Aikido – Martial Art, Sport, or Therapy?

3rd Dan Essay by Nigel Scott (April 2016)

At my first PE lesson at secondary school, the teacher, an ex-commando from the second world war, explained that he wanted to teach us the three ‘s’s of physical education – strength, stamina, and psychology. Despite his rather gruff demeanour, and his somewhat intimidating reputation, he had articulated a holistic view of wellbeing, even if it was a bit before its time. Now diet, exercise, and wellbeing are all part of the common lexicon of public dialogue on health. How does aikido fit into a 21st century, western lifestyle?

How does aikido see itself? First, let’s take a look at how it advertises itself to the world at large. Aikido is invariably described as a martial art. The term ‘martial’ implies skills developed for the prosecution of war, named after Mars, the Roman god of war. So any martial art is clearly likely to be of value to anybody involved in occupations concerned with direct conflict, such as the military, police, prison service, and so on. But what about the vast majority of aikidoka (practitioners of aikido) who do not fit into this category – what value does practising aikido hold for them?

My experience of aikido has often reminded me of my school teacher’s approach to PE, except that it has developed suppleness, stamina, and psychology. That is not to say that it does not help maintain muscular strength – after a couple of hours of training, most aikidoka are fairly unpleasantly sweaty, having had a good workout. So should aikido for the non-combatant be regarded as a sport? It is interesting to find that the Olympic charter does not provide any definition of what constitutes a sport[1]. This leaves the door open for endless arguments over whether ‘sports’ such as darts and chess, classified as ‘mind sports’, should be admitted to the Olympics. Nevertheless, sports are variously defined as competitive activities requiring both skill and physical exertion. There can be no doubt that aikido fulfils both of these criteria, although I am led to believe that there is a substitutional relationship between the two – as one’s technique improves, so the amount of effort required ought to diminish.

One of the basic principles of aikido is blending with one’s opponent, in harmony – after all, the word can be translated as ‘the way of the spirit of harmony’, and a non-combative spirit runs deep in the way it is taught, with many clubs (in the UK at least) describing themselves as ‘friendly’. Non-resistance is a key feature running right through the teaching of aikido. On a physical level, for example, techniques are designed to allow joints to bend in their natural direction, minimising the risk of serious injury. On an attitudinal level, aikido promotes values of respect and politeness, indeed Tohei’s book on aikido[2], which was edited by the founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba (1961), states that “aikido is based on the laws of nature and believes that “The martial arts express love””. So aggression, along with concepts of victory and defeat, are somewhat at odds with the spirit of non-resistance that were central to the founding of aikido

In one of his blogs, Stanley Pranin points out that Morihei Uyeshiba served in the military during the Second World War, and so was not opposed to the use of violence[3].However, after the war, having witnessed the devastation, waste and suffering that resulted from such confrontation and violence, he became resolutely opposed to the use of force and developed aikido along the principles of non-resistance. Consistent with this was his opposition to competition; Stanley Pranin again: “Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba forbade competitions in aikido in the strongest possible terms”[4]. Unfortunately, this excludes aikido from the definitions of sport mentioned above. Nevertheless, Tomiki aikido does exist as a form of “sport aikido” in which training includes competitions comprising bouts in which a defender scores points by throwing an attacker, usually armed with a knife. Pranin clearly believes Uyeshiba took a dim view of this approach: “Kenji Tomiki, the man who did introduce a form of competition for aikido, became a persona non grata at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for having taken this egregious step. He also became estranged from the Founder from that point on.” (ibid).

Although aikido cannot be classified as a sport, there is nevertheless a great deal of benefit to be had from the physical exertion involved in training. A key component of public health campaigns is encouraging citizens to take regular exercise, emphasising the health benefits. For example, the NHS website on the benefits of exercise says “It can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%”. The focus on health benefits (or illnesses) is understandable, given that the NHS foots the bill for addressing health problems, so any illness averted represents money saved. The government’s current guidelines for healthy living recommend 75 minutes of ‘vigorous aerobic activity’ a week for adults aged 19-64 to stay healthy, which can be met by even a single training session. So practising aikido can have health benefits to any practitioner (and their health service provider).

However, the benefits of exercise stretch beyond physiological health into wellbeing, a topic that has increasingly received both media and academic attention (see, for example, the work of the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge, and the Work, Health and Wellbeing Research Group at the University of Bath). One output from such research that has gained a great deal of traction is ‘mindfulness’, a meditation based approach developed to combat increasing levels of stress that is claimed to have benefits at an individual and institutional level (e.g. in business corporations) and even in the military (e.g. Brewer, 2014[5]). The military applications are interesting because the techniques were originally applied with a view to helping serving personnel develop resilience to stressful situations. The military use ‘stress inoculation’ to prepare soldiers for dealing with the levels of stress encountered during combat, but this does not help with post stress recovery – how to ‘de-stress’ once a combat situation is over. Mindfulness training was developed for just this, and with some success.

Mark Williams at the University of Oxford has researched depression and suicidal behaviour, and developed Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as a tool to combat relapse in depression. These techniques are recognised by the UK National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) as part of treatment for depression[6]. The approach is also valid in less extreme circumstances, and his recent book outlines techniques for reducing stress and increasing happiness in every day life[7]. Although mindfulness, as the name suggests, focuses on calming and training the mind to avoid or diminish negative thought processes, it is interesting to find the extent that mindfulness recognises the importance of the body.

Williams talks about the interdependence of mind and body, and gives an example of how mood affects the body. He quotes research that measured the way depressed and non-depressed people walked, and found that depressed people walked more slowly, swung their arms less, and tended to walk with a slumped posture. More interesting was other research that showed how the body can influence mood. Volunteers were asked to hold a pencil between their lips, forcing them to mimic a scowl, while others held a pencil between their teeth, forcing them to mimic a smile. When asked to score how funny cartoons were, the ‘smiling’ group found the cartoons much funnier. While this may seem a bit of a daft experiment, the researchers’ conclusion is that mind and body can work together in virtuous (or vicious) cycles. Williams goes on to say that mood and judgements can be influenced by the state of the body, yet in today’s society most people are unaware of their bodies. Many of the mindfulness exercises in the book aim at encouraging people to become aware of their bodies and how they move.

To cultivate mindfulness truly, we need to become fully integrated with our body once more” (ibid).

These findings bear a remarkable resemblance to the teachings of the early proponents of aikido. Tohei dedicates almost the entire of the introduction chapter of his book to the importance of the relationship between mind and body, which is also reflected in the title he gave to the book. It’s not exactly clear from his writings how the two can work together, at least not in a clinical, academic sense, and he does confess that this is very difficult territory. Aikido involves smooth and fluid movement of the body, but more importantly, this movement has to be done in harmony with an opponent’s body, all of which enhances one’s level of awareness of the body. Posture and awareness of the “tanden”, or one point in the lower abdomen, is key to maintaining balance and power. Again, posture is specifically mentioned by Williams as linked to a sense of wellbeing. Aikido teaches the importance of breath and an understanding of the role of breathing in technique; mindfulness focuses on breath as a foundation for awareness exercises. Aikido practice requires high levels of concentration to grasp the complexities of techniques, and having a fist or weapon flying towards you helps focus the mind, which is a central aim of mindfulness.

Aikido is often said to be one of the more difficult martial arts to learn. This is because of the subtleties that need to be understood (and practiced) in order to make the leap from applying techniques, involving moving one’s own and one’s opponent’s body, to achieving control of an opponent’s body. Examples include using small movements to unbalance an opponent, districting the mind of an opponent (effective atemi), and use of distance and position to lead an attacker into a position where their balance can be disturbed more easily. To be able to put these disciplines into practice in the dojo requires concentration, but to be able to put them into practice when under attack requires mental calm, difficult to achieve when the adrenalin is flowing.

These commonalities between aikido and mindfulness are hardly surprising, given that both have their roots in Buddhism. The two main spiritual traditions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto (‘way of the spirit’) is more of a set of traditional, indigenous beliefs and mythologies rather than a formal religion, even though it was written down and codified around the 8th century. Buddhism, on the other hand, was introduced to the country from Korea around the 5th century. Over the following centuries, a range of different flavours of Buddhism came and went out of political favour. The point is that both sets of spiritual beliefs were prevalent and influential in the development of martial arts in Japan. Indeed, the role of spirituality in martial arts is well recognised; for example, the Wikipedia page on martial arts states that they can be practiced specifically for mental and spiritual development[8]. This is particularly true of Asian martial arts, which can be practiced as part of the path to enlightenment. More often, however, spiritual practices are regarded the other way round i.e. meditation can be practiced as a means to improve mastery of the martial art.

This paper argues that aikido can be of benefit on a number of levels, not only to those likely to be engaged in direct conflict situations. These include health benefits as a result of cardiac activity, movement, stretching and bending. Both aikido and mindfulness therapy emphasise the importance of coordinating mind and body, so it can be argued that aikido can contribute to improved wellbeing and the reduction of stress. There is also social value in participating in a group activity, and aikido practice is (mostly) great fun. While mindfulness therapy is explicitly meditation based, this is not generally true of the way aikido is taught, at least not in the UK. However, as mindfulness becomes more widely recognised, it might become more acceptable to integrate these techniques into aikido practice once again.


  2. Aikido. The Co-ordination of mind and body for self-defence. Tohei K. (1961).
  5. Mindfulness in the Military. Am J Psychiatry. 2014 Aug;
  7. Mindfulness. A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. William M., Penman D. (2011)

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