FROM EDITION 7 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2021
The association that I first learnt Aikido in the 1990s represented a number of UK clubs that had split from the Aikikai in the mid-1970s, following the resignation of Koichi Tohei Sensei (the Aikikai Chief Instructor at the time) in 1974 and his subsequent formation of Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (‘Aikido with Mind and Body Coordinated’), often referred to as ‘Ki Aikido’.
At the point that I started Aikido training in the autumn of 1994, the association I had joined had severed ties with Ki Aikido, becoming an independent association seeking a more martial application of Aikido involving both tai jutsu and buki waza. Despite this move, the association’s teachings remained heavily focused on ‘mind and body coordination’, i.e., the ‘Ki’ principles, of Tohei Sensei of: (i) ‘Keep One Point’; (ii) ‘Relax Completely’; (iii) ‘Keep weight Underside’; and (iv) ‘Extend Ki’. These were described and referenced right from a beginners first class and the application of mind and body coordination assessed in daily training and gradings, through ‘Ki Tests’, i.e. exercises such as ‘unbendable arm’ and ‘unraisable body’ (and many others that are less well known, such as the ‘human bridge’). In simple terms, at any point in any technique, the stability, the ‘strength’ of a person’s posture / physical structure could be tested through a range of push-pull-bend exercises designed to assess whether the student was ‘rooted’ (grounded), solid and as strong as a steel rod and immovable as a boulder.
Many years later, after an extended period off the mat due to back problems, I returned to training, subsequently joining a TAE club in the north of England (Lancaster) in autumn 2018 and doing my first Lewis Bernaldo de Quirós Sensei seminar in spring 2019. Things were surprisingly familiar, but the language was different and the concept of ‘finding the feeling’ quite alien. What did move from the centre mean? Why was everyone telling me to relax? What did the instruction to ‘be grounded’ mean? How could we ‘expand’ in all directions? What did the concept of feeling as though you moved through, or under, the mat, mean?
It was in 2020, during the UK COVID lockdown, that it occurred to me that the qualities of movement as taught by Sensei de Quirós aligned well with the mind and body coordination, the ‘Ki’ principles, of Tohei Sensei as I had been taught and practiced previously. So where did Tohei’s principles come from? Here I explore a number of publications from the early 1960s onwards in an attempt to understand how Tohei Sensei’s thinking evolved and what this means for our Aikido practice in TAE.
O-Sensei wrote extensively about the application of ‘Ki’, but generally in ways that are difficult to interpret in our western society. In Saito Sensei’s 1975 book ‘Aikido - Its Heart and Appearance’, he notes that the Founder of Aikido discouraged questions and instead expected every trainee to use his or her own imagination and ingenuity to help understand and explain what he showed. Nonetheless, the John Stevens book, ‘Essence of Aikido’ (Spiritual Teachings of Morihei Ueshiba), does offer a useful quote from O-Sensei on the ‘Art of Aikido’ [p. 113] of:
“A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind. The key to a good technique is to keep your hands, feet and hips straight and centered. If you are centered, you can move freely. The physical centre is your belly; if your mind is set there as well, you are assured of victory in any endeavour.”
Additionally, the John Stevens translation of O-Sensei’s 1938 ‘Budo’ (Budo – The Teachings of the Founder of Aikido) notes:
“… when the enemy strikes remain positive, calm, settled full of power and centered…”
Here O-Sensei is perhaps talking about qualities of moving from the centre, but also of mental and physical calmness. Beyond these quotes, many other references are clear that O-Sensei did not offer his students a simple set of ‘aiki-principles’ or other clear explanations.
So, what led Tohei Sensei to develop his principles?
Who was Tohei Sensei?
Tohei Sensei notes in ‘Aikido – The Coordination of Mind and Body for Self-Defense’ (originally published in Japanese in 1961 and then in English in 1966) that he was born in 1920, and in 1940, before WWII, and at just under 20-years old, started Aikido in Tokyo with O-Sensei. In 1942, O-Sensei ‘retired’ to Iwama and Tohei Sensei visited and trained in Iwama before being called for military service. In 1944, after military training, Tohei Sensei was sent to lead an infantry unit into occupied China and was stranded there at the end of the war until his repatriation to Japan in 1946. On his return to Japan, he resumed his Aikido training, visiting Iwama typically for a week at a time. In 1955, after the repair of the wartime damage to the Aikido General Headquarters in Tokyo, and subsequent refurbishment of the facility, he became the Aikikai Chief Instructor, a position he held until his resignation in 1974.
It is now nearly 50 years since Tohei Sensei resigned from the Aikikai, as such it is easy to forget that for two decades, he was the Aikikai Chief Instructor and prior to that (briefly) a pre-war student of O-Sensei in Tokyo and a post-war student visiting Iwama. He was influenced by Japanese misogi breathing and chanting exercises and zazen and other eastern systems such as yoga (see references as discussed below), and clearly had a deep connection with O-Sensei (Tohei Sensei is the only person to have received the rank of 10th Dan direct from O-Sensei). Tohei Sensei passed away on the 19th May, 2011, aged 91 (https://ki-society.com/history/).
Tohei Sensei was perhaps the first to write extensively about Aikido, so what were the things he was discussing in the 1960s and 1970s?
While Chief Instructor of the Aikikai in 1961, Koichi Tohei wrote ‘Aikido – The Coordination of Mind and Body for Self-Defense’. He notes that Aikido is a way of mental and physical coordination, and that physical strength plus mental power creates “extraordinary strength”. Tohei Sensei notes that Aikido follows the principle of non-aggression, but goes on to say:
“…however, Aikido is on the offensive and aggressive, because you pour forth and project powerful ki even before your opponent has had a chance to attack and apply techniques against him.”
In terms of training and application he notes that:
“Therefore, in the beginning, practice letting your partner hold you tight, yet follow the principles and apply the techniques properly.”
“…the arts of Aikido may require you to deal with not only one opponent but many opponents simultaneously. You must practice so that you can meet instantly opponents attacking from any direction, front, back, left or right, keeping the one point at all times and always maintaining a posture of strength.”
“The art of self-defence must be one that can be used in a real fight.”
“You should be prepared to move surely and quickly in any direction.”
The publication, from the quotes above, has a clear martial focus. Tohei Sensei talks about how, in his pre-war experiences, from his training of misogi breathing and chanting exercises and zazen (zen meditation), he came to appreciate that O-Sensei’s power came from relaxation. He also notes that it was whilst in military service in China, that he realised that if you focus your mind on the ‘one point’ (seika-no-itten), i.e., the centre of the lower abdomen, you are able to relax and that when you are relaxed, your strength naturally settles lower in your body:
“Keep your mind unshakable on your one point and relax other parts of your body.”
‘Unbendable Arm’ and ‘Immovable Postures’ are illustrated in this early publication with the general concept that if the mind is focused on the ‘one point’, the body is relaxed and the weight is settled into the lower body. From this condition, Tohei Sensei goes on to say that a ‘stream of ki’ (ki no nagare) with associated powerful and circular physical movements can be achieved. He uses the term “pour forth your Ki” extensively. He notes that “kokyu” is the movement of your body ‘following ki’ and that “kokyu ho” is the movement of others through kokyu and likewise “kokyu nage” is the throwing of others with kokyu – i.e., with ‘ki’, with extension.
Tohei Sensei’s 1962 ‘What is Aikido?’ reiterates a lot of what was in the earlier 1961 publication and in ‘Aikido in Daily Life’, published in 1966, there is extensive discussion on mind and body coordination and a clearly developed system of ‘Ki Tests’. They are further elaborated on in Tohei’s 1968 ‘This is Aikido’.
Tohei Sensei in ‘Aikido in Daily Life’ (1966) talks about avoiding physical (muscular) tension (being relaxed) and instead finding great physical strength through extension, and that when we move, we must keep the centre of gravity of the body as a whole (or of a limb) in its lowest part. That is, if the centre of gravity is low and the body relaxes, the weight naturally settles lower, i.e., we become grounded. He notes that “To relax means to be at ease and leave things in their natural condition”.
In these publications, Tohei Sensei is clearly talking about relaxation, grounding and extension, so when did he actually formulate his four Ki principles?
After the Founder’s death in 1969, Tohei Sensei established in 1971, with the agreement of the second Doshu, the ‘Ki No Kenkyukai’ (Ki Society). The Ki Society was set up to focus on health and wellbeing through the practice of breathing and meditation techniques, mind and body coordination practice and ‘kiatsu’ (AKA shiatsu with ‘ki’). On its inception, to avoid any conflict with the operation of the Aikido General Headquarters, the practice of Aikido (or any martial techniques) was very specifically excluded from the remit of the Ki Society.
It was in the Ki Society in the early 1970s that Tohei Sensei most likely finalised (or at least finally formulated or first expressed) his four key mind and body coordination principles, not in a martial context – but most likely in a more general context of wellbeing and efficient physical performance. These are nonetheless a clear distillation of points written about from the early 1960s and of his thinking starting with pre-war training with O-Sensei. Ironically, it was only after Tohei Sensei’s resignation from the Aikikai in 1974, that the principles (presented as four ‘rules’ in his resignation letter) were included in his teaching of Aikido and that the activities of the Ki Society then started to include the practice of Aikido.
Today, the schools of Aikido that follow the teachings of Tohei Sensei are very different to what we practice in TAE, but are the concepts / principles / rules comparable? Does ‘keep one point’ relate to ‘move from the centre’? Do concepts such as draining into the ground relate to ‘relax completely’? Does ‘keep weight underside’ relate to being ‘grounded’, ‘settled’, ‘heavy’? Does ‘extended ki’ relate to extend / expand?
For me, the answer to the questions above is mostly yes where I think that the principles (or as Tohei Sensei himself describes them ‘rules’), are ordered in a very specific way. First, ‘keep one point’ is, I believe, meant as predominantly a mental activity, it is a meditative technique to calm the mind and relax the body. As the body relaxes and muscular tension dissipates, weight settles, we ground. With this grounding and also mental focus on the one point we move from the centre. From this calm, centred and grounded position we mentally and physically expand. We explore these aspects at kihon and then ultimately ki no nagare levels increasingly challenging mind and body coordination, both during tai jutsu and buki waza.
So, for me, thinking back to my first exposure to TAE, things were familiar because they were (in part) similar! Tohei Sensei and Saito Sensei shared many common experiences with O-Sensei. The Aikido styles that have evolved from their teaching approaches after O-Sensei died are radically different, but at the core, was their (Tohei and Saito Sensei) understanding and application of Aikido (at least prior to Tohei Sensei’s split from the Aikikai) different? I don’t think so and why would it? Did O-Sensei instruct his students to ‘Keep One Point’; ‘Relax Completely’; ‘Keep Weight Underside’; and, ‘Extend Ki’ ? By and large, I don’t think so. Were they there in how he applied his Aikido, and what his direct students, including Saito Sensei learnt, I have no doubt!