Death by disarm – Misunderstandings of Aikido

Death by disarm – Misunderstandings of Aikido

I warmly suggest that you watch the videos and read the original article first:

It will seem that in this article I am attacking the video and Josh Gold its author, yet my intention is quite otherwise: to highlight using this video and article some crucial elements and misunderstandings I have seen over the last decade and a half across much Aikido, and to challenge some of the responses to those misunderstandings I have seen. What I do greatly admire about Josh Gold is his curiosity, his willingness to experiment, and the intention thereof: to advance knowledge and keep people safe.

I came across Josh Gold’s video when a friend and Aikidoka whom I respect posted it on facebook with the tagline “Martial arts fantasy vs reality”. After watching the video I could not help but respectfully and forcefully disagreeing. So this article is more about that, the problems of fantasy and reality in Aikido.

In the video we see the great difficulty Josh Gold has with Jeff Imada, a very skilled knife martial artist. From this experiment Josh Gold distills what is broadly very good advice in case of facing a knife-wielding opponent. Where the whole thing becomes problematic is firstly the technique displayed in the video and its extrapolation (not by Josh Gold) into the “fantasy” versus “reality” debate that exists in Aikido and the martial arts.

I suppose by now you are wondering why I dare consider myself qualified to comment here. Generally, I stay well away from this kind of debate, since it is a time-sink that rarely serves any purpose. However, as an Aikido Sensei and with (only) fifteen years of experience, in particular with dan-grade live blade practice, I cannot with integrity let these issues slide by unchallenged. As a teacher I cannot with integrity teach things that do not work to my students, turn them into fantasists if you like. The debate around “fantasy” and “reality” in Aikido, and perhaps elsewhere, is however built on false premises as I shall seek to illustrate.

Live blade tanto practice is relatively rare as far as I know in Aikido these days. In many dojos it is considered too dangerous, which to me simply means that the skill and knowledge to use it as a beneficial practice is lost. I will return later to the purpose of this practice.

The problem of Aikido techniques:

As I watched Jeff Imada and Josh Gold practice, I was stunned to see the Aikido techniques that were displayed as not working. I apologise if this part will seem cryptic and technical to non-aikido practitioners. I need to look specifically at the technique and movement displayed to illustrate what is a very common and fundamental misunderstanding about the actual purpose of both Aikido technique and their practice in the dojo.

Josh Gold (at 00.25) displays a Kotegeshi technique from a right-side diagonal cut (kesa-giri more than yokomen). It is interesting that in the article one of the tips he gives is 4. Expect non-standard lines of attack. Now expecting anything is a good way of getting killed and moving inside the arc of the cut to take Kotegeshi on the outside of the hand is simple insane.

One principle in Aikido on lines of attack is circles and straight lines. If the attack, whatever the angle, is in a straight line (a stab), the tori performs a circular technique, or if it circular (a cut) the tori moves in a straight line. In the case of the cut in the video, either stepping back or in for atemi and controlling the knife hand.

Taking the Kotegeshi in the way displayed opens Josh Gold for all sorts of feints and cuts, which Jeff Imada is happy to demonstrate (00.30).

For me it gets worse, in terms of the technique of the Kotegeshi itself (at 00.26). You can see that Josh Gold seeks to twist jeff Imada’s wrist to the left in relation to his forearm. This interpretation of Kotegeshi is very common, a twist away from the body (and against the joint) from which the uke must flip. It looks great, very flashy, and is very bad technique (ie it doesn’t work, as a teacher, it makes me sick that anyone would teach it to someone, making them a martial arts fantasist and endangering them).

The fact that it doesn’t work is amply demonstrated by Jeff Imada. With the reversal (00.36 to 00.44) and the punches (01.18). These are only possible with a twisting Kotegeshi, while correct technique, a circular movement but on a vertical rather than horizontal plane, prevents these counters.

Enough on the practical technique, and let us consider instead the extrapolation from them. That of Jeff Gold is fair in the context of the display: you should be very cautious when dealing with knife attacks, no problem there. When however this is extrapolated to the topic of martial arts fantasy versus reality I become very uncomfortable. What is martial arts fantasy? To me it means that someone, based on limited knowledge, is over-confident in their real ability. It can also mean “Aikido techniques are a fantasy” they don’t work in “real life”. As a teacher I am very strict on the first and appalled by the ignorance that drives the second. Let me be blunt, if Aikido techniques don’t work (with the caveat of the next section) either Aikido is a fantasy, or your Aikido is a fantasy.

The core of the issue is the reason for practicing the techniques of Aikido as kata in the dojo, and their relationship to an event in which they are applied in “real life” has largely been either forgotten or misunderstood.

No Aikido technique is literal:

My Sensei Denis Burke was asked by a Ju-Jitsu Sensei “I’ve seen Aikido and I don’t get it, I don’t see how it works, can you explain it?”. His answer was “None of the Aikido techniques practiced in the dojo are literal, their purpose is to build over time the ability to sense intention, and the moment someone fully commits to an attack, while imbuing the person’s embodied movement with the principles of the art.”

The Ju-Jitsu guy could relate to that, and Aikido suddenly made sense. It also resolves the “expect non-standard lines of attack” problem. There is no expecting to be done in reality, just feeling a real committed attack and moving with it according to principle (unconsciously by the way).

I have seen many dojos and Aikidoka for whom this is absolutely news. There are many Aikidoka I know who around first dan (can we please remember this is beginner level, the point at which we have learnt basic techniques and taken our first step into the art?) test their technique with other arts, find it doesn’t work and go on a quest to make them work “in reality” by doing mixed martial arts or the like, totally passing by the fact that literal application of dojo techniques was never the point of the practice in the first place.

This absolutely does not mean that the quest for correct or well-applied dojo technique is a fruitless one, on the contrary if the techniques practiced in the dojo are based on false premises, or incorrect expression of principle, the Aikido is in truth on their way to being a martial arts fantasist.

Aikido techniques taken literally are just bad Ju-Jitsu.

The Red Pen exercise versus wooden and live blade tanto practice:

My unnamed friend, whom I deeply respect, sufficiently to call him out on bullshit when I see it (calling out bullshit is one of his greatest gifts to the world so I feel a duty to return the favour on the rare occasions I think it is warranted), suggested the following exercise to demonstrate the lacks of Aikido knife practice:

Give a red pen to total beginner and see how your white Aikido kit looks after this knife practice.

As far as I am concerned the experimental conditions render the exercise meaningless, there is no skin in the game, no pressure, no fight or flight. It is as relevant (less even) as the sword and dagger practice I did with my mates after fencing class when I was 16, and a total misunderstanding of the purpose of kata and live blade dan grade practice / gradings.

A total beginner holding a red pen has no chance of killing or injuring themselves or anyone else and will move and attack accordingly. During my ten or so year fencing career I was very interested to notice that the sport allowed all sorts of points when in effect both participants had just skewered themselves on swords. Fencing is no longer a martial art, it is a sport and has little “reality”. Give a total beginner a kitchen knife and watch their body and movement change.

The purpose of dojo practice and gradings is to imbue the practitioners’ embodiment with the principles of Aikido under ever greater gradients of stress. None more so than Randori and live blade Tanto practice. In my experience live blade during a grading is a moment of incredible focus and inner stillness, a deep set resource for when faced with a life-threatening situation, whatever it is.

The red pen exercise has no stress, no skin in the game, and is actually as far from a practice of reality as it is possible to get. Designing this kind of “experiment” is common in dojos, as is seeking to test Aikido in competition with other arts under the delusion of “reality”, which outside of a deathmatch or real world situation cannot be obtained. O’Sensei banned competitions for a good reason, students competing on the mat are not practicing Aikido (that goes for most resistance practice I have seen, reversals come naturally from proper application of principle, trying to go for reversals just leads to struggling). Also completion during dojo practice would lead to lots of dead students. And seeking to test Aikido in a competition rather than a duel is a distraction based on ignorance or delusion. Competitions and sports have rules; reality has no rules. Aikido is a martial art not a sport.

The experiment might be of interest if I asked some total beginners or non Aikido martial artists to try and really hurt me with a wooden tanto, after we both signed a disclaimer waiving legal follow up in case of death or injury as we do in dan gradings. We could put red paint on it if someone really wanted to count cuts while waiting for the ambulance. I speak only partly in jest, having played around with a version of the experiment in the dojo last night with a piece of cardboard. I was impressed with my students’ ability to sense when I was making a committed attack and when I was just waiving cardboard around, and in applying technique or moving according to principle. I also almost ripped my younger student’s arm out of its socket / broke his wrist. I was glad his response was “I should have followed that”, we call him “rubber man” since he has the bendiness of someone who has practice through adolescence, which can sometimes express itself as the floppiness of a teenager.

I didn’t feel bad about nearly injuring him, first because nearly, and it was a valuable lesson for him on ukemi, but also because at the end of the day if you are doing knife techniques, even with a piece of cardboard, you a literally practicing dancing with death, in which case positive (as in fierce) application of technique is what you are looking for, generous soft flowyness coming later.

In conclusion:

“None of the Aikido techniques practiced in the dojo are literal, their purpose is to build over time the ability to sense intention, and the moment someone fully commits to an attack, while imbuing the person’s embodied movement with the principles of the art.”

Can we meditate on that and practice it please? It would solve a lot of the problems and misunderstandings in Aikido.

In my life experience of “real life events” since doing Aikido I have very much found that sensing intention and the moment someone fully commits to an attack has been built into me to an extent. Much of my application of Aikido in the real world has been sensing situations go bad and distracting the actors, so violence never occurred. When it has been cases of being physically attacked, I have moved according to principle but what I was doing bore little resemblance to what I had practiced in the dojo. The great benefit of Aikido in these situations is calm, awareness, confidence, and the ability to move to avoid attack.

Unless you are in the military, law-enforcement or involved in crime the great likehood is that when you are attacked it will be by someone who is very upset, or very frightened, in fight or flight, and attacking with very little skill. At which point the movement embodied into you by practicing Aikido principles in the dojo will stand you in very good stead. If you are facing a cold and trained killer, they will also I suspect, but with much greater skills and practice needed on your part. It is likely that with his forty years’ experience Jeff Imada would cut me, less so if he met an equivalently experienced practitioner doing Aikido as I have described it. Still there is little likelihood of being attacked by another martial artist in the street, the ones who do that kind of thing tend to not be very skilled as well as being assholes.

Perhaps the intention behind practicing Aikido needs to be considered. My intention was partly spiritual, partly being able to be loving from a position of strength, being able to protect my energy while giving (I had come out of an utterly draining leadership experience). For others it can be proving strength (a road to asshole in the beginning) or fear of being attacked. I think this fear of being attacked prompts the search for applying Aikido “in reality”, but it does so on false premises and limited understanding and so deludes. Not that much good comes from making choices from fear anyway.


Sebastien Martineau Sensei (2nd dan) is the instructor at Isshinkai Aikido Praha

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