Ruminations of an Old Aikidoist

Having passed my sixty-fifth birthday, and practiced and taught Aikido for more than thirty years, qualifies me as an “old Aikidoist”. “Ruminations” may be defined as the meandering and crisscrossing of thoughts that might not prove too productive or useful. The reader has now been warned; continue at your own risk.

When I first began Aikido practice I tried to convince everyone I met of its value. Family, friends, and acquaintances would shudder at my approach. But, over the years, I found myself talking less and less about Aikido – and having some doubts about the things I was saying. Let me quote from an article written by Y. Yamada, Shihan, and President of the United States Aikido Federation, in the Spring/Summer 1995 Aikido East journal:

“… Even though I’m an Aikido expert, I don’t know police self-defense techniques, that’s their field. I don’t mind Aikido instructors teaching police self-defense instructors the techniques of aikido, but let police experts make the necessary adjustments for them to teach their students. It’s okay to share your Aikido knowledge, but don’t believe that you are capable of teaching self-defense; it’s a completely different skill. I see some danger in using Aikido this way, because pure Aikido technique has nothing to do with combat self-defense without knowledge or advice from other self-defense experts. If I were asked to teach the police, I would make clear beforehand that what I am going to teach is just aikido and ask them to make their adjustments according to their needs.”

The above comment was unsettling, as I had considered Aikido a Martial Art, based on self-defense techniques, modified to prevent serious permanent injury to one’s attacker. What I was initially taught, and continue to teach, are defense techniques against various attacks. And this is what took place in my classes with Yamada, Sensei. But maybe I was missing something by focusing in on the mechanics of the techniques – that there was something else underlying the obvious throws and pins. This related to another gnawing question I had about the name “Aikido”. The Japanese translation of Aikido is “The Path of harmony with the life force of the universe”. It does not mention fighting techniques; nor to winning or losing. Kisshomaru Uyeshiba, the son of the founder of Aikido, began his book, Aikido, with the following first paragraph:

Aikido is The Way of Chivalrous (or Martial) Spiritual Harmony. The Master, Morihei Uyeshiba, originated it after having spent many years of research, practice and development. Aikido is the art of assimilation and unification with Nature. There is no duality, no struggle, no opponent. There is only a harmonious action of our own spirit with the spirit of the universe. The techniques of Aikido are the bodily realization of this harmony.

My task now seems to be to use the obviously effective self-defense techniques, originated by O’Sensei, as a means of aligning my spirit with the spirit of the universe. This was definitely not my original goal, or understanding, of Aikido. An analogy comes to mind: in music one learns notes not to play notes, but to play music. The individual notes are not the melody, rhythm, tempo, or phrasing of beautiful music.

My first twenty years of training was spent learning the basic Aikido techniques. Constant repetition allowed for a gradual shift in understanding from the “conceptual” to the physical. Instead of thinking about how a technique should be performed (as I was doing it), I allowed the built in habits to determine the movements. The body seemed to know where it was supposed to go; “I” could relax and watch the performance. The “performance” contained the balance, straight posture, hanmi stance; all the basics I had worked on over the previous years. As I became more confident, I could be more relaxed. Being relaxed I became more sensitive to the lines of attack and could blend more easily with my Uke (attacker). This may be the harmony I was searching for.

Let me “meander” down a different path for a moment; that of Physiological Psychology. Brain functioning is sometimes classified according to whether it is controlled by the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere. The left side of the brain is related to the right side of the body while the “right brain” controls the left side. There is a further differentiation; one side controls language with its symbols and concepts while the other is more spatial, “artistic”, feeling oriented. I would imagine that the “language hemisphere” learned Aikido first – with all its exactness of bodily posture, etc. That was a more mechanically oriented Aikido. Next it had to become modulated by the nonverbal, feeling, flowing side that has its own, very different agenda. There must be some kind of interchange, or communication within the brain, leading to a more integrated, complete level of functioning. On a physiological level, that is the function of the corpus callosum, the sheet of tissue separating, as well as joining the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

When I was younger, the “spiritual” aspect of Aikido was relatively unimportant. That was a realm that could not be observed, measured, and controlled. Science had little use for this illusive, “primitive”, fantasy realm that could not be validated through experimentation. That was the “Left brain” devaluing the domain of the “Right brain”. The nonverbal brain deals with what can be sensed but is not quantifiable; love, beauty, peacefulness, and awe, are some of the most moving human emotions that are beyond description – though very real. In Aikido, the spiritual, may have been O’Sensei’s description of Right brain experience in Left-brain language. This is impossible because they are qualitatively different; as if trying to explain color in monochromatic terms. Language, with words, attempt to describe reality – but they are a step removed from the actual sensual experience. Immediate experience is a right brain function. The left-brain thinks and plans Aikido techniques; the right brain is where they actually exist in the momentary ever-moving instant we call “now” (the immediate present). In Left Brain Aikido, there is a separate attack that must be met with a defensive technique. Right Brain Aikido perceives attack and defense as a single movement; Nage is the other side of Uke’s attack. They are joined, connected, and move as one. This seems consistent with that first description of Aikido by Kisshemaru Uyeshiba, Aikido is the art of assimilation and unification with Nature. There is no duality, no struggle, no opponent. There is only a harmonious action of our own spirit with the spirit of the universe. The techniques of Aikido are the bodily realization of this harmony.

I’d like to end at this point by offering my deepest respect to O’Sensei, and all his students, who have passed along the fruits of his genius and made my life so much richer and meaningful. May all Aikido students discover their own unique expression of the meaning of Aikido in joyful practice.

by by Howard Pashenz, Ph.D

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2 Responses to Ruminations of an Old Aikidoist

  1. Thanks for suhc a great post! Are you really train aikido in the age of 65? With Respect,Vlad Gurgov

  2. uchi deshi says:

    And here I am – only an immature 53! I look forward to another 12 years!

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