How to practice Aikido?

All classes begin with aiki taiso, warming up and stretching. Sometimes, kokyu ho, breathing exercises may also be practiced, before or after training. Most practices are done with partners, the uke, literally ‘the one who receives’, and the tori, or ‘protagonist’. The roles are continuously reversed so that you experience all aspects of the principle being explored. Some exercises are performed solo, particularly ashi sabaki, foot movements, and tai sabaki, body movements, and ukemi, rolling and falling techniques. Similarly, the fundamental stances, kamae, are also practiced on your own without the pressure of having to simultaneously deal with the attack of an opponent.

In most other Japanese martial arts, the 3 K’s are the normal structure of training:

  • Kihon – the basic movements and positions
  • Kata – combinations of moves in a prearranged sequence
  • Kumite – prearranged combat with a partner

In Aikido these three are practiced simultaneously, making it a more natural, less rigid way of learning. However, this can also sometimes make it harder for people who like to learn in a linear manner.

In the early days of Aikido the techniques had no names, O-Sensei would simply ask for an attack and then respond. The students would then be asked to do the same thing. As you can imagine this developed the students powers of observation tremendously, but is mostly more suited to cultures where copying exactly is a normal means of learning. Nowadays, the teachers will demonstrate a technique 3 or 4 times, but will also offer some explanation. Nevertheless, training for mind and body coordination still requires improving your senses and perceptions.

The study of Aikido should actually be the study of riai, the fundamental principles at the core of all Budo. Since there are an endless number of possible techniques, mastery through memorization is pointless. Some examples of these principles are timing, distance, balance, and focus. Such riai, and other elements, are present within every technique, and it is the embodiment of riai, which form the real basis of martial competence, not the number of techniques learnt.

Classes begin and end with bowing to each other, rei, as does every technique. This is a matter of respect for each other, but also a heightening of the awareness that what you are about to do carries an element of danger and should be approached accordingly. We also bow when we enter the dojo, literally ‘place of the way’, to remind ourselves that this is a special practice and to prepare our awareness. The word practice in Japanese has two different meanings, the first, keiko, literally means ‘to reflect on times past’ and refers to the long line of budoka who have gone before us and the ethical issues involved in training. The other, renshu, refers to the drilling or constant repetition necessary to master the art.

Students wear a keikogi, similar to a Judo uniform. At dan (black belt) level students also wear a hakama, a kind of pleated skirt. This is traditional wear for Budoka, and the seven pleats symbolize the seven virtues of the Samurai:

Jin – Benevolence
Gi – Honour
Rei – Courtesy
Chi – Wisdom
Shin – Sincerity
Chu – Loyalty
Koh – Piety

In this way the hakama can act as a continuous reminder of the personal qualities that can be embodied as the result of long term budo practice.