Aikido Turns Conflict on its Head

Aikido Turns Conflict on its Head

For 60 years, American practitioners have given up the fight.

Photography by Matthew Thayer

Growing up in a tough neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, Andrew LeBar learned from an early age to hold his own. When someone pushedhim, he pushed back.

“I had hard eyes,” recalls LeBar, who still carries the stance of a bulldog and has the square jaw to match. “If you look like a victim, you’re going to be taken advantage of.”

Heading back to school at the University of Kansas in his 30s, LeBar decided to try aikido, a Japanese martial art, thinking he might pick up some self-defense techniques. At first he was intrigued by the group’s teacher—a “little old Japanese man.” LeBar had never seen anyone move with such grace or agility.

Then the sensei began to speak, and LeBar felt his foundation shift.

“It was about dealing with someone’s direction or force in a peaceful way—taking that energy and changing it.”

While other martial arts might involve punching, kicking, or grappling, aikido teaches students not to resist or confront an attacker, but to unite with their opponent and move together, leading the other person’s energy in a new direction.

It didn’t take long for LeBar to realize aikido would teach him something much bigger than how to handle a punch. “Relationships are what it’s about,” he says—“how we deal with people, how we deal with ourselves.”

Introduced to the United States via Hawaii 60 years ago this spring, aikido can trace its origins to early 20th-century Japan, where it was developed by Morihei Ueshiba, first as a modified form of jujitsu, then as its own art. The techniques evolved further under Ueshiba’s top instructor, Koichi Tohei, who had also studied Zen and who had developed an interest in breathing and meditation practice while serving as a soldier in Manchuria during World War II. After his master’s death, Tohei went on to form his own branch of aikido, with a greater emphasis on meditation and spiritual development.

In Tohei’s “ki-aikido” practice (ki, loosely translated, means “energy” or life force), students don’t spar but instead practice dozens of intricately choreographed attacks and defenses, moving together with their partner almost like a dance. Students advance toward a black belt as they master more and more challenging techniques, but they also progress on a parallel track of ki development, with solo exercises that test their ability to remain calm and stable when challenged.

The partnered techniques, or “arts,” can be physically effective, but they actually have a more symbolic purpose, says Christopher Curtis, an eighth-degree black belt and the Hawaii Ki Federation’s chief instructor. “They represent the conflict in the relative world,” he says. “Really the purpose of aikido is to learn to be calm and clear and effective in the midst of conflict.”

Meditation is an essential part of the practice, to strengthen a student’s capacity to find and maintain a sense of calm and awareness. But the study and use of martial arts techniques deepens that training, Curtis says.

“You can’t really have one without the other—it’s a package,” he says. “Anybody can be calm sitting still in one place, but when you are attacked, you find out right away how developed you really are. It’s very useful for testing your degree of calmness in crisis.”

That physical practice is part of what sets aikido apart from other forms of spiritual training that focus on meditation alone, says Shinichi Tohei.

“It’s mind and body coordinated,” he says. “Not just mental.”

With bright eyes and the alert, ready posture of a bird perpetually poised for flight, Shinichi Tohei was only 36 when he stepped up as president of Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido Kai, the international organization of ki-aikido, in 2010, a year before his father died.

At the heart of our ability to be stable and effective under pressure is the practice of “living calmness,” he says. The student maintains a sense of alert relaxation that may appear to be very still but is actually always engaged.

To get the feeling, beginning students are asked to sway gently back and forth, the movement getting smaller and smaller each time, until it becomes as imperceptible as the vibration of a plucked string. That vibration never stops completely (“zero is dead calmness,” he says), but continues infinitely, leaving students both very stable and also ready to move with 100 percent of their power at any time.

Achieving that sense of balance is one challenge; maintaining it is something else. At a recent seminar, Tohei demonstrated the connection between calmness and stability with a simple test: A student stood in the middle of the dojo while Tohei checked his stability by pressing firmly against his chest. With well-practiced aikido posture, the student passed the test, seemingly immovable as a stone.

Then Tohei clapped his hands once, and gave the test again. Although the student’s physical stance had not changed, his posture crumbled under the pressure, and he toppled backward like a felled tree.

The exercise beautifully illustrated what it means to have the mind and body coordinated, says Tohei, and allows a student to feel the difference between when those two elements are working together, and when they’re not.

“He lost the calmness in his mind,” Tohei says. “You need to get the correct feeling, because if you feel it, you can do it.”

If an unexpected noise or sudden movement is enough to shake our carefully composed stability, what happens when we feel we’re under attack? Without practice, Tohei says, the human instinct to fight for control takes over.

“Many people lose the calmness when their partner takes hold. This is because you have a fighting mind,” he says. “We think, ‘I want to show you. I want to move you.’ In fact, I want to control you.”

The remedy, says Tohei, is to spend more time in meditation, to deepen the mind’s capacity for calmness, and to train in the aikido arts, each of which is designed to simulate aikido’s counterintuitive approach to conflict: get closer to your attacker; move in the same direction as your opponent’s punch; if someone grabs your hand, let him keep it.

That’s what LeBar—now a fourth-degree black belt and the head instructor of the Kansas Ki Society—loves about training with the Japanese jo, or wooden staff. One of his favorite aikido techniques demonstrates how to respond when an attacker tries to grab the weapon. Beginning students have a strong urge to tighten their grip, he says—a futile move, since that just makes it easier for an attacker to wrest the jo out of their hands. Instead, the secret is to hold the staff lightly and let your opponent hang on. A few quick steps and a turn of your body will send him sprawling.

“What makes it beautiful is when you can just give up [control of] the jo and lead their mind instead,” LeBar says.

That strategy—and the philosophy it represents—is what keeps Houston Ki-Aikido black belt Bindi Shah coming back to the dojo. Unlike LeBar, Shah was painfully shy and introverted growing up, never at ease in social situations, always fighting the instinct to make herself invisible, retreat to a corner.

With aikido, she says, she learned to “extend” and assert herself in relationships, without being domineering. “You’re not trying to take a person down, be aggressive,” she says. “It’s the idea that if you can successfully lead a person, they’ll follow.”

Shah says she still tends to be a quiet presence in situations like business meetings, but she notices that when she does speak, people listen. “I attribute that to my aikido training,” she says.

Arlene Shinozuka found aikido changed her in a different way.

A brown belt student at Maui Ki-Aikido, Shinozuka decided to join the dojo after her daughter left for college, thinking it would be a hobby to take her mind off her empty nest. At first she planned on only attending meditation classes, concerned she wasn’t flexible enough to practice martial arts. But after a few classes, she changed her mind.

“I needed to be calm in action,” she says.

Shinozuka, a public school registrar, says she can get “pretty intense” at work. She often felt a need to be in control and had a hard time letting go of conflicts. Now, she says, “people have told me there’s a difference in me.”

The tools to deal more effectively with conflict are always within us, Curtis says. We just need to learn how to find them.

“Think about how silence is always present. Even with all this noise, it’s still there. We just get distracted, so we don’t hear it,” he says. “In the same way, we always have this deep sense of peace as a background, and we just need to build a capacity to be able to access it in difficult situations.”

Of course, the ultimate discovery is that the conflict itself is something that comes from within, he adds. “It’s completely counterintuitive,” he says. “What we do in aikido is just so against how we normally deal with the relative condition, how we fight, and push back, and dig in, never suspecting for a moment that it’s not about them—it’s about us.”

To see historic photographs of Aikido in America, click here.

A member of Maui Ki-Aikido, Ilima Loomis is the managing editor of Spirituality & Health.

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