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Some Thoughts on Teaching in Aikido

(I will use the words instructor and teacher to refer to “the one who teaches”. They do not have exactly the same meaning, but are used interchangeably to avoid redundancies.)

As an aikido teacher and since the beginning, I have always asked myself many questions, whether about the meaning of certain exercises, grabs, techniques. And then, having more and more the position of the one who teaches, my questions also focused on “what to teach”. Reflecting on the content of my lessons and positioning myself on what I had learned became essential to me. These questions, probably shared by many teachers, are all the more difficult to deal with because aikido is a complex discipline to define, making personal positioning difficult, especially because aikido;

  • has a technical curriculum that is both simple and rich; relatively few techniques, but a lot of possible variations.
  • has a defined but also a very interpretive framework / context; What techniques are purely aikido? for example. It is a discipline without kata, but with technical forms often worked as such.
  • consists of a mixture of modern and ancient martial arts; recent creation, but many references to traditional roots (rituals, outfits, weapons, etc.).

Each instructor will situate himself on these criteria, consciously or not, which are only examples, there are many others. Regarding “what to teach”, several modalities are possible, we will broadly discuss different possibilities.

Aikido Öğretimi Hakkında Bazı Düşünceler

What to Teach?

1.1 Reproduce

A first option could be to reproduce the teaching received while trying to remain as faithful as possible to it. The advantage is to drastically limit the range of possibilities and therefore to reduce the questions, which are sometimes sterile.

To move in this direction, we can rely on traditions where certain aspects (such as technical forms or the context of application) will not be questioned. We can think of the use of specific weapons (Okinawa’s kobudo) or of certain positions (tate hiza for certain schools of iaido or kiba dachi in karate) which are an integral part of the art, unrelated to the current world for example. This is the case in many old schools, based on exercises and kata where the very purpose is to immerse oneself in an old, defined method, to seek teachings, principles, wisdom etc. 

Far be it from me to criticize this path, it is full of richness and does not prevent a certain freedom (within a specific framework). It can be applied to aikido without any problem, by referring to a teacher or a lineage and striving to convey it as faithfully as possible.

1.2 Modify the shape

A second way could be to “simply” accept the idea that a teacher is going to modify, after having appropriated the teaching received, and this can be for many reasons (personality, centers of interest, personal abilities / predispositions etc.) The transmission will therefore remain quite close from a certain point of view to the original but will be illustrated in a different way because it is personal. 

It is therefore normal to have a greater or lesser variance, even between teachers from the same school (apart from technical level). The shape can then be to varying degrees different, influenced by each instructor, but the substance will remain present.

1.3 Modify by other influences

Another way could be to be able to question the teaching received and to be able to shape a different method with various influences, whether technical, educational, philosophical …

In aikido, there are many examples of the development of a specific teaching method or of the influences from other budo (karate, jodo, kenjutsu, judo …) or even other arts (such as qi qong, yoga, Feldenkrais method). Or examples of drawing inspiration from other frameworks (teaching to the police, in schools or universities). Some historical masters follow this path (such as Tada Hiroshi, Tohei Koichi, Nishio Shoji, Tamura Nobuyoshi, Noro Masamichi, Tomiki Kenji). Even a teacher like Saito Morihiro, faithful if ever there was one, proposed a different approach, a method, to teach the founder’s aikido with more categorization and a focus on progression (go no geiko / ju no geiko, kotai / jutai / ekitai / kitai) for example.

The idea would be to be able to integrate elements other than those received, in order (one can suppose it) to make the teaching better; richer, clearer, more accessible, more adapted to our time, faster etc. There are many more benefits and each benefit will have at least one good reason to make the teacher teach differently from what they have received.

1.4 Modifying by default

Finally, we can also consider the fact of not being able to reproduce the teaching received, and therefore adapting / modifying by default, by a lack of knowledge or skills for example.

I approach this example because it is often a stage (hopefully it will last as little time as possible) in many new teachers of aikido, where, again, it seems to me very easy to get lost, related to points discussed in the introduction. I would add that when the teacher is aware of his shortcomings and adapts his lessons by being aware of his state of affairs, he demonstrates remarkable lucidity and honesty. It is much easier not to recognize our shortcomings.

Except for this last situation, the gain seems logical in these different perspectives, whether in terms of fidelity, reliability, pedagogy, enrichment … On the other hand, apart from the first approach where we try to stay as close as possible to the teaching received (which is therefore the guarantor of a certain coherence, logic, completeness), the major risk is to drift away, especially if we lose sight of our objectives or the framework of the discipline; we can teach with significant gaps or even end up doing something other than aikido.

In any case, it is important for an instructor to know where he is, and to register in one of these perspectives in a conscious way. It would therefore be a choice, and this point seems important to me when teaching. It also helps to illustrate a certain distance taken from the act of teaching: I know why I’m teaching in this way and what I’m teaching. Obviously, not everything is so clear between ignorance and perfect knowledge of what we are doing, there is a whole spectrum where most of us navigate.

At this point, it seems logical that the teacher can think about “how”, since the question of “what” is more or less clear. I would like to point out that I will be content here to stay on a “classic” learning framework, vertical (from the teacher to the student), so as not to complicate the subject and weight down the text, but other ways exist and are very rewarding.

Some Thoughts on Teaching in Aikido

How to Teach?

2.1 Demonstrate

One of the first ways is to demonstrate. And demonstrating what you want to teach is not as easy as it seems. The teacher is then a “pure” intermediary between a technique or a principle and the learners. It will have to propose a clear, reproducible and precise form of the elements to be transmitted. Students will need to develop strong observation and imitation skills. It is about taking, we also say “stealing”, the technique from the master. This method, sometimes considered very Japanese or very traditional (including in certain trades, crafts in particular) can be effective but must be contextualized. Indeed, the teacher must have regular and extensive contact with his students, in reduced numbers for example, in order to have the necessary time with each one and to refine their senses, whether visual, proprioceptive or tactile.

2.2 Propose an approach

If we are looking to facilitate / reinforce learning for learners, apart from demonstration, there are many ways to do it. I will not try to be exhaustive, the most important in my opinion is being able to be aware of the “very existence” of the possibilities, and therefore to adopt one or more of them. The idea is that with an approach, the teacher has a vision of what to do and has a strategy (made up of several tools) to achieve that vision.

These are the steps that will give substance to the word “teach”. I have seen too many times teachers (sometimes of a very high level) content to take the technical repertoire and demonstrate it, sometimes without any apparent link between the techniques. This can be because of the random choice of techniques or the desire to show something other than to teach. In this case, for me, we are then in a completely different framework, that of the promotion where the model is more like an technician than a real teacher now.

On the other hand, with an approach, the teacher places himself on the side of the learners and seeks to develop their capacities / skills / knowledge by various methods. It can be beneficial to organize your teaching in order to be able to bring out logic (differences / similarities, progressivity, reinforcement, complementarity …) between the different elements covered in the lessons. This organization can be for a class, for a fixed duration (week or month for example), over the year, or even more. These logics can be diverse and more or less complex to set up;

  • a progression where you start with a technique (attack + technique), then you change one element or the other (yokomen uchi shihonage then shomen uchi shihonage or yokomen uchi iriminage for example). Here, it is important that these sequences allow a better understanding, for example by illustrating what to keep from the technique seen previously and what is changing (and why).
  • a technical progression from the easiest / affordable to the most difficult / complex.
  • a technical organization using common referents (working on techniques requiring similar shifts or identical entries)
  • in general, being able to show the similarities and differences between the study situations: suwari waza, hanmi handachi waza, tachi waza, ushiro waza, buki waza, niningake … Here again, the goal is to be able to highlight common principles and to build bridges in order to save time, not to waste the students in a multitude of techniques and. These situations make it possible to work on specific points and to pose different frameworks.
  • take a technical situation, then vary the parameters such as the resistance of the partner, the angles of attack, the intensity, the context (see the previous point).
  • a technical progression where each element worked will allow the study of the next element (sankaku irimi, then ikkyo omote, then work on koshinage and finally kokyunage)
  • show the links between techniques, whether;
    • in the biomechanical plan (same position of one hand on shihonage and ude kimenage / tenbinnage for example)
    • in terms of space (link between ikkyo and shihonage, or between nikyo ura and kote gaeshi)
    • on a move (shihonage omote and uchi kaiten sankyo)
    • concerning the state of mind (cut with a sword, let pass …)
    • etc.
  • work on techniques at different levels: kotai, jutai or slowly, then more quickly for example.
  • adjust the difficulty by varying parameters, such as the height in mae ukemi or uke‘s participation. In the first case, we can propose a fall with the knees and shoulder in contact with the ground, then in the kiza position, then squatting, then standing with bent legs, standing etc. In the second, uke will be able to “do the technique”, guide, be not very restrictive, neutral, solid, reactive, seek to counter … In this case, the teacher must have tools allowing him to make an exercise (a fall, a technique) easier if necessary, then gradually approach a “normal” practice.
  • cutting the entire shape into smaller pieces, it is easier to identify and work with specifically, rather than staying in a global shape where everything is mixed up (especially for the untrained eye). As part of this approach (closely linked to school education), the notion of technical construction will emerge by isolating phases in the complete technique: entry, movement, technique itself, immobilization / projection for example.

This way reduces the danger that can be of seeing each technique only as an entire entity, like a sentence that we know by heart but where we would not be aware of the meaning of each word that constitutes it. It therefore becomes difficult to perceive a specific lack, and therefore to correct it, since the form is globalized. Conversely, it is about not being trapped in this process, because practicing mostly cut-out techniques will diminish the continuous, fluid, mobile and intuitive (based on feeling) aspect of aikido.

  • You can also organize your lessons in such a way as to emphasize certain qualities (speed, flexibility, power …), rely on weapons, the role of uke … The possibilities are great.
Some Thoughts on Teaching in Aikido

All these steps will allow several things;
First of all, to bring out similarities, therefore to link the techniques (without losing awareness of the limits of these links) rather than seeing them as entirely separate entities. This also makes it possible to work more transversally by transferring what can be from one technique / situation to another. The vision of the elements approached in aikido are no longer isolated points, but a network. Then to be able to work on the same technique through multiple means. This will strengthen the teacher’s understanding and limit possible study fatigue. Finally, to bring out common principles, which is essential to go beyond the pure technical aspect (so far necessary, but that is another subject).

Of course, these steps do not exclude demonstration, correction etc. but complement each other. The ideal for the teacher would be to be able to draw, create, adapt from a multitude of tools at his disposal, depending on the context, the course, the person in front of him or his objective. This is how the teacher can also place himself at the service of his students and his discipline without being a prisoner.

Laurent Barthaux


Started aikido in 1996 in Paris and has followed many prominent instructors. Practices iaido along side aikido. He has been living and practicing aikido in Turkey since 2016.