Practical aikido

Over the years I have occasionally questioned the value of my approach to aikido training. Once or twice I have changed direction but during most of my aikido life I have just practised, with no particular goal in mind, the practice in its traditional form being sufficiently satisfying. For example, I’ve never been very interested in practical self-defense applications of aikido, but recently I have started to wonder if I should give it a higher priority in my training. My feelings about it are still a bit ambiguous, but having given it considerable thought I have decided that although it should not be ignored entirely, concentrating on it exclusively, or even giving it a high priority, would be a mistake. Here are my reasons.

There is something to be said for practising very basic forms of aikido techniques for the purposes of practical self-defense. A justification for this approach is the example provided by police force training which emphasizes techniques requiring only gross motor skills, the philosophy being that under extreme physical stress those are the only motor skills that can reliably be used; fine motor skills are swamped by the instinctive fight or flight response and adrenaline rush. And police officers have a very limited time to learn self-defense and restraint techniques, which consequently must be as simple and easy to learn as possible. But to make such training the overarching focus of aikido training is in my opinion very limiting.
It is the cultivation of the fine motor skills that differentiates aikido from other forms of self-defense training. The fine details and the internal processes that are developed from traditional-style training are what make aikido techniques potentially effortlessly effective. Gross, brute force applications may be the starting point for aikido students, but sustained training changes that. Superimposed on those gross movements, layers of refinement gradually develop, refinements that harness increasingly subtle nuances of control. Possibly, under extreme threat of physical injury, many of these fine details may be lost, but any that remain must aid the effectiveness of any self-defensive actions.
Furthermore, aikido is a traditional Japanese ‘Way’, a general means of self-improvement, not intended solely for self-defense. If a small number of practical self-defense methods occupy a large proportion of our training time then, unless we live or work in an environment that really warrants such training, we will probably spend a great deal of time learning stuff that we may never need to use. And even if we are unfortunate enough to be attacked, it will probably be completely unexpected, in which case we may not even have the opportunity to utilize the skills we have spent so much time learning. Granted the training will definitely help if we become conscious of an imminent physical threat, but do we really want to spent a significant portion of our lives learning difficult skills just in case? I don’t. It makes more sense to me to treat the study of aikido as it was intended by its founder Morihei Ueshiba, namely as a path to self-improvement and as a means of living in peaceful harmony with others. This way we still learn about practical self-defense, as well as a whole lot more.
My experience of ‘practical aikido’ is that it is mostly concerned with dominating the opponent. In the dojo this translates to dominating practice partners. Now I know that aikido practice can become flakey (the ‘I must not use strength’ approach) but on the other hand we are supposed to be getting along with others, not finding efficient ways to flatten them. If someone attacks us with the attention of causing serious physical harm, and there is no easy way to avoid the situation, then we would be justified in doing whatever was reasonable for personal protection. But wouldn’t it be great if we could do that without mangling the attacker, or attempting to? Maybe that’s not possible, certainly not easy, but aren’t we obliged to try? Traditional aikido practice gives us the choice, but exclusively practical self-defense training may not.
On the other hand (I said at the beginning that I was still not certain about this stuff), there may be nothing wrong with prioritizing a small number of techniques or even a single one that would be most useful in a fight. For instance, we could select iriminage and practice it for every common form of attack until it became an instinctive response. Being one of the most important aikido techniques, it could very easily be integrated into normal practice by ensuring that some time is devoted to it in every practice session. This form of training, although targeted at practical self-defense, would not detract from traditional practice since all of the fine detail required for iriminage to be effective would still be studied with the added bonus that it would become a conditioned response to attack – the best of both worlds.