On Striking

Back when I first started learning aikido, I had a problem with the notion that, at first, the attacks and throws were staged. Someone throws a punch; you turn and apply kotegaeshi. Someone grabs your wrist; your enter and execute shihonage. I understood that these were just drills, that they were meant to train our muscle memory so that, in the heat of battle, we’d intuitively recognize when we could apply a specific technique. Still, while I logically understood what we were doing, there was a part of me that struggled. What if my attacker resisted at this point? Or this other point? What if they didn’t turn like they’re supposed to?

One of the answers I was given was very simple: hit them. I was initially appalled–didn’t I start this art in order to avoid hitting my opponent in the first place? Wasn’t one of the basic attractions of a martial art like aikido is that you don’t have to hit? The answer that came back to me on this question was: which is kinder? Your fist, or gravity? I accepted this question and the answer it implied: the power of my fist was negotiable, the power of someone meeting concrete or asphalt at a high rate of speed was not. So I acknowledged the notion that, under certain circumstances, if the attacker resisted illogically–that is, if they resisted the technique at a point where they were not in a position to either escape or counter attack–then a swift strike was not only appropriate, it was potentially a kinder way to end the conflict.

Recently, however, I was watching a few folks who study striking arts, when I noticed something: hitting someone takes work. It is not easy on the arms or the hands. In fact, just as we’re often told that a poorly executed shomenuchi strike with a sword might bounce off an opponent’s armor, I could easily see that a poorly executed strike could, quite possibly, have zero impact on your opponont. Hardly a desired outcome! And there’s an additional issue too: I wonder how many people skate by on their aikido technique, thinking to themselves “Well, if it doesn’t work, I can always clock’em?” This mindset leads to poor technique and laziness at best.

As many who study a striking art might attest, hitting someone correctly requires training, just as taking someone off balance requires training. Boxers do not work out with speed bags because it looks cool. It is training. Karateka do not spend their time punching makiwara because it makes a pleasing sound. It is training. Any art that relies on a punch or strike trains to make that strike as deadly and as efficient as possible. In aikido, however, we do not spend as much time learning how to strike. This is understandable: our focus is on a different aspect of the conflict. (This is not to say we do not study how to hit; we just don’t study it at the same level as other arts do.) Yet we must be honest with ourselves: if we do not know how to hit, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of saying: “Well, if my opponent attacks poorly or resists, I’ll simply hit them.” To do so not only allows one to slack off on correct technique, but provides a dangerous false aura of security.

Of course, hitting in aikido is not always incorrect or out of place. One of the amazing things about aikido is that the initial movement to take someone off balance quite often puts yourself in a spot where a strike can be absolutely devastating. I know of many people, myself included, who have stopped in the middle of a technique, realizing suddenly just how vulnerable our opponent has become. It speaks to the mindset of the aikidoka why we often strive not to take advantage of this vulnerability, that we prefer to the control of the throw over the control of the punch when an opponent is unable to defend themselves. But each of us must choose: if you wish to have a strike be an option, however rarely used, then you must put in the time to learn how to strike correctly and well. If you choose not to strike, then you must ensure that your timing is perfect and that your technique is sure–you can have no illusion of a safety net should you fail to take your opponent’s balance. I do not think it is necessary to judge which path is better; but it is important to realize that the road in-between, where you consider a strike a viable tool but do not seek to study how to use it, that road is a road that can lead to diaster.

3 thoughts on “On Striking

  1. In our dojo, we had the good fortune of having Rick Berry come for a couple of workshops on striking and kicking. As you know, his training prior to aikido was in tae kwon do. Although proper striking would obviously take much more training than two workshops, we learned the fundamentals of a proper strike. And, as Sensei Berry says, giving a proper strike lends itself more readily to executing proper technique in aikido. An effective strike is concentrated force in one direction, which allows an aikidoka to use that singular force.

  2. Yoko: It’s funny that you mention Sensei Berry, because that’s who I wsa thinking of when I wrote this post. I remember a seminar he held out here a few years ago. The control and power of his strikes was and is amazing, and something to aspire to. And if you read his book, Stepping Off the Mat, you get an even deeper sense of how intense both his aikido and tae kwon do training have been. (Of course, his book deals with issues that have far greater reach and importance than just how hard one can hit!)

  3. Striking practice in Aikido is frequently weaker than it probably should be — at least in the schools where I have trained. In one of my first Aikido dojo, the only fist strike taught was a sort of a gut punch — only your fist is held as though you were stabbing with a knife. Not a bad punch but quite limited.

    I think the folks in Yoshinkai tend to have a better focus on proper striking than other organizations. As with many other details, that may vary more from teacher to teacher than between organizations but they do have a fine reputation for hard training.


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