The Origin and Purpose of Solo practice in Aikido

In my previous article, I discussed the fact that we, as aikidoka, we spend most of our time practicing with a partner within a codified framework called katageiko.[1] One could therefore tempted to think that progression in aikido is dependent on the presence of a partner to train with. However, a lot of the progression in other disciplines such as Chinese arts or even some modern budo like karate seem to take advantage of a large proportion of solo training. One can therefore start to wonder what is the part of the collective versus the individual in our practice of aikido, and most importantly, whether it would be desirable to further develop a solo practice. The pertinence of this question first needs to be assessed by investigating whether aikido historically contains elements of individual practice. Should such elements be found, the nature of the skills that they aim to develop need to be define, and finally, whether this is the best way to acquire these qualities that we lack needs to be assessed, especially relative to more usual paired katageiko. To help me add substance to this article, Ellis Amdur,[2] famous author and Shihan in two koryu, Toda-ha Buko-ryu and Araki-ryu, was kind enough allow me to include elements from some of our private conversations about budo. For clarity, his words will always be explicitly presented to differentiate them from my own interpretations.

Is there an explicit solo curriculum in aikido?

There is little debate about the fact that Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, had a pretty regular solo training routine. What we want to investigate throughout this section though, is whether he developed and codified a solo training system that to be explicitly used in the art that he created, i.e. a curriculum of some sort. To this end, we will start by identifying the discrete elements of individual practice that we know of, and then try to assess whether they contribute to a coherent ensemble.

Suburi (素振り, lit: naked or unadorned swing)

When referring to the solo training in aikido, the image that often comes to mind is the practice of suburi. Saito Morihiro, who considered the practice of weapons as totally integral to that of aikido, essentially based most of his solo training upon the practice of suburi.[3] However, apart from the fact that there is some debate over whether weapons practice (and what particular style) is necessary to the practice of aikido or not, one may wonder whether what looks to the untrained eye as a back and forth swing of a stick, be it performed several hours per day, really deserves to be called a "solo practice curriculum" per se.

According to Ellis Amdur, most people have a crude vision of suburi, and by extension of iai. He argues that many think that it can be summarized as: "This is how you cut, do that 100 times, and you will become better, because your cut will be good and your endurance better".[4] Amdur told me that most koryu, from their inception, contained some forms of iai, and that those were mostly used as a training methodology for safe handling of weapons. Amdure even likened them to the safety rules that one learns on a shooting range. Of course, many people also know that iai gives one the practical advantage of being able to draw one's weapon at any time in order to defend one's life.[4]

However, still according to Amdur, there is a whole section of iai which has no connection with the reasons mentioned above, and which is more closely related to internal training. According to him, the main purpose of this training is to erase the interfering actions that usually hinder the descent of the weapon.[4] He observes that people often develop power through force, but that it tends to result in a slowing down of the blade below its terminal velocity [speed reached by an object when it is in free fall]. He therefore sees the purpose of suburi training as to develop the body so as to let the weapon fall by gravity, while adding a force vector to accelerate its movement.[4] This force vector is created through using muscles and sinew only in ways that are "in line" with the movement one is attempting (imagine a train gliding on a track when a second train slams into it from behind).

With these considerations in mind, the question is obviously to know, in addition suburi practice, where to find this internal force training in aikido.

The aikitaiso (‎合気体操, gymnastics of aiki)

Once one puts suburi aside, one can be hard-pressed to find examples of solo exercises commonly practiced by most aikidoka, even if one goes back as far as the teaching of O Sensei. By solo training, are we really talking about aikitaiso (ikkyo undo, ame no torifune undo, furitama, etc.),  those movements performed at the beginning of some aikido classes and that look wlike the kinds of gymnastic that seniors and office workers do in Japan every morning?

Tohei Koichi performing aikitaiso

In reality, far more than a warm-up or a simple gymnastic, the purpose of aikitaiso is precisely to develop tacitly the internal aspects of aikido. Ikkyo undo, for example, is not only important in its ascendant phase, but also, and perhaps essentially, in its downswing, because it allows one to apply a powerful impact on the body of uke. Ame no torifune can also be explained in the same way. Olivier Gaurin pointed out to me that the extension of the hands forward is the fundamental phase of the triangle atemi (atemi on atemi), which it is found in many entries of Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu techniques on tsuki.[5] On my part, I think that we should not neglect the return movement either, because more than a simple repositioning, it is what generates the most power if practiced correctly. Just as suburi, the force is generated through the loosening of the shoulders. We will discuss later the conditions required for this loosening to occur.

Where are the tacit elements of solo practice on aikido?

A solo practice from a moral point of view

For me, martial practice, let alone that of aikido, is fundamentally solitary, because even though it is mostly practiced in pairs, uke is merely a tool that allows us to increase our own understanding. There is no common goal, even though the relationship parameters are obviously integral to the practice.[1]

I would say that in its most noble form, the martial art is ideally solitary since subsidiary elements such as the appeal of glorification through competitive victory, the self-gratification of moving up ranks, and the fear of others that may initially have motivated us to learn a fighting system, should have disappeared at that stage. At this level of understanding, training should be done for its own sake, it should benefit mainly oneself, and external considerations should diminish. Moreover, the higher the level of mastery, the less there are people who have the ability to appreciate it, and therefore, one might find oneself rather lonely when one reaches the mountain's top.

But even at the bottom of this mountain, which is position that is much more familiar to me, one is also fundamentally alone when facing the huge body of knowledge that has to be acquired and digested. Whether one does acquire that knowledge or not depends on, and only benefits oneself. On the other hand, when one sees people bragging about high ranks and so-called privileged periods of study under one or several masters, one sometimes realizes that beyond the gleaming track records that they exhibit (nth dan, shihan, menkyo, etc.), they have not obtained much more substantial than these titles. I discussed it in my last article on katageiko,[1] the titles are often ways for teachers to ensure patronage and are often deliberately removed from the truly profound teaching. I have personally witnessed a practitioner being promoted as representative for France of a dojo after only one weekend spent with a master and no previous experience in the art. As I feared, the practitioner did not even wait to be back in France to start bragging about it to anyone he met and even correct people on the mat. Ellis Amdur confirmed to me that even during the Edo period, teachers tended to inflate the number diplomas (mokuroku, etc.) and create needless technical complexity in order to create a demand that would never be satisfied. Commercialism is not a modern phenomenon. Amdur added that in this context, even in schools where solo training elements existed, few people were either taught or practiced them in sufficient depth. The reason is that people did not need such skills to be instrumental in their advance through the hierarchy, which was the primary reason why most people practiced in those days.[4]

If we consider not only the purely technical elements, but also these contextual and moral principles, the term solo practice then takes all its meaning and interest.

Solo practice through mitori geiko (見取り稽古, practice via observation)

In Japan, mitori geiko consists in gathering information through observation. When I arrived at the Hombu Dojo, I was surprised to see how many practitioners came to observe classes without practicing. Most of the times, these people could not practice dur to injury, but rather than staying at home, they attended one or two lessons each day as spectators. Personally, I initially had a tendency to skip classes when my body did not allow me to train, until I started to think about the Japanese learning system, and then I changed my approach.

For the past 4 years, I have been going to the same small neighborhood barber in Shibuya. The team consists of three people and an apprentice. During those four years, I have never seen him get anywhere near a pair of scissors. He does shampoos and massages, but spends the rest of the time behind the armchairs watching the three others work. He does mitori geiko. When my neighborhood sushi took his first employee, the young guy did not touch a knife for years, he watched the master prepare sushi and talk to customers ; still mitori geiko.

Now, even when I am hurt, I go to the dojo, because I want to watch my sensei, my sempai, and also my kohai, in order to develop and inform my own practice. I think it touches on one of the most important aspects of learning: observation. I wrote in my article about practice at the the Hombu Dojo that one can only really learn from a teacher if one regularly takes ukemi for him.[6] The other side is that it is also essential to do not do anything physically, but to just watch the teacher. Without both sides of this coin, one can only hope to achieve a partial understanding.

When we are sitting and the teacher demonstrates, our brain does a colossal work of observation; an empathetic interpretation by the mirror neurons of what is being demonstrated makes us mentally see ourselves perform the movement. Ellis Amdur told me that Nitta Sensei, his Toda-ha Buko-ryu teacher, had never had the opportunity to practice the uketachi [受太刀, litt. the blade that receives ; the uke during weapons training, a role generally held ​​by the senior practitioner in koryu] side of her school's kata and when her own sensei, Kobayashi Seiko died, she had to succeed her and take her place as uketachi, with as only training the fact of having experienced the movements of her master when she took ukemi for her. According to Ellis, the uketachi technique of Nitta Sensei was absolutely remarkable, despite the fact that it was only the fruit of the action of her mirror neurons during mitori geiko in addition to the experience of her own body reacting to her teacher during her own practice as tori.[4]

When one is injured and cannot take part in the physical practice, this mental process of mirroring is enhanced because the body is stationary. Research by scientists such as Ramachandran V. S. showed for example that amputees tended to be more susceptible to mirroring.

Ramachandran on the Mirror Neuron Effect

It is therefore crucial to know how to get into the conditions of mitori geiko, particularly since it is a form of learning that takes place at every moment when we are in the presence of our teacher[4] whether one is on the mat, or on the edge, and the components of which are solitary learning and absence of explicit feedback.

Is there a codified solo practice in the origins of aikido?

We have seen that elements of solitary practice are present in the practice of aikido, but that they are far from being systematized and are often misunderstood. So where do we go from here? As always, when a mystery presents itself to me in aikido, I turn to its ancestor, Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, to try to find historically accurate answers. My own master, Chiba Tsugutaka Sensei, when he tells me about his daily learning at the Daitokan under the guidance of Takeda Tokimune[8] or at the Kansai Aikido Club with Takuma Hisa,[9] makes little reference to solo practice. According to him, most of his time was spent on the tatami with his teachers or his classmates, engaged in collective practice within the framework of katageiko.[1] The only mention he makes of solo practice involves suburi and a few finger strengthening exercises. If we look further back in Daito-ryu, Sagawa Yukiyoshi explains that one of the only solo exercises he saw Takeda Sokaku who was also the teacher of Ueshiba Morihei) do involved striking with his bokuto on a bundle of wood sticks hanging from the ceiling by a rope, and exercises aimed at developing his wrists and grip strength.[10] Sagawa in fact developed his own set of solo exercise to make up for what he regarded as a lack. Interestingly, Akuzawa Minoru, who is regarded as one of the world's most remarkable experts on internal training, told me that he did study briefly Sagawa's Daito-ryu line, with a focus on body conditioning rather than technique. 

So even the lights of Daito-ryu does not help us see much further into what O Sensei might have done. Ellis Amdur told me that even in koryu, it was quite rare to find solo practice these days, even though it is hard to know what has been abandoned or lost.[4] Yet, Amdur explains that at least one faction of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu had solo breathing exercises and that other koryu also claim to have solo practice in their systems. Also according to Amdur, aikidoka such as Kobayashi Hirokazu and Abe Seiseki may have learned exercises to strengthen internal force directly from Ueshiba Morihei. For Abe, the practice resided in the misogi no gyo, exercises of Chinese origin that were incorporated into Shinto (the same ame no torifune undo and furitama that we mentioned earlier). Amdur argues that the most probable hypothesis is that the elements of internal practice were passed on from teacher to student, but without explicit instruction and without any systemic practice. In fact, many breathing methods were naturally acquired through one's association with Shinto and Buddhist rites associated with specific ryu. For example, when chanting, one is modulating one's breathing for hours, and it is bound to have an effect. This work is natural in this context so there is no need to create a specific curriculum for it. To illustrate a little more, it is for the same reason that there are no hip throws in jujutsu, because everyone already knew them via the widespread practice of sumo. Jujutsu therefore focused on weapons, joint manipulations, etc.[4]

We see that even going back in time, our initial question remains largely unanswered. Amdur notes that although many ancient ryu may have had solo exercises, few still practice them or even know they existed.[4] The problem is that under these teaching circumstances, things can deteriorate progressively. The inverse problem though, is that according to him, when one learns intellectually, explicitly, it is done using the wrong part of the brain. Repetition through the kata seeks to develop instant reaction, instinct, and it is very difficult to achieve that if one learns intellectually.[4]

It is obvious however that some great teachers have independently developed more explicit individual exercises such as tanren (鍛錬, strengthening techniques), one of whom was Sagawa Yukiyoshi,[11] whom I mentioned above. Kuroda Tetsuzan has developed his own set of solo exercises and he told Amdur that the reason was that none of his students was willing to dedicate the amount of time or talent required to practice kata in the way that it was practiced before, where they would have naturally acquired the skills that his solo exercises foster.[4] Incidentally, Amdur said that people sometimes tend to practice several arts when they do not have the discipline to deeply practice their main art and I think it is quite true in aikido too. Either due to a lack of guidance or boredom, it is indeed easier to deplore the shortcomings in aikido and turn elsewhere to find easy answers, rather than to really get to the bottom of such less rewarding things as daily hours of solo training. At the same time, even though some aikido teachers have derived methods from other budo or Chinese arts, nothing allows us to say that either in the Daito-ryu, or in aikido, a solo practice was ever explicitly present in the official curriculum or history of either of these arts.

What mechanisms does solo practice put it into action, and why bother?

I have often wondered why modern budo seem to incorporate a lot more solo exercises than koryu, and Amdur told me that it was because their goal was probably different. He explained that although many solo judo kata developed by Kano Jigoro come from Tenshin shinyo-ryu, which, through Yoshin-ryu, has distant connections with the Chinese arts, it is clear when one reads his writings that their purpose was to convey very different concepts.[4] Indeed, the adoption of solo practice in modern budo is largely due to the influence of Western learning methods. Modern budo introduced mass training and it is more convenient to manage a large number of practitioners in a small space when all of these people practice solo kata or inline suburi. For example, starting in the Meiji period, the practice of naginata within the education system was no longer aimed at fighting, but to develop seishin tanren, that is to say, the ability to withstand effort and to build his body and mind in a specific way.[4]

Modern naginata suburi

In one of his articles, Amdur discusses the subject of solo practice, focusing on the influence of kata on the neurological organization.[12] One of his main arguments is that solo kata practice is by definition not a solitary rehearsal of real situations, but in fact, a purposeful learning of forms that are disconnected from reality in order to solicit the brain in a different way than other more concrete exercises, and therefore develop different patterns of responses. Let's see what this is all about.

Climbing stairs backwards

It is not uncommon in Japan to see people walking or climbing stairs backwards. There is even a saying that goes "100 steps backwards are equivalent to 1000 steps forward". Having seen some practitioners, particularly elders, adopt this mode of locomotion at the Hombu Dojo, I of course asked them if it was part of their training, and I was often given an answer not unlike what Ellis proposed: it was to develop mechanisms and brain areas that were not normally solicited (in fact, I would say, solicited differently) during conventional locomotion. As a biologist, I immediately looked into the medical literature (and sometimes, due to lack of better sources, into pseudo-medical publications...) to see if there existed some data backing up these assertions.

Although some research has been done on the subject of backwards walking, it mainly investigated the rehabilitation of elderly patients, and benefits seemed more likely to be physical, through the lessening of certain loads on the joints, than neurological.[13][14][15][16] One study, however, discussed the fact that the balance of the whole body is mainly controlled by the knee and ankle joints in the forward downward movement, and by the hip joint in the backward descent,[17] suggesting the use of a different chain of neuronal controls.

Solo work of kata to develop counter-intuitive reflexes

A recent study in children with autism reported that the study of kata significantly reduced the occurrence of stereotypies (one of the hallmarks of autism is the stereotyped behavior of the patient) in the group performed the kata compared to the control group.[18] The remaining question is whether this improvement is due to the repetition of specific actions, or to the nature of the kata studied, particularly its counter-intuitive elements. It would be interesting to repeat this study using a wider spectrum of kata including those containing forms of common movements, compared to those which contain more unusual techniques, in order to investigate whether it is these specific techniques themselves, as Amdur suggests, that have a specific effect in this type of behavior. Relatively little research that has been conducted in the field of martial arts,[19] but a Chinese study suggests that the regular practice of nei yang gong (traditional mind-body exercise) causes an improvement in the frequency and nature of autistic symptoms and improves mood and behavior control, most likely via an increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain region involved in mediating self-control).[20] These results seem to be confirmed by another study on yoga and dance,[21] but it is not clear whether the martial art itself is a better factor of progress over another non-martial activity. However, the authors of the Chinese study suggest that the effectiveness of traditional martial arts may be related to their concurrent emphasis on physical training, self-control, discipline, and character development (e.g., respect, responsibility and perseverance through a deferral of gratification).[20] MRI studies have shown that tai chi chuan practitioners had a significantly thicker cortex in several areas of the brain compared to non-practitioners.[22] In addition, the study suggests an association between cortical thickness in the medial occipito-temporal sulcus and the left lingual sulcus, and the intensity of the practice.[22] Another study also reports enlargement of gray matter volume in judoka in areas of the central nervous system in relation to motor skill learning.[23] The author states that the learning of complex motor tasks could cause these differences in gray matter volume but unfortunately, the control group consisting of non-sporting subjects, it is in my opinion impossible to conclude that it is the complexity of the movements of judo itself that is particularly responsible for this expansion rather than the presence / absence of exercise,[23] especially if we place this study in the context of the results of another study that shows that regular exercise induces an enlargement of the volume of gray matter in the motor / dorsal premotor area.[24] In addition, the same study suggests that out of two groups of athletes, one composed of martial arts practitioners, and the other of runners, it is the latter group that presented the most significant improvement in temporal lobe, despite the seemingly reduced variety of movements and techniques involved in the running compared to martial arts.

While it seems at best diffuse and non-exclusive, there seems to be a link between kata and some degree of neurological rearrangement. But what about what Amdur describes as the influence of a conscious and constant repetition of the same movement on one's instinctive response during an improvised and random opposition (e.g. sparring)?[12] In other words, does kata make one better by changing one's instinctive behavior, and if so, is it desirable for us aikidoka to repeat techniques and forms on our own?

Practicing scales to relax

A parallel that I find interesting to help answering this question is music. A professional musician spends a lot of his time practicing alone. Not only does the study of such things as scales and their articulations between each other is a subject that can occupy a lifetime, it also provides the musician with an essential vocabulary that they need to express themselves.

There is within these solo exercises another secret that we, as martial artists, seem to have trouble finding. A muscle can exert only one action: pull. Therefore, any back and forth movement needs to use at least two antagonistic muscles (that is to say, muscles that pull in opposite directions). The key to mastery lies just as much in contraction of the muscle that is useful for movement as in the relaxation of the antagonistic muscle. If one does not operate such a release, one experiences symptoms such as cramps or loss of accuracy and speed. Practice also helps musician to develop instinctive fingering which alleviate the need to think one note at the time, hence increasing speed by relegating the performance to another part of the brain. Just like a fighter can react to a surprise aggression, this formulation also allows musicians to fall back on their feet when a beat was missed or a change of tonality made, all of this, almost unconsciously.

The question is therefore: why do musicians seem to understand this while martial artists seem to be beating around the bush without success? When I asked Ellis Amdur, he replied that it was a likely matter of feedback. A musician knows immediately when he is too tensed because he loses speed, suffers cramps, and the music does not sound good. He does not need a partner to make him feel these signs of tension. In contrast, a budoka will have more difficulty perceiving these signs, especially since strength and athleticism can often cover these up for a long time while getting the practitioner relatively far. He notes, however, that those martial arts that practice solo training have "feedback" practices such as t'ai chi "push hand" or the "pushing stability tests" that we sometimes see Ueshiba doing in films with his students. Two person kata training could be a much more advanced form of such training, but only if practiced properly with this in mind.[4]

Relaxing the antagonists, keystone of an effective movement

I think that this is where we find the essence of what is wrong with us aikidoka. Tohei Koichi claimed to have learned only one thing from Morihei Ueshiba: relaxation. According to Amdur, everyone has heard this, but few have really understood what he really meant.[4]

I began studying aikido because I saw that Ueshiba Sensei had truly mastered the art of relaxing. It was because he was relaxed, in fact, that he could generate so much power. I became his student with the intention of learning that from him. To be honest, I never really listened to most of the other things he said.Tohei Koichi - Interview with Koichi Tohei Part 1 - Aikido Journal #107 (1995)

The Japanese often use as a mental image to "let the ki flow", but I feel that this often leads to misunderstandings when it is placed in parallel with the injunction to relax. We thus often find, especially on grabs, tori with flabby hand positions, which results almost systematically in a "leakage" of force (in the physical sense, that is to say that it induces a change of speed vector), most often at the level of the elbow or the wrist. The relaxation of aikido or Daito-ryu is actually neither a general state of limbs relaxation, nor a joint flexibility [that which increases amplitude], but rather a state of neutrality without parasite or involuntary tension, except in precisely located places where the force is consciously applied. The master of Daito-ryu, Mori Hakaru illustrates this point when he says:

In order to execute the technique precisely some amount of muscular tension and strength is necessary.Mori Hakaru - Takumakai Newsletter #82[26]

In other words, instead of having flabby hands for the sake of a pseudo relaxation, it is necessary that the position of the hands and fingers, often in extension and firm, be consistent with the type and direction or movement performed. In the early levels of Daito-ryu practice, the direction is shown by the thumb, the index, or the small finger, which allows as much to illustrate the right direction as to ensure that the transfer of power takes place in a continuous line without dispersion due to misplaced articulation. It should be noted that although the tegatana (手 刀, lit. hand sword) is an example of this, one should not think that this position is applicable to all aikido movements, as some require significantly different positions depending on the technique and angles approached. A lot of work is done in Daito-ryu at this level[27] very much like that of a musician who works on the positions of the fingers on his instrument, and even if such work is rare in aikido, one should not fall under the illusion of "everything tegatana" because the result could be as disappointing as in the case of "flabby hands". Most individual exercises in Daito-ryu to which I have been exposed have this as a base principle, they are tanren that aim to develop the dexterity and the ability to cause precisely localized tensions and relaxations. Interestingly, when I started practicing these exercises, I felt the same sort of cramps that I had felt when I was learning to play an instrument many years ago.

I think that some have misunderstood the concept of relaxation to such an extent that they think we should practice aikido with a very loose (disconnected) body and flabby wrists. I see some experts exaggerate to the extreme this type of relaxation, but it is obvious that this kind of demonstration is only possible thanks to the cooperation of uke. Less accommodating uke are in fact generally sent back to sit down by these teachers. We can obviously justify developing the "relational" aspect of aikido, why not, but I do not think that O Sensei would was doing that sort of things. Furthermore, why spending time developing this sloppy relaxation if it is requires the cooperation of uke to function? No, for me, the relaxation such as that described by Takeda, Ueshiba, and Tohei, is something entirely different.

Regarding Tohei, some judge his demonstrations of the type "unbendable arm" as nothing more than tricks or circus attractions. Even though I do not think that practicing these exercises ad nauseam is absolutely necessary to understand the core principle (no more than doing thousands of suburi), I think that they were pertinent as a basis of his system for the reasons described above. The problem is that everything has been associated with unclear terminology, and therefore the message was often misunderstood. Just like suburi, these exercises have become their own justification and the actual purpose was somewhat lost. I have among my students people who have learned this type of exercise, but who have not been able to apply it.

Koichi Tohei

Tohei Koichi demonstrating the "unbendable arm"

Although some of my students are Japanese, the metaphor of letting the ki flow has never been enough to make them understand the relatively simple goal the exercise. Yet when presented with the basics of anatomy via a simplistic explanation of antagonistic movements of the biceps and triceps, they tend to get it. Before that, despite (or because of) their efforts, their biceps always had a counter-productive action to what they were trying to do because despite them trying to stiffen their entire arms, their biceps exercised exactly the reverse action compared to what should have been done, hence helping to make their arms easily bendable. Once attention is paid on the release of the biceps as much as on the contraction of the triceps (via the verbal injunction to "extend" the arm rather than the "contract" or to "resist" the push) they realize that they can sustain far superior loads. Of course, the arm is an extremely simplistic example of our anatomy and localized relaxation, attempted in the context of the overall body is an extremely difficult matter hindered by parasites gestures, but it illustrates what true relaxation is, one that solicits the necessary muscles and leaves the antagonists to rest. Contrary to a popular assumption, one should make use of one's muscles in aikido, the problem is to use the right ones. According to Amdur, the same goes for the suburi; if one knows what to develop, only a few dozen suburi should be necessary to get it and beyond that, the benefits, according shift towards bodybuilding. To be a bit more precise, some aikido schools have developed extensive ranges of weapons exercises, mostly based on movements from one or several koryu bujutsu, but it was done most in the aim of providing a way to decompose, perform, and perfect discrete parts of a empty-handed technique (for example, an entry for iriminage or a cut for shihonage etc.)

Example of an elaborate weapons system developed in aikido to perfect empty-handed practice

These are perfectly valid pedagogic tools but considering the historical focus of the present article, they must be regarded as recent inventions. Also, while these are perfectly justified within one or several aikido currents, if one asks practitioners of the original koryu what they think about these forms, they often regard them as bastardized versions of their own work (there are countless pages of discussions on the web with koryu practitioners criticizing weapons forms in aikido).[31] There is therefore a need, in my opinion, to keep things simple and historically accurate, and adding complexity to techniques that were cherry-picked and somewhat modified from other highly complex koryu is not the way I personally want to proceed. With this in mind, Ellis Amdur recently showed me an interesting exercise where he raises his hands before him and drops them to his thighs by gravity, just adding a relaxed power to the movement without stiffening. According to him, if done well, five or six repetitions of this exercise should lead to bruises on the thighs, which should be sufficient to understand this concept of loosening as a source of power.[4]

Developing the aiki body

There is a famous quote, supposeduly by O Sensei which goes:

Atemi accounts for 99% of aikidoO Sensei quoted by Saito Morihiro - Traditional Aikido Volume 5 p.38

Accoridng to Amdur, understanding it in a way that "Aikido is 99% of strikes" is mistaken, because if one develops what he calls the "aiki body", one should be able to develop power, perform transfers of forces, and even apply percussions using any body part, and in any position.[4] Philippe Gouttard recently explained to me that since etymologically, atemi is the union of two words: ateru (当たる, touch / reach / hit) and mi (身, body), one should consider that one is executing an atemi every time one touches a partner.[28] We thus find the idea that the essential part of the technique is considered an atemi. For Amdur, the ultimate goal of solo practice is to develop this aiki body. According to him, the exercise is solitary by nature, because, as Kuroda Sensei said, no one would be willing to spend the required amount time to help us develop this.[4]

Ellis Amdur developing on his approach to Taikyoku Aikido


While I would not dare to say that I have answers, I hope, through this article, to propose some leads on the objectives and approaches of solo practice beyond modern considerations. The subject has recently provoked much discussion, especially since the publication of books such as Transparent Power by Sagawa Yukiyoshi or Hidden in Plan Sight[30] by Ellis Amdur, or through the work of people like Tohei Koichi (student of O Sensei, Akuzawa Minoru (student of the Sagawa dojo) or Dan Harden (who learnt Daito-ryu from Kodokai teachers). I would like to conclude this article with a quote from Peter Golsdbury:

I have asked Doshu and other Hombu teachers whether Morihei Ueshiba did internal power training and the answer was yes, but with the rider that he never taught it: he left this type of training to students who perceived it and wanted to do it. The corollary was (is) that this type of training should be a complement to one's "kihon" training, but not a substitute for it. [31]

Peter Goldsbury, International Aikido Federation Chairman

The fact that people seek to develop these qualities is a good thing, but we should not forget that historically, the awareness of this need came after mastering the basics. Today, I am afraid that all it requires is to know how to click on a mouse to register for a workshop to develop internal strength given by teachers from diverse backgrounds. I think that we should not get ahead of ourselves and that this work should not be considered until the moment when we have a very strong background in aikido basics and when the physical qualities can no longer hide the lack of technique. From a personal perspective, I plan, like many others, to continue to seeking these principles, but I definitely want to keep looking for these within the arts of aiki that were passed on to us by Ueshiba and Takeda. Be it systematically or not, these principles have been indeed been passed on and are still to be found in aikido, and you just have to spend enough time, and find someone to show you the right direction.


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Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He also holds a 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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