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Aikido: An Introduction

Aikido TossAikido is a modern martial art and modern martial philosophy whose purpose is to greater understand ourselves by understanding our Uke (opponent). As opposed to Judo, where you move to your partner to throw him or her, Aikido teaches to redirect the authentic energy given by your opponent to perform techniques. Aikido is based on a philosophy that all actions should be a manifest expression of love, and thus does not teach one to maim or harm any other person.

History and Philosophy

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that originated in the early twentieth century by Ueshiba, Morihei – also called Osensei (great teacher). Osensei was born December 14, 1883. Early in his life, Osensei was a particularly frail and sickly child, having ailments such as scarlet fever. His father believed that martial arts would be a way to help him recover his strength.

Osensei trained in a variety of martial arts. He studied Judo, Kendo, Jodo, Bodo, and, most importantly, Jujutsu.

Sokaku, Takeda was the man responsible for teaching Osensei Daitoryu-aiki-jujutsu. Sokaku was a stoic man of extreme gravitas. He wore his attitude on his face, as could be seen by the scar that he received while fighting Russian soldiers; Sokaku survived a bayonet slash to the face.

The teachings and techniques of Sokaku’s Jujutsu would eventually grow into modern Aikido. Osensei would reshape these lessons to reflect his own philosophical revelations.

Aikido illustration

Osensei had three specific revelations that would shape Aikido. The first was when he disarmed a bokken wielding naval officer without harming him. Second was his own reimagining of all the martial arts techniques he had been taught. Third, the final revelation was the notion that the way of the warrior was not to kill, or harm, rather the way of the warrior was to preserve life.

Combining the martial prowess of Osensei with this philosophy gave birth to Aikido. Aikido is the philosophy that you can protect yourself, and anyone else, in any situation, without needing to maim another person. From here, the techniques of Aikido become malleable. Just as Osensei reshaped the teachings of Daitoryu Jujutsu, so can other techniques be shifted to leave no one harmed.

The Aikido of Osensei was dynamic, and changed with him as he aged. Aikido is often divided into two main camps – pre World War II and post World War II. It wasn’t until just after the second World War that Osensei had his third, and final, revelation. Subsequently, Aikido from this time period is often thought to be harder, or more rough. This could also reflect the fact that it was the Aikido of a younger man.

After the second World War had ended, and the third revelation was received, there was an interesting air in Japan that would also play part to the development of Aikido. For a length of time, the practice of martial arts in Japan had been outlawed. However, as soon as it was possible, Osensei would seek to restart the practice of Aikido in a little town called Shingu.


Shingu rests in the Kumano Mountain Range: the most sacred mountain range in all of Japan. Osensei would also call himself a ‘child of the Kumano,’ since he was born near there, and his father prayed in the Kumano for a son. In Shingu specifically lived Hikitsuchi, Michio (July 14, 1923 – February 2, 2004). Hikitsuchi was the youngest student that Osensei ever took on. When Hikitsuchi was just 14 years old he was introduced to Osensei, and he declared, “Michio! You must learn Aikido!” And so it was.

During the war the two martial artists had lost contact, but when the time was right, Osensei reached out to Hikitsuchi to form a new dojo. Osensei was alight and shared with Hikitsuchi his new philosophical take on the art. From there, together they would construct the Aikido Kumano Juku Dojo, which still operates to this day. This could be considered the original Aikido dojo.

As time continued, Osensei would open dojos in various locations in Japan, but most notably in Tokyo and Iwama (Ibaraki prefecture). In Tokyo Osensei opned the Aikido Honbu Dojo, which is the main governing body for the Aikikai internationally. Honbu dojo is currently operating near Shinjuku, under the guidance of one of Osensei’s grandsons, Ueshiba, Moriteru.

The dojo Osensei opened in Iwama is very special. The Iwama dojo is not just a dojo, but it is a large plot of land complete with the Aiki Jinja (Aikido shrine), and a small farm. Later in in the founder’s life he believed that it was a natural progression to integrate horticulture with Aikido. This idea is what lead the founder to purchase the land and build in Iwama. Presently, annually there is a large celebration on April 29th in commemoration of the passing of Osensei held at the Aiki Jinja. People make the pilgrimage from all over the world to pay respects. After the ceremonies have concluded, you are free to socialize and tour the grounds in Iwama, where you can see the continuing growth of what the founder started.

The founder died April 26, 1969. Just three months before his passing he established Hikitsuchi Michio as a tenth degree black belt – a status that was only ever held by a handful of people. This final dissemination seems like a circular last note to the life of the founder which would spawn a great legacy in his wake.

Today, Aikido is practiced all across the world. Many different styles coexist, like living fossils of different moments in the founder’s life, or showing the creativity of the second generation of Aikido teachers. Of these, the styles that come from Nishio, Shoji sensei, Shioda, Gozo sensei, Tohei, Koichi sensei, and Saito, Morihiro sensei.

Nishio Sensei (December 5, 1927 – March 15, 2005) began studying Aikido in 1951, in Tokyo’s Honbu dojo. However, prior to that he was already a high ranking practitioner of Judo, Karate, and Iaido. These outside martial arts influenced the style quite heavily, in particular the Iaido. Osensei personally charged Nishio sensei to craft the Iaido methods for Aikido practitioners. That would eventually become the Aiki Toho Iai. All Aikido comes directly from the sword, but it is seldom as well demonstrated than in Nishio Ryu Aikido. Further, the highly detailed foot and hand techniques are characteristic of Nishio Ryu.

Shioda sensei pioneered the easily recognizable style ‘Yoshinkan Aikido.’ Most characteristic of his style is its very square, front facing stances, and rigid movements. While some forms of Aikido, and other martial arts, may be fluid and round, Shioda sensei’s style is very linear. Yoshinkan was also the first Aikido form that was taught to Japanese police and military defense officers. It was thought that a linear, more ‘connect the dots,’ Aikido would make learning the fundamentals quick and quantifiable.

Tohei sensei was one of the other tenth degree black belts, and he also was the creator of ‘Ki Society’ Aikido. Tohei sensei began his training with Osensei before WWII had begun. After the war had ended, he continued training. Eventually he would become the head instructor of Honbu dojo, even for five years after the passing of Osensei. In 1974, Tohei sensei officially separated from Honbu dojo to form the ‘Ki Society.’ Tohei did not agree with how Honbu dojo downplayed the importance of Ki in their teaching methods. The disagreement was so irreconcilable that he split from the very dojo he maintained for so many years.

Saito sensei trained with Osensei later in the founder’s life. Saito sensei would eventually become the head instructor of the Iwama dojo, and the face of Iwama Ryu Aikido. Saito sensei hoped to be a living encyclopedia of the instruction he received from Osensei, in hopes of keeping the teaching pure. He also developed the Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo (including the 31 movement Jo kata) exercises and practices that many people think of when talking about the use of the sword or staff in Aikido. As might be reflective of the teachings that Osensei gave later in his life, the style of Iwama Aikido is recognizable because of its simple movements. Where Nisho sensei’s Aikido has very precise movements with a great amount of finesse, Iwama style is more broad and less energy consuming. Among Aikido practitioners there is a stereotype of barrel chested middle aged men practicing Iwama Aikido.

Of course there are many more Aikido styles and teachers of note, including teachers from abroad, such as the French Christian Tissier sensei. Further, there are many more styles developing right now in different dojo around the world. Aikido is not set in stone, and try as you may, no two people’s Aikido is exactly the same.

Training and Techniques

Aikido is practiced in a dojo with vinyl tatami mats (Judo mats). The mats are important because Aikido focuses almost entirely on throws and takedown submissions.
It is normal for the beginning of class to include 15 minutes or more of stretching. The stretching is of particular importance because many arm locks, neck locks, and small joint manipulations are an elementary component of Aikido techniques. Likewise, training is likely to be followed with practicing Ukemi, or rolling. Being able to safely fall and roll out of techniques is absolutely essential to practicing Aikido, as almost every technique focuses on bringing your partner to the ground in some way. Further, while you many never actually need to defend yourself from another person, most everyone will fall at some point in your life, so practicing how to properly fall has more benefits.

Techniques are used in response to an attack from a partner, or partners. That attack can be a grab to the wrist/s, shoulder/s, collar, sleeve, neck, leg, &c, or from any kind of strike. The goal of the Aikido practitioner is to take initiative of the situation and redirect the energy of the attack before it is successful. There are also many techniques used to unarm a partner.

With variance between different Aikido styles, weapons training is also present. This include Iaido, practicing with the Jo, Bokken, or the Bo. This may seem contradictory at first, considering the non-harming philosophy of Aikido, but the teaching of weapons is to further understand body mechanics of the empty handed techniques. In most cases, the hand movements and foot movements are identical in empty handed and armed applications.

The influence of traditional Japanese weapons also plays influence in other parts Aikido techniques. For example, in the Nishoi Ryu, all pins are done with the partner brought to the mat, face down. The reasoning behind this isn’t that pins from other positions don’t work, but rather, that from this position your partner is unable to draw a weapon in retaliation – something not considered in, say, Judo.

Uniforms and Rankings

Just as Judo proliferated the standard image of the ‘karate uniform’ and kyu/dan (non-black/black belt) grades to older martial arts such as Jujutsu and Karate, Aikido was happy to continue the tradition. Various schools have various kyu grades, but usually they are from 5th kyu to 1st kyu (first kyu being last before testing for shodan, or 1st degree black belt). However, some schools have as many as ten. The use of colored belts is not traditional, but it is so prevalent that even in Japan you can find colored belts a feature of many children’s classes. That being said, there is no standard for colored belts.

While not universal, it is generally true that after receiving shodan, or 1st degree black belt, a practitioner is expected to wear a hakama. Some schools have different rules about from what grade a hakama is worn as well. Dan grades go as high as tenth degree, but (this is arbitrary) there are no organizations capable of issuing a degree that high. It is also understood that anything after 4th degree black belt is less to do with teaching, training, and techniques and more so a symbol of appreciation and dedication.

The uniforms are standard Judo uniforms. A single weave gi can last an Aikido practitioner many years where a thin, Karate type, gi may fail. Double, and triple weave gi that are often worn by Brazilian Jujutsu practitioners may be too strong and thick to be comfortable during long sessions of training. In all normal situations, these uniforms will always be white.

Terms and Teachings

Waza – Technique
Nage – Throw
Nage – Person performing the technique
Uke – person receiving the technique (there are no enemies in Aikido)
Kyu – grades below black belt
Dan – grades of black belt
Dojo – training hall
Shomen/Kamiza – the dojo shrine, usually with an image of Osensei, to which people bow
Rei – bow
Ryu – a style
Oneigaishimasu – Said often after bowing into class, and means ‘let’s do this’
Bokken – wooden sword
Jo – Japanese short staff
Bo – Japanese long staff
Iaido – Japanese sword work, separate from the sport Kendo
Iaito – an unsharpened katana used for practicing Iaido kata
Irimi – to enter, taking initiative for techniques
Atemi – a faint, or strike, usually for the purpose of startling an Uke
Ma Ai – proper distances between Nage and Uke
Ukemi – falling/rolling
Ikkyo, Nikyo, Sankyo, Yonkyo, Gokyo – “first, second, third, fourth, fifth teaching,” iconic submissions in Aikido
Shiho Nage – Four direction throw
Irimi Nage – Entering throw
Kokyu Nage – Breath power throw
Men Nage – Head throw
Juji Nage – crucifix throw
Sutemi Nage – Sacrifice throw
Tenchi Nage – Heaven and earth throw
Kote Gaeshi – Forearm return, a throw done by leveraging the wrist of Uke
Kaiten Nage – Wheel/Rotating throw


Wasn’t Steven Seagal the only foreigner to open a dojo in Japan?
This is false twice. He never opened a dojo (he only operated his father in law’s), but there are many foreign born teachers in Japan.

Aikido, especially in demonstrations, looks so choreographed – how practical is Aikido?
While there is definitely some choreography for demonstrations it does not undermine what Aikido teaches, nor its practicality. The most important thing to consider about demonstrations is that the Uke are being thrown very hard, and have been for years. It is because they can properly fall that they are able to withstand the physical strain of Aikido. If someone not knowing how to fall were to receive the same techniques it could be at least life threatening.

Isn’t Aikido purely defensive?
Aikido is not offensive, but it is not ‘defensive’ in the sense of waiting for something to happen. “Aikido is Irimi,” is something Nishio sensei would say. The meaning of this is that the Aikido practitioner does not merely wait to ‘receive a gift’ from Uke, but rather, ‘opens the door, welcomes him in, they have a conversation, and when the affair has concluded, Uke is given a warm farewell right back out the door.’

Why are there no Aikido competitions?
There are two reasons that there are no competitions in Aikido. First, the techniques don’t play to competition very well. If the Aikido techniques are performed well, there is no second punch, or offense: not a lot of drama for the audience. Second, that kind of aggression was in opposition to the philosophy of Osensei, who specifically sought to abstain from competition.

Am I too old to begin Aikido training?
One is never too old for Aikido. One can be too ill, or too infirmed, but never too old. The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.

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