(Instructions to teachers regarding the transmission of Aikido)

I – Historical background

Morihiro Saito received the daily teaching from Morihei Ueshiba between 1946 and 1969.

The founder of Aikido was a researcher, he was not a teacher. His whole time and energy were devoted to his art and he had no time left to create a methodology for transmission.

Saito sensei used to explain that O sensei’s mind was like an erupting volcano from which techniques would emerge continuously and that decoding the common thread was impossible. This method, which was to become the Saito method was at the beginning a tool designed by Saito sensei for his personal use. That was the means the young Morihiro imagined to remember what he saw and did not undesrtand..

This fact must not be forgotten, otherwise the danger is to mistake the method with Aikido itself.

II – What did Saito sensei create ? What is that method ?

It is essential to understand how Morihiro Saito proceeded.

Stage #1

Without being aware of it (most likely), he applied Descartes’ recommendation: he deconstructed O sensei’s unreadable movements into smaller parts, simple elements that were easier to see and remember .

That’s how the seven ken suburi and the twenty jo suburi were born.

O Sensei never practiced these suburi as we know them, as a list of 1 to 7 and 1 to 20 movements. It is Morihiro Saito who somehow extracted them from the global practice of the Founder in order to be able to practice alone, learn them and eventually not forget them

By doing so, Morihiro nearly exclusively focused his attention on the outside aspect of a movement which was – in this specific studying context- to be practiced alone, without an opponent.

That extract set a simplified version of the movement: the opponent being absent, uchi’s attack being not materialized, taking an angle was pointless and even worse, it would uselessly pollute the learning of the form.

That’s why he decided to practice these suburi on a line, from an hanmi position, that’s how all his students keep doing and rightly so.

But practicing on a line is a pedagogical biais which has a major consequence: rotating the hips is not possible..

Let’s take an example, choku tsuki or gaeshi tsuki. Hanmi position, left foot in front at the beginning. If I keep that position, if I stay on that initial line as I strike, if I stay in hanmi, everyone can understand my hips play no role since the body moves forward and does not rotate.

This is not a problem since what is seeked here at that stage is not the hip rotation but only the outside form of the movement, the movement so to speak.

Saito sensei was perfectly aware that the movements he had extracted for Ueshiba sensei’s movements were a simplified version and they lacked the hip rotation. But he wanted it so, he deliberately chose that linear practice in order to focus his whole attention on the form.

Stage #2

Practicing the stage #1 suburi is essential, it allows the study of the forms and movements the body must master in order to move on to the next stage. It also allows the study of breathing.

But one thing is impossible in this solitary practice: learning the synchronization with an adverse energy, called awase in Japanese language (awaseru). That learning only becomes possible with an opponent, his rhythm, his own very dynamics. Aite’s energy must appear at some point so that one can harmonize with it.

Morihiro Saito, consistent with his own logic, organized that study of awase in the same methodical way as stage #1 suburi.

He rearranged the isolated suburi in a technical assembling. He designed after he was granted permission to do so by O sensei a series of successive strikes allowing to practice the suburi with a partner. Down the line, these exercises became the six kumi tachi, the ten kumi jo, the awase version of sanju ichi and jusan no jo and, later, the seven ken tai jo.

However, O sensei had never practiced that way for the fundamental reason that aikido is based on the concepts of awase and irimi: at the exact moment when uchi’s attack is meant to land, nage has disappeared and uchi is striken. there is no second chance.

This is the perfect application, in martial field, of one of Japanese culture's foundations called ichi-go ichi-e (one instant, one encounter) which can be found, for instance, either in tea ceremony, calligraphy or bow shooting.

This foundation is linked to the idea of a unified action in a perfect encounter, with awase. It is no random if Aikido and awase share the same ideogram 合.

It can easily understood that the principle of the perfect Aiki action (takemusu), this principle of resolving duality in unity, forbids the possibility of any fencing (chanbara) with the same opponent. Equally it can be understood that it forbids any protection, pary*, counter attack, which are all attributes of duality, the attributes of a conflict that can only exists in duality.

Thinking that Saito sensei ignored that fact, after having spent his life with O sensei, would feel like an insult.

Therefore the fundamental key to understand his method requires to understand that the kumitachi, the kumijo, the ken tai jo have nothing to do with a combat simulation and have nothing to do with the reality of Aikido. One has to understand that they are, again and only, suburi. But they are suburi belonging to stage #2

The stage #1 suburi are practiced alone, the stage #2 suburi are practiced in pair. Stage #1 suburi allow acquiring the corporal form and the breathing, the stage #2 suburi also develop the form and the breathing but also lead to two new discoveries: stepping off the line and awase. These two novelties are acquired following two modes:

  • kotai mode (after uchi’s strike) : stepping off the attack line (desynchronized with uchi’s action)
  • jutai mode (when uchi attacks) awase (stepping off the attack line in tune/harmony with uchi’s dynamics)

However, and this is crucial, Saito sensei designed these suburi while keeping the linear mode he used for stage #1 suburi.

And I ask for the most extreme attention to what follows.

Anyone can see that the stage #1 suburi are a linear work. They were designed as such by Saito sensei, who insisted in his teaching on the very necessity to execute these suburi on a line and it may be more clear now with these explanations.

But few realize that these stage #2 suburi, ie the kumitachi, kuijo and ken tai jo, are a linear work in which the hip rotation is not more present that in stage #1 suburi.

To understand this, let’s take the same example again of choku tsuki or gaeshi tsuki.

When this movement is not done alone anymore, in front of a mirror, when the opponent is on the attack line, it becomes obvious that uke needs to leave that line with an angle that he didn’t need in stage #1 suburi.

So what does he do exactly at that stage of the study within the kumijo frame?

In hidari awase for instance, he goes on the left by some thirty degrees. He first uses his front left foot and he finds after his two steps the exact same initial position. The position is simply brought elsewhere by some thirty degrees. It is not achieved by a rotation of the hips, it is achieved by two successive steps on the side.

Uke jo strikes in this position which is nothing else but the position he had in the stage #1 suburi (fig n°1), but on the side with the necessary angle to step off the attack line.

But then, since the strike was linear in the stage #1 suburi and since the strike is exactly similar in stage #2 suburi, after the necessary angle was used, one easily understands that the strike is equally linear in that case, without using any rotation of the hips.

In other words - and this is fundamental – the paired weapons exercises, created by Saito sensei in order to develop the corporal form, the breathing, the mobility off the line of attack and the synchronization with an opponent (awase) are also designed to be practiced in a linear way. They are but the prolonging of stage #1 suburi – in a context where one has to take into account an attack direction and its timing, both dimensions that were not present yet in stage #1 suburi.

This technique was conceived spontaneously and gradually by the young Morihiro Saito in order to remember his master's teaching.

Twenty years later, after O sensei’s passing, he perfected that method. He transformed it into a true teaching method he later used to transmit to his own students the elements of a basis he found indispensable so that one day they might find the true reality of the Founder’s practice.

Saito sensei’s hope was that his pedagogical tools could give all those who hadn’t known O sensei and practiced under his guidance a chance to understand The Founder’s Aikido, which he considered impossible without a proper method.

This is why he chose never to teach beyond the stage #2: because he thought he hadn’t time enough to reinforce his method, to make it as sure and efficient as possible.

He devoted his whole energy to that task.

Although he often explained that the stage #2 was not Aikido yet, that is was but a preparatory gymnastics towards Aikido, he had another major reason not to teach beyond the stage #2. The reason was that the stage #3 initiates the reality of the Aikido movement. And Saito sensei understood that teaching that reality meant a great danger to his method.

This danger is still the same nowadays: it is that the teachers who could taste the reality of the movement would eventually turn away from the method, end up considering it is superfluous and eventually forget it, without realizing that they owe to the method the fact they had a chance to see beyond the method.

III – What is stage #3 ?

The stage #3 is O sensei’s practice, it is the irimi of Aikido.

The irimi of Aikido is the result of an invisible rotation of the vertical axis of the body on itself. The consequence of this rotation of the axis is the complementary rotation of both hips which is the visible manifestation. Ueshiba sensei called that rotation of the hips irimi tenkan.

The rotation of the hips leads from hanmi to hito e mi. Without that rotation there is no possible irimi. The irimi of Aikido is conditioned by that irimi tenkan rotation of the hips.

But we saw that the common feature of stage #1 and stage #2 suburi is precisely the absence of hip rotation. We saw that absence is deliberate, that it is designed so in order to focus the whole attention on the study of forms, angles and awase.

The inevitable consequence of that choice is that the concept of irimi, which is only created by this rotation, is equally absent in stage #1 and stage #2 suburi. And we must not mistake the angle taken in stage #2 suburi with an irimi. Let’s repeat again that the angles taken, that stepping off the line of attack is done with a rotation but by walking, and the consequence is that it has all the characteristics of a linear action.

The stage #3 is therefore the stage of the study where for the first time the rotation of the hips, and therefore irimi, will appear.

But the rotation of the hips will give to the Aikido movement a specificity which makes a big change happen compared to the movement as developped in stage #1 and #2. That new notion is circularity.

The movement which was linear sofar is radically transformed: it becomes circular. This needs to be understood completely: there is no linear movement in Aikido, they are all circular (or spiraled if you prefer that expression).

This means that Saito sensei’s method is a preliminary study of Aikido but it is not Aikido yet.

Saito sensei knew and explained this. But he was barely listened to.

Believing that in order to practice a good Aikido, one needs to reproduce the exercises of the method better and better, faster and faster, stronger and stronger means believing that Aikido is in the method, this is being blind, this is a dead end. Aikido is not there, Aikido is one step further and Saito sensei made it clear more than once, although he decided not to teach at that level.

There is a moment when, in order to keep progressing, there is no other option but to leave the method and enter stage #3.

The difficulty here is this that entrance implies a deep modification from the two previous stages: one needs to learn again all moves according to the principle of irimi tenkan; one has to give up the linear work in order to discover the circular work founded on irimi tenkan.

The snake must get rid of his old skin. He does not disregard it since he needed it to grow that far but he leaves it in order to keep growing. If he didn’t, the skin would suffocate him. What is beneficial at one stage of development becomes prejudicial after.

Saito sensei’s method is a wonderful tool, the best one for progression, as far as the two first learning stages go. But when the method has fulfilled its mission, it must be abandoned, respectfully, with gratitude, but decisively, just like the snake abandons his old skin.

Who has reached the limits of the possibilities of the method and keeps trying to improve within its limits will deperish under the constraints of a lifeless methodology that has become useless. Because that method was not designed to last a man’s life but as a transient tool with the view of making his initial development easier.

The stage #3 does not discard the exercises designed by Saito sensei, they are still used. But they are done in a complete new way by injecting at last, after years of learning, the authentic irimi of the Founder, the irimi of Aikido.

That passage to stage #3 can not be achieved without a thorough knowledge and mastery of stages #1 and #2.

IV – Remarks regarding tai jutsu

The overview on Saito sensei’s method dealt with weapons. It was easier from that vantage to make understand the principle of linearity Saito sensei adopted as a preliminary principle for the study of Aikido.

Explaining how he did the same with hand techniques would be too long and too complex. One can get a sample with the articles devoted to “Saito sensei’s method”. Because, in the same way there are weapon suburi, there are tai jutsu suburi.

The preliminary gymnastics to Aikido is a common feature of all Saito sensei’s teaching who systematically organized it according to the ruling principle of linearity. I insist on the word systematically because what is at stake here is the setting of a genuine preparatory teaching system.

Saito sensei is the true father of that system, it wasn’t born out of Ueshiba sensei’s mind.

Everything above was a long but necessary explanation in order to understand the following series of instructions regarding the transmission of Aikido.

V – Instructions regarding the transmission of Aikido

  1. The method designed by Saito sensei is useful to transmit Aikido. Factual experience proves it. Iwama’s teaching notoriety is based on this method.

  2. This method must be used by the teachers who have studied it. It must be passed to students and future teachers. It consists only in stages #1 and #2 suburi practice for both weapons and tai jutsu.

    The irimi tenkan principle has been consciously taken out of that practice level which must not be considered as Aikido but as a preparatory gymnastics.

    An important consequence is that speed or strength are irrelevant at that studying stage. Using speed or strength is only the evidence of an misunderstanding of the very objective of these stages #1 and #2..

  3. The method must be kept intact, it mustn’t be modified. This means that the linearity principle must be fully respected.

    This means that the linearity principle must be fully respected. Because things that are correct in a given system are not anymore in a different state of that same system. That’s why it is essential to understand our level of practice and accept the constraints linked to our progression.

    The time devoted to create foundations is not lost. It does not last forever. Patience is necessary. It is important to achieve this stage under the guidance of a qualified teacher..

  4. The method is considered known when the student reaches 3rd dan. The examinations must take that rule into account.

  5. After the 3rd dan, the student/teacher must benefit from a superior teaching which will allow him/her, in acquiring the necessary elements to access stage #3 and gradually awaken him/her to the practice of Aikido which, strictly speaking, has not begun yet.

  6. The stage #3 information should not be given before the student reaches the maturity of the 3rd dan. Without this maturity, the stage #3 teachings may let him/her think the method is superfluous and that studying it is useless. This would be a serious error.

  7. The information given at stage #3 must allow the student to understand the transformation of the movement linked to the passage of linearity to circularity. That circularity only appears with the principle of irimi tenkan. The stage #3 must be recognized as the consequence of everything that has been studied in stages #1 and #2 but now applied to the reality of the Aikido movement.

  8. The stage #3 can only be taught by teachers who have understood its principles and have the complete knowlege of the technical details of that transmission mode. The studying time to transmit that that teaching after 3rd dan rises the maturity level to 6th dan.

  9. Saito sensei devoted his whole life to the creation of his teaching method but he did not design it to lock the students in the method for the rest of their life.

    The very objective of the method is to allow the student to leave the limited frame of basics to access the authentic practice of the Founder.

    Saito sensei considered that his role was to bring his students to that stage. He even considered it a mission. He made the transmission of his method an essential goal of his life.

Finding O sensei’s Aikido is the best tribute to Saito sensei’s work, it is the best way to respect his will. This requires a great respect for the method but it also requires abandoning the method when the time has come.

Philippe Voarino
Easter (Pessa’h, Passage) 2014

What is Traditional Aikido?

Aikido is not a sport, it is a martial art which laws (takemusu) are in harmony with the laws of the universe. Studying them allows the practitioner to understand his place in the universe. Aikido was born in Iwama, O sensei achieved in that village the synthesis of tai jutsu, aiki ken and aiki jo.

Where to practice Traditional Aikido?

The International Takemusu Aikido Federation (ITAF) brings to the practitioner the structure he needs in order to work as close as possible to the reality O sensei MU defined. The official national representations are the guarantee of a teaching faithful to the Founder's.

The weapons of Aikido, aiki ken and aiki jo

In modern Aikido, weapons are hardly taught, if taught at all. In O sensei's Aikido, on the contrary, aiki ken, aiki jo and tai jutsu are unified and form together a riai, a family of harmonious techniques stemming from one unique principle. Each techniques helps understand all the others.

Aikido, a martial art or an art of peace?

Peace is a balance between a human being and the world around him. The true martial art's goal is not to become stronger than one's opponent but to find in that opponent a way to realize harmony. There is no enemy anymore as such, but an opportunity offered to reach unified ki.
Copyright TAI (Takemusu Aikido Intercontinental)