What is aikido?

Aikido is a dynamic Japanese martial art focused on self-defence and self-development. Its techniques involve blending with the movement of an attack in order to take control of the attacker’s balance and then either restrain or throw him/her. Aikido techniques do not rely on brute strength, but instead employ co-ordinated movement, timing and sensitivity.

Christian Tissier shihan

Aikido training develops body awareness, fitness and flexibility, and physical and mental resilience. On a deeper level, the art is an exploration of personal interaction, the psychology of conflict, and traditional Japanese culture.

The Japanese word aiki (合気) means ‘uniting energy’ (often translated ‘harmony’). On a physical level, we learn to co-ordinate our own movement through relaxation, controlled breathing, and stable posture. When a partner attacks we learn to engage with and redirect their movement instead of blocking or avoiding it. On a higher level, this requires cultivating a state of mind that’s neither aggressive nor passive, but calm, composed and concentrated.

The final element -dō (道) in aiki-do means ‘path’ or ‘way’. This is shared with several Japanese martial arts (iaido, jodo, judo, karate-do, kendo, kyudo) and disciplines (chado ‘the way of the tea ceremony’, shodo ‘the way of calligraphy’). It signifies that aikido is a journey and not a destination — in other words, a process of personal development and not just a set of techniques. Aikido is an exploration: how to connect with another person, how to find strength in flexibility, how to improve your concentration, how to channel your emotion and energy.

(Above: Footage of Masatoshi Yasuno shihan, c. 1992. Watch on YouTube.)

The training process

The aikido training method is rooted in traditional Japanese culture, and specifically budō (武道) ‘martial ways’. The aim of budo is to develop as a person through the discipline of physical training.

Most of aikido practice involves working with a partner, and the intensity of training depends on the experience and ability of both partners. Advanced aikido students can practise with a lot of intensity, sending their partners flying through the air. Beginners work at a pace compatible with their own level of fitness.

Aikido practice requires just as much effort on the part of the attacker (uke) as the person who throws (tori). As well as initiating with a strong and committed attack, uke must also work continually to regain his/her stability while the defender executes a technique. This ability to keep composure even while being unbalanced and thrown is one of the challenging aspects of practice.

Aikido techniques are heavily influenced by samurai weapon arts, and for this reason aikido includes practice with bokken (wooden training sword), jo (four-foot staff) and tanto (wooden knife).

Typical class

A normal class begins with around 15 minutes of warm ups and stretches, followed by rolling exercises and footwork drills. Most the session involves practising techniques with different partners. There is no sparring in aikido, only controlled practice adapted to the experience of each practitioner. Everybody, regardless of gender, age, size or fitness, can therefore practise safely together.

You can form some general impression of what advanced aikido training is like by watching some of the video clips on the YouTube channel. It’s impossible to understand aikido, however, until you experience it for yourself.