The Path

There is a thread in the forums of a popular aikido web site,, in which an instructor asks the following: “Are there any students of the uchi deshi of O’Sensei, whose own students approach them in skill and understanding?”

It’s an interesting question. After all, in a martial art, the skills of the senior people must somehow make it into the next generation; if that does not occur, the art slips into a decline. And similar issues exist in other arts and sciences as well. This is one reason why I stopped being impressed by someone who could throw me. So you were able to take my balance–excellent! I certainly respect that. But the its the person who teaches myself and others how they did it and helps us understand that I can do it too–that has far more value.

There are many martial artists out there who have figured out how to become extremely proficient in their respective arts. Many of these martial artists become instructors, and draw students to them based on their strong technique. But only a small number of these individuals have the ability or the inclination to impart this knowledge to their students. As a result, these schools have one very strong individual, one or two students who, through luck or chance, have figured things out, and then everyone else. I suspect that this issue arises in part because true proficiency relies on such a fundamental understanding of yourself–your thought processes, your movements–that it is difficult to teach to others.

How does one break this cycle, then? If a martial art requires a deep understanding of yourself, and that understanding is unteachable, how do we improve from one generation of practitioners to the next? I think the answer lies primarily in teaching students to teach themselves–something I know is prevalent in Kokikai Aikido but hopefully exists elsewhere as well. It is not enough to teach someone how to throw or block. While this is extremely important, and one could spend a lifetime analyzing the minute details of timing and positioning, it forms only one half of the picture. The other half relies on encouraging students to learn for themselves. To think analytically about why a technique works the way it does. To urge students to not just rely on an instructor to tell them that what they are doing is right or wrong, but to look inward and judge for themselves.

In a way, I think a good school is similar to a PHD class offered at a university. Students in these classes rarely sit and in listen to someone lecture about a particular subject; they instead work with an experienced teacher, who then encourages the students to pursue their own independent studies. The role of the teacher is still vital; they provide an objective viewpoint on the student’s progress and help guide the student through difficult situations. But the PHD candidate spends a lot of time cultivating an inner drive to further understanding.

The same is true in martial arts. To be sure, a beginning student needs the instructor to be more direct: put your foot here, move your arms here. But as they make progress, the emphasis shifts towards “why does this work?” and self-analysis. This seems to be the teaching model in Kokikai, and I am finding that it seems to provide the best opportunity for the subsequent generations of martial artists to build on the preceding one. Time will tell.

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