“A Consideration of Aikido Practice within the Context of Internal Training,” by Ellis Amdur

“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.”

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 Training

Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

As I have written elsewhere,1 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. However, although I encountered some superlative martial artists, both in America and among the aikido shihan in Japan, none whom I personally met displayed the kind of power, referred to in Japanese by such terms as nairiki or aiki, and in English as “internal strength,” that was attributed to Ueshiba. Although many of these shihan were far more highly skilled 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, the four basic principles seemed, at the time, to merely be ways to relax the body to allow the flow of “ki” which, in every discussion I heard, was a kind of etheric “substance,” like some sort of electricity 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. 2

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 Shujin. 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).3 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.”

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