Updated: Apr 16
FROM EDITION 2 OF THE TAE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2019
How can we practice Aikido at home alone? Whether to supplement our regular training or when we cannot make it to the dojo? Or if we are remote from other clubs who train in our style there are times when we need to train by ourselves. What is the most effective way to do this?
First of all, I want to emphasise that training outside the Dojo on a regular basis is essential for serious progress in Aikido (or in any other worthwhile subject of study!). Saito Sensei himself was famous for training in the Aiki Jinja grounds (the shrine built by Morihei Ueshiba in Iwama in honour of the deities of aikido) beyond the classes he received from O Sensei. The bulk of my own training over the years has been solo training, particularly suburi and weapon kata.
Although Aikido is fundamentally an interactive art and training in the dojo is essential, the body/mind is the instrument that we bring to the mat to engage in these interactions and so when not in a position to train with our partners in a Dojo setting, much can be done alone. What kind of training one does alone will depend on one’s level and on what particular issues one wants to address. It is also useful as a junior to ask for advice from one’s seniors or principal instructor in this area if one is not sure how to go about it.
From my own personal experience, I have various training routines, from a complete routine to shorter ones and variations depending on how much time I have and what particular objectives I may have at that time. A full routine in my opinion would comprise the following elements:
Warming up, stretching and strengthening.
Movement training (tai sabaki)
The above sections comprise my full solo training which takes about one and a half hours. I do it about once a week or twice if I have the chance. Other days I do shorter routines taking sections from the full list. But even if I just practicing 50 cuts with the bokken, I will always pick up a weapon as part of the session and finish with meditation, even if ‘just standing’ for 3 minutes or so. At other times, if depleted of energy, I will put more focus on stretching and tai sabaki or if nursing an injury I will include specific exercises to address that. The key is to be flexible and adapt to your needs. Most importantly it should be enjoyable and interesting!
The complete routine:
1. Warming up, stretching and strengthening. I will not go into this in much depth as it is a big area and one students should take on personally and study to find what works for them individually. There are many many good stretching and strengthening systems out there. Study and adapt them to one’s personal needs. Strengthening exercises should not isolate muscles, but strengthen them in conjunction with the whole body. I would not recommend targeted weight training (for example barbell bicep curls or bench presses etc) which while useful in other contexts go against the whole-body movement dynamic that we seek to develop in Aikido. The one exception I have in this is grip strengthening. When I really started to understand the grip we use in Aikido, I realised that the strength in my fingers and hence grip was unbalanced towards the thumb index and middle fingers and therefore towards the upper part of my arms and shoulders, I developed a whole system of grip strengthening using various types of tools that I use regularly when driving (in non-dangerous conditions or traffic flow of course!) which helped develop strength in the small and ring fingers. Doing this type of focused training really helped in this area, particularly with bokken.
2. Movement. Tai sabaki. There are many basic movements that we can train alone. The focus should be on movement that is directed from the centre region of the body (hara) while the weight stays low throughout the body and compresses one’s weight into the feet. I spend a lot of time on just stepping and turning looking for the weight ‘being underneath’ and studying how to motivate movement from the centre of the body. I put a lot of attention on ‘whole body kinaesthetic awareness’ and look to free up movement and blockages on as many levels as I can be aware of, from gross to more subtle. This is a slow conscious practice where I learn about my body on many levels, it’s structural relationships and how to move taking maximum advantage of the ground while eliminating any extraneous tension. I once had the chance to ask Peter Ralston why it was (in my opinion) that none of his students were anywhere near him in terms of ability. His answer: ‘the don’t take footwork seriously’. I have come to see that footwork is bodywork in its totality.
3. Weapon training. Suburi and kata. This will of course be a continuation of the previous section. Slow practice with full awareness of the relationships with the ground, within the body and the space around and with the weapon. Exercise the mind (attention), the energetic body (feeling attention) and the body (stretch and rebound all the tissues rhythmically in the movements). The weapon should feel like an extension of one’s body and an expression of the centre. This is actually the core of my training. The weapons present unique challenges in terms of connection and great advantages in terms of learning extension. My own way of training is to focus on the most basic things and movements and I will go in long phases of perhaps months just working on one or maybe two issues. I have been working on ken suburi (first suburi and zengo giri) for the last nine to ten months.
4. Meditation. I will end a session of training with some form of meditation. For me meditation is a non-goal-oriented activity and involves just sitting in stillness with one’s experience of the moment without any form of resistance or manipulation. Actually, this state of being with one’s experience and accepting it fully is the ground of ‘awase’ or joining and harmonising with the other. A full sitting session would be 40 mins, but even just 3 mins is enough if my routine is a short one.
A final consideration.
At some point we start to connect the training we do in the Dojo with our daily life. The way we walk, move, touch things and interact with people. The expanded sense of awareness of the space around us as we walk down a busy street. Feeling the people around us. ‘Reading’ what they are saying with their bodies. At that point our concept of what ‘training’ means expands and we find ourselves ‘training’ the ‘body-feeling-awareness’ we seek in Aikido regularly throughout the day. Then we begin to understand that Aikido is based on the universal principles of being a human being in constant interaction and relationship. And with this our understanding of Aikido also expands greatly.