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The "3 Levels" of Aikido Training

There is something oddly comforting when you fall asleep in the dojo.

2 years I spent living in my sensei's dojo as his "uchi deshi" or "live in apprentice". At least 4 hours of training per day, not including helping with children's classes and taking falls for private lessons. It's funny how we try to cling on to the narrative memory of experiences, when my strongest memories are mainly tied to the sounds and smells of Keiko, or training.

The sound of Uke's (attackers receiving technique) hitting the mat over and over again, muffled discussions about placing feet here or there, and the beautiful silence of the Tibetan meditation bowl sensei would ring at the start of each class. At 19, coming from Judo, Muay Thai, Silat, and Jeet Kun Do*, the heavy sounds would get my heart pounding and make me train harder... but that meditations bowl; it was ethereal, even haunting. The room would become silent with over 30 Aikidoka on the mat.

Oftentimes Aikido is viewed through the lens of its demonstrations. Uke attacks Nage, Nage makes big sweeping movements, unbalances his Uke, and throws or pins Uke to the mat. "Bullshido!" they cry. "That would never work!" they scream. But once the clamor of attention seekers lessens and you really listen, you find that the questions are worth listening and answering. How do you reconcile a martial art committed to peace with the very nature of martial arts being conflict? How do you maintain the lethal nature of the techniques that warriors in Japan have honed for hundreds of years while striving for a world without conflict?

In the end, I'm probably the least "conversational and book" learner I know when it comes to martial arts. Explain and demonstrate a technique to me 100 times and I might still struggle after all these years. But, throw me once or twice, and boy does my body figure out where it should and shouldn't be fast. I'd like to think that teaching has helped close some of these gaps for me, but I know now that, like favorable right/left sides of the body, I will always have an easier time explaining technique through demonstration rather than explanation.

However, we still need to be able to explain, which means, for me anyway, things have to be brought to their absolute basics, truly paired down to something easily digested by the analytical mind and absorbed into the physical body. And so, with Aikido, I have found that breaking training down into these three components begins to answer these questions:

Kihon or Basics. Right from left, step versus slide, switching stances, entrances and exits. The critical first step in learning any martial art is understanding the very basics. Like in Muay Thai, learning to throw a straight knee by pointing the toe, pushing the hip forward, driving the hands to the side, etc... it requires endless repetition to create "muscle memory"*. There is a delicate balance here because it's critical to spend a lot of time practicing basics, however, we should not do this to the exclusion of Musubi and Kumitachi for fear of never honing practicality in our movements (like learning your Scales on the piano, but never learning any songs).

Musubi or Blending. Distance and timing (Ma'ai), initiating early or responding when late, completing movements focused on controlling the room, not being tied to a specific outcome, managing breathing and heart rate, minimizing collisions, and maximizing effort with minimal expenditure. Once we have a stronger grasp of our Kihon (basics) in martial arts, it's time to put it into movement. But again, we're still just talking about more or less choreographed movements. Uke and Nage both know their roles and oftentimes also know the technique that will be applied (this will not always be true, e.g., Henkawaza, Jiyuwaza, and Kaishiwaza).

Kumitachi or Combatives. Survival and evasion. This is never about which technique works more than another, but rather, which mental state matters most. How do you get comfortable where you are likely to be the least comfortable (e.g., think falling into ice water on a frozen pond). How quickly can you overcome or channel your animal brain and use it for survival? What do you do when faced with weapons at different distances? What do you do when you don't know what's coming next for either person(s)? How do you deal with multiple attackers?

Music is a wonderful connection point for these three levels. Kihon training in martial arts is like learning your notes, scales, and accents (staccato, legato, formatas, etc...). Musubi training in martial arts is like learning songs; pre-arranged music that allows you to put your Kihon (basics) into movement. Kumitachi training in martial arts is like learning to improvise; to rely on a strong foundation in Kihon, mixing and matching pieces from your Musubi, and creating something unpredictable and effective.

*Jeet Kun Do technically was never completed as a full system because Bruce Lee passed before formalizing it, but there are those who studied with him like Guru Dan Inosanto whom I've had the honor of learning from, including their students, whom I'm proud to know as my sempai (seniors).

See you on the mat,

Sensei Reuven Lirov, 3rd Dan Fukushidoin

Chief Instructor

Pinellas County Aikikai

As always, the primary purpose of any study in martial arts should be communication, both open and engaging. If you read this and find value, feel free to use it as you wish (of course giving credit where its due is always respectful). If you read this and find no value, feel free to disregard it.

*Muscle Memory: We know of course that muscles don't actually have "memory", but that the repeating of effort creates stronger and more direct connections in the nervous system creating faster reaction times and the feeling of comfort in movements/actions.

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