“Aikido and the Reality of Self-Defense” by Jim Sullivan, Ph.D.

“In reality our primary need for self-defense today is truly defense against ourselves!”

This article highlights a topic of great importance for all aikidoka and martial artists. I have written a number of articles expressing similar viewpoints that I believe are often overlooked in training. I highly recommend that you read and reread Jim’s article. -Ed.

 Dr. Jim Sullivan

Dr. Jim Sullivan

Aikido, like all martial arts, evolved from a need to defend oneself against physical assaults from other people – hence the term “self-defense.” The world remains a dangerous place and it may never be so safe that there is no need for martial arts training. However, the reality is that in today’s modern U.S. society the biggest threats we face are not so much violence from other people but chronic diseases resulting from our own sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle. Nearly 88% of all deaths are considered premature due to lifestyle related factors. Foremost amongst these factors is lack of regular strenuous physical activity. In fact, according to a recent Surgeon General’s Report, the single most important thing a person can do for overall health and longevity is regular physical activity. Other controllable factors that can contribute to an early demise include poor diet, obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking, and stress. There is always a chance that Aikido technique such as Nikyo, Iriminage, or Kokyunage may be needed to defend oneself; but in reality, inactivity and other poor lifestyle choices are much bigger threats to a person’s safety and well-being. Statistically speaking, the chance of a person using a specific Aikido technique to save their life is very remote – perhaps one in a million. On the other hand, statistically one out of two persons will die prematurely from some form of heart disease, and many others as a result of the effects of cancer and diabetes. Being physically fit may not entirely prevent these diseases, but it will certainly delay them and improve ones’ chance of survival. Data show that people who exercise regularly live significantly longer, have fewer dysfunctional years prior to death, and a much greater functional capacity throughout life. While physical threats from others still exist, in reality our primary need for self-defense today is truly defense against ourselves!

jim-sullivan-03In the U.S. a lack of physical fitness has become epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one half of all U.S adults fail to get adequate weekly activity and one of four reports no leisure time physical activity at all. Only 20.4% of our adults meet recommended guidelines for both aerobic and muscular fitness. The prevalence of obesity continues to increase in both adults and children, and our public institutions no longer widely support required physical activity. Bradley Cardinal of Oregon State University recently published findings on the decline of physical education in colleges. In 1939 nearly 90% of all colleges required physical education classes, yet today less than 40% of colleges include physical fitness in their required curriculum.

There is always a chance that Aikido technique such as Nikyo, Iriminage, or Kokyunage may be needed to defend oneself; but in reality, inactivity and other poor lifestyle choices are much bigger threats to a person’s safety and well-being.

Aikido can provide an enjoyable and useful means of improving physical fitness and may be marketed as such to attract students. However, relying solely on Aikido training may create deficits in fitness, especially over time as students progress and with instructors who may not train intensely. It may be easy for the regularly training Aikidoist to have a false sense of physical fitness when the majority of society is inactive and unfit. Ironically, even if persons train Aikido several times a week, they may not be getting adequate physical stimulus to promote fitness because the goals of progression in Aikido are opposite those of fitness! Exercise programs are founded upon the “overload principle” – progressively increasing physical stress over time leads to an increase in fitness. In Aikido, as with many martial arts, the training goal is exactly opposite – increasing the ability to relax and improving efficiency of movement leads to an improvement in skill. By reducing physical stress and improving efficiency of movement one may become better at Aikido, but may fail to improve physical fitness. This paradox can especially impact instructors. As they become more skilled, relaxed and efficient, they may spend more time teaching and even less time training.

Stanley Pranin Sensei of Aikido Journal recently addressed the necessity for Aikidoists to exercise more in a short article. This article referenced a more extensive article Mr. Pranin had written several years ago addressing the seemingly frequent and premature demise of Aikido instructors due to decreasing levels of activity (Article #112, 1997). Although the language may have been inflammatory, the message was spot on. As Aikido instructors age and become more knowledgeable and skillful at instructing, their physical abilities will decline if they do not continue to train as well as teach. This can be a real challenge for instructors as well as for aging students. Teaching a high quality, effective, enjoyable, safe class expends a lot of effort. The teacher may be focused on watching and correcting students and may not have the time or energy to train during the class. Teachers often have many classes a week, as well as another job and family obligations making it challenging to find the additional time and energy to exercise outside of class. To make matters worse, as instructors gain in salary, skill and respect, it is tempting to spoil themselves with better food and drink. Couple an increased food and alcohol intake with decreased activity and the decline in fitness will occur even more quickly. For over a decade I studied Shotokan Karate before I began Aikido, and was fortunate to attend many seminars with Hidetaka Nishiyama Sensei, Chief Instructor of the Japanese Karate Association. After training one evening, Nishiyama Sensei made this statement “A country’s Karate is indirectly related to the economy; when people are poor and hungry they train more passionately.” This is not to say we need to be poor and hungry to be good at Aikido, but monitoring food and drink, as well as regularly exercising are certainly good personal choices to make.

Being physically fit may not entirely prevent these diseases, but it will certainly delay them and improve ones’ chance of survival. Data show that people who exercise regularly live significantly longer, have fewer dysfunctional years prior to death, and a much greater functional capacity throughout life. While physical threats from others still exist, in reality our primary need for self-defense today is truly defense against ourselves!

 Morihiro Saito (1928-2002)

Morihiro Saito (1928-2002)

The solutions to defending ourselves against a lack of fitness are relatively simple and highly attainable. First, always do a warm-up with your classes! In the old Iwama Dojo we never did a formal warm-up prior to class. For most, sitting in seiza and doing a few Nikyo stretches constituted the only warm-up performed. At a seminar in Italy Saito Sensei actually said it would be a waste of his time for him to do warm-ups at the seminar (“Lost Seminars”, now on Aikido Journal TV). Saito Sensei felt, I believe, that students spend a lot of time, effort, and money to be able to train with him. Therefore, any time he gave them would be Aikido training. I doubt that he felt warm-ups were unnecessary, he just felt students should warm-up on their own prior to training. Clearly, a 9th Dan Shihan, caretaker of the Aiki Shrine and protector of the Founder’s Aikido does not need to lead warm-up exercises when people travel from all over the world to learn from him. However, for daily training if the teacher does not lead an organized warm-up, most students will do little or nothing to prepare for class. Many instructors do an extended warm-up and are more fit as a result. My first Aikido instructor Shigeru Kawabe Sensei always did a 30-minute warm-up with stretching, conditioning and Ukemi. Often times I find myself feeling like just bowing in and starting Tai no Henko, but the vision of Kawabe Sensei and my training in Exercise Physiology always persuade me to warm-up myself and the class first. Over time the flexibility and conditioning activities performed during even short warm-ups will add up and promote better fitness and reduced risk of injury. Technical skills such as Tai Sabiki, Shikko and Ukemi can be incorporated into warm-up routines and students will improve faster as a result. It is also relatively quick and easy to add conditioning exercises like push-ups, sit-ups and handstands, as Pat Hendricks Sensei does in many of her warm-ups. Some teachers may use the role model of Saito Sensei and the argument that they are giving all of their time to teach their students Aikido, not calisthenics. This attitude may seem more serious, even altruistic; but in my opinion performing a few less techniques each class in exchange for a healthier, longer life is a good trade.

As Aikido instructors age and become more knowledgeable and skillful at instructing, their physical abilities will decline if they do not continue to train as well as teach. This can be a real challenge for instructors as well as for aging students. Teaching a high quality, effective, enjoyable, safe class expends a lot of effort.

Second, make a habit of not just teaching techniques but also training with your students. The best way for a student to learn Aikido is to feel it from their teacher, and taking Ukemi from a student gives the instructor insight as to what the student needs beyond what is visually apparent. Just taking Ukemi from one or two students per technique will help the instructor improve fitness and maintain Aikido skills. A good example is Kenichi Shibata Sensei, who always trains with his students during class. What a thrill and privilege it is for a student to get to throw a 7th dan Shihan!

jim-sullivan-06Third, and perhaps most important, is to supplement Aikido training with aerobic (“cardio”) exercise. Aikido can be a wonderful way to develop the mind, body and spirit. But when you break Aikido training down to the essential components of physical fitness, the least developed component is cardiovascular fitness. In fact, the only aerobic stress of Aikido is getting up after falling down. If your Aikido training is primarily Ukemi based and you are training intensely for at least one hour three times per week, then you are possibly getting an adequate aerobic workout. However, you can get a more effective, efficient and less joint stressing aerobic workout on a treadmill or stationary cycle. My recommendation is to get a good quality treadmill/cycle and put a TV, VCR, and wireless DVD player in front of it. If you are like most instructors you probably have hundreds of hours of Aikido footage on tape and DVD. You probably walk by them and often think to yourself “I want to watch these but I don’t have time to just sit and watch video”. You will be amazed at how quickly you will go through your library If you get on a treadmill or cycle 3-4 times a week and watch thirty minutes or more of video. In addition to all the Aikido Journal DVDs available, with Internet connection you have access to Aikido Journal’s on-line content and YouTube – a virtually unlimited supply of Aikido/Martial Arts video. In a few months you will be leaner, fitter, and feeling better. You will be more knowledgeable and motivated to teach, you will be practicing the most practical form of self-defense, and you will live longer!

9 comments

  • Excellent. I’m told more people die from a sedentary lifestyle these days than from cigarettes.

    In the martial context, what can you control? You can’t do anything about other people’s actions unless/until they are in your immediate proximity. You sure can do something about what you “bring to the party”. Fighting spirit is all well and good, but if push comes to shove, fitness counts. Size also counts, but your 200# on a 5 foot frame might not actually do you much good unless you’re built like a young O Sensei.

    Agreed that dojo aikido, at least Iwama style, is usually weak on cardio. My personal trainer has 4 legs, a Brittany. All dogs are wonderful, but a Brittany will definitely help do your cardio if you give them a chance.

  • My first Aikido teacher who was ex-military and hard as nails would say when the subject of warm up routines and general fitness was broached :- ” We’re here to do Aikido, if you want to get fit- do it in your own time…” End of!

  • I’ve found that, as Uke, throws work my cardio more than immobilizations. A class that is “throw heavy” can be very taxing for Uke. An “immobilization heavy” class, not so much.

  • Great article!

    It can be disillusioning to believe that aikido alone will provide the physical stimulus to truly keep a subject in shape.

    “Aikido must be paired with an traditional fitness regimen in order to nurture the body”

    These words have continued to shape the way I think about my own physiology in conjunction with training.

  • Great article!
    I’ve observed the same thing. The better we get at the art, the less aerobic and intense our workout. Sometimes the effect of a well-developed center is a well, (how should I put it?) DEVELOPED center! As my belly is growing to make room for all this ki I’m generating, this article is VERY well timed and I’m taking it to heart.

    I’d be interested to hear how other dojos integrate aerobic exercise into their practice. One thing my teacher has us do is called “misogi practice” where we do a kokyunage throw 10X each with a partner instead of the usual 4, and emphasize continuous connection- no breaks, no talking, no adjusting your gi, no center to center connection lapses at all. You must attack again as soon as you get up. You must stay with your partner through the entire 10 throws. That makes us sweat a bit! But still, high impact.

    I’ve often wondered how Koichi Tohei’s aiki-taiso’s could be of help in developing a lower-impact aerobic component to aikido practice, in addition to the form and posture training it seems to provide. Is this what Ki-Society folks get out of it? I’m not trained in that style so I don’t know much about it. Any readers here who can speak to that?

    It feels like suburi weapons work can also take on an aerobic quality (like in the 1000 sword strikes practice), though it would be important to balance out slow and correct form with higher intensity striking. Does anyone do something like that?

  • Doing ukemi is a wonderful form of exercise, in terms of stretching, cardio, and strength (my legs always ache after lots of breakfalls). Ukemi also helps with balance, coordination, and staying relaxed in movement.

    As one ages, I don’t believe there is need for extreme forms of exercise, including lengthy aikido practice. It is a shame that many instructors feel it is beneath them to do ukemi themselves.

    Finishing with breathing practice is also very helpful. I once asked my teacher, the first British aikido national instructor, “what is the best way to build energy?” He replied, “have a good practice, then do breathing.”

    On another level of self-defence, aikido helps the practitioner to develop confidence, such that they respond more effectively to situations. Responding with resourcefulness rather than fear, is, as Morihei Ueshiba used to tell us, the best form of self-protection. It is a lifetime training, but is immensely valuable in a reactive world.

  • Great article I truly believe that getting your heart rate up at the start during and the ending of each session has great benefits, I am a 30 year veteran of the fire service in Jacksonville, Florida and had to experience getting up all times of the day and night going from a normal heart rate to a very high rate, and I attribute my health at 62 years of age to my conditioning over the years in Martial Arts / Aikido. Thanks for sharing. Cooper, DeWitt 11/08/2019

  • Hi I am only studying about two years now, I am close to 60 . I really love Aikido.
    In addition to Aikido, I go to the gym and lift very light weights and use an elliptical machine 2 times a week. Sometimes I will take a yoga class and forgo weights and cardio. Do you think I am on the right track.
    Thanks for any suggestions.