Physical principles of Aikido

Firstly I must own up to being a fraud. I am no expert in the above, but feel that after almost 20 years of training in Aikido that I am just beginning to begin to get a notion of what this might be about, even though (as you know), I probably don't always practice what I am about to preach.

It could be said that the "Physical elements" of Aikido are twofold , these are:-

1. Techniques or Waza - prescribed movements which enable us to control an attacker in a non aggressive way utilising body mechanics, balance breaking and the occasional nerve point.

2. Physical Principles - these involve using our bodies efficiently in carrying out the above techniques and allow us to optimise our power, enabling weaker to overcome stronger. These are purely mechanistic, involving no magic (that comes later) yet can provide almost amazing results.

The learning of these physical principles is not an intellectual process, quite the opposite, it is purely organic. I think it is possible to be fully aware of these principles , i.e have read about them in a book and thoroughly digested the theory, and yet be unable to exploit them in training. Only when you are ready, after many years training, will these begin to be "integrated" into your "being". These principles involve feelings ,rather than ideas, which must be slowly learned by the body. Of course this theory is also my excuse for having taken so long to cotton on myself.

Traditional Budo masters including O'sensei deliberately withheld such information from their students on the basis that the principles would in time be acquired "naturally" and only by the most dedicated students who persevered. The question that arises here is whether we should respect the wisdom and teaching methods of the old masters and continue in the same vein or reflect our own "western" culture and be totally frank and open about all aspects of our art. I suppose that in writing this article I'm favouring the latter.

In the book "Total Aikido", Gozo Shioda introduces the concept of Shuchu-Ryoku or focused power. This involves not only using each part of our body to maximum efficiency but co-ordinating each of these parts into a single whole so that the cumulative power can be achieved.

Most people, regardless of physical strength, do not use their body efficiently. This reflects in their general stability and consequently they only generate a fraction of their potential power. Theoretically therefore ,regardless of technical skill, an advanced aiki practitioner could literally overpower a stronger adversary purely on the basis of efficient body use.

Shuchu-Ryoku is the first of the 3 stages of "Aiki Power".(my own classification - so therefore worthless!) The next level is Kokyu-Ryoku which to paraphrase Gozo Shioda occurs when sensitivity, breath control, timing and spirit (mind) are added to shuchu-ryoku. The final level of mastery is referred to as "Ki" or sometimes "Ai-Ki". My theory is that this is experienced when all the above factors are present in perfect balance and the end result is what is referred to as a "Synergistic" one, i.e. equal to more than the sum of the parts. There is something extra added which I can only surmise to be a mystical dimension since I have no understanding of this phenomena yet!.

Anyway, back to the principles of Shuchu-Ryoku (sorry, got carried away there!)...............................................

It is not uncommon to see aikido techniques performed without the physical principles being present, but this is not true aikido, it is merely a dance movement performed with a compliant partner. This stage however should not be belittled since this is where our learning begins- we've all been there, it is an essential part of the process. As we progress and acquire these principles our technique becomes much more effective and we can pull off moves even against resistant opponents. We also start to feel the effectiveness of our own technique through our uke and begin to make small adaptations to suit our own personal body dynamics.

In order to optimise our body power there are a number of fundamental rules governing the way we use our body and its constituent parts. My main inspiration here is a fascinating book by Peter Ralston called "The Principles of Effortless Power". The content of this book although written under the subject heading of Peter Ralstons own art of Cheng Hsin, is instantly identifiable as at one with aikido practice. At last a book that clearly states many of the principles that lie "hidden" within our practice or alluded to by other writers and teachers. The following principles are out of context with the source material and in my own sequence. Hopefully I have not missed too much :-

Favour the lower body (hips downwards) over the upper and place your attention there. Avoid undue muscular tension, maintaining a relaxed yet taught body with joints "unlocked" for freedom of movement.
Try to maintain a feeling of descending as if you body is falling into the legs and feet, as Tohei Sensei says "weight underside". This will allow the hips to drop to produce a strong stable centre. The Centre drives the whole body.

The Feet
The Earth is the Reaction to your force, therefore how we connect to the earth is all important. If you float around in mid-air you simply cannot apply force in any direction. Thus you should maintain an awareness of your feet and press them into the earth as if pushing the earth away from you. Feet should be kept flat with the heel down.

Legs and Knees
The legs are your source of power, the largest and most powerful muscles in your body are in the legs - use them!. By pushing down with the knee via the heel and into the earth, the legs move the pelvis and this in turn moves the whole body.
Your body weight should be unevenly distributed between the legs (60/40 says Yoshinkan aikido)), since this makes for easier movement by means of shifting the weight distribution. The knee should point in the same direction as the foot for functional efficiency and to avoid strain ,and should not extend beyond the big toe.

The kikai tanden lies at the centre of the triangle which forms the pelvic girdle
and when in the right posture this is our centre of gravity with all forces horizontal and vertical acting through this point.
To maximise our power and fluidity of movement we must place our awareness in this region (the hara) and allow it to drive our whole body as a single unit.

Torso (i.e main trunk of body above the hips?)
To align with the force of gravity and maximise stability, the spine and upper body should generally be kept vertical. The analogy of a pile of dishes badly stacked says it all!
The chest should be relaxed, almost depressed, and the belly allowed to stick out to maintain the feeling of lowering and centreing. The body should be kept horizontally between the feet.

These should be totally relaxed at all times and never used as the source of power. Tai Chi masters used to say that their shoulders had disappeared.
Furthermore the shoulders should be connected to the hips and always align with them.

Like the shoulders these should be powerless, yet extended and taught in the "unbending arm" mode. Armpits should be kept open but not excessively so, (Terry Harrisons "if you fly you die") The arms should not extend outwards , horizontally or vertically from the body and when raised the elbows almost always point down. Never use the arm as a single straight lever hinged at the shoulder- the arm is an articulated structure and operates in 3 stages : wrist - elbow - shoulder.

This is quite a heavy object to carry around on your shoulders so keep it vertical with your nose in vertical alignment with your navel.

This is one hell of a lot of information and no matter how much cramming you do you cannot work on all of the above points at once. Some of them may already be second nature to you so forget these. Of the others, work on them one at a time until you have thoroughly "integrated" or forgotten them. The vehicle through which to work on these principles is the Kihon Dosa, from here you can incorporate them into your Aiki generally and into everyday life.

To conclude a quote from Peter Ralston :- "These …principle considerations are our immediate and sole endeavour , so that throughout all of our twisting, turning, shifting, stepping here and there, we have indeed only done one thing! Yet we have apparently changed and changed again. It is here that we begin to experience the joy of this work. Through constant adherence to this principle we begin to see what is continuously and completely unchanged, and to develop insight into the very nature of activity. Over time the source of the activity emerges and becomes apparent to us."

Tony Hughes



© Koshinkan Aikido Society 2002 - 2004 Designed by Dennis Poole