Understanding Aikido

Olivier Gaurin is a scholar of Aikido, author of several books on Aikido as well as fictions set in medieval Japan and historical accounts. Concerned about a drift of our art towards the sport, he reminds us about the cultural aspects that are an intrinsic part of Aikido. Having lived in Japan for over 20 years, he has immersed himself into the ancestral culture of his country of adoption and shares his thoughts on how 21st century Aikidoka should apprehend their practice.

* The artificial separation of the verb to survive, "survivre" in French into its two Latin roots sur- (above, over, more than, excessive) and vivere (to live) here is in fact used to illustrate the association of two notions;
  • to survive as it is understood literally in English: to keep living after a danger, an event etc.
  • to live beyond/above which indicates a superior way of living
This shift from after to above is derived from a very important notion in Aiki called hirogeru (広げる literally: to dilate, to spread, to extend, to enlarge...) which consist in enhancing and spreading one's abilities through life, beyond adversity thanks to diligent practice.
In every instant of our life, we have to face a double dilemma extremely difficult to resolve: "How to sur-vive*and why?". To say this in 2008 might sound incongruous in our situation of state providence, over protection and advanced technologies (at least in industrialized countries, provided that you belong to the better off classes i.e.: you are not a homeless or an outcast from our society of over consumption and permanent waste). Despite progress, nothing changed regarding that particular anxiety since prehistory apart from the discharges, the supports and the social interactions as well as (perhaps) the relatively recent self-consciousness about our state of distress. It is in this framework that the concept of Aiki 合 (ai, joining) 氣 (ki, energy) emerged in the first part of the last century. In fact, more than an emergence, what we are dealing with here is the rather more ancient version of the Japanese notion of Aiki which got rehabilitated, re-framed and re-adapted (with various degrees of success). This idea consists in experimenting and trying to understand the dynamics of exchanges (physicals and others) in order to transform them into a dynamic of directed flow. Of course, this means that the concept is not unique to the Aiki which was codified very recently into Aikido. The notion of Aiki can actually be found in many other ancient Japanese arts, it is even one of the founding components of the Japanese culture in the broad sense. For example, the social interactions in Japan are indeed placed under this Aiki imperative even though the word itself is never pronounced.
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Olivier Gaurin and Noro Masamichi Sensei

It is crucial to understand where modern Aikido comes from in order to grasp how much this art is in fact, only one very tiny side of an entire section of civilization and culture. Here, the culture of the martial confrontation is obviously implied but not only, because it also touches culture at a more basic level of either human interactions (universality) or the historical relationships of Man "Japan" with its own world. Please note that I refer here to "today's Aikido". The founder of Aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, was not the creator of this word of Aiki-Do and neither was he the inventor of "today's Aikido" (which is mostly deprived of Aiki). Some people, whom I cannot blame completely for thinking that, talk about "modern Aikido". It is a nice thought but of course, to use this terminology implies the possession of the knowledge of what exactly, "original Aikido" was. The truth is that its technical repertoire was nothing more than a very limited part of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu adorned with culture. This cultural framework consisted in principles of Shinto, the animist, Japanese born religion transmitted amongst others by the Omoto-kyo sect with the addition of several other factors of thought and action carried by a mix of Japanese martial cultures (in fact, this was some kind of organized jumble which, as whole, meant to make sense).

Now, as I am saying these words, those in France or in the rest of the world (except Japan) who know a few Daito-ryu techniques at a high level of mastery (not the first level: Jutsu but the advanced level: Aiki) generally raise their hand... or do they? It is precisely because of this lack of raised hands that Ueshiba Morihei became mythical. From some of what we can read about him these days, he really became nothing short of a mythological character. Why is that so? Well, it is simply because the roots of his Aikido have been voluntarily cut off by his own son Ueshiba Kisshomaru amongst others in a quite logical and pragmatic effort of vulgarization (to be read here as "in an indexed and therefore reassuring manner but lacking of its personified secrets").

The founder of Aikido was the personified link between different concepts:

  • the Aiki from the Bu-jutsu, the "warrior Aiki" aiming at defeating
  • the more modern (after the second world war) "pacifist Aiki" aimed at sur-viving, i.e. to live something different from the defeating or being defeated dichotomy
  • the "fitness oriented Aiki" that we know today as Aikido (the "sport Aikido" regulated by the Sports Ministry that ends up repeating the structural schemes of its tutor organization!)
Olivier Gaurin et Masuda Sensei

Olivier Gaurin and Masuda Seijuro Sensei

Who talks about Ki these days, let alone of the Aiki notion of Aikido? What about the "Aiki meaning" of the techniques? And what became of their natural implications in terms of technique and physiology? Almost nobody mentions it. It is hardly surprising since almost nobody knows what it means outside of a stereotyped discourse delivered de factoalong with the Aikido tuitions in any "serious" dojo, almost like the fake leather suitcase that is provided to the newly hired sales rep.

But one might wonder, "what about the form?" Well, it is often even worse as we try to reinvent techniques that no longer work very well since we forgot their origin and their meaning (the work on Morote-dori is striking example). Aikido has eventually become a sport where the strong ones, the self satisfied and the powerful gather against the weak while the original Aiki was precisely the art of making an Aiki feasible for anybody in front of a problematic of placement, prevention and preservation of self integrity.

This, to me is a total revision of History and reversing of values to say the least! Of course, we give ourselves good reasons and we make fancy and elaborate discourses to justify what we do. All this gives techniques the appearance of a demonstrative virulence precisely where the ancient ways to perform worked far better without necessarily being as spectacular. Besides pertinence and efficacy, economy of motion leads to physiologic concordance and therefore, preservation while you just have to look around to get alarmed by the outcomes of modern techniques: the acute and chronic pains suffered by nowadays Aikidoka.

But what do the texts and the Sensei that attempt to bring back a bit of order show? Just new techniques? New « ways »? Or even new « tricks » ? Of course they do not. They just show, with the help of powerful symbols and interpretations (that are sometimes correct, sometimes fragmented but also sometimes awkward or just false) a certain research aimed at the understanding of Aikido and its depth. They allow an enlargement of the possible visions of what is Aikido and sometimes allow themselves to say absolute marvels. It is rare but it exists. A good example is Henry Kono Sensei's article Yin and Yang in motion written by Henry Kono published on this website.

Olivier Gaurin and Sasaki Sensei

Olivier Gaurin and Sasaki Masando Sensei

It is tempting to think that we can learn without text books, that is to say, without the help of writing, without a History in completely oral or intuitive way. It is actually possible, particularly in the past when the systems of teaching (transmission of knowledge to be more precise) used to be centered upon the personal and differentiated relationship of Master with student. This used to be perfectly possible when Masters were around but today, very few are left (I am talking about the teacher that are really worth of the Master title). Masters are a dying breed in our country. This can come as a surprise compared to what I was saying before but in fact, it is in the societies and communities that we tend to qualify as "backward" that we can still find true Masters. Current transmission is based on teaching frameworks that, given their superficiality, have very little to do with the ancient and very long apprenticeships "from Man to Man", "from destiny to destiny". This is why I think that we should not deprive ourselves of the study of texts, all the texts, in order to find our way in this mess that martial arts have become these days (particularly in Occident). A text is like a music sheet, it is a form of cartography. It allows to journey more serenely on a way which the layout is less clear than what some would like us to think. It also allows making conscious and well informed choices of directions, paths and itineraries with the possibility of later going back if we realize that we went in a wrong direction (or that such book or such proposition was mistaken). Zigzag, vagrancy and error are also parts of the journey, the way.

It really would be a mistake to think that I am just indulging myself into intellectualism here. O Sensei, the founder of Aikido was a scholar (in the sense of "the one who has knowledge") and most of his best students (not necessarily the best known) became scholars themselves under his influence. When today we meet former students of the founder, we are sometimes surprised to see how much the depths of the art that were present at the time are still alive and intact through them. Let me tell you, Aiki under the conditions of possessing this knowledge, that's quite something! Aikido is the founding art of a cultural form of "living differently" and even of a certain "return to life". Based on the principles of this ancient Aiki, the founder provided (or should have provided) to the old warlike Aiki a modern vision of the martial arts: the vision of an art that is at last stripped from aggressiveness and violence, with a creative intention of "conversion" of aggressiveness (creation ≠ destruction). If we were to follow that intention, we would at last be able to extract ourselves from prehistory!

Olivier Gaurin and Guillaume Erard

Olivier Gaurin uke: Guillaume Erard

But of course, that is not the case; we are made to return to this prehistory! The commonly admitted deviance consists in making our practice shift towards an activity mainly sportive (where quantity and strength come before quality and knowledge) and therefore, minimizing the technical and cultural aspect. Very damaging indeed for Aikido... and also for the world. It is high time we pay a critical attention to the stereotyped and "acculturated" discourses delivered in the teaching of current Aikido (delivered generally because of ignorance or because of a maintained naivety).

Of course, to say that technique will come with training is correct. Nothing can replace experimentation on the condition that we keep these two leads in mind:

  1. During a movement, during training, any persisting anatomic pain (the association of the three words in very important here) on Uke's joints shows a mistake in the technique or an unawareness of the obvious techniques of Aiki: kotegaeshi and shihonage are very good examples. When I say this, I also think about Tori's knees (suwari-waza) or lumbar vertebrae (practice rendered painless through the correct use of hands with for example the interactive Shisei [姿勢, attitude] between interacting partners during the movement themselves). These damaging practices of Aikido through pain, rapidity or surprise are only lame attempts to dominate, whether they are obviously displayed, hidden or only latent (same goes for their theorems: attempts towards "conditioning" or "intimidation"). Unless this has been previously established and agreed on as a theme of training (dealing with pain for example), it shows a total misunderstanding of the Aiki technique regardless of it being done with a smile or justified by "good" arguments.
  2. A technique that does not work naturally and without clashes or pain on somebody who never practiced Aikido (i.e. somebody not conditioned to receive harsh techniques safely) is a wrong technique at the level of Aiki, regardless of whether it usually works very well with a seasoned Aikidoka.
Olivier Gaurin and Guillaume Erard

Olivier Gaurin uke: Guillaume Erard

Ok, so technique comes form training, that's agreed. Yet I think that to assume that Aikido will only come through training is a mistake. Aikido comes from the study of texts also. We have to search relentlessly and not give up this search because of an easy training, the "routine of a pre-digested material delivered on a silver tray". We have to dig deeper and deeper in order to understand (to "take on board"), enlarge our field of vision, action, perception, availability, awareness and finally succeed in knowing.

To sur-vive is to be reborn each day. It means going further in a new manner and discovering, new things every day even if they seem similar to what we learned the day before (precisely if they look similar) or totally inverted or opposite. Eventually, to stop paying acute attention to its own training or its own way of thinking is a way to die at training. It is a way to loose for oneself and for others the possibility to find this pertinent Aiki of Aikido, the Aiki of "Great Aikido" as it was imagined, performed and demonstrated by the founder.

This is the moral meaning of Zanshin (残心, availability, attention, vigilance), a long lost notion these days! I think that we should really always beware of a quick "I used to know", "I know" as much as of an "I will eventually know" or a "they'll eventually let me know".

Nothing of value is ever delivered like that on a plate and those who would like to make us believe this, these Sandmen, are those whose plate is usually mostly empty. Now, it is up to us, free Men of Aiki, free at last from the prehistory of the affects of illusion and free from domination to make a stand. Through the Do (道, way) of Aikido and the powerful and sensible notion of Aiki, we have to willfully fill and balance our own plate of Aiki, commonly available to the great knowledge of the world for justice, peace and serenity of all.

Kindest regards to all, may your research be successful, keep courage and train hard.

Olivier Gaurin in action (uke: Guillaume Erard)

Dojo pictures by Mégumi Fukuda

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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