“Change As Part of the Cycle of Movement in Aikido” by Alister Gillies

“Serious practitioners of Aikido face the same situation that O-Sensei
faced: an uncertain future with no guarantees about the final outcome.”  

I agree with most of what George Ledyard says in his article, but it does somewhat beg the question regarding change in Aikido. Certainly, the winds of change are blowing. They have been blowing from the outset!

When O Sensei and a few followers left Sokaku Takeda they could not have foreseen the development of modern-day Aikido. Similarly, when O Sensei instructed Bansen Tanaka to recruit the sons of wealthy parents as students, or entrusted Hombu Dojo to the care of his son Kisshomaru, he could not have foreseen the creation of a corporate Aikido. When the founder left Tokyo for Iwama, sick in body and mind, I feel sure that his intention was not to create a definitive style of Aikido as a legacy for future generations. Given what we know of the founder’s life, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was engaged in Shugyo to mend his ailing spirit. Everything he had believed, not least the spiritual uniqueness and divinity of the Japanese people (and therefore himself), had been called into question by the events leading up to and following the Second World War. While the nation was preoccupied with material survival and restoration, O Sensei set about a process of spiritual reconstruction that was to take many years. When he left Iwama, both he and his Aikido had changed.

O Sensei was always moving on, and everyone else has been playing catch up, trying to emulate, imitate, advocate, dispute and incorporate ever since. While O Sensei has left the building, the characteristics that were there at the beginning, schism, financial insecurity, and finding one’s own way (Do of Aikido), are still fundamental preoccupations – as any teacher running a dojo will tell you. It seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Serious practitioners of Aikido, those in it for the long haul, face the same situation that O Sensei faced: an uncertain future with no guarantees about the final outcome.

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Is there anything that O Sensei left behind that can help us to navigate through our own confusion – because confusion there is, an abundance of it? If O Sensei were to take even a casual glance at an Aikido internet forum today, it is doubtful that he would recognise his own creation. He might well ask, as he often did: what are these people practicing? In the face of change, uncertainty is natural, but uncertainty multiplied by fear results in confusion. Did O Sensei leave anything behind? Yes, he left us with ourselves! Not this or that teacher, not this or that technique, not this or that explanation, but an untapped and rich resource of human potentiality that each of us can mine if we can only “become one with the universe”. What could be simpler; what could be more difficult? Fear is what prevents us from moving on.

One thing that O Sensei did not leave behind was a management model. O Sensei only managed himself, and everyone around him – even to this day – struggled to keep up with him. The principles of expansion and contraction are key principles evident in many Asian spiritual practices. It is not surprising that the expansion of post-war Aikido has in turn given rise to fragmentation and contraction. This is natural. If one looks closely at one’s own practice and development, expansion and contraction is happening all the time. This is movement, this is change. It’s ironic that individuals, some very experienced, and organisations – some well established in Aikido – are resistant to this process. Fear cuts ki, stagnates, and militates against movement and therefore change. What is being practiced?

When shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints are worn out, what are we to practice? Do we want to be one with the universe, or in bits with the universe? There is considerable irony in the fact that many teachers who advocate the way of unification, are themselves in bits through severe physical practice. They must see scope for change more than anyone else. I’m sure many of the better teachers are proactively seeking it, and not worrying too much about the consequences.

The information super highway assists in creating, and exacerbating, appetites for all kinds of things, but offers little in the way of real satisfaction. We are confronted by many options and choices. When the Berlin wall came down, many easterners had to undergo therapy to cope with the bewildering array of choice that left them confused and unable to make simple decisions. Shopping for a tin of peas became a frightening endeavour. It helps to know what you want, why you want it, and what you are going to do with it. In a recent conversation with a Japanese Shihan he said, indirectly asking a direct question, “What is Aikido? I think this is a very interesting question.”

If you spend your time chasing teachers, that is your practice and that is what you get good at. If you spend your time sitting at the feet of a master, that is your practice and you will probably get haemorrhoids. If you spend time trying to acquire aiki skills, you will simply get good at trying. There are countless examples of students attending the classes of masters with excellent aiki skills who can’t do what the teacher is showing, but still they go. Everything changes. Aiki skills come when you are less driven by ambition, and stop trying to imitate someone else. What am I practicing at this moment is a question we should all be asking in our dojos.

In a sense managing change is an oxymoron. It can be resisted, it can be adapted to, it can be embraced, but the only sure thing is that it will always happen – it is a force of nature. We are part of that nature, and if we have the courage to unify ourselves with that nature and realise that it is our natural heritage as human beings then change will be less problematic. This unification is not something that a teacher can give you, a teacher can only facilitate. The student must do it themselves. The fact of the matter is that such facilitators are rare in Aikido, or anywhere else. O Sensei could not give what he had to anyone; he simply encouraged people to find it for themselves – to be one with the universe. While there have been obvious gains in terms of accessible knowledge and experience in the expansion of Aikido, perhaps what has been lost is the simplicity of a teacher and a few students practicing and growing together. In his travels around Japan this is what O Sensei did, spending time with different teachers and a few students. It is, after all, how he began.


Leave a Reply to Araki-Metcalfe Paul Cancel reply

  • Incredibly great! I’m with you, sir.

    All of this rings so true to me having experienced so much of what was written above myself. I often reflect on O’Sensei’s path as I reflect on my own. It has been fraught with enigma and often, to some, it is indiscernible. Ironic that this is also part of the way and the example of the founder. A beautiful, imperfect, person of great connection to the source of creation. Mine, ours, and his…. people get all tied up in knots concerning themselves with being as ‘spiritual as O’sensei’ or as martially proficient as him or his predecessprs. But what folks tend to miss, or I tend to miss, is embracing the imperfections of a perfect path.

    I remember the culture shock I experienced when I first encountered aikido forums. I first ventured to them searching for a community in aikido after having lost my own of 15 years. I longed for the courtesy at the dojo, the sincerity of shugyo of people on a dedicated path, and the assumption that maybe there was more to this than our silly little minds could grab a hold of. In short, I expected to find aikido and what I found was war. War with aikido, war with each other, war with nature, war with love.

    But that, I feel, is also a part of the path. Looking for the real way means looking within and practicing without. Doctor heal thyself!

    I also believe that O’Sensei was mending his soul, I’ve felt it for myself in these troubled times, and was concerned with his path knowing that being a light in the world means addressing your own darkness and staying true to your heart mitigated direction.

    O’Sensei remains not just as my inspiration but as a brother or father on a path through infinity, starting here. I felt it from the day I began training, as if I had stepped into a home I had been to as a baby. I feel it now. And I’m glad for it.

    In my dojo, where I’m the teacher, we just do what we do practicing the forms the best way we can and listening to the flow of time, ancestry, emotion,and whatever other junk floats down the stream. We have a gritty love for aikido and we just keep polishing.

    Thanks So Much!

  • …There is Aikido, then there is aikido. Aikido has dojos, mats, uniforms, ranks… aikido has none of that. People do what they want, study or not. For some there is a fit with Aikido, for some there isn’t. Of the latter some go to other martial arts. Some simply don’t do martial arts any more. Some may have gotten some hint from Aikido of a personal message, or have had their curiosity engaged. They drop out of sight, but continue their own path as best they can with the tools they’ve acquired…

  • I really enjoyed your article and totally agree with what you had to say, well said, well done.

    So many people spend their whole lives resisting change, yet nature and the world do it all the time without thought, or wasting time foolishly resisting it.

    I believe we are doomed as a race due to our stubborn resistance to change.

    Let go people, go with the flow instead of fighting change, we should all embrace it.

    Evolve naturally and freely, as we really have no control of our surroundings no matter how powerful we think we are as a person, race, nation.
    Good luck, good life, good Aikido
    Araki-Metcalfe Paul

  • An inciteful follow up to an interesting initial article.

    I feel George give a little bit too much credit to the Aiki expo of just 10 years ago. Even in my limited experience which draws towards 20 years, I have since day 1 heard discussions about the weaknesses of ‘budo sportif’ (correct!!! an expression clearly sourced from France) when compared to true Aiki practice built upon a foundation of ‘ceaseless kotai’ – our mutual friend Mr. Thompson will recognise these words.

    However the influence of the internet and the TV, both good and bad has to be acknowledged. At its best it provides a gateway to those that have no concept that true aiki can deliver power beyond the physical – at worst it provides ample opportunity for swine to slander pearls cast before them.

    Looking for the good – of course it can separate the magnificent from the mundane and it can highlight the bloody awful. It can encourages the honest to look at their own training and recognise areas of weakness. Thus it empowers the open minded to seek out improvements and audit themselves.

    Is this a change though? surely there have always been those that constantly strive to improve, to make the circle of their movements smaller and the circle of their power larger? There have always been those that do this …and those that do not.

    I’ve also been told since day 1 that Aikido IS Change – change the software in your head, reprogram yourself not to fight but to relax and go with the flow.

    The internet voices of the ‘internal power’ brigade talk of solo exercises to prepare the body to deliver ‘Aiki’ – Pierre Chassang asked those of us fortunate enough to enjoy his practice to do the same – ‘you must construct the body’ – always the same message comes back. I’ve tried some of these solo excercise. They are good – but didn’t feel very different to sitting kokyuho or tora fume to me.

    So perhaps this is not unique – there are fortunately instructors around that carry this message – and deliver it within a martial framework. But they are rare it is true.

    Love your question ‘what am I practicing at the moment?’ …it begs another- ‘Am I practicing Aikido’ or working towards the day when it arrives? Or neither?

    So true too that Aikido cannot be taught – Your sensei can guide the way but only you can feel the messages from your own body.

    Thanks for your thoughts – See you soon for some further guidance.


  • For students training in Aikido, it is possible to find Aiki; but this has very little to do with technique – though it is of course related. Aikido is a ‘Way’, and therefore like all other ‘Ways’, a path of continuous development. Aiki, though difficult to define, could be described as a sensibility that has both physical and psycho-physical dimensions, emphasising both relaxation and an attitude of non-dissension – characteristics or qualities that are capable of infinite refinement. O Sensei once commented on the way that people where training at Hombu: “When will you realise that there is no uke or Ueshiba”. When caught up in a dualistic way of seeing things there is an attacker and a defender. Training in Aikido can help to dissolve this sense of separateness. From this pespective, one of unification, there is no bus, no driver, and no destination. On the other hand, in the every day world there are mat fees, gradings, rental payments, politics, etc. Reconciling these apparent differences is always a challenge – the Yin and Yang of it all. Personally, I just like to practice and explore the kata to see what it has to teach.