The way we test is really unique and says a lot about the art of Aikido.

Our first test is the 7th Kyu test after finishing the beginner’s classes. The techniques in the test consist of a few of our stretches, ki exercises, and very basic techniques. What it’s really for is getting us used to getting up there in front of the class at the risk of… failing. Not that anybody has really, technically FAILED a 7th Kyu test that I’ve seen, but what’s interesting is what we naturally do in the days leading up to the test: We stress out about FAILING THE TEST. Others may tell us that we can’t really fail it and we may act like we’re not really worried about it to our training partners…. but we are. Somewhere deep down, maybe at times not so deep down, we think there is a chance we might get up in front of everyone and be ridiculed by our teacher and the class, getting shamed off the mat and laughed out of the dojo. As simple as the exercises in the test may be, it’s amazing how we amplify their difficulty leading up to the test.

As we test, we wrestle our fear of failure in front of people we barely know, most of whom are very good at this crazy art. Even when we make it to higher ranks, we are put in crazy situations during the test, especially during the randori (multiple attackers). Our teacher may ask us to lay down while someone pins each arm, each leg, and three people are waiting for the command to attack so they can come in and try to take our life with a sponge noodle. Why? This would never happen on the ‘street’. Why are there seven people on this randori? If I ever piss seven people off at the same time in real life, I’ve got issues. The reason why is that under the scrutiny of our peers, we exercise our failure muscles. We’re always kept just out of our comfort zone where the risk of failure is imminent. If we don’t take that risk, we don’t advance. Essentially, we are moving up the ranks by failing, not by winning competitions. Through this process we become less fearful of failing.

As in most things with Aikido, this is exactly how it is in life. We advance by failing. If we don’t take the risk of failure and fly in the face of it, we can expect high levels of mediocrity at best (or we’re incredibly lucky).

As with most things with American culture, we grow up from a very young age believing that we succeed by winning. We win the football game. We get straight A’s. We knock the guy out. We win the race. This is great as long as we’re winning. What happens if we stumble? Now what? Some never recover from this and are devastated. Societal pressures don’t make this any easier. This mindset is very hard to sustain.

When studying very successful, innovative, and sometimes world changing people, we observe that they succeed by failing. They’ve had many moments of falling down, dusting themselves off, and getting back up only to risk failing again, and repeating this process until one day they discover the theory of relativity or the pet rock. Taking the risk of failure can be frightening, but history shows that those who stay resilient in the face of failure achieve great things. If that’s the case, can we really call it failing?

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In Aikido, we’re especially practicing the undercurrent. I’ll explain what I mean by this in a bit, but it’s the reason why, when people see Aikido practice, they sometimes discount it for an unrealistic martial art not practical “on the street”. They may not realize that when we practice the physical techniques, we use these techniques as guidelines for more important principles, and the martial functionality of the physical manifestation of the techniques pale in relation to the non-physical work we’re doing. I just read a great article from Jay Lindholm Sensei from South Austin Aikido that helped me with this. I’ve been pondering this concept for a while, but he put it very well.

Everything we do is about the undercurrent. It’s not what we say, it’s the state of our undercurrent at the time which we’re actually communicating to others. If we have an undercurrent of fear or greed, no matter what we say, we are communicating fear or greed. Even when we’re merely in the same room as someone else and no words are spoken, our undercurrents are communicating. If we don’t like that person, we (and others in the same room) can feel the state of that undercurrent, even if we fake nice. If we’re upset with ourselves or not confident, this comes through in our undercurrent as well. On the flip side of that coin, if we have awareness, confidence, calmness, control, and we carry ourselves well, this also is communicated through our undercurrent. This, I believe, is why O’Sensei didn’t seem to focus his instruction too much on physical technique. This undercurrent is where we’re all united and are constantly communicating with eachother whether we know it or not.

The techniques of Aikido are vessels carrying the principles of Aiki which help us refine our spirit (undercurrent). In Aikido training, I see a big purpose of our training being to purify this undercurrent with Aiki. When we do this, and we keep in mind why we’re doing this, we’ll see just how ‘practical’ this art really is to so many aspects of our lives.

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It’s only possible to withdraw power if you already have it. Without it, you have no other choice than to remain powerless. Being in a position of strength, but able to withdraw power from a situation is the absolute best position to be in. This is another reason we train. During a correctly performed Aikido technique, we should, at all times, be able to exert more power, but are choosing not to. This was part of O’Sensei’s genius. In Aikido, we usually have more in the tank if needed. My teacher once said “Walk softly but carry a big stick.” I think this is kind of what he was referring to.

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why do we do it?

Yokomenuchi Kotegaeshi. Break that technique down and how many different movements do we do? How many times do we turn and flow backwards or forwards (depending on which direction we’re going in), how many circles do we move in with various parts of our body? Look at the pin. Especially when we’re beginners, it sure seems like a lot of moves just to get the guy on the ground and pin him. It woulda been a heck of a lot easier to block the strike and hit him back. Why should we do it like this? Take the attacker to the ground safely? Why would I want to do that? I keep falling off balance and forgetting step 4 and 5. This is crazy.

I remember thinking these things when I first started training. I would watch other people do the technique over and over and couldn’t quite get it. So why do we do it? I think I’m kind of starting to figure out why. We put in the extra effort of doing the Aikido technique because it’s all about giving. We’re giving the gift of, hopefully, taking the attacker to the ground without harming them or us, and that gift is paid back to us in a couple of ways. For one, it feels amazing when we do it right. Doing the technique right in perfect balance and having it feel effortless is an incredible experience, and it looks pretty too, which is always nice. During a randori, flowing around the mat like a ghost as uke’s fall everywhere is well worth the practice. Art is what we’re aiming for here, and when you lose yourself in it, it feels incredible and the self-defense practicality of the technique fades in significance a little. In the case of a real attack, the next morning when the adrenaline rush is long gone, we’ll be glad we didn’t badly hurt (or worse) someone. These are yet some other reasons we train.

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In Aikido, Irimi (entering) is a big deal.  It encompasses about half of our basic techniques, and some say it encompasses all of them.  Irimi is a big reason why Aikido is a no b.s. martial art.  Entering at a slight angle towards the attack, especially when it’s a sword attack, is something not many can do on the mat, let alone in a real life-threatening situation.  With irimi, there is no time to think, only to act.  It could take us a lifetime to thoroughly explore the concept of irimi in all of it’s applications.  We could practice the physical techniques of irimi until we pass out, but unless our mind is ready, we won’t be ably to apply the principle of it at all.

Although it is an Aikido term, irimi is a principle that I’ve seen applied by people outside the dojo who don’t know a thing about Aikido.  You can tell it in people’s physical and mental posturing.  Those who lean into things tend to be good at irimi.  In order to effect something, one must lean into it.  These people get things done.  You won’t see them standing around waiting to be told what to do or taking a victim’s posture.   When there’s an issue, they don’t shy away from it, they go right into it.  When there are no issues to deal with, they are seeking out ways to improve things.  Whether they’re asked to do this or not, they do it.  Connection is what they thrive on, and they always find a way to connect with people.

Aikido is a great way to foster and train irimi.  Entering into a physical attack effectively is great exercise to calm your mind in the face of conflict.  We can also work on this off the mat by taking a forward mental and physical posturing in our daily lives.  Even when there may be no problems in the immediate present, look for ways to improve things in your home, workplace, etc.  Take the initiative of taking inventory and cutting away the thoughts and beliefs that may be holding you back in whatever it is you’re doing.  Cross those items off your list and, most importantly, always be moving forward.


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