Aikido from the Inside Out


The Principles:


Practice with different people


When it doesn't work


Flexibility in relation to aikido means more than being able to place your palms on the floor. Flexibility relates to your ability to quickly perceive and respond to each moment, particularly when things are changing.

This skill is hard to learn in aikido class because the class itself conditions you to expect the same thing over and over. It is common in classes to practice repeatedly with the same attack and response. While this method allows you to learn the movements that go into a particular response, you always know ahead of time what's coming.

What happens if your partner does something you don't expect? This is precisely the case if you have to use your skills in aikido for self-defense. If you always condition yourself to practice aikido in a fixed way, then when you confront a situation that's new, you won't be able to respond appropriately.

That's where flexibility comes in. Besides learning principles, you want to be flexible in your application of these principles.

Practice with different people

In normal classes you may switch partners while practicing the same technique. This is a very useful way to practice because the next person you work with will probably be completely unlike your last partner. They will differ in size, strength, temperament, and approach. If you try to apply a technique to your new partner in the exact same manner as you tried with the last, you'll likely fail.

A technique doesn't exist by itself, apart from a specific attack. A "technique" is an application of aikido principles applied to a specific situation. So, there is no one correct way of performing irimi nage or kote gaeshi. There is a general form that has a recognizable shape of irimi nage or kote gaeshi, and you will have to adapt that general form to a specific instance if someone attacks you.

A "technique" is the application of aikido principles to a specific situation.

If you study with different aikido teachers, you will see many variations of any given technique. Each teacher teaches the technique the way it is appropriate for himself. Each teacher's variation of a technique is based on his understanding of many principles of aikido adapted to his own physical type and temperament. This is how it should be. Your challenge is to take what you see and adapt it to your own body type and temperament. You'll make a big mistake if you try to do a technique exactly the way you see someone else doing it (just as a teacher makes a big mistake trying to make you do a technique just like he or she does it).

See if you can understand the principles of a technique that you see demonstrated, and then try to apply those principles to your own situation. Depending on your circumstances, the "form" you end up with may be very different from what you saw, and yet, you may very well have done the same technique.

As you relax into flexibility, you'll even see that doing the same technique with the same partner requires that you start anew each time.



Flexibility is something you'll need to develop for yourself. It requires constant experimentation. Some schools teach, for example, that all aikido techniques must have a vertical element to them, and that horizontal motions are incorrect. Find out for yourself. Almost every aikido technique has an angle of movement that is the most effective. Experiement with this angle. Try all the variations that are possible.

Does the technique require a 45 degree angle or is a 45 degree angle just one of an infinite number of variations that are possible with this technique? In order to gain a thorough understanding of a technique, you'll need to try many variations of it. You need to map the envelope of a technique to know where the principles of aikido exist and where they start to dissolve. So the first practical aspect of flexibility is to try as many variations of a technique as you can.

When a technique doesn't work

When a technique doesn't work, it's almost always because you have abandoned one or more of the principles of aikido. That's why it's useful to have a clear understanding of these basic principles. When a technique doesn't work, you can run through the litany for yourself to see what is missing.


Did you maintain the proper distance?


Did you blend with the attack?


Did you keep your balance?


Did you establish a connection with your partner's center?


Did you lead your partner's energy in a direction that is to your advantage?


Did you keep your ki extended?


Did you stay relaxed?


Did you remember to breathe?

In most cases, when a technique fails, it's because one or more of these principles has been lost. Try to identify the missing elements and reintegrate them back into your practice.

One thing to be clear about is that sometimes a technique won't work because it isn't appropriate for the attack. This type of confusion sometimes arises in the artificial setting of a class. A teacher tries to communicate something about a specific principle and asks you to practice a technique against a specific attack. While this technique may be appropriate for your teacher and his partner, it may not be appropriate for you and your partner.

For example, irimi nage may not be the most appropriate technique for you if you're very short and your partner is very tall. This isn't to say that irime nage is impossible in this situation. It's just that, if you were on you own to choose the response that's the most effective for you, you might not pick irime nage.

However, your teacher just told you to do irimi nage. So you try it because you're filling in the details of your personal irimi nage envelope. But if your training has been centered on acquiring flexibility, this experience may be a frustrating one because your instincts are telling you to respond in a different way.

The reason to call attention to this is because these are the very instincts that you are trying to encourage while practicing aikido from the inside out. So it's important to be able to distinguish between difficulty of this nature and problems due to missing some of the principles of aikido.

Jiyuwaza develops flexibility

Certainly the principle of flexibility dictates that if one approach doesn't work, you should switch to a different technique. Such changes are absolutely required in the practice of jiyuwaza, or freestyle practice.

I want to mention jiyuwaza here because, amazingly, quite a few aikido schools don't offer it as part of their practice, or if they do, they don't offer it until a student is fairly advanced, usually after the black belt level.

I find this is quite puzzling, because everything you practice in aikido class is designed to lead you to jiyuwaza. Think about a jazz school that teaches scales, runs, and even songs, but never lets a student improvise. Jiyuwaza is the practice of joyful improvisation within aikido. In full jiyuwaza practice, you have no idea ahead of time how the attacker will attack. You need to respond to the attack in the moment, using all the priciples of aikido. Each attack requires a different, spontaneous response. If you only practice fixed responses, it's going to be hard to achieve this spontaneity.

Jiyuwaza is the practice of joyful improvisation.

If your school doesn't practice jiyuwaza, I highly recommend that you practice it on your own. Get a group of interested students and practice after class. Because jiyuwaza demands more than basic practice, it's important that you start out slow. There's no great advantage to practicing jiyuwaza fast, especially in the beginning.

You can also restrict the practice to certain attacks. For example, a useful place to start is with grabs to the wrist. Try to respond spontaneously to various wrist grabs. Let the attack itself suggest the response. One extremely useful variation of this practice is for nage to be blindfolded. Then the response has to come almost entirely from the energy of the attack and not from a preconceived notion of how to respond. Of course, blindfolded jiyuwaza requires additional safeguards so that no one gets hurt.





Proper Distance


©1993-1998 Howard Bornstein