I have been reading up on Aikido (a martial art I have studied in the past) and on its history for some time. I have yet to find a blog as informative, careful, well-written, perceptive, and accurate on the history of Aikido–albeit perhaps somewhat controversial–as the Aikido Sangenkai Blog. If you are interested in the history of Aikido, in Daito-ryu Aikijujuts, in aiki, internal power, Morihei Ueshiba, etc., then you MUST become a regular reader of this blog! I would even recommend contributing financially to their fine work, as I mentioned on my Facebook community page. I will be posting on some of this material more in the future. Although I have studied Aikido, and have taught some what might be called Aikijujutsu (since Aikido is a trademarked style), I have some knowledge of these things…but I am learning a lot more. I have recently met some people who have developed more aiki power than I have ever experienced outside of the Chinese internal martial arts (where they wouldn’t call it aiki), and it is causing me to rethink some things. I’ll post more on that later. I would also recommend reading a book I came across, but it prohibitively expensive from sellers, called Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power. If you can find a copy of this, I highly recommend reading it, controversial as it is…but then, I was never one to avoid controversy.
Here’s a terrific Steven Seagal Aikido documentary, “Path Beyond Thought.” It’s a long one, but well worth the time. He’s the real deal, when it comes to Aikido.
One of the common warm up exercises universally seen in Aikido dojos is called funekogi or sometimes the “rowing exercise.” This is an excellent exercise, and really could benefit practitioners of other martial arts beyond Aikido. When I first began studying Aikido and practicing, I didn’t really know what was going on and I think for the first few years, I just went through the motions with funekogi. It looks, and can feel…empty. In reality, when done well, funekogi is a great way of developing power. There are lots of ways of doing funekogi “correctly.” There’s no one way of doing it, although there are wrong ways to do it. But if you want to feel how this exercise can develop tremendous power, try a few things. (1) Grind your feet into the ground, digging your big toes hard into the ground. (2) lower your center a bit. (3) really use the ground that your feet are gripping as you move forward and back…you should be able to feel this in your hips and legs. (4) add some spirals in your arms, if you don’t already. This last point has to do with spirals, twists, appearing in your arms, but it’s really happening inside of you: palms down when your arms thrust forward, palms up when your arms pull back in. If you watch any of the videos of O Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba) doing funekogi, he’s spiraling like crazy! His funekogi looks more powerful than any I’ve seen. That shouldn’t be surprising because he was such an incredible martial artist. But I’ve never even seen anything close to it. My sense is we don’t practice funekogi this way. It’s not about muscle either. Aikido is never about muscle. But this is a solo exercise, so you’re not using your opponent’s energy….there is no uke. You’re using the ground forces of the earth, and you’re generating energy from your center. This is probably one of the most important Aikido exercises so keep practicing it! You will reap the benefits down the road!
Falling, or, more technically speaking, “taking ukemi,” is one of the most practical skills you will learn in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. It’s also one of the most important skills you’ll learn for actual Aikido training and practice. Taking ukemi well, learning to fall safely, is essential if you want to prevent injury during Aikido practice and training. The reason I mention falling as one of the most practical skills Aikido teaches, is because at some point in everyone’s life, you take a fall. We all slip, especially as very young children, but then also at the other end of the spectrum in life, as we get up in age. Falling may not be the most useful skill in self-defense–although, it’s not uncommon in attacks to be taken to the ground, and actual street fights very often end up on the ground–but it will serve you well in the practice of a number of martial arts–e.g., Aikido, Dumog, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese Shuai Jiao, Japanese Jujutsu, Judo, wrestling.
If you are new to the practice of Aikido, I would recommend spending as much time possible learning how to fall well. One of the ways to do this is practicing the back rolls (beginning from a seated position, then kneeling, then standing), front rolls, and eventually break falls. Aikido has its own way of taking ukemi, or falling. So, the ukemi of Aikido will look slightly different than, say, the ukemi of Ninjutsu. There are many good videos available on Youtube, but I would stress that you must not learn how to fall from a video. You need to find a good instructor…this will be a recurring theme of this blog. There are no safe or effective substitutes to live instructors, face-to-face, where they can watch you practice, and especially make corrections. Learning to fall from a video will likely end up getting you injured. The videos can be useful to see what it looks like, and to remind you of what you were taught, and sometimes they can include useful tips that can help supplement regular instruction.
Many martial artists look at Aikido as a “soft” art–less martial, more art. And it can appear this way, especially when you watch two fairly evenly paired practitioners. The falling can look staged. Sometimes there is a problem with the “attacker,” the uke, not really committing to the attack, and just going with it. But that’s not good Aikido practice, and, in fact, more injuries happen that way than when the techniques (including the attacks) are preformed properly. Falling is meant to be defensive, going with the throwing technique as opposed to getting clobbered with strikes, and also hitting the floor in such a way that you roll over large portions of your body (specific portions to avoid damage–thus not on the spine) to spread out the impact. It takes a while to get used to the falling, but once you do, it will really help you take throws without getting injured. Moreover, a side benefit will be the way that falling on the mat in Aikido will loosen up your whole body, especially your back and neck. I’ll be honest, if I wake up stiff from sleeping the night before, the absolute best way I’ve found to loosen up is to take some falls from someone performing Aikido (or another style with throws) techniques on me. It will probably take several months of regular practice to get to that point, but eventually, as the years go by, you’ll notice how loosened up your body becomes just from falling well on the mat. I’m tempted even to call ukemi in Aikido, “therapeutic falling.” Of course you should check with a physician first before beginning any martial art, or exercise program for that matter. If you have back, knee, shoulder, neck, etc., injuries, this is especially important. Aikido might not be for you. Although, when I have trained in Aikido dojos, I have noticed that the fellow students who had the most injuries from old age, or from sitting too much at work, especially back problems from slouching etc., were the ones who benefited most from falling over the years.
So, if you’re an Aikido practitioner, or interested in learning that art, don’t neglect your falling/ukemi training and practice! The best way to get good is to take as much ukemi as possible. Go slow at first, speed/efficiency will come with time. Don’t rush your Aikido practice. Don’t rush any practice in the martial arts. Take your time, be patient, and as the years go by, you’ll be amazed by the progress you make.