The spirit of Aïkido lies in the practice

by Régis Soavi

« One often tends to consider the spirit of an art as a mental process, a path that should be consciously taken, or rules to observe. All this because in the West we live in a world of separation, division. On one side there is spirit, on the other side body, on one side the conscious, on the other the uncouscious, this is what is supposed to make us civilized beings while this separation actually generates inner conflicts. Conflicts which are strengthened by the systems of prohibition set up in order to protect society, to protect ourselves against ourselves.

regis soavi meditation
The practice of Aïkido leads us to the reunification of the human being.

Towards the reunification of human being, this is the Path we head for through practicing Aïkido. This reunification is necessary in a world where the human being is objectified, where the human being becomes both a consumer and a commodity. Without realizing the way taken, the civilized person executes life instead of living it. This society that leads us to consumption leaves little room for inner work, it leads us to search outside for what lies inside. To buy what we already have, to search for solutions to all our problems outside ourselves, as if other people had better solutions. This leads to the individual being cared for and supported by the different protection systems, which are at the same time social, ideological or health care, thus increasing supply and creating an ideal market for dream-sellers of any kind, charlatans, gurus and co.
Today I’ve heard that a new practice has just been created : « Respirology », and as usual, customers abused by the power of words will certainly flock. Should we, in the name of body and mind normalization, of people getting back into shape, change the name of our art into : « Aïkido therapy » ? The spirit of Aïkido can’t be taught.

I don’t believe it can be told that there is a specific spirit of Aïkido but rather that Aïkido must be the reflection of something much greater that we, little human beings, have difficulties to realize during our life.
The spirit of an art can’t be taught, it’s rather a transmission, but an Aïkido without a spirit, what would it be : a struggle, a fight, a kind of brawl without head nor tail. Teaching the technique without transmitting anything of the spirit is quite possible, but then, it happens to be a totally different thing. It may be self-defence or a wellness technique.
Like in any martial art, we have the Rei, the salute, which is obviously the most immediately visible expression of it, but what’s most important will be transmitted through the teacher’s posture. By posture I mean an extremely complex set of signs that students will find recognizable : of course the physical aspect, dynamics, precision, etc., but also the way of conveying a message, the attention given to each practitioner according to thousands of factors that the teacher must perceive. It is through developing intuition that one can get the greatest and finest pedagogy, and so provide the elements needed by practitioners to deepen their art, to better understand its roots.

The spirit of Aïkido can’t be learnt

The spirit of Aïkido can’t be learnt, it is discovered, it doesn’t change us, it enables us to recover our human roots, to join what’s best in human being.
« Aïkido is the art of learning in depth, the art of knowing oneself ».

The Aïkido founder’s desire was to bring human beings closer, to him the world was like a big family : « In Aïkido, training is not meant to become stronger or beat the opponent. No. It helps to get the spirit of placing oneself at the centre of the Universe and contribute to world peace, bring all human beings to form a big family. »

A hymn to joy

Osenseï used to say :  « Always practice Aïkido in a vibrant and joyful manner ». We don’t talk about joy often enough, our world incites us to sadness, to react violently to events, to criticize the systems’ failures, to see other people’s flaws, to be competitive. But all this eventually makes us grumpy, harsh and spoils our pleasure of living, quite simply.
Joy is a sensation that I consider sacred. The joy of living, of feeling fully alive in everything we do, or don’t do. Joy enables us to experience in a totally different way what many people consider as constraints, to consider them as opportunities allowing us to go further, to deepen what my master used to call respiration.

Aïkido is the art of learning in depth, the art of knowing oneself

Joy leads us little by little to inner freedom, which is the only freedom that is worth discovering, as so well told by the Taji Quan master Gu Meisheng (1926-2003) who discovered it in Chinese prisons during Mao’s era.

It enables us to get out of the conventions that different systems impose on us.
The spirit of Aïkido is to be found in nature, not in a nature external to the human being but rather in the human being as a part of nature, as nature.
« The practice of Aïkido is an act of faith, a belief in the power of non-violence. It is not a type of rigid discipline or empty asceticism. It is a path that follows the principles of nature, principles which must be applied to daily life. Aïkido must be practiced from the moment you get up to welcome the day until the moment you withdraw for the night. »
To start every morning in the dojo’s quiet with a two or three minute meditation in order to refocus, to concentrate. Then switch to the Respiratory Practice, as Tsuda senseï named it, and which Osenseï Ueshiba Moriheï used to do at every session. It is then possible to turn to the second part, the practice with a partner, the pleasure of communication through technique, the Ka Mi respiration and all of this very early in the morning while many people outside have just emerged from sleep.
When nothing is planned, when we are devoid of any thought, in these sublime moments when fusion with the partner takes place, then we are in the spirit of Aïki.
Like in Zen, it is suggested to us to live here and now, to be no different from what we are, but to look with lucidity at what we have become.

The transmission of the spirit.

In order to understand the spirit of Aïkido, one must, in my opinion, dive into the past, not only that of Japan but also, and maybe even mostly, that of ancient China. Go and search for the thinkers, philosophers, poets who enriched reflexion and gave weight to the Oriental way of thinking.
It is thanks to my master Tsuda Itsuo that I digged in this direction : not that he gave lectures on philosophy or held seminars on the matter, he who only spoke with parsimony, but on the other hand he bequeathed to us through his books a reflexion on the East and the West, bridging the gap between these two worlds which seemed antinomic.
The immense culture of this master whom I was fortunate enough to know had flabbergasted me at the time but little by little I was able to enter the understanding of his message and philosophical work which had nourished me. But this man I had admired had also left traces I could see without understanding them, other signs in the way Zen masters did : he left calligraphies. As in this art nowadays called Zenga he transmitted a teaching to us through ideograms, maxims by Zhuangzi, Laozi, Bai Juyi, or folk proverbs. Each of these calligraphies introduces us to a story, a text, an art which actually enables us to go further in the understanding of this spirit which underlies our practice.

Awakening the inner force.

« There are forces in us but they remain latent, dormant. They must be awakened, activated », wrote Nocquet senseï in an article published in 1987. To me this sentence echoes Tsuda senseï’s calligraphy « the dragon gets out of the pond where it remained asleep, talent shows through ». In both cases, these masters were refering to ki and they incite us to search in this direction.
Without the concrete sensation of ki we miss the point. How can we talk about the spirit of Aïkido without making it a sequence of rules to observe, other than by following, rediscovering the foundations of the human being. Our modern, industrial society makes life so easy for us that we move no more, we get around too easily, in the cities we just have to cover a few meters to find food instead of running, hunting or cultivating. Aïkido enables us to spend this excessive energy which otherwise would make us sick. But this is not only about the physical, motor aspect, it’s our whole body which needs to recover, normalize itself. Our mind, overloaded with useless information, also needs to rest, to find peace in the middle of the surrounding agitation.

The spirit of Aïkido is Aïkido.

The spirit of Aïkido just lies in practice and little by little it comes to be discovered. And this discovery is real enjoyment. Beginners, when becoming aware of its importance, get fully involved in this art of ours. That is often the moment when difficulties to explain what we do begin. We feel like talking about it, inviting friends to participate at least to a session. We try to make what we feel understood. Other people witness our enthusiasm but don’t come to understand what it is about. And the answers we get to our explanations, to what we try to hand down are often rather disappointing. They may vary from : « Ah yes, me too, I practiced Yoga last year during my holiday at Club Med. But I don’t have time to do a stuff like this, you see, I really don’t have time. » to « Yes, your stuff is nice but it racks brains, I practice Californo-Australian self-defence, you know, and it’s really efficient ». To move from a world to another requires to be ready, ready to just discover what you don’t know yet but have sensed. We start practicing because we have read a book, an article, and we have been shocked, we said to ourselves : « Strange guy but I like what he tells, I like this spirit, it’s close to me, to what I think ».

An art to normalize the individual.

It is the spirit of the practice, quite often, that makes us go on for many years, and seldom physical or technical achievements which anyway will be limited by aging. The only ageless thing is ki, attention, respiration as Tsuda senseï used to call it. This can be deepened without any limit and that’s why there have been great masters. If you awaken your sensibility, if you have persistence, and if you are well guided ; if the teaching is not limited to surface but enables us to dig deeper, to open by ourselves doors that we didn’t suspect, then everything is possible. When I say everything is possible I mean that everyone becomes responsible for oneself, for one’s life, for the quality of one’s life.
As Yamaoka Tesshu says : « Unity of body and mind can do everything. If a snail wants to ascend mount Fuji then it will succeed ».
No seeking for reputation, no attempting to become something but rather seeking to be, thanks to self fulfillment. Pacifying internal tensions, unifying body and mind which quite often work in the wrong way if not one against the other. Here’s the deep meaning of the research we can do in the practice of martial arts. »

Régis Soavi Dragon Magazine (Spécial Aïkido n°18)  octobre 2017

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Quotations from Osenseï Moriheï Ueshiba’s collected talks, some through the book : «The Art of Peace, teachings of the Founder of Aïkido, compiled and translated by John Stevens », Shambhala.