SAITO sensei's method #6

When the skin gets too tight…


The learning methodology created by Saito sensei displays an extraordinary cleverness regarding the mechanisms of corporal techniques acquisition. It is remarkably efficient to learn quickly and precisely the fundamental elements which constitute Aikido movements. It is of the outmost importance that this method is used, transmitted and preserved.

The study that will follow may lead to think that I have a critical attitude on that method and that I take a distance from it: such a thought would be far from reality, I will never stop repeating that it is the best tool we have at our disposal to lead a beginner on the path of Aikido. This is said loud and clear, must be heard and never forgotten. If not, one should avoid reading the articles that will follow.

In Iwama, Saito sensei often cooked to thank the uchi deshi for their help with the gardening or any other agricultural work. He loved these convivial moments a lot and all those who lived these moments keep them in their hearts as a gift from life.

After diner, Saito sensei often was in a good mood and this was the right moment to ask questions. That was the way to learn for uchi deshi, the best of teaching does not always come on the mate.

One day someone asked him:

Sensei, in Iwama we always begin with the techniques: tai no henka, kokyu ho… why isn't there a warm up, some preparatory gymnastics before beginning Aikido?

Saito sensei took a few seconds to think and answered this:

The techniques you apply during training, ikkyo, kote gaeshi, shiho nage… well this is the preparatory gymnastics to Aikido.

It took me years to fully understand the true meaning of that answer.

Shu Ha Ri

is a concept used in martial arts to define the three steps of any individual's evolution on the path of the knowledge of his art.

SHU is the initial phase. It is the long and necessary learning of the basics. During that period, the student faithfully reproduces the model he is offered with. He repeats to the best of his ability, without questioning the demonstrated forms. A complete trust in the teaching is necessary at that stage. He must repeat the rules and does not try to differentiate with any sort of personal interpretation. His understanding of the art is too limited to give any chance to understand what he is doing and where he is lead. That's why a guide is absolutely necessary during this period which goes approximately until the 4th dan, when the student has studied nearly all the basics of his art and knows them well.

The ideogram SHU means : to preserve, to keep, to protect. Whilst the basics are only a rudimentary aspect of the art, they must be kept faithfully for their further transmission. An art which basic components wouldn't be kept could nor be transmitted to the next generation and would be doomed to degenerescence and death. The teaching of the basics must be protected.

O sensei founded AIkido, this was the creation of his life. After, his art had to be shown to the world and the conditions of its survival had to be set. These two tasks were not in the Founder's destiny. They were the tasks of people after him.

O sensei trusted his son's Kisshomaru management qualities, he knew that the international promotion was in good hands. But he also understood that Kisshomaru could not assume all the roles of this vast entreprise, that he needed help, that he needed someone with the required capacities to protect the art's basics against the inevitable loss linked to its spread around the world. There had to be a man in the background, who knew to stay at his place, a man faithful to Ueshiba, a man devoted to Aiki. He thought Saito was able to accomplish that mission and that's why he changed the name of Morizei his student and chose to call him Morihiro. The ideograms of Saito sensei's first name are SHU (MORI) - which means like in shuhari, to keep, to protect - and HIRO - which gives the notion of strength. Protective strength then. The following picture talks volumes about the collaboration which was set by destiny and O sensei's will between Kisshomaru and Saito, at the very moment when Aikido was quickly spreading on the five continents:

Assuming the legacy: Morihiro Saito, slightly behind Kisshomaru Ueshiba, like a bodyguard, just after O sensei's passing, in front of the calligraphy "Aikido" brushed by the Founder.

O sensei confirmed Saito sensei's mission to everyone with a second symbol, just as important as the change of name : he gave him the official guard of the Aiki Jinja, the temple of Aikido, in Iwama. That official position was the symbolic sign for the outside world of more a fundamental although less visible function of Morihiro: to be the guardian of the temple of Aikido techniques.

Saito sensei accepted that mission. He thought about the best way to undertake it and he reached the following conclusion: people who haven't known the Founder enough don't stand a chance to understand its deep reality nor have the slightest chance to reach Aikido's reality. He considered that it is not possible to teach Akido directly, even less so to a large number of students. But he also considered that the teaching could put together a simplified version of the technical reality, providing with a far easier preparation, a propedeutics to Aikido. To achieve this goal, one needed to define:

  1. the technical material that mustn't be lost

  2. the methodology that was able to prevent or at least limit the future distortions of that material.

O sensei's genius was to discover Aikido, Kisshomaru's genius was to create the conditions of an international development, and eventually, Saito's genius was to invent a method that could protect the basis so that it could be transmitted to future generations without too many distortions. These three men had an essential role and all three contributed.

Saito sensei then decided to create a work methodology designed as a safeguard he considered crucial in order to avoid technical loss. He elaborated it along days of work and training and I can testify of this intense activity in this area for the 1986-2000 period. I was able to observe in Iwama during these years how he was achieving that task undertaken after O sensei's passing. I saw him create, try a way, go backwards, I saw him angry when his students didn't comply to his guidelines, also when they didn't understand them.

Constantly improving that pedagogical tool, his only concern was to choose the best way to preserve the Founder's teaching. It is hard to gauge the amount of imagination, efforts and rigour he devoted to that goal. In Ibaraki dojo, noone, wether 6th kyu or 7th dan, could escape from that method from which three main points emerge:

1 -Aikido is studied for a long time (but not only) in kotai mode which somehow freezes techniques designed to be applied in motion and in crisis situation. It is a work convention which cancels the constraints linked to time, to movements and stress. This convention gives the student all the time he needs to study the technique and reproduce it properly without having to manage at the same time the constraints linked to the dynamic reality.

Of course, this alphabet acquired in a static way will have to be put in practice in a dynamic way, according to one's ability but always with in accordance with the the three traditional steps, jutai, eki tai and eventually ki tai.

2 - The heart of Aikido, the rotation of the axis of the body, the unique principle which gives birth to the duality irimi tenkan - the origin of the ten thousands technical expressions - is not taught strictly speaking. It is only approached by learning the correct positions of Aikido. These positions are reached with feet movements that are independent of the body rotation, which reproduce the image but not the reality of the positioning process obtained by the rotation of the axis. The bet is that, one day, approaching reality through its image will allow to access the underlying reality itself.

The cleverness of that point is crucial for it will allow the student to leave the kotai stage and understand at last what Nakazono sensei meant when he explained that in Aikido one must walk without the legs (The detailed analysis of the movement from the rotation of the axis can be found in [MS5]). Let's remember that in Indian mythology, Aruna, the conductor of the solar chariot, who sets the active principle of the world in motion has no legs...

3 – Aikido is multidirectional because it works according to the principle of the spiral. But in order to apply techniques in a spiral and not as a parody, there are two prerequisites:

a – The relation irimi-tenkan, the point 2 must be acquired. However that understanding comes around the end of the phase SHU, after some patient years of kotai training, around 4th dan, which in this view, is only a beginning.

b – The execution of a spiral movement is linked to he notion of awase. But awase is the manifestation of an extremely subtle and brief balance between tori and uke. That extremely unstable and changing relation requires an extremely adaptability of the movement of Aikido that O sensei expressed in the Kuden by quoting Ogen sensei:

Two plus eight are ten, four plus six are ten, five plus five are ten.

It is that ephemeral link between uke and tori - in an instant that vanishes as soon as it is not perfectly grasped - which dictates nikyo rather than ikkyo, sankyo rather than nikyo, yonkio rather than sankyo and gokyo rather ikkyo.

It is impossible to teach that feeling of working on a razor's edge to a student who owns neither the technical elements which are the structures of techniques nor the understanding of irimi - tenkan.

Since the student won't acquire before a long time the required basis to move in a spiral, the conclusion is that it is pointless to ask him to reproduce something he just can't. The spiralling dimension of Aikido movements is temporarily left on the side, in the same way that time and movements constraints have been put aside with kotai. Thus, techniques are transformed from the spiral - the surface of the virtual sphere of Aikido - to a an application on a straight line. The multi directional body is transformed into a unidirectional body.

At the end, the three components of the Saito method revolve around the notion of simplification of a reality too complex to be studied straight away.

  1. Movement and time are simplified with kotai
  2. Irimi tenkan is simplified by transforming the rotation of the axis into a straight line and an autonomous movement of the feet.
  3. The spiral and the multi directional are simplified by reducing them to the straight line and a single direction.

The first point is known most of the time even if it is not well understood or believed necessary. Modern Aikido, the product of hurried times - has forgotten kotai, thinking that we can go faster and begin the study of the art with jutai, as if one could paint before knowing how to draw.

The point 2 is very subtle and that explains it has hardly been noticed. Explaing it with words and pictures is difficult, it requires the mate, practice, live explanations through examples. I'll try to study it in this website as far as it possible.

For the time being, the point 3 (our study in MS #1 to MS #5 is still to be covered. As it happens, the art of cartography provides with a very useful analogy that can help understanding the root problem of the Saito method.

The maps of the world we have been used to see since our childhood have accustomed us to see that Greenland is just as big as South America:

In reality, Greenland is nine times smaller than South America. Are the maps wrong? Why such an error?

The Earth is a sphere. A planisphere is the result of a projection of that sphere on a plane. During the 17th century, Mercator, a Begium, managed to achieve that projection in a way that could trace a sea route while being faithful to the shape of continents. He had just made sailors' life far easier. That result was brained with two major distortions: distortions of distances and surfaces. These distortions are not Mercartor's fault, their are inherent to the process. Reducing a sphere to a plane without distortions is just pain impossible, just like squaring a circle.

Saito sensei achieved the same kind of transformation: he flattened in straight lines techniques which are meant to be applied on a spiral in the virtual sphere of Aikido's movements (cf. Kajo #17).

Just like Mercator, his method has preserved the forms (techniques in our case) but, just in the same way, has distorted distances (as the previous articles have explained ). It has also distorted the logical, harmonious and continuous relation between uke and tori when the Aikido movement is applied in a spiral as it has been already been explained earlier.

These distortions are not the result of the designer's clumsiness, they are inevitably linked - just like Mercator's projection - to the transfer of a spheric reality on a plane.

Despite the fact Mercator's projection is "false" on two aspects and right on one, it is still used today (as it can easily checked with most usual maps of Earth), because we haven't found a better way to represent our planet on a flat surface…

Saito sensei's method is the equivalent of Mercator's projection, it is the best way we have at our disposal to approach Aikido and its reality.

But one must be careful to take things for what they are and only what they are: we are right if we use a Mercator map to draw our road but if we are very wrong if we use it to calculate distances or areas. The same can happen with Saito sensei's method.

Any thing conceals the seed of its opposite deep inside. That method for learning Aikido and protect O sensei's legacy, admirable as it can be, can produce the reverse effect and can block the student progress at its initial stage if we forget that after the stage SHU

the stage Ha must necessarily follow. .

HA is the second phase of any individual's evolution who has achieved the phase SHU. It is not at all a repetition like the federal examinations programs seem to imply when they ignore the traditional vision. On the contrary it is a break from the previous phase, it is another dimension.

The ideogram HA means to break, tear apart. The student understands that the rules he has learnt and respected so far are nothing but a work convention, a frame designed to make his learning easier and that they are not the truth yet. The snake of knowledge feels tight in its egg, he needs to break the shell which fulfilled its role but now prevents him from evolving. He needs to break the transitory rules to find out why they had been established.

The phase HA lasts the same amount of time as the phase SHU because breaking old rules is not enough, one needs to discover the laws that will replace them. One needs to rebuild, according to the new laws, the temple of the moving body. This phase of discovery is often spent with a feeling of amazement in front of these laws which reveal their perfection. This is also the time of gratefulness towards the marvels of that universe. Because these new laws don't belong to anyone, they are not the pretentious invention of student seeking originality, the infantile manifestation of af an ego eager to leave its mark in the world, in reality what is found here are the eternal laws hidden in old laws like a pearl in an oyster. The old laws appear then for what they are: the disguise of true laws before the mask drops down. Janus has two faces.

Saito sensei's genius lies in the fact he forced to wear that mask. He knew that learning O sensei's art is impossible without going through the base SHU and he voluntarily concealed the eternal laws of Aikido in his method, just like a treasure is hidden in the ground.

But treasures are not meant to stay in the ground more than necessary and if the phase SHU must be respected, it is equally important to go through the phase HA. Walking along that part of the way, the adept rallies that the Aikido he thought he has eventually discovered is not there just like it wasn't in the phase SHU. Aikido is even further than that. Of course the laws in the phase HA are the laws of the universe, these are no longer the adapted laws of the phase SHU. He conquered these laws alone for the guide's role is over at the doorstep of the phase HA. But he does not own these laws yet, there are still a piece of knowledge, something he deciphered, understood with his mind and his body but only like one owns an object which has become familiar. They are not inscribed in every fiber of his being. The snake of knowledge has left the the egg, but he needs to shed his skin, he has no space left to grow.

This is the moment when the adept leaves the phase HA to enter the phase RI.


means to leave, to depart, like a young swallow leaves its birthplace for the first migration. RI is indeed a great journey. The laws are the same in the phase HA but they are no longer imposed from outside, they are not laws anymore, they have become his true nature, his "being in the world". It is only in that sense that it can be said that he forgets them. The universe which was still outside him, that he observed from the outside so to speak, takes possession of his body, enters his blood and the marrow of his bones. The old man is dead, it is no longer the man of the past either, it is the "true man" of the Tao. The movement is no longer the movement of a man, it is the movement of the universe which expresses itself through and thanks to the human body.

O sensei used to express that feeling and that reality with the famous sentence "I am the universe". He was not mad, despite what Aikikai's young people in the sixties thought about him and who understood nothing to the words of the old man of Iwama (the pages 161 and 162 of "Aikido" written by Pierre Warcollier who spent some time in Aikikai in 1968 are very interesting in that respect). O sensei only tried to express what we didn't have words for. Because that new state is unreachable without entering the spiritual world, and this world doesn't reveal itself with words.

And Aikido is here at last, Aikido is the expression of the universe through man. Because it may seem unbelievable - although it is a primary traditional teaching - the universe needs man to express itself. Aikido is not the hobby of a few contemporary people fond of the past. Aikido is the language of the universe which talks in human movements. For those who have faith, it is God's manifestation in the world and in man.

AIkido is a sacred dance which laws have not been written by man. That's why no man can change them.

When we consider the immensity of what is at stake here, we can put in perspective the colossal and naive vanity of the modern world who believes in its power to make Aikido "evolve". A TV show, a cooking recipe, a fashion can evolve, not Aikido. Aikido is not a young discipline seeking progress, Aikido is not born in Japan in 1942, Aikido was already in The Gizeh pyramids four thousands years ago, Aikido is born with the universe, his laws are the universe's and no man has any grip on them. Why can't we accept that fact which was the "Founder's" thinking?

Aikido is not a budo invented by man, it was achieved before the universe was.
- Morihei Ueshiba, Takemusu Aiki Conference volume II, p.99 Ed Cénacle de France

Man can't make Aikido evolve, it is Aikido that can transform him and make evolve the conscience of his responsibilities as far as he remains humble enough to stay on the way.

Aikido is therefore, far, very far away from us, far from our reductive concepts. Maybe this uchi deshi, his naive question and Saito sensei's answer can be better understood now. In fact he answered:

Don't believe you practice Aikido. For a long time, you won't even have the possibility to figure out what Aikido looks like. For the moment, you practice preparatory gymnastics needed for your future understanding.

Aikido is not in Saito sensei's method for the entire method is in the phase SHU, Aikido is not either in the phase HA and, to tell the truth, nor in the phase RI, Aikido is at the last end of that last phase, Shuhari must be walked from the beginning to the end.

The modern world is hurried but it can't change that reality. And everything which is taught under the name of Aikido by teachers who have thought they could spare themselves the journey is only grounded in laziness, credulity and human vanity. Isis doesn't lift her veil so easily.

For sure the shell is a part of the fruit and the method is a foretaste of Aikido but the shell must be cracked to reach he almond.

Respecting these eternal laws of knowledge means no disrespect to Saito sensei. On the contrary, it means honouring him, it means walking on the road he drew for us against his own evolution. That must never be forgotten, that achievement had a price and Saito paid it with a good heart: he accepted to sacrifice his own progression, he went backwards. While he had gone way further, he came back to the stage SHU and stopped there, locked himself in it, for us, for our education, because he had been so close to the Founder, because he had known him for so long that he was in the right place to create a learning methodology as faithful as possible to O sensei's teaching. Let's not forget that SHU (MORI) was his name and he incarnated SHU.

Eventually his great achievement is not an ever growing number of practitioners using his Aikido method. Saito sensei's true victory, and the very reason of being of his method - may I ask to pay attention here? - is that one day, those who use it won't need it anymore. Means must lead to ends.

It was Saito sensei's mission to create these means, he fulfilled his duty and the mission O sensei gave him. But the responsibility regarding results can't be on him but on those who come after him, those are responsible whose received his that legacy in Iwama between 1969 and 2002. They must think, decide what to do with it and not take the shadow for the prey, behaving as if Aikido was all in the method.

I make a pause with this 6th article, hoping that the explanations on tai jutsu allowed some of the questions to be better understood. But my intent is to resume that series with unexplored aspects of the Saito method, especially regarding the weapons of Aikido: aiki jo and aiki ken. In this field the break between the method and reality is even more obvious and it must be understood otherwise the weapons of Aikido may well remain a game for us who too often remain little kids.

Philippe Voarino, June 21st 2013

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)