“My List of Problem Areas in Today’s Aikido,” by Stanley Pranin

“It is very common to find students and teachers alike resort to the forcible application of strength in order to make a technique work.”

In the last several years, I have becomed focused on a number of areas that I have identified as commonly lacking in training and deserving of the attention of aikido instructors. I regard these problem areas as widespread across styles and detrimental to the development of the art. Among my observations — voiced here and elsewhere — are the following:

  • In training, it is very common to find students and teachers alike resort to the forcible application of strength in order to make a technique work. This increases the risk of dojo injuries. This, in turn, will limit one’s ability to reach higher skill levels which rely on subtle movements and the ability to blend.
  • Most dojo training is reactive in nature. By that I mean that the common dojo training paradigm involves uke initiating the attack and nage responding. This practice is suitable for the beginning student as a way to learn the mechanics of a technique, but breeds bad habits in more advanced practitioners who attempt to execute flowing techniques. Nage’s response time is too limited due to a lack of initiative, and sloppy execution of technique can result.
  • Training unfolds with little attention given to breaking uke’s balance. As a result, as the technique is executed, uke may have opportunities to hinder, stop, or counter nage’s technique. One solution to this problem is to stress the importance of nage operating from uke’s blind spot — diagonally to the rear — in order to safely execute techniques.
  • Many practitioners are not in sufficiently good physical condition to execute some of aikido’s more advanced techniques that require above-average body flexibility and agility.
  • Few students understand the concept of locking uke’s entire body structure when applying techniques and pins. Uke’s body becomes locked when kept off balanced continuously. This allows aikido’s devastating techniques to be practiced safely as undue force becomes unnecessary.
  • There is a general lack of awareness of the specifics of Founder Morihei Ueshiba’s art and philosophical views. O-Sensei’s lifework should serve as a point of reference and compass for practitioners during their aikido journey. Aikido Journal has facilitated this line of research through the publication of hundreds of articles, books and videos over several decades.

I would invite you to comment on the points I have raised, and offer your observations about training problems as you perceive them, and ways of improving the technical level of contemporary aikido.

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13s Comments

  1. Once upon a time long ago I attended a Frager Sensei workshop. He said, “You know the yin-yang circle? The line in between the two parts is aikido and is called ‘the easy’.” That I held on to this so long is a reflection of how hard easy is. As a practical matter if you need strength and have it, use it. Live to learn better. Losing a real fight will be very unpleasant. Better of course if your superior awareness (and humility) keeps you out of the fight in the first place. That’s the real easy which is also difficult.

  2. A good list. One thought lately – when uke attacks, neither the uke or nage understand the attack. No force or attempt to control nage is being exerted by uke, so nage isn’t responding to anything much.

    Is there a system of wrestling and striking that uses the list of attacks that we have? As presented or modified (i.e. My understanding has become that Nikyo and Sankyo and others are variations on morote dori.)?

  3. Great post, as usual! I could add to that list: the money-fication of the practice and teaching (from Aikikai Hombu Dojo down); the endless (and lucrative) proliferation of techniques; the absolute lack of historical knowledge and critical thought (which conduct to the naive belief that “aikido is the supreme martial art”, to the suppoused moral superiority of aikido’s practitioners and to the childish sanctification of Ueshiba Sensei); the absence of real martiality in training methodologies; the lack of consensus about very basic concepts….

  4. Many practitioners are not in sufficiently good physical condition to execute some of aikido’s more advanced techniques that require above-average body flexibility and agility.

    Of your list, I do not have problems with any of them except the one I copied above. As a teacher, I can not even practice let alone teach some advanced techniques do the physical condition of my current students. Years ago, I had a couple of college students that if I didn’t give them some high flying techniques such as koshinages during class, they would approach me after class and request some big throws. It was a great way for me to expand my timing and knowledge of advanced (in this context, ones that require advanced ukemi) techniques, I sure miss that extra training.

  5. Hello you all!

    Stan, I completely agree with you.

    My point of view on this problem is about the way we learn aikido. More, the way we have to pass dan exams… In French we use the word : “scolaire”.

    Let me explain my meaning: It’s like someone who is learning saxophone in a music school. After one year of practice and lessons the learner has the ability to decipher something like ” Take 5″.

    After 3 years we expect him to be able to PLAY “Take five”… The problem is : not everybody has this capacity to “play”. Or the music teacher has something to worry about.

    It’s the same in aikido, most practitioners have one main goal: Dan grading. Normally a dan is à pinpoint of your level. As there are many organizations proposing “real aikido” more real than the other, they mostly organise dan grading with criteria, to make sure that every one will be judged properly. This is one of the reasons that create a scholar aikido. A lot of guys believe they’re doing aikido, but they just do gestures actually. The best example of gesture is iriminage as you explained it “not to do” in one of your post: unrealistic. It’s nice to see from a profane point of view, and a fake from a fighter one.
    If we add this to your quote, we have as teachers a lot to worry about.

    Cheers!

  6. I could not agree more! I might add one here. I have found in our dojo some of the folks I practice with cannot or will not give an honest attack. They’re mostly the beginners though there are some in the Kyu ranks that will not attack with intent. I try to work on this with them when I have a chance to instruct.

    In order for Aikido to be “real” it requires a committed attack by uke.

    All these others on your list are spot-on. Thanks for all your hard work on this website!

  7. Sensei

    Please also take into consideration Uke must NOT resist… I have gone to a dojo where 2 Uke constantly resisted… I therefore had 2 choices… 1. change technique to be forceful One of these students was Sensei favorite person and Sensei constantly accused me of being forceful and corrected me in front of other students when I privately tried to explain she would not listen. Once she demonstrated Shomenuchi Ikkyo Ura with me as an Uke and actually tried to hurt me… I have since quit going to that Dojo because of the behavior of the Sensei…There is no other Dojo within 50 miles of me so I have to stop practicing the Martial art I most love.

    I need some advise on this matter
    Thank you in advance

  8. A dojo setting is a laboratory of sorts. Beginners have to learn rote movement sequences against little or no resistance. Advanced students can at some point encourage some resistance to test their ability to adapt to opposition and changing circumstances.

  9. Great list!

    I would add weak attacks (grabs and strikes) which give nage a false confidence in their ability to effectively execute a technique…this has long been a personal pet peeve of mine.

  10. I agree with everything you stated in the article about the problems that exist in today’s training in Aikido , I would add that most students in the kyu and even some Dan ranks train with big egos and forget that to accomplish a great technique first they must have humility and lose the ego, second Aikido is about continuous repetitive training and being open to creative criticism. In the years that I have trained and taught Aikido (23), new students fight and think that using brute strength is the answer to completing a technique. This is where a good instructor can quickly correct and place the student on the right road.

  11. If you can’t execute your waza on a resisting uke you have 2 choices:

    1- revise your technique and/or your ” irimi “, breaking balance has been achieved or not?
    2- use the proper technique for the situation

    I find myself trying to apply the technique being taught on an uke with completely wrong intent for what i wish to do way too often .

    I just changed dojo for the summer, and one of my new partners tried to block me from doing a very subtle type of irimi nage.
    Unfortunately for him, my main dojo trains us not to use force but rather ki (style was partly derived from Tohei sensei’s work)
    and i had to show him that is feeble arms muscles couldn’t keep up with my whole body. it was fun to try and also fun to watch his face
    change once i effortlessly throw him down while his face was starting to turn red

    Compliant uke is never good. Once i was told by another partner ” i can’t do my shihonage because you don’t turn with me ….”
    I was amazed that this guy had been training for a few years and still required helper wheels for kihon wazas.
    I ended up telling him ” No, YOU need to make me turn … i’m not resisting with force, i am merely waiting for your here ”

    This last year of training ( which was my first ! ) I ended up pulling a few ” god shots ” out of nowhere, while experimenting.
    Most where on very basic wazas. ( ikkyo ura from kata or a tsuki, kokyu etc.. )
    But every time it was after having hard time to even get it to work under some resistance,
    relaxing , not focusing on uke at all and every time it was using no force at all .

    All of those few “lucky ” successful executions ended up with both uke/nage in awe about what just happened.

    I now strive to replicate this.

    2- I thought that all aikido was taught with some basic ” ki ” development, it seems it is not the case ?

    3- Then, do some really train just for ranks ? what a great loss of personal time and efforts .. i am sorry to hear that

    4- Uke’s balance … to my humble beginner’s self; it seems very difficult to complete successfully any type or throw or osae on a non compliant, stable opponent .
    breaking balance and maintaining the control of it should be a priority …. seems hard to accomplish even for advanced students of the art though.
    Which japanese sensei was a master of breaking and controlling uke’s balance again ? Maybe we should watch more of his stuff and learn by it ?

    Lastly, after this intense beginer’s year of aikido on my part, reading almost every books from masters on the subject, reading every articles here and there …learning as much from history of O’ sensei and other important senseis in aikido’s history, i came to a very primitive conclusion that only Saito sensei was sufficiently exposed to the fully developed aikido of the founder to be able to reproduce it accurately enough for us to learn from it.
    Founder’s aikido must serve as a base, a reference but it cannot be 2016’s aikido if you copy/paste. It must not be.
    All martial arts evolve with every touch, and aikido should be what everyone makes it to be.
    Nishio sensei seem to have understand that it was not required to emulate O’ sensei aikido directly, but rather use the basic principles as rules and explore from there.
    Hope i make some sense here ..hihi

    please accept my humble but much interested opinion

  12. I completely agree.

    I work a lot and can seldom drive two hours to pay a visiting mat fee. Unfortunately, I am only able to train with weapons kata and suburi. Occasionally a karateka friend, who is interested in Aiki thanks to several online videos I’ve shown her (particularly Ledyard-sensei’s), will attack me and do several slow Aiki exercises with me. What I’ve found is, proper balance, timing, distance, and footwork help to make my stuff work even with her strongest combinations and even WITHOUT training in a dojo with a sensei and sempai (much as I’d rather). And since I am only able to train with weapons on my own, then it is the bokken and jo kata/suburi and my previous training that keeps me from getting pummeled. I will watch videos (anything from Ledyard to Pranin-sensei to Lenny Sly-sensei) and find that I can replicate much of the taijutsu that I see because the weapons teach me how to move–how to switch my weight, how to keep my shoulders from rolling forward and slowing me down, how to avoid rocking back and forth before attacked, etc. You can’t even think about getting kuzushi every time if you can’t move!

    However, when I get lazy and don’t cut my sticks properly, I have to remind myself to find that proper relaxed body posture. If not it’s harder to relax my muscles and, thus, harder to send intent where I want. Bad movement with my weapons almost exactly resembles bad movement without them. My karateka friend, who regularly spars at her dojo, will inevitably say things like, “that one was easier,” or “that feint grabbed you.”

    I guess my point is, even if you can only practice with weapons, Aikido can work against attacks if you apply the weapon arts to the body arts properly. But the attacks have to be real, and just like with weapons, the response has to be almost simultaneous and bring every thing to bear that makes the weapon work. So if the Aikido dojo or instructor doesn’t teach PROPER (practical) weapons form then Aikido probably turns into something akin to moving around the attacker instead of moving with them–giving them space instead of claiming it–holding breath instead of timing it to release tension at the proper moment. Weapons kata is something that you can correct hundreds of times with every cut, thrust and step. Taijutsu without weapons (and with weak attacks) can possibly give you the opportunity to steadily practice the wrong things over and over again (for years and years). I think this is harder to do if you’re paying attention to the whistle the ken makes, and your position before, during and after the cut; the position of your hands on the jo at the end of the kata and whether your weight is too far forward, over your big toe.

    After demonstrating one of the jo kata in a video, Ginny Breeland-sensei mentioned almost in passing that each time someone does a kata they can focus on something different–footwork, breathing, cutting, etc. This struck me because I remembered a boxing champion–ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins, I believe–telling an interviewer that when he hits the bag he often changes his focus from his hands to his footwork, to his torso movement, and back again. It occurred to me how much boxers do with their training OUTSIDE of sparring or hitting pads in the ring, including hitting various bags, various forms of cardio, and shadowboxing. And of course, boxers never have to worry about facing someone who doesn’t genuinely attack them!

    PROPER body mechanic training with weapons and real, balanced attacks, it seems to me, does a lot to keep training honest. My theory is that most bad Aikido dojos avoid or improperly teach weapons and body mechanic practice.

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