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]

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