AIKIDO AND WOMEN
A Reply to L.E.
written by David Birt, chief instructor of The Davis Aikikai
For many years
I trained at an excellent dojo where we occasionally indulged a gladiatorial
pageant called Aiki wrestling. All the men (women rarely participated) paired
off in seiza (sitting posture) and grabbed their partner around the waist
by gripping the belt. The first person to take the other's balance "won."
The rules allowed no clever "tricks" of any sort. You could not
use your hands to regain balance, and there was no pinning. You either
toppled over and hit the mats or you didn't. The only exception occurred
in the standing variant of the wrestling exercise, where you could recover
from a hip throw by landing on your feet. In deference to those with injured
knees, myself amongst, we rarely wrestled in standing posture, and I only
saw one such escape in ten years! But whatever the style or strategy, the
simple nature of Aiki wrestling left no doubt as to winners and losers as
the wrestle-down proceeded inexorably to a climatic match for the dojo, and
hence world championship.
Our instructors viewed Aiki wrestling as a fun derivative of regular training, a rare diversion that allowed the "boys" to blow off steam while learning the coordination of muscular strength and tanden (centered) movement. I never shared this view. I always hated Aiki wrestling, deriving hollow satisfaction from victory and none from defeat. Also, the whole idea of competition violated my sense of the spirit of Aikido by triggering an intensely competitive streak I came to Aikido to release - not reinforce.
Although we downplayed its importance, Aiki wrestling served as a sort of unofficial imprimatur of the effectiveness of our Aikido and sometimes added an unduly competitive element to kokyu-ho - the seated ki extension exercise that usually ended class. Thus I was not surprised when L.E. - a fine Aikidoka and good friend, who also had a highly competitive streak - approached me after class and implored me to "really resist" in kokyo-ho. She reiterated her firm insistence on REAL resistance, no token training! This encounter would truly measure the practical effectiveness of her Aikido. The results were predictable: after much travail and gnashing of teeth, I threw her repeatedly while remaining unmoved.
We both knew that strength decided the issue. But the stark reality of her situation brought out frustration, rage, tears, and a gut question that articulated her anguish: "Do you ever think a woman could be as effective as a man in a fighting situation?"
Her frustration and rage reflected the reality of strength and intimidation, a problem that disturbed me deeply. For the previous twelve years, I had worked in steel mills, warehouses, and construction sites throughout America and had met more than a few fast, tough, muscular, and occasionally vicious street-wise types who were VERY good fighters. Types I'd have been reluctant to go against even though I was 6'3" and in good condition through aerobic and martial arts training. Thus my own insecurity prompted my twofold answer. Practically, I said, it was unlikely that many women could become good enough at Aikido to overcome a really good street fighter, but spiritually it might be possible. Were she sufficiently proficient at the art (8th dan and above?) to discern every intentionality and thus blend with any movement, the advantages of strength and speed could be overcome.
My answer of the mid 1970s amazes me. It reflected the insecurity invariably allied with competitiveness and did not reflect a proper integration of my own experience. Here I judge somewhat harshly. My problem of integration reflects an almost universal dilemma within the martial arts. Roughly speaking, martial artists divide into two camps. One camp sees the martial arts almost exclusively in terms of combative effectiveness; the other sees the martial arts as a way of spiritual development. In terms of nomenclature, the suffixes "jutsu" and "do" (meaning "way or path" in Japanese) designate that distinction. Aikijujutsu stresses martial effectiveness and Aikido stresses martial techniques as the "way" of harmony. A similar divide distinguishes Jujutsu from Judo. In my case, these two poles had strong feminine influences as the following personal history illustrates.
My original connection with the martial arts began because my mother insisted I play Judo as a child living in
It took me years to understand the significance of that day in
Suffice to say, my mother would have strongly disagreed with my assessment of
what women could and couldn't do against an experienced street fighter.
The counterpoise to my mother's
experience came in Boston during the early 1970's. While training at The New
England Aikikai, then located at Central Square in Cambridge, I felt a sudden
urge to look at the group of people watching practice. As I usually never
do anything that takes my concentration off practice, I resisted the impulse
but to no avail and found myself looking at a woman I thought I recognized
from a lecture series. At the end of class, I introduced myself and, after
the usual amenities, discovered that she had indeed attended the same lectures.
I also became privy to a fascinating Aikido history. About a year previous,
attracted by an intuition she tried to shake but couldn't, this woman began
the practice of Aikido. After a couple months training, she hitched a ride
from a driver who pulled over and assaulted her. Although a novice, she remembered
enough about Aikido principles to avoid fighting. Instead, she blended with
the blows and misdirected his energy. Remaining self-possessed, she managed
to both deflect his blows and open the car door and escape. Followed by her
assailant, she rushed to the nearest house and tried to get in but no one
would help. Enraged the man threw her on the ground, and resumed his rape
attempt, trying to tear off her clothes. Again she
deflected his blows and eventually managed to squirm free and run to another
house where she was given shelter. After that incident, her intuition about
practice dropped, and her attraction to Aikido became purely aesthetic.
I don't remember the woman's name, but she remains one of my most significant teachers. Her approach and my mother's reflect the two aforementioned poles of the martial arts. One pole sees the martial arts as a contest of technical skill and emphasizes mastering fighting techniques; the other pole sees the futility of fighting and emphasizes blending and avoidance of conflict. "Can you resist the world of non-resistance?" These words, addressed to a thoroughly frustrated challenger by Rinjiro Shirata - a truly excellent martial artist - epitomize the essence of the martial arts practiced as a Way of Avoidance. In the latter case, aggressive energy meets/doesn't-meet non-judgmental absorptive emptiness, and in the former case, aggressive energy (hopefully) meets combative techniques honed to technical excellence. The technical excellence model parallels sporting competition (and indeed some martial arts consider themselves sports, seeking Olympic status and so forth), but therein lies a problem. In sport, the race goes to the swift: if all factors are nearly equal, the bigger, stronger and swifter almost invariably win. For this reason, almost all combative sports sequester athletes into weight categories. Without such divisions, lighter weight athletes would rarely compete, for the likelihood of a good lightweight beating a good heavyweight or super-heavyweight in any form or combination of grappling or punching art is very slim. Many practitioners of Sumo consider their art the pinnacle of the martial arts, and with good reason. Sumo wrestlers are superbly trained athletes and skilled martial artists who just happen to be MUCH bigger than heavyweights in most other arts. And herein lies the problem: technical excellence will only carry so far in combative situations. Nakazono Sensei expressed the problem thusly: "Do shihonage on an elephant." John L. Sullivan, the great heavyweight champ, took another tack on the same issue. While imbibing at a local watering hole, he constantly had to fend off challenges from a small man madly determined to fight. Finally, in exasperation, he confronted his tormentor: "If you hit me and someone tells me about it, you're in trouble."
Extending all apologies to my late and much-loved mother, I now see blending and avoidance as the key to resolving conflict and violence, not "winning" through technical wizardry. For although a martial artists should pursue technical excellence, fighting skill alone offers no answer to all the elephants and John L. Sullivans of this world. True martial effectiveness involves a mentality shift that passes through and transcends the fighting instinct by recasting the fighting impulse into a mindset of blending that meets resistance with non-resistance. For this reason, my answer to L.E. is now a resounding YES. Yes, with the proper study of Aikido, not only could a woman be as effective as a man in a fighting situation - she should be.