Equality in the dojo

Aikido Equality

Aikido belts worn in the dojo

 There’s a lot of discussion in the media at the moment about equality, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to talk about equality in the dojo, a safe environment where we can practise for the real world. 

by Danny James and Andrew Sunter

The concept of the dōjō draws elements from both Shintō and Buddhism. The dojo is a sacred space, a place of calm and respect.

When we enter the dojo, we symbolically purify ourselves as we remove our street clothes and don our ‘spiritual armour’, our dōgi (uniform). We leave behind our outside lives — our profession, status, gender, race and creed — to encounter our selves, striving to resolve physical conflict through the practise of aiki (harmony).

What appears to be an external problem — someone physically restraining us — actually has an internal solution. Over time we learn to respond with calm, confident competence instead of reacting with fight, flight or fright. This requires us first to resolve our internal conflicts: our doubts, fears and preconceptions.

When we arrive we greet sensei, our teacher. She or he is our principal guide on the journey, someone who has been practising the way for some time. When we line up at the start and end of class our sempai sit to our right. Sempai means ‘senior’, not necessarily in age but in terms of time-in on the mat. They help us through the nitty-gritty and we express our gratitude with respect and cooperation. On our left sit our kōhai, our juniors, the people for whom we are responsible. In this way we automatically have an established relationship with every other person in the dojo. This helps to build community and promotes safe and harmonious learning.

At the beginning of class we all bow, saying ‘onegai shimasu’ (please). At the end of class we bow again and say ‘arigatō gozaimashita’ (thanks for that!) to express our gratitude. We exchange this respectful ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ each time we pair up to train during class. This is typical in dojos worldwide.

In our dojo, after bowing to end the class, we form a circle to signify that while we all have different roles and responsibilities, we are all working together and taking care of each other. ‘Otagai ni rei’ means ‘bow to each other’.

Coloured belts are comparatively new to Japanese martial arts, having been introduced as recently as 1935. They help identify relative skill levels in larger dojos and are used more to combine than to divide, because in the dojo we are all family for the few hours a week we spend together.

Just as in a family we have different roles and responsibilities as parents, children and siblings, so too in the dojo we have roles as sensei, sempai and kohai. Over time we hope to experience all of these roles and at times we might occupy all of them simultaneously! Equality is not about everyone having to be the same, equality is about everyone receiving the same respect whatever their position, abilities or attributes and regardless of similarities or differences.

If we can spread these feelings of community and equality into the wider world, wouldn’t that be something?

Come and experience it yourself

Quick guide to Japanese pronunciation

  • short vowels: a as in ‘part’; i as in ‘peat’; u as in ‘pooh’; e as in ‘pet’; o as in ‘pot’
  • long vowels: ai as in ‘pie’; ei as in ‘pay’; ō as in ‘port’


dōjō (道場, lit. ‘place of the way’) martial arts training hall; say, ‘daw-jaw’ — ‘doe-joe’ is also fine as it is extensively understood and thoroughly anglicised

dōgi (道着, lit. ‘way clothing’) martial arts uniform; say, ‘dawgy’ — often just called a ‘gi’

aiki (合氣) variously translated as ‘unifying energy’ or ‘harmonious spirit’, the principle of aiki is both a lot simpler and a lot more complex; say, ‘ikey’ as in ‘crikey’

sensei (先生, lit. ‘person born before’) in everyday use it simply means ‘teacher’; say ‘sen-say’ as in ‘sensation’

sempai (先輩) senior (at work, school etc.); say ‘sem-pie’ — just as it is normal to address a teacher directly as ‘sensei’, it is ok to address a senior as ‘sempai’, particularly if you see them as taking a mentoring role in your development; a good sempai is like a kindly older sibling encouraging you to do better and helping you when you get stuck

kōhai (後輩) junior (at work, school etc.); say ‘core-high’ — we never address someone as ‘kōhai’, we typically only use the term when discussing the responsibilities of a sempai

onegai shimasu (お願いします) while this incredibly useful phrase simply means ‘please’, in the dojo it suggests ‘please train with me’ and implies the desire that the training will be both mutually respectful and mutually beneficial; say, ‘on-air-guy-she-muss’ (as quickly as possible)

arigatō gozaimashita (ありがとうございました) this is the past tense of ‘thank you’ and implies ‘thanks for what you’ve done’ at the end of an activity; say ‘ah-re-gar-toe-goes-ah-ee-mush-ta’ (also many times quickly)

otagai ni rei (お互いに礼) bow to each other

Aikido for children: how young is too young?

Aikido for children and young people: it's great fun and they learn skills along the way

Aikido for children and young people: it’s great fun and they learn skills along the way

We get a lot of enquiries at the dojo for kids classes and for increasingly younger students. It seems parents are looking for classes for kids to help fulfil a need or aspiration.

Benefits for kids
The study of traditional martial arts has a lot to offer kids. At a physical level there is the development of strength, coordination and balance in a cooperative environment. There are regular milestones for progress through the awarding of belts that need to be earned, rather than just handed out. Steeped in traditions of the orient, the practice of martial arts offers kids a temporary escape from the real world where they can re-invent themselves a little and be the best they can be. All the while developing a sense of personal responsibility, pride in achievements and respect for themselves and others.

Our approach
Aikido is sometimes called ‘the thinking person’s art’. Exponents of aikido are skilled in reading intent, understanding body dynamics and redirecting the energy of an attack. The study of aikido can be challenging but it’s especially rewarding for children. Aikido presents a new way to think about the world each and every time they throw or are thrown. Might doesn’t equal right, nice guys can finish first and even the most difficult of obstacles can be met with a smile and resolved through softness rather than aggression.

Just as we present our adult aikido classes for adult learners, our Aiki Teens and Aiki Kids classes are tailored specifically for teenagers and younger learners. Each of these classes takes into account the physical, mental and emotional maturity of the individual, and adds plenty of physical activity and fun into the mix.

From their first class our young people are learning real world skills relevant at home and at school. Beyond better motor-skills, the added benefits of improved concentration, confidence and calmness appear serendipitously.

So if you are thinking about coming along with your child but aren’t sure how young is too young, come along anyway and give it a try: they will probably surprise you with just how capable they are. And within each class there is opportunity for lots of differentiation so they’ll be having a great time!

Look forward to seeing you in Term 4


Oww… dude, don’t grab my wrist so hard!

aikido gorilla

Shomenuchi, G.Matteoni, Source http://aikidoarticles.blogspot.com.au

I think we have all had that experience of the dojo ‘gorilla’ striking to injure or grabbing our wrist so that our hand turns red and then varying shades of purple! It’s discouraging and we wonder if we are really learning a martial art when it’s so difficult to perform the technique we are meant to be practising. So what’s going on?

There are a few things to unpack here.

Does aikido work?

Aikido is a martial art based on koryū (literally, old school’) principles and therefore does not encourage competition such as sparring. One disadvantage is that there is no external measure of whether or not aikido works. This was fine in the founder’s time because he was travelling around Japan taking on all manner of challenges. But fast forward to today and it’s harder to satisfy ourselves that ‘the art of peace’ really works. Sometimes a form of competition arises in the dojo and the ‘grip of death’ appears from a student wanting to satisfy themselves that the art works. The trouble is this can become habitual and the death-gripper has to be convinced over and over again. The learning environment is often the first casualty, so this practice becomes self-defeating.

So please Mr Gorilla-grip, satisfy yourself that the art works once, and then get on with learning the art so you can be better at it!

I’m better than you

Humans like social hierarchy and at the basal level social dominance is exerted through physical displays of mock violence. If you want to prove you are better than someone and you know what their next technique is (because that’s the one sensei said to do) then it’s easy to grip hard and block. Great stuff! You’re stronger than me … now, can we get on with learning aikido please?

For tomorrow we die

In the dojo of old you were training as part of a clan or village, because the very next day you might be doing battle with the clan over the next hill. In this environment it makes little sense to block another person’s technique constantly. Your training partner and you are on the same side, why not spend your time helping them get better rather than blocking their technique?

Aikido is kata

What we generally think of as techniques aren’t techniques at all. Instead they are kata, basic shapes that draw on specific principles and let us practise certain movement patterns over and over again in order to experience ‘aiki’. Think of a 20-step karate kata and imagine someone stepping up behind the karateka at move 15 and bopping them on the head to ‘prove’ that karate doesn’t work. This is exactly what is happening when uke grabs to defeat.

Aikido kata have a number of phases including: contact, unbalancing, entry, moving in harmony and a throw or pin as resolution. One person, nage, is learning to implement these phases effectively, the other person, uke, is learning to survive them. In this sense the best defence is not to block or resist: that’s actually dumb on a battlefield where everyone has a metre-long razor blade in their hands. As uke you are learning to move ahead of a technique without resisting, while providing sufficient challenge to your partner that they are able to improve their performance at each repetition.

Aikido is not a combat sport

In combat sport, women and men compete separately in weight divisions against people of similar ability. A 150 cm, 50 kg woman is never matched against a 190 cm, 130 kg man. But in the dojo we can have exactly that kind of match-up. It takes time for smaller, slower, older or weaker people to realise the mindset and capability to prevail against younger, faster, stronger and larger opponents. But this is exactly the point of aikido training. If we progressively increase the challenge we give to our partner we quickly find that we run out of challenge before they run out of aiki.

Dojo rules

So given that practice is a set aikido kata, if your partner wants to depart from that by not practising the receiving part (uke), it’s not going to be a productive time. You might persevere with the kata or you might treat it as free play and practise a different, unanticipated kata or you might practise your atemijutsu (striking) instead. All of these responses have value.

It’s a lot like dancing

A frequent criticism of aikido is that it’s choreographed, with people throwing themselves around. The uke–nage dynamic is a precious thing. Uke must neither give too much resistance, nor just throw themselves for the sake of it. It’s for this reason that in koryū schools the teacher is always the uke, providing just enough challenge for nage to improve but not so much so that they fail. This is called error-free learning and it’s at the heart of elite athletic development. Early in his career, Tiger Woods hit 100s of golf balls into the night, not knowing where they landed. This enabled him to practise the mechanics of his art without being attached to the outcome. So take a leaf out of Tiger Woods’s book and practise for success. Uke, stay out of the way!

Next time you get the grip of death, just tell your partner they are too strong for you and ask them to ease up. If they don’t want to help you learn, well, find another partner. Life is too short for inferior practice. In time strength becomes much less relevant.

Related image

Image Source: practicalbudo.blogspot.com


No-touch aikido, yes it’s real!

O-sensei and kokyunage — no-touch aikido

This month Sensei is focusing on the kokyu (breath power) techniques of aikido. These are techniques that, at the highest levels, do not require physical contact with your training partner (or assailant). Kokyunage, one of the six pillars of aikido, is one of the more famous categories of aikido techniques and comes under intense scrutiny, particularly from other martial arts.

At the basic level, all kokyu techniques begin with a physical connection to your partner. This is to ensure there is rigour in the technique and that it absolutely can and does work.

Because aikido is a movement art, under the dynamics of practice the physical contact becomes progressively lighter as it is practised at higher levels.

Aikido operates by taking our training partner’s balance (or centre) right from the start of the technique, so our partner is in a perpetual state of unbalance through the movement until they decide to lie down or are thrown.

In aikido we are always practising both a technique and, as uke, a movement-based defence to that technique (this is an essential survival skill, as well as ensuring that we don’t run out of training partners in the dojo). Thus uke, the person receiving the technique, learns to mitigate the martial aspects of the movement by riding the power of the throw.

In our dojo we practise multiple levels of each technique beginning from static (where we develop our alignment and understanding of forces). We then practise under movement where we learn to coordinate ourselves dynamically and keep that alignment. At the higher levels of practice the physical and mental connection with our partner shapes the movement giving rise to  ‘no touch’ technique.

This ensures that our kokyu or ‘no touch’ techniques work, steering a path between collision and collusion to provide a direct physical experience of ‘aiki’. We avoid collision so as not to muscle through the technique with brute strength, and also avoid collusion so that training does not become a ritualised dance.

Over the course of the next month Sensei will be building on our foundation levels of practice to further develop our kokyu techniques, together with improving our ukemi to better receive them as uke. We look forward to seeing you there.


Below:  Sensei practising with a direct student of the founder in Japan, stepping through the various levels of practice.