(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)
Aikidō can be a bewildering combination of inspiring ideas, exhilarating practice, and intensely frustratingly slow progress. This is often explicitly acknowledged by aikidō instructors. It’s pretty common to be told that if you’re looking for a combat art, aikidō probably isn’t going to be your first choice. Karate, tae kwon do, kung fu or jūjutsu are more likely to be useful to a beginner attempting to keep someone from punching them. When I was studying karate, our sensei told us about a student who learned a simple overhead block, went to his car in the parking lot after class, was confronted by someone trying to brain him with a baseball bat, and saved his own life using the block he’d just learned. Nice.
The equivalent story for aikidō seems to be that with a minimum of training, you’re more likely to be able to fall down without hurting yourself, or run away when you see trouble developing. Certainly worthwhile achievements, but probably not what your typical beginning martial artist is looking for. And it’s rather disconcerting to hear your sensei describe the technique he just demonstrated as an “exercise,” or specifically label it “Hollywood.”
Rank tests themselves aren’t necessarily realistic. After all, how likely is it that I’d know what attack to expect? Randori is more like the real world: not in the sense that it’s what would happen if I were attacked by several people at once (they probably wouldn’t wait their turn to attack, let alone politely forgo kicking me or grabbing me by the hair), but because I have maybe a second to focus on an uke’s attack and begin a hopefully-effective response.
My karate instructor, who had training in aikidō, once told us, “If you try to use nikyo on someone with an arm like a baby gorilla’s leg, it’s not going to work. So first you kick him in the family jewels, and then you do nikyo on him.” Is that aikidō? Apparently some people would say so.
So is aikidō a combat art at all? You might argue that it has to be, or what’s the point of it? But some would say it’s not, and describe it as a watered-down version of daito-ryu jūjutsu. These debates can be great fun; but are they relevant to those of us who don’t expect to engage in (or survive) realistic combat?
Personally, I’m getting to be an old man. If it comes to hand-to-hand combat, I don’t think I’d bet on myself. Some people might say that’s who aikidō is for: people who wouldn’t survive hand-to-hand combat, who are just looking for aerobic exercise. Is aikidō only for the old and weak, or does it need to be effective in a combat setting? Or can it be multi-faceted, a resource available to everyone?
Maybe the best way to think about combat effectiveness is that aikidō requires you to learn from what you do and what actually happens. If you think your technique is effective and it’s not, or if you need uke to cooperate in order for your techniques to work, if you think you’re centered and balanced and you aren’t, then you’re stuck: you can’t progress. Beyond that, maybe it’s up to you where aikidō takes you.