by Steve Sharp
From many years of Aikido Keiko both in the U.K.and Japan I have witnessed many Aikido gradings from a wide variety of Dojo’s each demonstrating variations in approach and application of the format within the grading process.
There often seems to be a mismatch between expectation and the reality of performance of technique both from what the Sensei’s observe and the Aikidoka’s experience particularly within the U.K.
The reason for this, I think is due to a mismatch between the size of the Aikido Syllabus and what is expected in the various gradings and the limited preparation time spent practicing by most Aikidoka’s in the U.K.
For example, when I started Aikido in the mid 1990’s in Oxford and later in Bristol I committed to training three times a week (One of which was Weapons training). There was of course throughout the year special seminars and week long seasonal courses too, for more rigorous training.
I trained in Japan, first at the Niigata Aikido University Club and then at Osaka University Aikido Club for a period of ten years. They were both Old School Aikikai clubs (Osaka being the oldest in Japan of which it celebrated its 50th Anniversary during my time with the club).
The University clubs were linked to the Sensei’s own Dojo outside of the University.
Students would train five mornings a week in the University and every Saturday at the Sensei’s Dojo plus of course the intensive seasonal week long intensives etc.
I was lucky enough to have the time to partake in the same training with the students during my stay in Japan.
While in Niigata I also was introduced by a Japanese Aikidoka to a Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido club run by the Russian Console of which I trained one night per week as I wanted to experience this particular approach to Aikido myself.
As a family we also practiced Kendo while in Niigata and I managed to take Shodan before leaving for Osaka.
Osaka University followed the same format as Niigata in terms of training sessions of which again I was fortunate to have the opportunity to partake fully.During this time I also trained one night a week at a Dojo of the Osaka Aikikai Association.
It would take a University Student with the commitment of training listed previously, four years to get to the level of Shodan - which of course is just the beginning of the learning process.
I have listed my experience in the U.K. and Japan with the example of Aikido in a Japanese University setting to highlight the level of commitment needed to enable an Aikidoka to cover the depth and breadth of the Aikido Syllabus and the Grading System.
I think the mismatch between expectation and reality often seen and highlighted during a grading lie in the vast difference between the depth and breadth of the Aikido Syllabus and the time the individual Aikidoka particularly in the U.K. can commit to practice.
This mismatch between expectation and reality creates disappointment and frustration both from the Sensei and Aikidoka’s perspective of which needs addressing.
In my view we need more Depth through Principle and less Breadth through Technique.
This might translate to perhaps a smaller Aikido Syllabus with fewer techniques at least in terms of the grading system but may offer the opportunity to explore deeper principles within those techniques.
First, we must hone these principles within our own bodies before we can express these same principles through technique with a partner.
These core principles are initially practiced individually primarily via specific Aikido Taisabki performed statically and dynamically to help build a centred and balanced body in both stillness and movement. Ukemi is another foundational aspect of Aikido in preparing the body to enable skill in receiving and safety in falling. (The ground is our first immovable partner where we learn how to blend).
Shikko is an element of practice specific to Aikido which helps build strong and mobile legs and a stable centre. Specific Aikido strikes are practiced individually to build the right spirit and attitude in giving with the right spirit of attack. The practice of Weapon Suburi primarily with the Bokken and Jo also forms a major part of foundational movement specific to the development of the body and spirit in Aikido.
Through the movements listed above we become more sensitive and aware of our imbalances and weaknesses in structure and over time with practice and correct instruction we begin to slowly correct refine and develop a more balanced and stable Aikido body; resilient enough to maintain our structural integrity while training with a partner.
We are then ready to practice foundational Sotai-Dosa (Aikido movements with a partner).
The most important being Tai No Henko (Uchi and Soto), Morote Dori Kokyu Ho and Suwari Waza Kokyu Ho. Others that are commonly practiced include Hiriki-no-Yosei/Shiro-Giri, Tenkan-Ho and Haishin-undo.
Through practicing the above exercises we learn how to maintain our own bodies integrity through the structural alignment of the pelvis horizontally and spine vertically creating a balanced and stable centre which enables us to connect to our partners centre and disrupt and manipulate their balance and create a Kuzushi (One of the Fundamental principles of Aikido).
Sotai-Dosa (beginning exercises with a partner), signals the beginning of the opportunity to explore and develop core Martial Principles in general and more specific principles relative to the practice of Aikido.
These Core principles should be taken on board during every practice generally and even more specifically pronounced during a grading.
I will list these Principles all of which are probably already on the website but I will write something on each of these Principles over time.
- Etiquette and Deportment.
- The Right Mind Set. (Alert, Empty, Open & Fluid). Also important to explore these qualities of Mind as in… Shoshin, Mushin, Fudoshin & Zanshin.
- Body. Pre Movement. (Shizentai - Natural.Formless, Neutral & Responsive).
- Ki. (Body, Mind & Spirit unified through extending and expanding our sphere of influence).
- Kokyu. (The use of the Breath as a tool for the Unification of force within ourselves and by extension with our partner within technique).
- Metsuke. (Soft eye focus which develops peripheral vision. A more expansive and open perspective which the develops the mental quality of Zanshin).
- Musubi. (Mind & Body connection within oneself and within the context of practice with a partner).
- Ma-ai. (Awareness of space and spacing within and around oneself and the importance of appropriate angles to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in producing an opening in our partners attack and create a Kuzushi).
- Irimi and Tenkan. (The two most important movements in Aikido which takes you off the line of attack but also takes the initiative through entering).
- Atemi. (The Art of striking at the right time and in the right place to take Uke’s mind and disrupt his structure creating a Kuzushi).
- Ukemi. (The ability to receive and respond to an attack which ultimately neutralises it and enables a possible counter attack).
- Kihon, Awase & Ki-no-Nagare. (Three important expressions of movement to be demonstrated in every technique in Aikido).
When we take a grading we have to be Ready, as within that scenario, there is no time to think and pontificate there is only time for action - which should come naturally with appropriate preparation. We need to have these Principles embedded in our bodies and minds so that we can demonstrate clarity of mind and precision in technique.
From the moment the Grading starts Tori needs to dominate the space around them and lead Uke’s mind and body into that Empty void where Kuzushi is taken and control guaranteed.