What Is Aikido?

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are Aikidō practitioners. Not that Aikidō is something vague or unclear. It’s a concrete, practical approach to dealing with physical conflict and self-defense. Of course, different teachers have different perspectives on the best way to learn and practice Aikidō. Even the shihan who were direct students of O-Sensei teach slightly different forms, depending on when they studied with him: Aikidō changed over O-Sensei’s own lifetime.

But O-Sensei was not just concerned with the physical discipline of Aikidō. As quoted in The Art of Peace (a collection of O-Sensei’s writings, translated by John Stevens), “The real way of a warrior is to prevent slaughter – it is the art of peace, the power of love.”

From this perspective, Aikidō is a path towards harmony. The physical act of practice and training provides a concrete example of our natural tendency to feel threatened when we’re challenged, to tense up in stressful or difficult situations, to want to overpower our opponent. Training in Aikidō challenges us to let go of these responses.

Aikidō provides a model for how to resolve conflict. I can use this model in my everyday life, looking for ways to be centered and balanced even when I come into conflict with other people. Rather than fighting back if someone pressures me, tries to guilt-trip or intimidate me, I can turn if I’m pushed and enter if I’m pulled, waiting for the right moment to act. And in turn, I can bring those experiences of social and personal challenges back to my training: recognizing my emotional response to conflict and working to address it in my practice.

Training in Aikidō is about being centered, not getting thrown off-balance; so it can change how I think of my interactions with other people. Staying centered and balanced can only happen if I can get past feeling threatened. Thus, without necessarily realizing it, in my training I’m gradually developing the ability to see beyond my experience of other people as my enemies, threats to be counter-attacked.

But in order to let go of feeling that I’m in conflict with other people, I need to learn how their goals and my goals might actually be in harmony.  Even if they believe I’m their enemy, even if they’re actively trying to attack me, I need to find another way to experience our interaction, to think of us in relationship with each other. Rather than being trapped in a zero-sum winner-take-all conflict, I have to find a way to learn that the two of us are coöperating. By looking for that possibility, by finding a way to be balanced and centered in the midst of our interaction, I’m also learning to understand the other person better, and gradually feel empathy for them. I’m practicing being connected to them, part of them: loving them.

Only when that happens can I let go of needing to win. And only then can I be free of having to choose between caring for myself and caring for others.

Aikido as Metaphor

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

One meaning of the word Aikidō is “the way of harmony”: finding the possibility of peace in the midst of conflict, using your attacker’s energy to undo their attack and protect you both.

In Aikidō, we work with wrist grabs, overhead strikes and strikes to the neck, punches to the solar plexus or the head; with multiple attackers and attacks with knives, swords and staves.  But we don’t address defenses against being cut off in traffic by some lunatic in an SUV, getting flamed online, or set up to fail by a control-freak boss; against being sued, having your identity stolen, or a close friend or relative going berserk on you in the middle of a restaurant. Let alone having your heart broken by a serial monogamist with commitment issues, or raising a teenager.

So does learning Aikidō, or any martial art, really cover the self-defense skills we need in our day-to-day lives?

No.

And it’s not supposed to. Martial arts are body training, learning how to be in your own body in an effective way. You can do that through conflict, being prepared to fight others to defend yourself; or through harmony. Aikidō is about harmony: very gradually, and often without understanding exactly what’s happening, changing from someone at the mercy of other people and your own emotions and reactions, into someone different. Someone who is capable of maintaining balance with others and within yourself; someone who can avoid contributing to hatred and conflict by returning good instead of evil, without becoming a victim: a force for harmony in the world.

As this happens, Aikidō will have an effect on your life, whether you notice it or not. But the possibility of learning from that connection is a valuable opportunity.

Aikidō helps me connect my body with my mind, my feelings, my life. When I’m practicing a technique and it brings up issues around safety or trust or aggressiveness or inadequacy, that’s a direct connection to the things I’m trying to learn how to deal with in my life. Paying attention to that connection will deepen my learning, inside the dōjō and in my life.  Everything I do in training that creates new physical experiences for me – a sense of balance or presence, centeredness or fluidity or flexibility – creates new possibilities. If I notice that happening, I can nurture it and find ways to explore it in my life.

More than that, Aikidō gives me a way to learn. I can bring the attitude of training to my everyday difficulties, and make my life my practice: using the (relatively) patient acceptance of the process of learning, even though I know I’m doing it wrong for now, to hold myself open to new possibilities. I’m traveling the path of harmony, in all its different forms: beginning with body training, and letting new feelings and thoughts, a new reality, grow from that. By trusting myself, the same way I have to learn to trust my body in the training.