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Self Defense: Does Aikido 'Work'?

Aiki Blog - Self Defense

If you spend any time at all on the Internet searching discussions, videos and blogs regarding Aikido, the topic of its effectiveness as a self-defense application will most certainly come up. The topic has become unnecessarily controversial. I have been asked repeatedly to weigh in on the matter and I have avoided doing so. Now however I believe there is some value to clarifying the issue.

Aikido is Budo. It is not merely a martial art, it is not just a spiritual or philosophical movement, and it is not only physical fitness training – it is all of these things combined and more. Specifically regarding self-defense, The uninitiated may observe at first glance what we do in the dojo and in our solo training and fail to see the connection to an effective self-defense system. Like so many things in life things are not always as they seem.

To a seasoned street fighter our attacks seem soft and ineffective, our throws and projections unrealistic, and our weapons training anachronistic. Isolating various techniques of Aikido and examining them separate from the whole system, I can understand where the outside onlooker would arrive at those conclusions.

The benefits of Aikido training specifically for self-defense are secondary or even tertiary, but they do exist and they are not insignificant.

Being in the dojo several times a week, working on one’s timing, distancing, and direction when training with a partner slowly but steadily builds a deep understanding of situational awareness. Being thrown, rolling and getting back up creates a body empowered with endurance, flexibility and resiliency. The genius of Aikido‘s primary strategy – redirecting the energy of an attack away from its intended target and then returning it to its place of origin, Does so much more than keep everybody safe in conflict. It ultimately rewires our mind, helps us to think differently, more circularly and can after many years of practice rewrite our internal programming with regards to conflict resolution. In short Aikido is mind altering, life changing and impacts the individual in every aspect of their existence.

Consistent training in the Dojo enhanced by consistent solo training creates what in some circles is termed as the “Aiki body”. This Aiki body Manifests itself in our daily life in subtle ways. In time, we are able to create calm in situations that in our past would have brought frustration or even anger. On a crowded street or grocery store Isle we find ourselves going with the flow, looking for openings where before we only saw barriers and obstacles. Ones fitness level improves exponentially. As our physical body six to be in harmony with its surroundings, so to does our spirit seek to be in harmony.These are the telltale signs of transformation.

A former member of our Dojo was a New York City policeman for several decades. When asked by another student what advice he could give for surviving the mean streets of Brooklyn, he simply stated “be hard to kill”. He went on to explain that the simple act of training in the dojo, getting fit, and improving one’s ability to stay calm in stressful situations, and increasing one situational awareness makes one “hard to kill” by definition. He was not merely referring to conflicts of a human nature, interactions with criminals for example. He was also referring to avoiding accidents, successfully responding to natural disasters, or emotional conflicts. This is sometimes referred to as “intentional toughness”.

Being “hard to kill” is the ultimate self-defense. Training with people who are hard to kill allows us to be aware of and to better navigate conflict. All of the elements I have spoke of, most especially intentional toughness and the ability to create a sense of calm are almost universal benefits of regular Aikido training.

Aikido means the way of Aiki. Aiki can be defined as “dynamic harmony of opposing forces” (that is my definition, by no means the only definition). As we deepen our personal study and understanding of Aiki we increase our ability to apply it in every day life. It becomes unavoidable. One day you will simply be aware of the fact that you successfully avoided some pitfall or accident. You will find yourself no longer defeated by emotional and psychological situations that in the past may have overwhelmed you. All of these benefits amount to a very comprehensive self-defense system. That is not to say that you won’t ever make mistakes, quite the contrary. This is not magic, but you will learn from those mistakes just as you always have.

There is more to effective self-defense than striking, kicking and throwing.In being asked about this very topic, Aikido’s value for self-defense, Saotome Sensei famously responded “My Aikido works. Your Aikido may not, but my Aikido works.”... Sensei was in his late 60s at the time having trained since the time he was a teenager. The lesson here is the value of consistent training over time.

Long ago a neighborhood tough guy showed up at Yamada Sensei’s dojo Bragging about his fighting skills and bad mouthing Aikido’s effectiveness. He challenged Yamada sensei to a contest. Yamada Immediately excepted the challenge and suggested the man come back next week as he just finished teaching several classes and was tired so it wouldn’t be a fair fight. The man agreed. When the man returned a week later, Sensei was out of the country teaching a seminar. Months later the man returned and Sensei was in the dojo alone. Once again he begged off explaining that he had had some minor surgery but that he was really looking forward to their duel. He insisted however on buying the man lunch, so the two went to a local pub and had a few beers and a long conversation. The man periodically would come into the dojo after that, watch class and engage Sensei in conversation. Sensei had used his people skills, his ability to generate “calm” hito defuse this attack. He had manifested a level of calm that resulted in changing this person from his attacker to his friend. That is Aiki.

Real self defense isn’t about the ability to throw a good punch, or having a can of mace or a concealed weapon. Real self-defense comes from Long consistent training that results in “being hard to kill”.

In the end, this effective self-defense is the least important component of incorporating Aikido into your life. Situations where you are in personal danger are few and far between. The real benefits of Aikido training have to do with physical and mental health, spiritual growth and ultimately self improvement.

Coming to the dojo is a continual act of self sacrifice and the struggle for growth. Walking through technique we are constantly improving, always self examining ourselves. The very act of trying to get it right, Striving to move in harmony with our training partner ultimately results in creating a better YOU. Make that your goal. Celebrate the victories you have over yourself, not others. Making yourself better, stronger, healthier, and wiser is the ultimate self-defense. I believe that is what Sensei meant when he said “my Aikido works”.


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