, and because of its particular character, I’ve never stopped thinking about it, writing about it, and, paradoxically, working on it. Over the years, some dojos have invited me to teach seminars, believing that what I did learn in aikido, enhanced with further study in various arts over the last 35 years, leaves me with something to offer.

I am of the opinion that no martial art is better than another, but not for the reasons some might think. Some martial arts are clearly, undeniably, better for fighting, at least in certain contexts, and some martial arts are far more adaptable when moved to a different context. Each martial art is good for what its good for, and whatever it is good for is what it is made for. Consider this: in prewar Japan, professional sumo players were, on average, probably the toughest, most fearsome empty-handed fighters around. During the Second World War, they were primarily used as draft animals, like donkeys or other beasts, to haul heavy objects up hills.

Both when I teach aikido, and when I try to address an issue within the context of aikido, my thoughts are this: whatever I like or don’t like, whatever methodology I subscribe to or not, when in someone’s house, I must respect the house. My critique, therefore, must take into account, the foundations upon which the house is built. If I have anything from the “outside” to contribute to aikido, I must ask myself how I strive to do so with respect. From a martial perspective, some people, treated with disrespect or patronization, will kill you, and from a human perspective, it ill becomes the martial man or woman. This essay was written in that spirit.

He then learned Daito-ryu from Sokaku Takeda, became his disciple for many years, and received a menkyo kaiden [Ueshiba actually received the kyoju dairi or “instructor’s certification”] and the position of substitute master for Takeda Sensei. Since then he has studied hard to absorb the essence of various schools of martial arts and mastered lightning-fast empty-handed arts (taijutsu) against weapons, military arms and modern firearms to create his own unique school. He is the foremost figure in the modern world of traditional Japanese martial arts…. He has combined conventional martial techniques with the ancient Japanese mystical religion of Shintoism to establish his own new school of martial arts of the Kami for the benefit and glory of the Emperor.
Hisa, Takuma, 1942[1]

Then he said, “Before you go, is there anything you want to ask me?” So I said simply, “O-Sensei, what is aikido?” He responded by saying, “Well, let me write it down for you and someday you can read it and understand.” What he wrote were the words: “intellectual training, physical training, virtue training, ki training-these produce practical wisdom.” He added that it wouldn’t do for even one of these to be missing, that lacking any one of them would render everything for naught and inevitably slow one’s overall development. One must, he told me, always maintain a harmonious balance among these.
Interview with Mariye Takahashi, Aikido Journal #120

My First Encounters with the Subject of Internal Power


Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

As I have written elsewhere,[2] my first view of aikido smacked me between the eyes like a bolt from the great beyond: first, because it seemed to offer a moral vision, appearing to be an embodiment of the resolution of conflict; secondly, it seemed possible that through the practice of aikido, one could possibly acquire almost superhuman power. Both of these “promises” seemed to be proven by accounts of the life and translated sayings, as well as photos and films, of the warrior-sage, Ueshiba Morihei. This led me to five years of training an average of six hours a day, including a stint living on the mat of the Bond Street Dojo in New York City. However, although I encountered some superlative martial artists, both in America and Japan, none whom I personally met displayed the kind of power that was attributed to Ueshiba, referred to in Japanese by such terms as nairiki, kokyu-ryoku or aiki, and in English as “internal strength.” Although many of these shihan were far more highly skilled martial artists than I would ever be, all of their techniques were “physically understandable;” they simply were better athletes and in some cases, better fighters than I was, the same as high level judoka and kickboxers among whom I later met and trained.

I did encounter the teachings of Tohei Koichi, and trained at his dojo in Honolulu. However, his four basic principles seemed, at the time, to merely be ways to relax to allow the flow of “ki” which, in every discussion I heard, was like some sort of “energic fluid” that one directed at will through one’s body. I never did meet Tohei (perhaps my loss), but at any rate, I found nothing exceptionally different from other aikido teachers among the leading lights among his disciples whom I did meet, nor did anyone seem to offer training which provided an avenue to the acquisition of that kind of power, even at aikido’s headquarters dojo. Eventually, I met with Osawa Kisaburo and formally resigned my training in aikido and concentrated on other martial arts.[3]

Wang Shujin (1904-1981)

I was later fortunate to meet several teachers among Chinese martial artists who had very high levels of internal training. I didn’t know if what they were doing was the same as that of Ueshiba, but I did know that it was remarkable. Internal strength was not merely a matter of legend or fantastic stories: it was real. Among the first was Wang Shu Chin. I saw Wang, then terminally ill with cancer, drop a Kyokushinkai karate champion to the ground by stepping inside his attack and hugging him. The man fell, boneless, wheezing for breath. (Now, looking at films of Wang, I can see the wave of force travelling through his relaxed body from his feet, amplified with his spine. In addition, close observation of his legs shows that this “belly punch” was just another version of what is regarded as xingyi ch’uan’s most powerful technique, called beng ch’uan, his belly replacing the fist we usually see in this technique). [4] All he seemed to teach, however, was a t’ai chi form where, without any instruction, we tried to follow along as best we could. Unfortunately, I did not realize that the simple “warm-up” exercises with which we started each class were actually the heart of his skill and power, something I later found out he did many hours a day. I missed several other similar opportunities in subsequent years. None of those teachers explicitly stated that “internal power training is done ‘this’ way,” but in retrospect, they presented their personal training methods right in front of me. I didn’t realize that they were throwing down a gauntlet, and had I picked it up, I might have been invited “inside the door” a long time ago. I, too, have experienced the phenomenon of overlooking something “hidden in plain sight.”

Like traditional instructors of almost any art in China and Japan, teachers of internal strength or other high-level martial arts techniques will only offer such training to students who consider everything they do of such importance that they incessantly practice even the trivial solo exercises that seem far divorced from form and fighting applications; that they take any statement, no matter how obscure and gnomic, as holding some essential knowledge. Rather than being spoon- fed, you must scrabble in the dirt to pick up the rare grains that are thrown down. Some in the West may find such a concept outrageous, but what I have found over the years is that if you continue to appear before the teacher, increasingly nourished by such mean fare, you may eventually be ushered to the table where a banquet awaits.

Consider that, until recently, these skills were the equivalent to plans for a Predator Drone or “stealth fighter.” They would only be offered to someone considered both worthwhile and trustworthy. The problem for many in such traditional settings was and is that you may be half-starved before being initiated, if that happens at all. Many end up so disheartened that they quit. Others find teachers who are content to keep the real meal to themselves, throwing only scraps to their students, preferring to manipulate them so that they have loyal followers rather than successors. In truth, many allegedly great teachers have nothing more than such scraps to offer. On the other hand, people find the teachers they are meant to find. If you are being cheated by a teacher and do not recognize it, then, from one perspective, you’ve found exactly the teacher you are suited for.

This was once a world in which one truly threw one’s life away in hopes of gaining treasure, and sincerity was measured by the willingness of a student to risk all to acquire such skills. And among of the things that one risked is that, having given all, you might be cast aside in the dust yourself. That such a teaching method may perhaps no longer be suited to the current age does not negate the fact that through it, generation after generation, it created martial artists like Yagyu Tajima no Kami, Takenouchi Hisamori, Takeda Sokaku, and Ueshiba Morihei, men who were tempered like fine steel, quite different from the iron men, the ordinary fighters of their era.

One final point: the jury is still out for me whether open teaching produces a greater number of high-level students. To be sure, “basic training,” whether in the military or civilian situations, requires meticulous instruction, for such information must be for anyone and everyone in one’s cadre. High-level training, however, requires high-level people, and high-level skills will only be acquired by an elite few — those who are both innately talented, and obsessively, pervasively committed. I have heard from several teachers who are diligent and open, some of whom are instructors of koryu and others of internal training methodologies, who carry the attitude that they will hide nothing, that “there are no secrets.” Yet, each has told me that although they have a lot of people studying, they only have one or two students. It is possible that, although the “open” teacher provides a more pleasant, psychologically supportive training environment, he or she may have, at the end, the same number of great students: one or two. “Steal the technique” is not only something one has to do with a teacher like Takeda Sokaku or Ueshiba Morihei, who allegedly shows a technique only once; it also occurs with any teacher, because explanation is not experiential. One has to breathe in the skills through the pores, not the ears.

My Re-Discovery of Internal Strength Training

In recent years, I rediscovered this subject, both through discourse on the Internet and through meeting people actually possessing some level of these skills. One early meeting stands out in my mind: pushing on the arms of an unmoving man in a (light) sparring situation, and finding that the harder I pushed, the more I found myself pushing myself away on a tangent, although he was not moving at all, and then, in the midst of this, finding myself drawn inwards, and having him almost cave my chest in — or so it felt — with a shoulder strike that started with our bodies in contact, with no discernible windup whatsoever. The first portion seemed absolutely congruent with Ueshiba’s statement to Takeshita Isamu, “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want,”[5] and the second with his oft-cited statement that “atemi is 90% of aikido.” It was at this point that it seemed apparent to me that the “magic” that Ueshiba was doing was most probably something analogous, if not identical to the skills displayed by experts in Chinese martial arts. I do not mean that Ueshiba was doing exactly the same thing as such noted experts as Chen Xiaowang or Feng Zhiqiang, to name only two (experts assert that even they, “cousins” in lineage, are not doing everything the same), but that the core principles of all internal training share the same criteria, overlapping in different proportions depending on the art. For this reason, and due to the fact that I will be discussing aikido for the rest of this essay, I will, from here onward, refer to internal training as “aiki.”

One thing about aiki: it, alone, will not make a strong martial artist, anymore than the ability to lift six hundred pounds.[6] However, it offers the martial artist the opportunity to imbue any and all techniques with a different method of generating power and managing incoming forces. To use a crude metaphor, it is the change from monaural to stereo, or monochrome to color. In one sense, nothing changes: in another, everything.

I began training in some of the development methods for these skills, and I wrote Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power.[7] In the book, I attempted to elucidate the Chinese roots of many of these skills that are within the curriculum of various Japanese martial traditions; to highlight the skills and resurrect the memory of the often maligned Takeda Sokaku; to establish clear evidence that Ueshiba Morihei had such abilities; to tease out how he taught (and how he did not) and to try to figure out why he was either unsuccessful, or willfully did not pass these skills on to many, and to those, apparently, only a portion of his own.[8]

Coupling whatever small influence my writing may have had with the efforts of several individuals who began publicly teaching internal training methods as “generic skills,” as opposed to within closed martial traditions, this resulted in the ignition of a small fire within the worldwide aikido community. Let me emphasize the word “small.” I would wager that there are not even 500 aikidoka, maybe far less, actively engaged in specific training to transform the way one uses one’s body in regards to the expression of power, the redirection of force within one’s body, etc.

Yet despite the importance that 500 or so people might ascribe to this subject and the substantial noise about the subject that a few of them make on selected internet discussion forums, most people within the aikido world could care less about it. They love the aikido they are already doing – and why not? In particular, aikido seems to offer to many, particularly in the West, an almost mythic resolution of problems with a clear winner and loser where an attacker is elegantly, and ideally harmlessly, subdued. We all crave a golden line through chaos.[9] That the real world often does not work that way, particularly when it concerns physical conflict among those roughly equal in strength drives people in two directions. The Aristotelians may turn to more apparently practical martial arts such as muay thai or mixed martial arts, whereas the Platonists simply believe they need to practice more hours at the aikido they are doing, until they achieve the archetype of the art.[10]

The idea of conflict resolution is one of the core underpinnings of East-Asian martial arts. Many martial traditions, developed many centuries before aikido, have stories about a teacher elegantly subduing an attacker with a writing brush, a twig or a turn of the wrist. Although not strictly true from an etymological perspective, it is commonly believed that the meaning of radicals within the Japanese character, 武 (“bu”) is “to stop the spear.” There are even debates on whether that means “self defense” (having the ability to stop the enemy’s spear) or “forbearance” (have the skill to make the use of the spear unnecessary, and the self-control to make that choice). This cliché was one that Ueshiba subscribed to himself. It is legitimate, therefore, to ask how well the pedagogy of aikido, be it that of Ueshiba Morihei, or the versions of his successors, supports that goal. One cannot “stop a spear,” unless one is more skillful than the attacker wielding it. Beyond that, the means deemed legitimate to resolve conflict are not apart from the social context within which they reside. Therefore, if we consider conflict resolution for people in any modern civil society, what would be the most effective and useful martial art: 1) An apparently chaotic amalgam of neo-Shinto, esoteric Buddhism and shamanistic rites, with a complex and detailed technical corpus as well as sophisticated training methods that may take years of dedication to master, all of which is taught within a closed dojo environment to only a few individuals with whom the instructor has a deep personal relationship; or 2) A martial practice that eschews the spiritual rituals for a more general metaphoric stance based on ethics, with a less demanding system of physical culture/ martial arts practice, accessible to millions, a practice in which one can achieve a fairly high level of skill with only a few years? Which really fulfills the goal of 武 in the world within which we live?[11]

At the end of Hidden in Plain Sight, I wrote:

Do you need this vintage? It makes life harder, because remember, you have to pay for it in time, miles of hard work, and honesty. Remember Chen Xiaowang, who abandoned the construction of his family’s house, because it cut into the hours he needed to practice his t’ai chi ch’uan. Is the “technical” aikido, for example, of the descendents of Ueshiba, and similarly, I believe, the Daito-ryu of many of the descendents of Takeda, not a worthy pursuit in itself? It certainly can be. As I sit writing this, I am watching a play of light in my room, the sun passing through glass vases and crystal, part of my own lineage, from my grandmother, through my mother to me. Just as this glass is beautiful in its own right, so too, a pursuit of technical genius, of athleticism, of the numerous positive changes of personality that one incurs in the dedicated pursuit of any discipline in the company of like-minded comrades—all of this is possible through what aikido has become. And yes, that includes substantial martial virtue as well, as such exemplars as Nishio Shoji, Takeno Takefumi, Kato Hiroshi, and Anno Motomichi amply demonstrate. There is a rich lifetime of knowledge within what each of these men—and others like them—have to teach.

But what if you desire the vintage itself? And what if you desire exactly what Ueshiba was brewing? What he distilled is among the most rare—an elixir brewed from a mixture of wildflowers from the Japanese Alps and blue-haloed mushrooms. It’s an acquired taste, like peat smoked Scotch from Islay, or Dutch corenwyn pulled from a block of ice and poured from a stone crock. To make matters more difficult, the bottle into which Ueshiba’s vintage has been placed is hard to pour and takes a long time to fill a glass. Still worse, there are only a few people left who even know how to pull the cork, because Ueshiba didn’t share exactly how to do so with very many. He just uncorked it himself, each bottle a little different than the one before, and drank a full draught every day, leaving a little in the cup that his guests might choose to sip or not. If they — or you — simply want to enjoy the play of light through the glass, tinted by that marvelous brew, then that, too, can be a lifetime’s worth. But if it’s the vintage you want, I hope I’ve given you a few hints on how to find it.

How about something else? There are numerous other vintages, brandies of various character and depth—and there are even some remarkable home-brewers appearing these days, who have cut what may be time-worn, but unessential procedures, and are offering remarkable tastes of their own. You can go to such teachers, and acquire, in full measure, that liquid sun, and if you choose, take it back and pour it within the vessel of aikido that you so love. It will not be Ueshiba’s aikido. But it will be yours.
The larger issue is this: live your life. What made Ueshiba so wonderful is that the life he lived was undeniably his own. Ueshiba Morihei is dead—is there really a need for him to be reborn in you?

Can “Aiki” be Restored to Aikido?

Aikidoka who decide to pursue the study of internal training find themselves at a crossroads: How can one learn Ueshiba’s skills when he left at best the most obscure of hints? And even if given the opportunity to actually learn such skills, where does that leave the aikido they have, up to now, practiced?

1. Some will abandon aikido to study an internal martial art from China such as t’ai chi ch’uan, bagua ch’uan or xingyi ch’uan. Each of these disciplines offers an established curriculum geared to achieve excellence in this area.[12] Or do they? These arts are not only watered down in the West. Most martial arts in Mainland China are standardized systems of choreography — often one step removed from martial dance. Even in more traditional schools, the majority of practitioners on every continent, including their homeland in China, are not taught internal training methods, and among those relatively few who are, many become teachers without putting in the mileage to be able to do what they “know.” In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia, three centers of “overseas Chinese,” many have created amalgams of training methods from various sources, especially so-called Shaolin or “hard qigong”, that, although sometimes extremely powerful in their own right, use the body in a different manner than purely internal martial arts. As Feng Zhiqiang puts it, “External Family (Waijia) uses physical strength (Li) to drive Qi, while Internal Family (Neijia) uses Intention (Yi) to move Qi.”[13] Pure External family arts as well as those that have an amalgam of methods from both schools have their own merits, but it can be very difficult for a neophyte to figure out just what he or she is being offered. It is possible that learning external methods or an amalgam may leave you far short of what you might have developed had you found someone teaching internal skills in pure form. On the other hand, either of the former may, with sufficient dedication leave you far superior as a fighter than almost everyone breathing, far superior, by the way, than most training in purely internal methods as well.

Even among genuine internal training methods, there are distinct differences such as the emphasis on the “reeling silk” of Chen t’ai chi as opposed to so-called “pulling silk” of Yang t’ai chi: an emphasis on one or another training method can produce different abilities. Therefore, will you actually learn what you are looking for? Will the teacher teach what he or she knows? If they are willing, do they have the ability to teach? These are among the dilemmas that face a person making what appears to be a straightforward decision to follow one or another Chinese martial art that allegedly has a curriculum in internal strength.

2. Some aikidoka will seek out orthodox Daito-ryu with the intent of acquiring the internal training methods they believe were once within Ueshiba Morihei’s teaching curriculum. Good luck to you. Will you actually find internal training within Daito-ryu? Every line of Daito- ryu that I am aware of claims that aiki is part of their curriculum, yet some use this term to mean nothing more than “taking the initiative,” “unbalancing,” or “working angles and leverage.” Other groups may require that you spend years, even decades of training in kata before introducing the subject of internal training. Others simply claim that it is incredibly difficult, and only a few will ever be permitted to learn it. For example, the Daito-ryu of Sagawa Yukiyoshi has ten stages (gen), each allegedly containing 225 distinct techniques, and its major Western practitioner implies that Kimura Tatsuo, alone among all the members of that group, is the only one to truly possess abilities in aiki.[14] The curricula of other lines of Daito-ryu are equally massive. There is no doubt that the entire corpus of Daito-ryu has great value in its own right, but you may be sorely disappointed, particularly if the particular branch of Daito-ryu you have chosen does not, in fact, offer a method towards to the development of internal power, or if, even though such information does exist, it becomes clear that you will not be one of the chosen few who will receive instruction in it.

Even among the groups that do explicitly teach aiki, it may be offered in a very limited context and application: stilted kata that only work contingent on uke grabbing or moving in a very specific manner. Will you be able to generalize the skills you learn, or will you remain dependent on some kind of collusion from your training partner? Will you ever have the ability to manage some level of random attack without the requirement that an attacker do so in a predetermined manner? At any rate, for anyone who is interested in Daito-ryu, I would strongly recommend that you take a couple of seminars from a recognized expert in Chinese internal training or one of the “home-brewers” (see #3 below), not necessarily because what they do is exactly the same, but because there will be enough that is similar so that you will have a better chance of recognizing whether the Daito-ryu instructor you are intrigued with really has skill in that area.

Beyond all these considerations, given that Daito-ryu is taught as a very detailed and complex martial system, you would be well advised to join Daito-ryu for the sake of Daito-ryu, not merely for the sake of the aiki training that may — possibly — be a component within that particular group. Otherwise, it would be like joining a music academy and demanding only to be taught Rachmaninoff.

3. Some will associate with various “home-brewers,” and in the process, walk away from aikido, perhaps no longer associating themselves as a student of any established martial arts group, although they may use grappling, mixed martial arts (MMA), or simply like- minded training partners to test and hone their skills. By “home-brewers,” I mean individuals who have significant history in some traditional system of internal training, who have then attempted to draw out core training methods independent of any specific martial art. But here, too, problems can arise. In deviating from established practice, innately talented individuals can create something marvelous for themselves. However, if they have developed an amalgam of both external and internal methods, their skills may not be easily replicable. They may attempt to describe what they do, relying perhaps on the verbiage and ideology of traditional schools, but in fact, they are doing something different from what they say. If their description does not really conform to their actions, their students will have a very difficult time replicating what they do.[15]

We may be fated to go off in a myriad of directions: some very productive, some equivocal and some dead- ends. But this avenue is something new, an opportunity to learn the equivalent of scales and harmony, so to speak, rather than finished compositions. Rather than being bound by the sheet music a teacher places on the music stand, some may be able to become the equivalent of jazz musicians, playing their own music, which will range from the trite to the sublime. It will take awhile, with pressure-testing new skills in semi-freestyle and sportive venues among the methods of validation, until best-practices methodologies will be winnowed out. But the end result will be something old and something new, all in the same vessel.

4. This leads, then, to one last group: those who still wish to do aikido. It seems ridiculous to deem them “those who wish to do aikido with aiki,” similar to Tohei Koichi’s “aikido with ki.” Nonetheless, both phrases suggest that something has been left out from modern-day practice. Many people set up a dichotomy between “Morihei’s aikido” and “Kisshomaru’s aikido.” From some perspectives, this is accurate, but it is far too simplistic: rather than attempting to even summarize this, I suggest you read Peter Goldsbury’s “Transmission, Inheritance and Emulation” on the Aikiweb forum, in its entirety.[16] (This could be a good test of resolve — if you cannot read through his meticulous, absolutely essential research, are you really someone with the fortitude to do hours of funa kogi- undo for years to develop “aiki,” not to mention the attention span and intelligence to critically analyze your results and steps/missteps along the way?)

However, averring that postwar aikido is merely a creation of Ueshiba Kisshomaru and Tohei Koichi is not necessarily as hard-and-fast as some would assume. One must recognize that everything done after the war within the Aikikai, and even without, may have been undertaken with Ueshiba Morihei’s approval, at least on some level. The developments of modern aikido, including all its factions, may have been absolutely congruent with his goals for the art, as I analyze them in Hidden in Plain Sight.[17]It is also incorrect to assert that in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, he spent most of his time at Iwama, isolated from the 3rd generation students from Tokyo (That was more the case in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s). In fact, he travelled in a circuit: to Kyushu, Shingu, Iwama and several other places, accompanied at all times by one or more of his Tokyo uchi-deshi. All of his post-war uchi-deshi had profound and deep personal relationships with him, based on days and nights, weeks and months of direct contact.

Aside from the debate about who designed what portion of pre-war or post-war aikido, would there be any downside to imbuing aikido, once again, with a resurrection of Ueshiba’s methods, if that is even possible or a “reconstitution” using methods derived from other sources? Some claim that if one develops aiki, one will become “unthrowable” by normal aikido techniques, which would, it is suggested, make aikido techniques irrelevant. As the complaint goes, why practice it if it no longer works, and furthermore, the techniques are not very combatively practical, anyway? There is no doubt that if one has developed some significant skills in aiki, then the typical blending techniques of aikido, as generally practiced, will simply not work. Please refer to the film of Wang Shu Chin and Sato Kimbei that is linked at the beginning of this article. Of course, the difference in size between the two men makes this, perhaps, not the best example. Nonetheless, note what Wang does with his body (his legs, his hips, and most important, his tanden and spine) when Sato attempts to throw him: this is not just a matter of him being heavy. As John Driscoll, an aikido sandan and judo rokudan, wrote to me, “Sato never creates a relative state of disequilibrium (kuzushi) with respect to Wang. Sato attempts techniques on Wang who is static and standing in perfect balance, a nearly impossible task even when individuals are of equal size.”[18]
Recall the statement about Nango Jiro, Kano Jigoro’s nephew, then elderly and perhaps 130 pounds, (who, by the way, never rose above nidan in standard judo), in Harrison’s The Fighting Spirit of Japan: “Nango was hard to throw normally because of excellent tai-sabaki (turning movement in judo), but when he utilized the power of the tanden he was impossible to throw.”[19]

Yukiyoshi Sagawa (1902-1998)

Can modern-day aikido, with an exchange between uke and nage resulting in uke being thrown, locked or pinned, co- exist with a detailed study of aiki? I believe that the answer is absolutely in the affirmative, and the best evidence comes both from without and within aikido. My first example is, paradoxically, from outside aikido: the dojo of Sagawa Yukiyoshi. Based on conversations with three individuals, who either participated in or directly observed Sagawa Dojo practice, there were three components to training in his martial art: the first is solo practice (tanren); the second was training in techniques that would look much like aikido to the outside observer, a component of which was that uke would grab nage as powerfully as possible to thwart his ability to move, much less exert a technique, and the third is falling techniques: ukemi.[20] This final component, more than the other two, may be a little confusing to some. There is, of course, the necessity to learn to take falls either when engaging in cooperative practice, or when a superior, more powerful training partner applies a technique.[21] However, Sagawa made such a point of mentioning it when Matsuda Ryuichi asked him how one develops aiki, clearly referring at that point to hitting the ground hard when thrown, that there may be more than meets the eye, yet another phenomenon of “hidden in plain sight.”[22] It is my belief (and experience) that the impact of ukemi helps develop a strong and resilient body, as well as being an excellent method of teaching whole-body relaxation. What I would suggest is that this be harmonized with specific methods of breathing to “pressurize” the body from the inside out so that ukemi, like many other training exercises, will serve to develop the ligaments and connective tissue. Remember: “ukemi” means “receiving body.” What do you have the ability to receive – just a choreographed fall? When one learns how to take falls when honestly thrown, one begins to learn how to counter those throws as well. How about the ability to absorb or redirect a forceful blow or other impact, or a joint lock or attempt at a throw? How about the ability to redirect that impact within oneself so that not only are you not harmed, you can use the opponents force as an additive to your own trained power, so that their power is truly used against them.

Where, within aikido, do we hear of a similar training method than these three components named above, albeit in somewhat cruder form? At Iwama, under the tutelage of Saito Morihiro! Please note I am not asserting that practice at Iwama was the same as that at the Sagawa dojo. I am attempting here to highlight a similarity, not an identical practice. Let’s start with this: When Saito and his students presented basic technique in a powerful manner, Saito described Ueshiba as smiling and nodding, rather than yelling out, “That’s not my aikido.” Ueshiba approved of that staunch, powerful method of training. This, however, is not all that Saito could do. He is often regarded as being slow, massive and powerful: however, one of Chiba Kazuo’s students, a very physically powerful man, described grabbing Saito and told me, “It wasn’t what I expected at all. I felt like I was on ice. I couldn’t find my footing. I was just holding him, and he was hardly moving and I was slipping and sliding around.”

John Driscoll (cited above) wrote to me, “Saito always emphasized that the progression of instruction should move from katai (hard), initiated from static, basic, firm techniques, to yawarakai (soft), techniques affected in movement conforming to the basic form, and finally ki-no- nagare (free flowing techniques). Saito said this was Ueshiba’s position on the progression of training in Aikido and was the only way one could develop martial power.”[23]

My training brother, Josh Lerner, who spent some time training at Iwama and later with a teacher of t’ai chi and bagua, informed me, “When I started training in Chinese martial arts, although I had way too much tension in my upper body, I was able to start using rudimentary ground paths (although that’s not the term he used) when working with his students, and I had the very distinct feeling that I got that ability specifically from doing tai no henko and morotedori kokyu ho with full resistance at Iwama. Along with tanren suburi on the tire, they form what I would call Saito’s basic “internal power” exercises, and done correctly and consistently, they do produce results. Somewhat stiff results, with none of the subtlety or dantian movement of the Chinese arts, but the basic ability to absorb and transmit force is there. And I would say that morotedori kokyu ho is a full body twisting spiral, from foot to widespread fingers, that even differentiates the hips and waist.”[24]

John Driscoll writes:

Based on conversations with Bill Witt, Bernice Tom, Hans Goto, Wolfgang Baumgartner, Mark Larsen, etc., who all spent considerable time training under Saito: In all my conversations with the previously listed individuals, I could not find one who acknowledged Saito doing solo exercises, other than ken and jo suburi. No one acknowledged seeing Saito doing funa kogi undo or any of the other “warm up/aiki” exercises that O-sensei is seen doing in the historical footage. They all stated Saito was adamant that O-sensei said everything one needed for developing aiki is in the suburi, which one should practice daily. I also got the understanding from my conversations that Saito never explicitly described how to do each suburi to the group, other than to demonstrate and make individual corrections. Saito did explain and use analogies to try to clarify key points of techniques when teaching. One of his favorites apparently was referring to the relationship of uke and tori as two limbs of a compass. He did sometimes explain the mechanics of using the weapons, but not in an esoteric fashion.

No one recalled observing Saito providing any specific instruction on grounding, or generating and transferring energy within the body. No one recalled a discussion of the role of spinal flexion in accomplishing the transfer, only Saito pointing out that the hips must be and remain solid and settled at the end of a technique.

As to partner practice, all of my Iwama trained teachers emphasize each class should begin with tai no henko ho, morote dori kokyu ho, and end with suwariwaza kokyuho. Most also include some form of Ikkyo in the class. Saito was adamant that Osensei’s daily practice always included tai no henko, followed by morote dori kokyu ho, and ended with suwariwaza kokyuho.

That said you are correct that none of my Iwama trained teachers ever explain that these are the keys to unlocking the “aiki” in aikido or do anything other than to repeat, “Become proficient in katai training before moving to yawarakai training, and then continue to practice fundamentals regularly.[25]

Morihiro Saito (1928-2002)

I would be among the first to assert that Saito’s successors did not and do not exhibit any ability — or interest — in training in aiki. It is very possible that such “strong” training, given that it makes physically powerful people, became an end in itself.[26] It is certainly possible that Saito, like so many others in this field, kept internal training methods to himself, but I think it is more likely that Saito was, in large part, an example of what I have termed “osmosis”: that, given sufficient intense and intimate interactions with an expert, one can unconsciously steal some degree of the skill, without really knowing what one has accomplished, or at least, how one accomplished it. A product of such osmosis would surely reply, when asked how to replicate the remarkable things he can do, “More practice,” which results in the skills passing onwards in increasingly attenuated fashion to subsequent generations.[27] Without a curriculum, transmission is almost impossible.

My intention in the paragraphs above is not to suggest that one replicate an imaginary version of how the Sagawa dojo may practice, nor is it that “The answer lies in Iwama.” Instead, I am attempting to emphasize that the “answer” lies in a return to the true meaning of uke and nage. Remember that in traditional martial studies, uke was the teacher and his or her actions elicited, no, required the development of nage (or tori, to use a more traditional term). Please recall my citation of Sunadomari Kanshu, on kasudori.

In practice, there is a tendency to perform these techniques (ikkajo, nikkajo, etc.) with both uke and nage using physical strength. However, it is best to practice these techniques letting go of physical power and with the intended purpose of softening the joints. When taking ukemi for basic technique as well, you should not fight your partner but rather perform ukemi with the feeling of leading him (emphasis by this writer). Uke should not take ukemi because he is being pushed or forced, instead uke should do so by first inviting and leading. When taking ukemi, if you entrust yourself completely to the movement of your partner, even the slightest bit of unnatural use of physical strength on the part of nage part will effectively send him flying instead.[28]

Kanshu Sunadomari (1923-2010)

Sunadomari’s description seems to be describing the ultimate in relaxation on both individuals’ part — and this is always what I experienced when training with members of his Manseikan, a soft, frankly very collusive practice. My experiences with those skilled in internal strength are different (though not all the same): sometimes it is as if one has grabbed hold of someone who is like fluid steel; sometimes it is like grappling with an anaconda; and with other people, it is like grabbing at a ghost: but it is never a mutual practice of limp, relaxed bodies. And therefore, I must note that a senior student of Sunadomari wrote to me after the initial version of this article was published, agreeing with me regarding my experience of many of Sunadomari’s disciples, but stating that in his experience, Sunadomari, himself, had a quality that encompassed both the “ghostlike” and that of “fluid steel.” Consider this passage of my own on kasudori:

Use the aikido techniques that are applied to you to open and strengthen your joints. This requires that you have partners who are not out to damage you or rip through any resistance or adhesions, but slowly stretch each and every joint. Imagine your body sheathed in diaphanous membranes of connective tissue, intersecting planes of fascia and tendon. This is true, so it shouldn’t be a difficult task. Aikido techniques, properly done, should soften and yet thicken and strengthen this tissue. Your task is to make it hydrated, flexible, and resilient.[28]

Let us add one more component: nage. If uke trains in the spirit of koryu, providing the information through his or her movement to make nage stronger, then the powerful grab that I described earlier in regards to the Sagawa and Iwama dojos should not merely be a lock-down of muscle. One is not “soft,” in the usual sense; rather, one uses a kind of relaxation that allows one to be “connected,” using one’s entire body as a single integrated, flexible unit, no matter what position or posture one may be in. A skillful uke should use his/her own body to gauge if the incoming feedback of nage is on point or not — within the aiki paradigm. As they become stronger, uke can add grabbing/pushing/pulling etc. with aiki in ever- increasing increments — and of course, within the paradigm of aikido practice, these roles are soon reversed. Considering the slow process with which aiki tends to develop, such practice will take a lot of time, consideration and patience on both ends of the practice spectrum. Both uke and nage therefore, must also fight against the desire to establish that decisive, unambiguous “victory” that is inherent within conventional aikido practice.[30]

A second level of practice concerns kaeshiwaza: counters. Whenever nage is off-center, tense, using too much muscular power, uke should counter nage. Whenever uke tries to block nage’s movement, anticipating nage’s technique, nage should flow into another technique. At first, this is done through being aware when your training partner is physically off- center. As one gets more skilled, you will be aware when the person is “internally off-center:” their body may be in the right position, but they are physically not in a state of aiki.

Atemi can also be added. As I have described elsewhere, [31] proper aikido atemi should be deliverable at any point within an aikido waza. Most simplistically, a proper atemi slides along a limb, but more completely, you should be able to hit them with a connected body, so that the force is transmitted from the ground up through your frame, transmitting all your body weight most efficiently, without a wind-up or any separation from their body at all. You will have to be careful as your power increases: if you practice assiduously enough, you will be able to cause substantial damage to your training partner, even though your blow starts with you already touching them.

Were one training in this fashion, is there any reason for uke to fall? Why not? One sometimes falls because one is thrown! This will happen when a properly trained sempai is working with a junior, and here, the sky’s the limit. As the senior becomes better, he or she can handle even stronger, better-trained juniors, be they trained athletes or those becoming somewhat skilled with aiki.

In addition, one also falls when one doesn’t “have to,” because one is doing aikido! In this case, one provides ukemi, functioning at the limits of nage’s skill, challenging them at that point to the limits of one’s own balance, and then “letting go,” accepting the fall for several reasons:

1. To assist nage by templating what should happen. You use aiki at a level just enough to make nage (or uke) begin to discover it within themselves, where they can function within the template of aikido waza at a peak level.

2. To use the ukemi to train one’s own body, as Sagawa Yukiyoshi stated is requisite for learning aiki.

3. Finally, to develop that archetypal moral expression that was Ueshiba Morihei’s aikido, that moment of release into freedom from nage’s irimi into a mutual acceptance of loss and victory, this “decisive” encounter merely giving birth to the next into a return to further practice. In other words, one trains in archetypal conflict resolution AFTER one has trained in being victorious.
One final stumbling block remains, however, and this is the seemingly arbitrary nature of aikido waza: how does one avoid the pitfall of it remaining mere collusion. This question is tied to another: why, out of the total corpus of Daito-ryu waza, were so few techniques selected out for training? This cannot merely be laid at the feet of Ueshiba Kisshomaru. I don’t care what branch of aikido you observe: the Shodokan of Tomiki Kenji, Shinei Taido of Inoue Noriaki, the Yoshinkan of Shioda Gozo, the prewar aikido of Shirata Rinjiro or Iwata Ikkusai, or the present-day Aikikai of Ueshiba Moriteru, they are all doing the same techniques. To be sure, one or another faction may have retained this or that waza from Daito-ryu that was their group’s specialty, but in no case are those techniques central. Just about everyone has the same essential 12 — 20 waza. The limited nature of aikido practice goes right back to Ueshiba Morihei, who, as some may recall, limited many practices to ikkyo alone. I believe that Ueshiba selected specific techniques (and their variations) that encased the core principals that lay within a certain set of Daito-ryu techniques (Ikkajo, for example). There are two ways to regard this:

1. Daito-ryu partisans, particularly those who practice the full range of “human origami” kata, regard aikido, therefore, as a watered-down version of Daito-ryu, a few basic techniques abstracted from a magnificent and full compendium of jujutsu kata
2. Another perspective would be that Ueshiba himself was a kind of “home-brewer,” that he distilled out the essential frame within Daito-ryu techniques to cover all major configurations of two figures in (standing or kneeling) combat, which he regarded as more than sufficient to train the aiki-body as he viewed it.

If you, as an aikido practitioner, accept the latter definition, then you have more than enough techniques, which can be regarded as two-person exercises, for the development of internal strength.

Proper aikido training would entail a powerful grasp by uke (with “aiki”) within which nage expresses the appropriate technique to redirect uke’s force within himself or herself rather than merely away. In other words, “there is no such thing as tenkan . . . without irimi.”[32] Any deviation from integrity should result in uke countering nage: in other words, uke becomes nage, and the practice continues. Such a change in how aikido is done on a physical level, can result in a change on the moral level: rather than the archetypal meeting in which nage receives and subdues the errant action (the attack) of uke, there develops a more fluid exchange of roles between uke and nage. What makes this a training device rather than freestyle is that one is required to a) hew to the aikido form and the principles of internal training. In other words, aikido as a moral relativism, determined by circumstances, rather than moral absolutism, determined by role.[33]

How can one possibly practice such a method of training within an ordinary aikido dojo? Given that, as I suggest, that there are far less than 500 aikidoka seriously studying internal strength, scattered in various parts of the globe, most of your training partners will not be able to grab, move or even stand with aiki, and as I’ve said above, have no interest in doing so. Most of them never will. Even amongst those who do express some interest, most will pay no more than lip service once they are aware how much boring, repetitive practice is required before they achieve any level of skill. In the future, as in the present, there will be far more who “know about” than truly know.

Of course, one alternative is to start your own “ryu” of aikido, or at least your own dojo or training group. This will require an active link to someone with genuine skills, and who, in addition, respects and admires aikido itself. Were this possible, your problems are solved, because you will be able to engage in an unambiguous study of aiki, without resistance or interference from those who have no interest, or in particular, a teacher who has no interest. Remember, aside from the teacher having the right to establish the method of training in the dojo, he or she, with years of experience, may be able to suppress or even crush your nascent abilities in using aiki, even with no such skills themselves.

However, what if you are only able to find one or two training partner(s), and your contact with a teacher of internal strength (generally) or even aiki (specifically) is quite limited? If you wish to practice within the aikido paradigm, you will have to train at ordinary dojo, where few, if any care about what you are doing, may deny it, even when they experience such power at your hands, or may become positively offended, uttering that most powerful of curses, “That’s not aikido!” (A statement, I suggest, that is a little different from Osensei storming into the dojo and yelling, “That’s not MY aikido.”).

The truth is, were one to become well-trained in this manner, one could easily — and respectfully — enter any aikido dojo on the planet, and never even reveal — unless you chose — that you could stop the other person’s technique (as one friend teases me, “Aiki Superman, eh? Replicating Ueshiba’s Aiki-Avatar role!!”). Even so, you could train with them, without disturbing practice — unless you chose — and yet further enhance your ability at aiki, because taking good ukemi via receiving and fitting in appropriately can be a fantastic training for aiki.[34] Remember my quotation of Ueshiba Morihei from 1921: “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want.” What a marvelous practice of aiki, therefore, that I have just proposed! You will be training in ostensibly classic aikido, and your training partners will be helping you develop your aiki skills, all the while unawares.

You will be part of the community and yet beyond it. There may be something lonely about this, perhaps like an opera singer who can never sing arias outside his or her own home, because his country music loving neighbors think he sounds like a dying cat – or, on the other hand, a wonderful singer of country music in an Italian neighborhood. But this loneliness is, frankly, part of the dues you’ve got to pay if you choose to remain within the aikido community and do so tactfully as well. Until you have developed truly superlative skills in aiki, you will have nothing to brag about anyway. Why be a missionary for something you cannot manifest?

Ellis Amdur

At your own dojo, or with those one or two training partners, you will be able take your training to further and further limits, practicing, if you will, a version of pre-war/post-war aikido: the best of both worlds. It is quite possible at some future date, you will step out on your own, leaving behind an aikido that is no longer part of your world. I expect that there will then be a more extensive community, however small, waiting. But if you desire it to be an aikido community, treat all who are part of the aikido legacy, and all who chose to participate within it, with respect while you do your homework.[35]

[1] Hisa, Takuma, Originally published in Shin Budo, November, 1942, and translated/reprinted in Aikido Journal

[2] Amdur, Ellis, Dueling with Osensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage, “The Knights of the Mouldy Rope,” Edgework Books, Seattle, WA, 2000, pp., 177 – 203

[3] I did come close to meeting someone who might have had skills much like those of Ueshiba. I received an introduction to Inoue Noriaki, Ueshiba Morihei’s nephew, of whom it was said that his Shinei Taido was the closest in existence to that of Ueshiba in his younger years. The earliest films available, published by Aikido Journal, show him at the age of sixty-nine, well past his prime. Nonetheless, one can see him show a staunch manifestation of earlier aiki-budo.

I had several phone conversations trying to negotiate a visit to their dojo, accompanied by Kuroiwa Yoshio, who was familiar with several people in the organization. Inoue had taught foreign students in the 1950’s, allegedly members of the American intelligence services. Don Angier described him on a visit to America, where, during a seminar, he was challenged by someone, whom he demolished. Unfortunately, I was told that Inoue previously had a non- Japanese student in the 1960’s, who acted so offensively to the members of the dojo that they made a decision to never admit any Western students again. That was one time that I was not able to get inside the gate.

[4] Donn Draeger mischievously told me that he tried repeatedly to get Tohei Koichi to accompany him to meet Wang to “compare notes on ki.” He laughingly told me that Tohei invariably had a pressing appointment or other plans. It was something Donn could not resist bringing up every time they met.

[5] Dueling with Osensei, Ibid, p. 3

[6] Paul Anderson, once regarded as the strongest man in the world, decided at one point in his life to become a professional boxer and was almost killed in the ring by a journeyman 190-pound opponent, Atillio Tondo, of no exceptional skill.
[7] Amdur, Ellis, Amdur, Ellis, Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power, Edgework Books, Seattle, WA, 2009

[8] I should note that Peter Goldsbury, in a critical read of this article, notes that the advent of the Second World War very possibly had a lot to do with the latter. Among the factors that could have come into play could have been Ueshiba making a radical change in how he viewed teaching and his legacy; the loss of some of his most stellar students, through death, abandonment, or schism; and mental changes due to age and a level of energy that he might have wished to devote to teaching.

[9] Personal discussions with Joshua Lerner.

[10] Just so I do not leave any misunderstanding, some Aikido groups do concentrate with remarkable intent on martial rigor, and they produce people who are powerfully effective when required to defend their well-being, even their lives. The post-war Aikikai always had one or two people who were known as “enforcers,” who were designated to handle any challenges from outside martial artists. Because of particular circumstances (not that I challenged anyone) when I first joined the Aikikai, I spent my first week being “tenderized” by said individuals at the behest of Ueshiba Kisshomaru.

[11] As I once described in an essay on Aikido Journal where Minegishi Mutsuko stopped me in my tracks, comparing the results of my harsh martial arts training and attitudes and the intimidating, alienated man that resulted, from the warm protective community that had grown up around her. In those days, few people would have considered bringing me soup were they to hear I was ill.

[12] Please note that I am not specifically — or only — referring to fighting skills, although this can — and should – be a vital component of internal training in martial arts. Other benefits significant benefits include health, general physical grace until old age without the damage that intense external training methods can cause and, for some, psychological benefits as well.

[13] Interview with Jarek Szymanski, China From Inside,  “Interview withMr.  Feng Zhiqiang”

[14] Kyokuden Dojo website

[15] One of my previous xingyi teachers, Su Dong Chen, falls in this category, in my opinion. He is simply brilliant, a man who is able to keep absolutely the same physical organization when he is doing a form and when he is in a real fight. But he has had a very difficult time passing on what he knows, in part because he has never found a language that intelligibly describes what he does, and in part, because his art is such an amalgam.

[16] Aikiweb

[17] Amdur, Ellis, Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power, in particular, the chapter, “Aikido is Three Peaches,” pp. 154-178. This is particularly true if I am correct in my theory that Ueshiba regarded the larger aikido community as merely energy sources for his “rites” in unifying Heaven and Earth, and that if someone was to be more than such spiritual cannon fodder, they would, as he did, steal what they needed and rise on their own.

[18] Personal Communication, John Driscoll

[19] Harrison, E.J., The Fighting Spirit of Japan, The Overlook Press, Woodstock, New York, 1982, p. 128. Interestingly, Harrison, earlier in the same paragraph, describes inquiring of these skills to Kikuchi Koji, a sixth dan, and when he asked if Kano himself had such abilities, Kikuchi replied that “he didn’t know but that he might have.” This means one of several things: 1) he didn’t 2) he did, but he kept them close to his vest, either because that was his reserve in case someone wanted to topple him from his perch at the top of the mountain, or he genuinely thought the pursuit of such skills would interfere with the development of judo as a universal activity for the good of society. (See Stanley Pranin and Peter Goldsbury’s commentaries on Ueshiba Kisshomaru’s post-war aikido as well as descriptions of Tomiki Kenji’s distaste at any display of the abilities of aiki that he had, viewing the attempt to attain such rarified skills as interfering with the development of healthy, citizens, graduating from a college aikido club and getting on with life, rebuilding and developing a modern society.)

[20] Amdur, Ellis, Hidden in Plain Sight, ob cit, cited on pages 179-180

[21] Paul Wollos, a student of Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu states, “Good breakfalls are required, as many techniques finish with sudden drop (original idea for real situation is to prevent the opponent from taking ukemi).”

[22] “If you take a lot of rigorous ukemi—bam! bam! — and practice lots of things, you’ll eventually come to be able to do it.” “Matsuda Kenji: Pursuing the Ultimate Martial Art,” Hiden Magazine, translated by Mr. Josh Lerner. There is no doubt that there is a lot to that “lots of things,” but nonetheless, it is significant that Sagawa mentions ukemi.

[23] Personal Communication, John Driscoll

[24] When Stanley Pranin presented Saito with a copy of Ueshiba’s book, Budo, a book, published prewar, that he had never seen or even heard of, Saito said, with some emotion that this was the aikido that he worked on with Osensei. Imagine the validation he must have experienced when, after hearing years of carping that his aikido was his own individual interpretation, he found documentary evidence to the contrary in the founder’s own hand. Rather than a radical break, what Ueshiba was doing at Iwama was a continuation of the Daito-ryu and aiki-budo that he was doing in the 1930’s.

[25] Personal communication from John Driscoll

[26] I have theorized elsewhere that Ueshiba used each training center (Iwama, Shingu, Osaka, Tokyo, etc.) to research a specific aspect of his own training. It is possible that the emphasis on suburi and several dual training exercises at Iwama was part of his own research project: in this case, what could one produce if one emphasized these specific components to the exclusion of any other?

[27] I have had a number of personal communications from others who suggest that their teacher, too, falls under the “osmosis” rubric.

[28] Citation in Amdur, Ellis, Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power, ob cit p. 178

[29] Hidden in Plain Sight, page 224. I do wish to highlight this, because here we have a single sentence, a kuden, from Ueshiba Morihei that transformed his entire practice. In this light, it is interesting to note that Ueshiba, according to Kobayashi Yasuo, frowned on the Tokyo deshi practicing kokyu-nage techniques. At first glance, this appears to suggest that he thought those techniques were “false,” but Kobayashi goes on to say that Ueshiba himself did such techniques (and we can observe such techniques throughout his books and films). Kobayashi goes on to suggest that Ueshiba could really accomplish such waza, whereas the students were merely imitating the outward form. Returning to Ueshiba storming into the dojo, yelling “That’s not my aikido,” and returning as well to Iwama, with it’s repetitions of ikkyo and nikkyo and suwariwaza kokyu-ho, it is possible that what Ueshiba was frustrated about was the attempt to do “aiki” type techniques without sufficient tanren training, specifically kasudori. See Chris Li’s translations of three interviews of Kobayashi on his blog – http://www.aikidosangenkai.org/blog/

[30] Is it thus possible that the phrase, “There is no winning and losing in aikido” has an entirely different meaning than the standard, “we’ve risen above competition?” Could that, in fact, be a hint on how to practice, not in some collusive support of the accomplishment of waza, but a working together to mutually forge an “aiki body?”

[31] Amdur, Ellis, Dueling with Osensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior-Sage, Chapter 5

[32] Amdur, Ellis, Dueling with Osensei, pp., 103 -110

[33] I must note that there is another, less attractive version of the conventional uke-nage paradigm: that the teachers who hew most devoutly to this are practicing a kind of human-suburi, their uke (students) responding with no more intelligence than a bokuto. Beyond a doubt, this will develop a particular kind of skill within the teacher — and I can think of several whom become brilliant using this method. It is my opinion, however, that such a training method is far inferior to the more dynamic interchange when both individuals are simultaneously and consciously studying technique and studying aiki. Furthermore, it requires that one somehow rises to the top to have the opportunity to practice in such a manner, and perhaps, more important, it requires a fundamental disconnect from the humanity of one’s training partners.

[34] To give an example of this, one of my friends, an aikido instructor, has an occasional visitor to his aikido dojo, a member of the Takumakai, currently residing in the United States. This man quietly practices with anyone in the dojo, and in open seminars, again, trains with anyone, even rank beginners, and accepts their 5th kyu instruction on proper aikido with equanimity. My friend is the only one who knows his rank and his abilities, and when he has asked him why he accepts low-level practice, much less instruction from anyone, his reply is that he is able to practice what he needs to with anyone.

[35] This essay had a number of critical readers. As usual, I do not cite them unless I am directly quoting them, with their permission, as I do not want anyone to demand that they answer for my opinions. I must note that one critical reader was rather dissatisfied with the piece because I did not go into detail about the specific criteria for effective internal training. That was not my purpose. It is, rather, to help sketch out a training paradigm within aikido in which one doesn’t have to leave the art, as it exists, while undertaking training in aiki. Furthermore, as a beginner in such training, why listen to me on “how-to” when there are a number of experts teaching in both dojos and seminars who can explain these skills from positions of authority. Aside from both training groups and workshops, I recommend Mike Sigman’s essays on his blog  and Zhang Yun’s articles as providing clear descriptions of the introductory levels of such training.

Ellis Amdur is a licensed instructor (shihan) in two koryu: Araki-ryu Torite Kogusoku and Toda-ha Buko- ryu Naginatajutsu. His martial arts career is approximately forty years — in addition to koryu, he has trained in a number of other combative arts, including muay thai, judo, xingyi and aikido.

A recognized expert in classical and modern Japanese martial traditions, he has authored three books and one instructional DVD on this subject. The most recent is his just released Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power.
Information regarding his publications on martial arts, as well as other books on crisis intervention can be accessed at his website, Edgework

Among his most recent projects is a column entitled “It Had to Be Felt,” published on Aikiweb. Now totaling 33 essays in all, Amdur, as well as other writers, publish first-hand accounts on what it is like to take ukemi from various well-known and other should-be-better-known aikido instructors. Ukemi encompasses both the act of receiving a technique as well as receiving tuition. Unlike the typical on-line forum, which is open to anyone to express whatever opinion they choose, only those who have also taken ukemi from that teacher may post in response. Furthermore, they may not reply in any direct sense to another essayist. Rather, they simply post their own experience and trust the reader to take in each account as a multi-faceted view of that remarkable man or woman.

Contact Ellis Amdur

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