Thursday, May 17, 2007


  • In Aikido, one blow can determine life or death. When practicing, obey your instructor, and do not engage in useless contests of strength.
  • Aikido is an art in which a person learns to deal with not only one but multiple attackers. It therefore requires that you practice at all times with careful awareness not only in front of you but in all directions.
  • Practice at all times with the feeling of pleasurable exhilaration.
  • The teachings of your instructor constitute only a small fraction of what you will learn. Your mastery of each movement will depend almost entirely on individual, earnest practice.
  • Daily practice begins with light movements of the body, gradually increasing in intensity and strength. There must be no excessive strain. That is why even an elderly person can continue to practice pleasurably without bodily harm, and will attain the goal of his or her training.
  • The purpose of Aikido is to train both body and mind and to develop a person's sincerity. All Aikido techniques are secret in nature and are not to be idly revealed to others in public, not shown to rowdy or unprincipled people who will misuse them.
    --Etiquette for Practicing Aikido (by Morihei Ueshiba O'Sensei)

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. --Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Unarmed fighting techniques can be loosely divided into three categories: strikes, holds, and throws. There is also the wealth of ancillary behavior, which mostly comes down to either countering moves (blocks), or getting into a good position to use the techniques (called “irimi” or “entering” in Aikido).

The folks who are adamant that Aikido is of no use in a “real fight,” are generally hypnotized by the throwing techniques. But Aikido is also holds, and Aikido holds overlap substantially with other martial arts, and also form part of the core of most police and military unarmed combat techniques.

There are a set of Aikido holds that are essentially numbered (in Japanese) techniques: ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, gokyo, and rokyo, the latter two being generally considered to be knife taking techniques, but they work against an unarmed opponent just as well. Most of these have analogs in other schools; ikkyo is commonly called an “arm bar” in wrestling, as is a related technique, ude gateme, which also looks a bit like a half nelson. I’d also add another couple of techniques, kote gaeshi and shiho nage to the core list of things that makes anyone claiming that they “wouldn’t work in a real fight” either ignorant or a blithering idiot.

Throws are a different matter, and throwing techniques generally depend upon the movement and balance of an attacker, and it’s generally true that opponents who do not “commit,” i.e. who do not throw the weight of their body into whatever they are doing, do not grab, etc. are difficult to throw. It’s also true that if someone isn’t even attacking you, it’s very hard to throw them. I’m all in favor of not using martial techniques of people who aren’t attacking you.

It’s also commonly believed that Aikido does not use strikes, punches, or kicks. This isn’t true, since it’s necessary to defend against such attacks, so the Aikido uke must simulate punches, knife thrusts, etc. with some verisimilitude, and not being “sincere” about the simulation can get you scolded.

There is also a event called “atemi,” which is a strike of some sort. Some practitioners de-emphasize atemi, believing it to violate the “non-violent” aspect of the art. Others emphasize that the Founder taught atemi as central to practice (notice the first sentence in the quote that begins this piece). The difference is most often split as holding atemi to be a feint of a sort; pulling the attention of the attacker in order to do a technique. But I’ve heard instructors who were pretty blunt about the notion that if you’ve used a wrist lock on an attacker to bring him to his knees, kicking him in the face may well be the most reasonable next step.

As I said in my original essay, “But Does it Work?” sometimes those fancy rolls are because the next event in a “real fight” would be a strike to the throat.

In re-reading that essay, I notice that I missed one of the reasons why I think some people have such an investment in arguing that Aikido is “fake,” and “wouldn’t work in a real fight.” I did note that most “real fights” aren’t exactly “real,” at least not in the sense of proceeding until one or the other participants is unable to continue. No, the idea is for the other guy to “cry uncle,” that is, to concede dominance. The practice of Aikido does not lend itself to showing dominance, “winning,” in other words. Practice is supposed to be harmonious. It’s not a sport, or a “contest of strength.”

I’ve been in three, well, let’s call them “physical altercations” in the last 30 years. That’s a pretty low count, I think, and I’m obviously not much of a brawler. I haven’t written about them previously, partly because there were more than two people involved (which is usually the case), even though only two of us were fighting. But mostly I’ve refrained because I’m a little ashamed of one of them and a lot ashamed of another. So please excuse me if I leave out the reasons for the fights and other things that would make them better stories, perhaps, except not so much better for me. This means that I’m leaving out a lot of prologue in each case. Sorry.

We’ll join the first encounter with the guy throwing cold coffee in my face after I’d rolled down the window to demand that he move his truck from blocking my way. We will ignore the question about whether under slightly different circumstances the coffee might have been scalding hot.

This was several years before I began Aikido training. As a consequence of frequent nose bleeds as a child, I never learned boxing, but I did wrestle for a time at the YMCA. I believe that my weight at the time of my “competitive wrestling career” was roughly 85 pounds. But grappling was pretty much all I knew and I did weigh more than 85 at the time of this particular fight.

I don’t think the guy was expecting me to get out of the car to attack him. I’m positive he didn’t expect me to rush at him, coming in low, to grab him between the hips and knees and lift him completely off the ground in a takedown maneuver. Under other circumstances, that would have been very bad for him, because falling onto pavement, on your back, with someone else’s full weight on you can do pretty unpleasant things to you very quickly.

However, he was standing in front of the open door to the cab of his pickup truck, so we instead went back onto the seat. There was a general struggle, which finally ended when he managed to get his hands to my face and threatened to gouge my eyes. I released him and backed away.

He was pretty much still yelling insults at me as I got back into my car and drove off.

Did I “win” that fight? He could have put my eyes out, remember, or at least he could have made a try for it, and it might have worked. Whatever. It didn’t feel like I’d won anything.

The next one is the one that I’m thoroughly ashamed of, because it was at least 80% my fault, in part because I’m the one who made the threat that initiated the fight. The closest thing I have to an excuse is that it was several years into that-which-we-will-not-call-chronic-fatigue-syndrome, and I was susceptible to mood swings and flashes of rage. I was also still weak, often fuzzy-headed and I hadn’t practiced Aikido for several years, so what occurred is no reflection on that art.

The other guy was small and sturdy and built like a wrestler. In any case, he was a natural grappler, and pretty much marched straight through any techniques, Aikido or wrestling, that I could remember or try. I gave ground and tried to get lower; a tall man can be at a considerable disadvantage against a stronger man who is shorter than he is. Eventually, I wound up on my back, though I’d managed to keep my legs between me and him.

We were in an industrial district in Oakland, in one of those buildings that had been converted to (basically illegal) “live/work” spaces, and we were on top of a large wooden platform that formed the roof of some of those spaces. The platform was maybe 15-20 feet high, and our scuffle had put us maybe 5 ft. from the edge of what amounted to a balcony with no guard railing. His back was to the edge, and I had my legs cocked between him and me.

I whispered, “Keep it up and you’re going for a ride.”

His head snapped around and he realized the danger. He pulled off of me and stomped off. I think there were some more insults involved. It looked for a little while like there might be a rematch, but the words finally cooled, and certain explanations were made. There were no apologies, but some things became better understood.

Did I win? Lose? Would I have risked seriously injuring or killing him? When the matter had been mostly my fault? As I say, I’m just thoroughly ashamed of the altercation.

The last incident took place a few years ago, after I’d re-entered Aikido training. I was working for a time in a “rough neighborhood,” running a thrift shop for a non-profit agency during the Dot Com Bust period. I never felt endangered in the area, but I was aware of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways that some people act to establish a sense of physical domination of the people around them. This is, I think, automatic for them, and doesn’t really reflect so much on them personally as their surroundings. In other times and places, the dominance behavior is more abstract, more socially derived, less physical and personal.

There was one fellow who I actually like quite a bit, but he was in the habit of doing those little physical dominance things. Joking threats and dominance hypotheticals, as it were. I’d gotten a little tired of it.

One day, when I was out on the sidewalk talking to someone, he came up behind me, stuck his finger in my back and pretended it was a stickup, sorta, kinda jokingly, was the idea, I expect.

I probably recognized his voice, but as I say, I was tired of that sort of thing. Also, he’d stuck something in my back; I did not know what it was. What I did next, I did in much less time than it takes to think it over.

The move is called tenchi nage. As I spun around, my left hand caught his right arm between the wrist and elbow, knocking it aside. (If he’d been using the other arm, I’d have used a different technique). My right hand went up, more or less parallel to his body, sliding off the center line just before it reached his head. He reacted pretty well, flexing backwards to avoid the strike to his head, but the fact is that I could have easily hit him in the throat, chin, or face with a fist or the heel of my palm, if I’d wanted to.

Instead, my arm was outstretched across his body, and he was off-balance, bending backward. All I would have had to do was take a step forward and turn my hip and he’d have been out into the middle of oncoming traffic. Instead, I stepped back and smiled at him.

He smiled back. He never tried anything like that on me again.

Aikido gets called “fake” because it is seen as not using punches or strikes, because it is not aggressive. It doesn’t have tournaments; it’s not a sport, so it doesn’t make for a competition where there are winners and losers.

But I’m pretty sure I won that last one.

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