There is an idea that keeps cropping up in aikido at the moment. I’m not sure how long it’s been rumbling along for, but it seems to have come to the forefront of social media in recent times. The argument runs a bit like this – Aikido training is worthless because it does not include pressure testing.
The first thing to address with that statement is what, exactly, is meant by pressure testing. This is where things start to diverge a little. It may not surprise you to learn that aikidoka have trouble agreeing on the definition of pressure testing. The generally accepted version though is that it means sparring. Specifically that uke is free to attack and respond in a realistic manner. This means full resistance on the part of uke.
So does aikido have pressure testing?
When you look at most aikido dojo’s the statement would, on the surface of it, seem like a very valid point. It’s a hard one to refute. There is, in general, a complete lack of realistic attacking in aikido. Is that a bad thing though? Well, yes. Without a genuine attack, an honest intent to hit, then the martial effectiveness of the art diminishes over time through complacency. You get away with things you shouldn’t be able to get away with so bad habits, like not taking kuzushi (balance) are allowed to creep in. In the long run you would better off in ballroom dancing which has many of the same foot movements.
This is a very easy thing to solve though, all it takes is some gloves and honesty. Given that this would improve most people’s aikido it’s something that I would recommend we all try.
We already do this. Pressure testing is built into every technique we practice. No gloves required.
I’ll admit that’s a pretty bold statement and one that is blatantly false. We know it’s not true because nobody in aikido spars with full resistance. The fact that we don’t tells me one of two things. Either aikido lacks pressure testing or aikidoka aren’t training properly.
So which is it?
After careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the second option, we don’t train properly. There are several reasons to think this but there’s something that we have to realise before we consider what they are.
Aikido garners a lot of criticism in the modern world. If you’re feeling brave take a wander through the comments section for aikido videos on YouTube. It’s a dark and murky place filled with ignorance, misunderstanding, trolls and, in some ways, truth.
What you’ll find though is that there is a disconnect in logic. A failure to separate two very distinct things and criticise the wrong one. Aikido is an amazing art. For various reasons I actually believe it to be one of the better arts for self-defence though that’s not relevant here. What is not amazing is the way that we train. That, right there, is where the distinction is missed.
The way that something is practiced is not the thing itself. This a really important point that is very seldom acknowledged. It is; however, very true. Consider rowing as an example. An oarsman will spend a lot of time training on dry land, building fitness and technique using a rowing machine. Is that oarsman, on dry land, rowing? Not really. At some point he will leave the rowing machine and get into a boat. Actually he’ll do both. Train on land and on water. At no point though would the oarsman suggest that training on dry land was rowing.
The same concept applies to aikido. The way we train it isn’t the actual art itself. The failure to distinguish between these two things has led to a major amount of criticism of aikido, some of which is entirely justified. It’s in this distinction though that we can realise that aikido has built in pressure testing. We just aren’t doing it right.
Why is our training bad?
Let’s examine the uke/nage relationship as a starting point. In the vast majority of aikido there is a complicit agreement that uke will attack and nage will throw. There is also an unspoken agreement that uke will attack once and nage will throw once. This is perfectly fine for beginners. You have to learn the form somehow, but a travesty for advanced students (and no, you may not use the trope that ‘we’re all beginners’, that’s just humble-bragging).
The issue arises from the attack once aspect. If you recall from the post relating to the Line of Attack you’ll remember that it’s a movable feast. It changes every single moment and is always a direct line between uke and nage. Uke is supposed to be attacking along that line at all times. That is part of aikido. That is also not how we actually train.
When you look at the majority of people in aikido they attack with an arm and the other one is left flopping around down by their side. That arm should actually be in a position to strike if nage makes a mistake. It should be an active threat and uke should strike if there is an opening. An uke that does that is a very rare thing though. Most dojo’s actively discourage it.
This comes from the concept that uke’s are supposed to flow with the attack and keep the momentum going. It’s a simulation of what would actually happen. This has led to ukemi with a very strong focus on flow. That’s great, if you do aikido correctly then there is a lot of flow in the attack. Unfortunately though this means that the rest of the ukemi has not been maintained. Specifically the aspect where uke is continuously pressuring nage by attempting to move into them along the line of attack. How they pressure nage is completely up to them as well. Uke can move, strike, sweep, throw, lock, even perform henka waza (countering techniques), whatever takes their fancy.
What you have then is something that is very close to, and by some descriptions actually is, pressure testing. Nage faces an opponent that has no restrictions placed on how they move during the technique. The only issue is that we’ve trained our non-compliant opponents to be compliant. That’s not an issue with aikido, that’s an issue with the training method.
As a final thought it’s important to note that we rarely have ‘true’ pressure testing in aikido. The reason is that the initial attack is almost always prescribed. Uke is given the initial attack, and nage is expecting it. In full pressure testing the initial attack would be unknown. That said, there are times when attacks are not stated such as jiyu waza or randori. If ukemi was performed properly in these cases then it would essentially be full pressure testing.
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