I often find that in some ways comparing aikido and Tai Chi Chuan can be a useful thing. Aikido, rather like tai chi, has to be one of the most misunderstood martial arts that can be found. A lot of people think tai chi is for old women in parks that have nothing better to do with their time and that it isn’t even a martial art. I’m sure many of you can relate to that last sentiment. When I was starting out in aikido I found myself having to defend its validity as a martial art, now that I can adequately do it I really can’t be bothered, mostly because I’m fed up of explaining when asked, ‘If it’s a martial art, why isn’t it used in MMA and the UFC?’ A complete explanation of that will take some time and it usually doesn’t help.
Back to the tai chi then, what most people fail to realise either because they’ve never been told or they lack the imagination, is that if you were to speed up those really slow old ladies they would be way out in front in the race of ‘Who Really Is The Most Lethal?’
The same misunderstanding occurs when people see aikido. Comments like, “They’re just dancing”, “He just fell over for him”, “That’s not a real attack”, “You don’t have X, then it’s not a real martial art”, “That wouldn’t work in real life”, abound from people. That last one is a real personal favourite of mine, it amuses me a lot when people say that. Partly because I don’t think they are hallucinating so this must be real life (or is this just fantasy?), but also because I know, from personal experience that it does work in ‘real life’.
One of the things that I find particularly sad about these comments though are that I’ve heard such statements not just from novices, but from high ranking martial artists in other styles. If they were as good as they say I would have thought they could see past the obvious that was in front of them.
The people that make these comments about aikido are essentially looking at the old ladies in a park doing tai chi and not understanding what they are truly looking at.
The question for us to consider then really is, “What do people see when they watch aikido, and what have they missed?”
The first part of this is really quite simple, they generally see 1 person making an ineffective attempt to hit the other person and then offering no further resistance until they fall over. By ineffective I don’t mean that they missed with their attack, I mean that they are using an attack that nobody would actually use in a fight. They also see the person that has just been ‘laughably’ attacked perform a complex and time consuming series of motions to make the other person think they should fall over. Regrettably this is, for the most part, completely accurate. In some dojos uncannily so.
Some people see a bit more than that admittedly but most don’t. For instance the first time I saw aikido was a demonstration on Eurosport during the last century. Although I can’t confirm this I’m almost certain it was Christian Tissier that gave it. After an hour of watching people kick through boards and each other, seeing the flowing elegance of highly experienced aikidoka was a breath of fresh air. I didn’t get it though, I thought it looked nice and nobody was getting hit so it was perfect for me. As I said, I didn’t get it.
If what most people are seeing then are complicated techniques against a pointless attack, what is it that they’ve missed? In many ways everything. Leaving aside the philosophical or spiritual aspect of aikido all they’ve seen is a vehicle and missed its potential.
Consider a parked car, what is it? It’s a parked car, but it’s more than that. It’s the culmination of decades of design and refinement, the final output from a manufacturing process but it also has the potential to take you a very long way in a vast number of different directions. People see the car but not the potential, people see techniques but not aikido.
The techniques are the vehicle that we can use to take us far along the path. I have been taught, as well as having taught techniques that have no rightful place in the arena of combat. There is no chance they would work and yet we teach them. Why is that? It is because ultimately we are learning the techniques so that we don’t have to do them.
The techniques, like the strikes are simply teaching us to deal with the energy of an attack. There are a near infinite number of ways that a person can attack us but a very finite number of directions that the energy used to propel that attack can come from.
By learning about the energy behind the attack we are learning how to drive the car. The destination is ultimately unimportant, the ability to travel there is king. The attack itself is irrelevant to an aikidoka, the ability to perceive the direction and intent behind it is king and where we should focus.
The most obvious demonstration of this can be found in randori. Randori is one of the purest demonstrations of aikido that can take place in the dojo. If the techniques of aikido are important then why are none of them performed in a randori? Why do you simply not see tenchi nage or juji garame or nikkyo pins? On very rare occasion these might appear but for the most part they do not. It is because the techniques of aikido that are trained in the dojo have achieved their true purpose, to free the aikidoka in body, mind and spirit and permit them to move freely amongst their foe. They have taught the aikidoka about the direction and the energy and as such are no longer required.
It is in this part that the misunderstanding has appeared. This learning is what has been missed by the people who are watching aikido and claiming that it has no use as a martial art.
The real key is to recognise that as each martial art has its gaps in effectiveness each martial art is only effective in certain situations. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind at all that if an aikidoka were to enter an MMA contest it would be short, brief, brutal and end with the aikidoka being carried out. At the same time I’m fairly certain that most MMA fighters would not survive long in a street fight when on their own and outnumbered while the aikidoka stands an extremely good chance of leaving intact. (I have chosen MMA simply because it is the current popular choice, no other reason).
Neither of these statements detract from the validity of either system, it merely emphasises the flaws and highlights the context the arts are designed for. Aikido is not a competition art. It has no rules and does not react well to being constrained by them. It is also primarily an art that is designed for dealing with multiple attackers. In contrast to this MMA is very much based on competition, operates within a strict set of rules and trains its proponents to fight one on one. These 2 systems are chalk and cheese they are so different. This does not make 1 more valid than the other, all it means is that you want a different one for each situation. To continue the car analogy, you can’t take 5 people on a road trip in a sports car, and you can’t drag race in a family saloon.
This is another of the concepts that is the cause of misunderstanding when discussing aikido. People cannot see its value in life because of the way it is taught and trained. Particularly in the West where so much of our lives are based on contest with ourselves and with others the idea that something without it can be effective is quite alien. Sub-consciously it gets associated with knitting in terms of martial effectiveness.
Once a person can see past these misunderstandings though the world of aikido opens up to them and they can see what is truly happening. This will also broaden their view in other areas of martial arts and perhaps help them see the short-comings in their own system as well as ours.