Martial Arts - Breaking It Down (Aikido)


I found this post on rec.martial-arts, and asked the author, Kirk Lawson, if I could post it here. Even though it is not about Judo, I encourage everyone to read this one carefully, as the author does a fine job of expressing something not commonly discussed. Kirk has managed to express something I attempted in the article Is BJJ Better Than Judo.

I've added a few comments to what Kirk said... to keep it straight, my comments are in [brackets].



Philosophy, Strategy, and Techniques

To be honest, there are multiple errors when it comes to people understanding Aikido, both from Aikidoka and non-Aikidoka. Because of many factors, but primarily the 'Do' of Aikido, it is easy for Aikido to 'be' many different things. [Just as Judo is seen as a martial art, a method of self defense, a sport, an Olympic event, degraded Jujutsu, wrestling, etc.]

I find that it is easiest to break Aikido (and most 'Do' arts for that matter) into three areas. Philosophy, Strategy, and Techniques.

Let's start with the easiest first: Techniques.

Loosely speaking, Techniques are the conglomeration of punches, kicks, grapples, joint-locks, Weapons subsets, nerve strikes, blocking, slipping, redirecting, etc. that comprise an art. Basically, the actual nuts and bolts of an attack or a defense (both "hard" and "soft" see RMA FAQ). As a general rule, most arts are drawn from the same pool of techniques but typically include the most basic set of techniques from most or all of these "areas." That being said, we can exit "general rules" and get into more specifics in which we can say that a particular art may include more sets or variations of one class of techniques than others and may exclude other sets or variations. Generally speaking, Aikido contains primarily joint-locks and throws, but also includes punches and may include kicks, grapples, ground-work, and weapons subsets depending upon the lineage and the tastes of the instructor. (note: we are not discussing how these techniques are used or in response to what, that's part of Strategy)

Next there is the aspect of Strategy:

Perhaps the most difficult of the three to determine in specifics about any given art, Strategy describes the overall concept of how the set of techniques of an art are applied to combat or physical confrontations. Basically, the Strategy of an art prepares the practitioner to respond in certain ways with a given set of techniques to various attacks. It is concerned with elements of how Techniques are constructed or applied, particularly in reference to Linear versus Circular. One of the most famous and easily understood Martial Arts Strategies comes from Brazilian JuJitsu. Basically stated, BJJ's Strategy says: "All, or most, fights are comprised of only two combatants, and end up with both combatants 'wrestling' on the ground rather than standing, thus, to be most effective, the greatest emphasis in training should be on 'groundwork'." Other arts have Strategies that are based on or include "angles of attack", etc. Some arts have the simplest of all Strategies, which is 'the best defense is a good offense', or stated another way, 'do as much damage as possible and keep doing damage until the opponent is no longer a threat'.

In Aikido, the basic Strategy includes concepts of Evading, Controlling incoming attacks and energy, and 'Off-balancing' the aggressor. Aikido is also generally considered a very Circular Art. Thus the set of Techniques previously discussed may be viewed through the filter of Aikido's Strategy. If, for instance, a given style of Aikido includes punches and kicks, then what would be the Strategic purpose of said punches and kicks? Typically, the Strategic purpose of these punches and kicks are to create the "Off-balance' in the opponent which can then be taken advantage of. Any actual damage inflicted by said punch or kick is ancillary, a "bonus" if you will. Yoshinkan Aikido is a good example the Aikido Strategy using these sort of Techniques.

Much of the "Art X is superior to Art Y" wars seen are in truth based in differing Strategies which proponents of Art X believe to be a superior Strategy, but lacking the framework of Techniques, Strategy, and Philosophy, they can not articulate what specifically makes Art X superior in their opinion.

As a subset of Strategy, let's briefly examine Training. This describes the methods and exercises used in learning and practicing the art in question. Training can differ radically from one instructor to the next within a single Martial Art, to say nothing of from one Martial Art to another. Thus, it is not really possible to classify training for a specific art in anything other than broad generalization. Training can, and frequently does, include exercises where a given Technique is broken down into small, easily digested, bits which, once understood are then moved into one, flowing movement, The Technique. In the Martial Arts world, there are currently two hotly debated Training tools, Sparring and Forms.

Sparring, sometimes called Randori (and it's close relative, Competition, or Kumite [For Judo: Shiai]) is where the Martial Artist faces one or more training partners where each engage in varying degrees of free form attacks and defenses. It is widely held that, in order to learn to use Techniques and Strategy "on the fly" or under stress, one must put them to the test in the most realistic practice engagements possible. Since it is undesirable to seriously injure your Sparring partner (who would you have to spar with if you put all your training partners in the hospital?), there is nearly always some level of holding back and/or protective equipment worn during Sparring. Since Aikido is a banner term, covering many interpretations of the Founder's art, it is again, difficult to make even generalizations, however, some interpretations of Aikido, notably Shodokan (Tomiki) Aikido, and Yoshinkan Aikido, Training does contain variations of Randori.

Forms, sometimes called Kata (or Hyung in Korean). These are a set of prearranged movements; A sequence of Techniques, performed most frequently alone or, sometimes with one or more Training partners who will simulate a specific attack at a given place in the Form. The purpose of Forms is similar to that of western shadowboxing. Forms are sometimes thought to contain "hidden" Techniques that an advanced student would be able to interpret, sometimes with the help of his Master, but which would appear to be nothing more than a basic Technique to a less experience practitioner. Advocates of Forms believe that they help prepare the Martial Artist by giving him:

1) A visualization tool to help him "see" how the Techniques may be applied in an active, yet controlled setting
2) An opportunity to learn how to flow easily from one Technique to the next.

Opponents of Forms believe that they lack reality, which leads to misplaced confidence, and frequently teach bad habits. Most interpretations of Aikido contain differing types of Forms, frequently involving a Training partner.

[I might add that 'forms' (kata) range from completely prearranged and razor precise movements, to a very loose and simply repeated movements. The 'Uchikomi' of Judo is simply another form of 'kata'. Much of Aikido is practiced in a way that Judoka would think of as Uchikomi... There are many techniques that simply cannot be practiced safely any other way, so those who object to kata aren't capable of training in certain techniques...]

Finally, let's briefly examine Philosophy:

Not all arts contain the element of Philosophy. As is discussed in the rec.martial-arts FAQ, this is primarily the difference between the 'Do' and the "Jutsu" Japanese arts. In "Jutsu" Japanese arts, there is no accompanying Philosophy which offers a guide to practitioners in all aspects of life, including conflict resolution (combat). Most Martial Arts Philosophies, aim to build character, morality, and humanity in the practitioner and typically include theories on armed pacifism and responsibility. Others teach a Philosophy that includes civil disobedience, armed rebellion, and guerilla warfare. Many, additionally, leave this to the religious leaders each student chooses to recognize, though, in this case, it may be more correct to say that the Art in question has no Philosophy associated with it. Note that, many Martial Artists today view many or all of these Philosophies with distain, scorn or outright laughter and disbelief.

The application of an arts Philosophy to the practitioner's life is highly subjective and, in Aikido, tends to be deeply intertwined with how and when Strategy and Techniques are applied. In basic terms, the Philosophy of Aikido is that of returning "harmony" to disharmonious or chaotic situations. Thus, it can be said that a person who mediates an argument is "doing Aikido" despite the fact that the person has not implemented any Techniques, much less used Techniques in an Aikido Strategy (referred to by Aikidoka as 'Aiki'). This is one of the primary points of confusion and contention between both Aikidoka and non-Aikidoka. For instance, it has been said of various practitioners using Aikido Strategy and Techniques that "he wasn't doing Aikido" simply because the observer felt that said practitioner was being too aggressive or violent, he wasn't "attempting to return harmony" to the chaotic situation. Thus, and Aikidoka who "picks a fight" isn't using Aikido. If you can see you're way past the apparent contradiction, then you understand a finer point of Aikido.

Many practitioners of other arts find fault with the Aikido Philosophy, especially those of arts who's Strategy is diametrically opposed to the Aikido Philosophy, such as the "do as much damage as possible" Strategies. This is simply another point of confusion that is easily understood under the Techniques, Strategy, Philosophy framework, even if not resolved. But without this sort of framework, they and the Aikidoka are left to arguing in never ending circles about effectiveness, etc. and are usually forced to end with "Aikido Sucks!" and "You know nothing!", which is wholly unsatisfactory to both parties.

While I don't expect this sort of framework to solve the many "Aikido Sucks/No It Doesn't" threads, it will perhaps give participants a better idea of where they disagree and meaningful conversations can then begin.

Peace favor your sword,
Kirk Lawson
"Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest."
· Mahatma Gandhi, "Gandhi, An Autobiography", M. K. Gandhi, page 446