Should the practice of Aikido cause pain?

Editorial note:

A short while ago I had an inspiring conversation with Chris Mc Cormac from Ireland. The podcast episode was about our common interest in how the practice of Aikido can support healing and growth. Together with Mary Hoban, Chris Mc Cormac has developed a therapeutic approach that is based on the principles and practices of Aikido (Aikido Therapy). However, some people might react to the fact that a martial art can support healing and growth? And even in Aikido there are practitioners that violate the wholesome principles set forth by it´s founder, turning what could be a path to personal, relational and societal transformation into a source of violence, oppression and ego reification.

In the following article Chris Mc Cormac speaks to this confusion through referencing many of the Japanese concepts that are common to Aikido practitioners throughout the world. The article should be of special interest to people who practice Aikido, but the same ideas could be applied in other contexts as well. In Aikido we work with physical confrontation, but we all experience emotional and verbal confrontations as well so while reading the article reflect on how Aikido could shed some light on the way you react and respond to conflict.

James Alexander Arnfinsen, Editor, podcasthost and aikido practitioner

Should the practice of Aikido cause pain?

Aikido is a Japanese word which is made up of three other Japanese words. Ai means harmony, Ki means power and Do means the Way. Morihei Ueshiba combined these three words together to describe his martial philosophy. Enshrined in his martial philosophy was the concept that Aikido was compassionate and loving. If the art of Aikido is compassionate and loving why should people who practice it be subjected to painful locks and holds? If compassion and love are present in any relationship there should never be a time when pain is deliberately applied or intended towards another person.

When we practice in Aikido we have two main methods of training: one is solo practice, either with or without weapons. And, the other method is with other people, once again, either with or without weapons. When we practice on our own we do not cause ourselves any form of deliberate pain to such an extant that we have to “tap out” or surrender in some fashion. And, if we do cause ourselves deliberate pain we are simply not listening to our bodies telling us that we are taking our muscles, tendons, sinews and joints beyond what nature intended. When we do wrist exercises we can stretch and bend the joints as a way to warm up the joint and keep it supple. But when we over stretch the joint we cause damage to it. Where is the compassion and love for ourselves if we purposefully do harm to our bodies?

The founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba, also called O´Sensei.

The founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba, also called O´Sensei.

According to the principles as laid down by O’Sensei in order to practice Aikido we must demonstrate love and compassion towards the universe. Aikido is practiced in a manufactured environment with manufactured rules under the guidance of a Sensei. The word Sensei simply means “One who has gone before”. The Sensei, as such, does not warrant any undue respect or slavish and unquestioning following just because he has come into contact with Aikido before another. The Sensei deserves respect only if people who train under his guidance do not suffer from acts that are designed to cause deliberate pain to their bodies, their minds or their spirits. The person who attends an Aikido class is not there to either cause suffering to another human being or to endure suffering imposed by another human being.

The Dojo is a place where the Way can be practiced. Normally a space is formed where a martial or meditative activity can take place. In Aikido a mat (tatami) is placed on the floor so people can learn to fall in relative safety. As a practice session proceeds people gather as teachers and students. The student’s role is to learn from those who have practiced before them. The teacher’s role is to transmit or impart their understanding of what they learned as students of others who have gone before them. As the session progresses the Sensei will demonstrate various techniques on some senior grades. The rest of the class will then enter the mat and practice with each other and try to emulate what the Sensei has demonstrated. There will be an attacker and a defender. The attacker (Uke or the receiver of technique) will make some kind of predetermined attack on the defender (Nage or Tori) and the defender will then try to deal with the attack in an appropriate way based on what the Sensei has demonstrated. So far all of the foregoing has been manufactured as a way to experience the physical act of Aikido. It is all predetermined. What is not predetermined is how the defender will interact with the attacker. For instance will the defender push a lock too far and cause pain and suffering to the attacker. Or will the defender ignore the “tapping out” of the Attacker and continue the brutalization of another human being.

The defender is in an extraordinarily privileged position. The attacker has allowed the defender to have access to the attacker’s vulnerable body, mind and spirit for the express purpose of assisting the defender to learn how to demonstrate their knowledge of Aikido in that moment. If the defender harms any aspect of the attacker in this transaction, the defender has broken the principles of compassion and love as espoused by O’Sensei. Not only that: but the flow of projected power or energy (Ki) will quite rightly diminish from the attacker unless the attacker does not know how to recognize when violence has taken place against them. If the defender does not know the difference between an Aikido technique, which is based on love and compassion and an act of violence that is perpetrated against the attacker, the attacker must be the one who will not allow the defender to continue to blindly force the execution of the technique. How will the attacker know if the defender understands the principles of Aikido? There will be no pain immediately after the attacker has “tapped out”. And, there will be an opportunity for the attacker to do an appropriate breakfall (Ukemi) in order to be able to rise to their feet fully intact and healthy and feeling fully valued in the process. It is for this reason that there is no competition between people in Aikido An attacker (Uke) is there to assist the defender to develop their proficiency in Aikido and not there as an object without feelings that the defender can unleash their wonton acts of violence upon.

To what end can practicing in this manner be useful for both Tori and Uke? Tori will develop an authentic connection of love and compassion with their magnificent Uke. The lightness of unbalance (Kuzushi) before technique can be developed which is always an objective and clearly demonstrable point in Aikido. The Uke will feel able to project a type of Ki which will challenge Tori to identify kuzsushi in a dynamic fashion. As Tori develops proper love and compassion for their magnificent Uke they will be able to train respectfully with any partner of any size, age or gender because they will be in harmony with the factual world in that moment. Their intention to practice without causing harm or pain to their Uke will be an act of total harmony.

How will Tori know if their understanding of locks is well developed? In Shiatsu there is a point on the leg called the spleen six or the triple burner. It is about twenty five mill just above the ankle bone along the tibia on the inside of the leg. Press on this point with your thumb. If you have it right there will be a sharp burning sensation which will stop as soon as you lift off the pressure. Lie down on the ground and get a partner to press on this point gently at first. As they find the exact point allow them to increase the pressure once again make sure it is done gently. As the pressure increases you will notice that your body will start to go into an involuntary spasm. Just as your body starts to go into a spasm immediately tap out. The body reaction is a natural reflex that indicates when the energy or Ki of the body is disturbed or blocked in any way. When the energy of the body is blocked the body will react even before the person can voluntarily react. This is the exact time that the observant Tori should be releasing the lock on Uke because Uke’s body has demonstrated to Tori that Tori is about to go from an Aikido technique of love and compassion to an act of betrayal and violence against their magnificent Uke. This is what is meant by conscious practice and presence in Aikido.

When I finish practicing with my magnificent Uke there should be no evidence that I have passed their way. Uke should not feel any distress whatsoever on the body, in the mind or through the spirit because of my flawed AiKiDo practice. This means that I have harmonised fully with Uke’s intention and led it to the point of Kuzushi and therefore no damage has been caused. My magnificent Uke then becomes Tori and I, in turn, then become the magnificent Uke. If my Tori does not understand this principle I will not give my magnificent body to him to abuse until he becomes conscious that we practice a martial philosophy called Aikido and I am a human being long before I am an Uke. I demand to be treated as a human being no matter what the circumstances. All Sensei should be aware of this aspect of Aikido before they pass on their corrupt interpretation of O’Sensei’s principals of love and compassion. If Aikido happens between two people they should both be amazed at how gentle and simple the techniques feel. But it is Uke who will tell Tori if they feel valued in the process. For, without a dynamic and valued Uke in authentic dialogue with Tori, Tori will never even glimpse what O’Sensei alluded to when he named his martial philosophy Aikido.

Peace

Chris Mc Cormac
Chris holds an NUI Maynooth Dip in Adult Continuing Education. He is the Sensai in the Aikido School of Ireland for over twenty years. Chris worked in a semi-state company in problem solving and conflict resolution for over twenty five years.He is a full member of the Association of Registered Complimentary Health Therapists of Ireland. Chris is a Silver Jewellery artist and teacher and is a member of the Craft Council of Ireland. Chris has over thirty years experience in the field of Adult Development. He is the other Co-Founder of Aikido Therapy.
Chris Mc Cormac

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  • James Arnfinsen

    Back in April I had the joy of practicing with Roberto Martucci Sensei 6. dan, and my experience taking uke from him was that even though I put a lot of energy into my attacks, making the confrontation “sharp and dangerous”, I still felt that my integrity was kept when I in the next moment was thrown across the room or pinned to the floor. As a matter of fact, the more I attacked this Sensei the more I respected him and felt appreciation for his wonderful application of Aikido. After the seminar I was beaming with good energy. Check out Martucci in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5q6_WFjaq0&list=UU0fz2Ul7cjuVRHhh_s46qeQ

  • James Arnfinsen

    I want to share some newly arisen reflections regarding my view on aikido. It´s not just the physical response in the aikido technique that is supposed to be non-violent, but also the attitude in which the technique is applied. Aikido is therefore a multifaceted and multilayered engagement where the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual faculties must come together moment to moment.

    The attacker could be viewed as a human being who is out of touch with him or her self, a person who is attached to the intent of doing harm. Our job as the defender is of course to defend our selves, but also to help the attacker “wake up”, so to speak. The developmental goal is to understand that when we attack another human being we´re actually attacking our selves (in a spiritual sense).

    I believe it´s possible to know, or rather feel, if one has practiced true aikido. If there is “aiki” in the engagement between the defender and attacker, it will create a “field shift”. This is a concept from Otto Scharmer and his book Theoru U, and it points to what happens when people shift their source of attention from “ego-awareness” to “eco-awareness”. From an aikido point of view we could describe it as the shift that occurs when the defender transcends the constraints of only wanting to defend him or her self, and rather, opens up to the possibility of harmonizing with the other, and thus taking care of the whole. The most telling sign showing that one has succeeded is when both attacker and defender feels a sense of dignity after the technique has been applied, and a heightened sense of presence. If there is a felt sense of humiliation afterwards – it´s not aikido!

    Another point of interest is the actual role as attacker (when we practice). Learning how to attack in a proper way is a practice in and of itself, again, on many levels. As a form of “shadow practice” we can see it as a way to align our selves with the harmful impulses lying dormant in our own being. It´s easy to project ones own aggression outwards, while not seeing the repressed “intent to kill” that we carry inside. And even if we have thoroughly work through our own repressed aggression there will always be a vast deposit of collective aggression to tap into. Our individual consciousness is like a small drop of water floating on a leaf in the lake. It´s first isolated and can only refer to itself, but through practice it can unite with the lake and tap into the vast pool of collective energy that is ever present. This is, I believe, the reason why aikido is a “true art of peace”, because we can plunge ourselves into the “cauldron of samsara” and gradually transform the dark into light, using our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being as a vehicle for peaceful alchemy.

    An important point regarding the attack (and the defenders response) is that the relationship between attacker and defender is what determines how much aggression or energy can be dealt with. I repeat, it´s the relational bond that is created moment to moment that determines the transformational outcome, not the individuals themselves! This is of utmost importance because if the attacker brings in more energy than the defender can take, the form will collapse and regress into disharmony and war. Aikido is, as one of my teachers have said, “learning how to approach danger in a nice and comfortable way”.

    The recent passing away of Nelson Mandela has once again brought our collective attention towards how we can respond to violence and oppression. I believe the following quote points to what we can aim for in our practice of aikido.

    “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a beautiful video from a seminar held med Okomoto Yoko Sensei. Love the blending of sharpness and connection. Beautiful!

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a short talk by aikido teacher Miles Kessler where he speaks to the developmental potential that is present in aikido. He points to how aikido can be a genuin practice towards Awakened Warriorship. Thanks Miles!

  • James Arnfinsen

    My dear aikido-friend Svein Hatlen has written a blog post titled My 5 Rules for the keiko. His ideas on how to practice aikido resonates with what Chris Mc Cormac points to above. Svein’s website is a gem for anyone interested in aiki. It’s truly written from the heart.
    https://aikifreak.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/5-rules/