Training Via Osmosis

Currently I am re-reading a book titled “Hidden In Plain Sight,” by Ellis Amdur. It’s a book about the roots of Morihei Ueshiba’s power, that covers a lot of the history of Daito Ryu and Ueshiba’s development of Aikido.

It’s a very interesting book, written by a true scholar. Although many of the names and martial styles are unfamiliar to me, it has been very informative. The book has, without a doubt, made me see Aikido–at least Aikido as Ueshiba taught it–in a different light.

However, that’s not what I’m here to write about.

In chapter four, “Aikido Is Three Peaches,: Mr Amdur writes:

“A considerable amount of skill, however, can be acquired by the innately talented simply by osmosis. The act of taking ukemi from a teacher who really puts the student through his paces will teach the student some of the body skills without him knowing, really, that he has reworked his body structure. For example, if tested physically with more and more severity, one begins to “instinctively” learn ways of breathing best suited to taking a blow or a fall. This learning by osmosis is further enhanced when one attempts to throw or counter that teacher. Without explicit instructions, one will not learn all or even most of the skills that are possible for a human being to acquire – but one can learn enough to stand out within not only the aikido world, but even in the larger world of martial arts.”

Unlike the common translation of the word ukemi, which most people use to describe falling techniques, Mr. Amdur uses ukemi more literally to refer to a concept of “receiving body.”

Per Mr. Amdur: “Properly understood, ukemi is the mastery of force – the act of absorbing and redirecting energy, and even adding one’s own power and sending it back to the attacker.”

His assertion, and I agree with it, is that ukemi is not just about falling. It’s about learning to “FEEL.”

Learning to “feel,” and using those feelings constructively was something I wasn’t taught. Or at least I wasn’t taught explicitly. But perhaps the ways I made various discoveries related to self-preservation were a direct result of the how my early training was conducted. I took a lot, I mean a lot, of ukemi–ukemi that I was in no way, shape or form prepared or trained to take.

Before reading Mr. Amdur’s book I had always just accepted the fact that I had been the victim of a half-crazed Japanese man who had it in for me. Now I have to consider an alternative possibility; perhaps he was actually looking out for my best interest, and taught me in the best manner he knew how.

In either case, the end result was the same: he forced me to learn things on my own by taking ukemi. By Osmosis!

Lesson 1 – Pain Avoidance

Anyone who has ever read, or listened to, stories about the way I was taught will be aware that for my first three years of training, I was little more than a punching bag for my teacher’s son. I routinely had the crap beaten out of me.

Training was often harsh. While I like to believe that my teacher had no real intention to permanently injure me, I frequently went home with bruises, welts, abrasions, cuts, and sprains. It was a good day was when I only felt exhausted.

Complicating matters, my mother who had no knowledge about the martial arts, and if she had have seen these injuries she would have made me quit. I can still remember wearing a sweater on one of the hottest days of the year just so my mother count not see the welt marks all over my arms. “No mom I’m not hot,” I boldly protested while I quickly became drenched in my own sweat.

Since I didn’t want to be forced to quit, I had to hide my injuries. This meant that I rarely if ever received any professional medical treatment. Occasionally, I could blame these injuries on sports I was involved in. But in most cases, I either treated my injuries on my own, accepted the occasional first aid my teacher offered (usually some stinky liquid that was rubbed on, some foul tasting concoction, or moxa), or learned to ignore and work through the pain.

I guess what doesn’t kill you, does makes you stronger. Although, you do pay for it as you get older.

While it might seem like “lesson one” was to develop a high tolerance for pain, the real lesson that I learned–at least eventually–was how to reduce the amount of pain I was receiving.

Rather than enduring, I learned to evade, avoid, blend with, ride, or redirect the incoming force: ultimately dissipating that force such that most of the energy didn’t impact me and was at least paritally redirected towards my opponent.

Admittedly, training could still be painful. But the rate at which I was injured greatly declined.
In fairness to my instructor, he did eventually teach me techniques that involved evading, redirecting, and blending. But most of the lessons of how to actually apply such skills were self taught out of necessity during those first few years.

His intention, at least initially was clearly to leave me alone to figure things out, myself. Techniques were often done to me without any prior warning about what was going to happen. I had no time to formulate a plan for what I could do in response, or to prepare myself to fall in a certain way. I was simply told how to attack, and before I knew what was happening, I would find myself put in some painful joint lock, and/or on the ground. Often, things happened so fast, that I could not even sense how techniques were being applied to me; I knew the end result, but not the means.

Lesson 2 – Taking Falls

Another thing I had to teach myself was how to fall. Unlike most dojos, where throws and projections are a dominant element of the beginning curriculum, I was never taught Ukemi Waza (falling techniques). My teacher didn’t show me, or anyone else.

I had to teach myself how to fall, out of necessity, and for self-preservation. It was a skill I picked up very quickly, by trial and error, often without giving it much conscious thought. Granted, my falls might not have looked pretty, but they were functional.

After reading Mr. Amdur’s book, and thinking about what he wrote, I can see that not being taught how to fall was very beneficial for me. It forced me to learn to “feel” techniques and how they were being applied. It eventually taught me how to respond in a manner that not only reduced a technique’s harm, but also allowed me to counter it with little effort.

One thing I learned quite quickly, and became very good at, was to instinctively shift my center, or alter my body to counter techniques. Nowadays, I have to make a conscious effort to stop doing this when I am practicing with others, especially if I am the uke (receiver of a technique) or am working with people who do not know me well.

Of course, my teacher’s son was also aware of these methods. Often we would find ourselves in a game of counter-versus-counter-versus-counter, before we could finish the technique we were supposed to be practicing. Basically, we were sparring.

But this was sparring in a way that was acceptable to my teacher. He often encouraged such behavior, because he knew it improved our overall ability to use such techniques in the real world.

Of course, such training ingrained a habit that others often find annoying: I will not fall unless I really have to. When receiving a technique, I will not project, hurl, leap, and/or launch myself–unless my training partner makes me.

Acting too cooperatively and “faking” a fall was something my teacher would not tolerate. If he even had the slightest inkling that we were behaving in such a manner, there would be hell to pay.

“Baka da!* You make it work, or you learn how to make it work. But don’t fake it, ” he would yell (well, that’s the family-friendly version; and the real version would be accompanied by some swipes from his cane or whatever else he happened to be close at hand).

Lesson 3 – Relaxation

Have you ever heard the expression “Tension Kills?” Well it’s more than just an old saying.
Early in my training, when I knew I was about to get pummeled by some technique my teacher’s son was about to perform on me, I would become very rigid. Since I knew it was going to hurt, I would become tense. My body would lock up. Because

I wasn’t pliable and relaxed, I had to absorb the full brunt of the force.
My teacher constantly yelled at me for being “stiff,” too flat-footed, or as he said, too “heavy.” At the time, I thought “heavy” meant I was fat. I was confused since I knew I wasn’t fat; clearly whatever he was trying to teach me was lost in translation.

As time went by, I finally understood that “heavy” meant I was being stiff and rigid. I was being my own worst enemy; I wasn’t allowing myself the ability to move freely and adapt to the situation. I wasn’t relaxed.

Unfortunately, by the time I finally understand what “heavy” meant, I had already started learning how to relax on my own. I taught myself how to become pliable, how to just accept what was about to happen and “go with the flow.”

Learning to remain relaxed was probably the greatest breakthrough I made in my martial arts training in that period. It drastically changed both how I received techniques and how I applied them.

This lesson marked a transition point, where I went from glorified punching bag to actual student. And it only took mr three years of abuse.

Lesson 4 – Every Action Equals A Reaction

What I really love about aiki arts are the subtleties . They are also something I have hated, and which often frustrated me to no end–especially when trying to teach aiki.

Often these subtleties arise because many aiki techniques have to be done in a specific, systematic order in order to work. Just the slight shift of the head at a wrong moment, an imperceptible twisting at the wrong angle, or even improper breathing can ruin the effectiveness of a technique. Sometimes a tiny shift will have drastic results.

In the art of aiki, every action has a reaction.

Conceptually, this is not hard to understand. But putting the concept into practice is another thing. Simply put, in order to perform correct aiki against an opponent, one must first master their own body.

Mastering the subtleties of one’s own body is often referred to as the “internal” part of martial arts. By being fully in control of the body, and using it in an integrated manner with no extraneous movements, one generates extraordinary power, speed, and efficiency. It is not about feeling “comfortable,” it’s about doing things correctly.

By learning to “feel” the techniques that were being applied to me, I learned what actions caused which reactions. These lessons were burned into muscle memory rather than conscious thought. No longer did I think about what I was doing; I just did it.

The funny thing, is that teaching has forced me to reverse this process so that I can better explain and demonstrate the things I am teaching. And, yes, having to stop and think about things has affected my ability to execute them like I used to.

In reexamining things, maybe I’m doing a disservice to my students by trying to explain in too much detail. Perhaps I should be more like my teacher and force them to figure it out on their own. We’ll see.

That said, one of my mantras in school is, ” Stop thinking so much! Just do it.” Unfortunately, this lesson goes over the heads of most students, who can’t or won’t ever comprehend what I’m talking about.

Lesson 5 – Point Of Reference

This is closely related to lesson four; “point of reference” describes the manner in which I learned to apply “actions equal reactions.” Understanding action equals reaction is meaningless if you can’t apply it–apply it instantaneously, without conscious thought.

Personally, the way I process information–whether it be physical movement, verbal instructions, or things I read–is by firmly establishing both a starting point and the objective. How I get from point A to point B can vary.

When it comes to physical movement, establishing a starting point is normally very easy. Reaching the objective is the hard point. There are often translation problems from my mental intention to my body’s physical expression of it. The body is not always capable of, or coordinated enough for moving in the intended way. Too often, you end up either omitting steps or adding extra movements, without ever being aware of it. This brings us back to the subtleties of aiki.

The simplest example I can use to describe “point of reference” comes from when when I took Karate. In the beginning, I had a very hard time learning the kata–their solo forms. I was simply terrible at it. I understood the overall point of learning the kata, but unless individual movements and sequences were broken down with the purposes explained in detail, I found it hard to visualize what I was doing. That made remembering the sequence of movements very hard for me.

Thus, to learn the Karate kata, I had to create various points of reference to remind myself that I was blocking this or that attack, and then using such-and-such defense.

Practicing solo kata does not give the kind instant feedback I was accustomed to having. Since you’re not applying any of the movements to an actual living, breathing opponent, there is no way to check that your movements are correct and viable. There’s nothing to “feel,” except your own actions.

This is not meant to be derogatory, or to suggest that the bunkai (applications) in kata are not effective. It’s just that the way karate practitioners approach their objectives is different both from how I was trained and how my mind processes information.

In fact, my teacher did teach kata. We just did them in reverse. Instead of learning the solo portion first, we started by learning how to apply the movements. After we had understood that, then we would practice the movements on our own.

For me personally, that was a better approach, because I didn’t have to imagine what I was trying to accomplish; I knew my objective. My points of reference where clear: I had to do this in order to achieve that.

As I explain it to my students, forms are sequential movements, that have to be done in a specific order: A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. Leave out one step or alter the sequence, and you are not doing the form. You may get the application to work, often by being forceful, but you still did it wrong.

Lesson 6 – Breathing

The last thing I learned from ukemi was how to breathe properly. This is an ability I don’t think my teacher could have fully taught me, given the language barrier between us. Breathing from the hara (abdomen) has little meaning to a 13-year-old. My teacher could poke my tanden (a spot below the navel considered the center of power) as much as he wanted, I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t feel it.

Of course, learning to breathe properly has a lot to do with relaxation, and learning to “feel.” All these elements seem to always work in conjunction with each other, which can’t be a coincidence.

Unfortunately, I can’t even begin to explain how I breathe in relation to my fighting skills, or how I use “breath” in my techniques. Nor can I explain how I figured it out. It seems like my body learned it on its own through a lot of trial and error.

Undoubtedly, training at the beach (which we did often) assisted my need for proper breath control. My teacher liked to pin us face down in the water, and hold us there until we surfaced, gasping for air. The more one thrashed, the longer they were held. As you can imagine, the first thing we had to learn was to relax and not panic.

Holding one’s breath underwater, even for a few seconds, can seem like an eternity–especially when you’re not prepared for it and are being held there against your will.

Though torturous, my teacher wasn’t drowning us without purpose. There was a lesson to be learned, though it took a while to figure it out. And, no, the lesson was not to stay away from the water when he was around–although that was good advice; it was how to breathe properly.

I learned how to inhale such that an optimal amount of oxygen was taken in, and then how to release that breath as needed–or, in the case of being held under water, how to hold it in and use the air for as long as possible (which is also useful to know when countering choking attacks).

I wish I could elaborate more, but I really cannot describe what I do better.  It has become completely reflexive.

One instructor told me, some years ago, that one should never inhale when doing a technique; it should be done in one breath. He also stated that the samurai would often watch for their opponent to inhale and attack them at that very instant. That was how important proper breath control was.

Unfortunately, he would not go into detail on how to breathe properly. He basically said, “figure it out on your own.”

That statement may not have been the response I was hoping for, but it might be the proper one. Maybe learning to breathe correctly needs to be self-taught, at least to some degree. An instructor can give insights into methodologies, ways to picture what you are trying to accomplish, and even corrections, but in the end the practitioner has to put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves. It’s not easy but it is doable.

However, it’s not possible to learn without combining the other lessons that I’ve discussed.

* * *

As I said at the beginning of this essay, when I started training it was harsh. For most of my adult life, I have been under the assumption that my teacher didn’t like me, and was just trying to get rid of me during the first few years.

I have always wondered why I was taught in this manner, so brutally compared to how other martial artist I have come to know were taught. I’ve even questioned whether what I endured those first few years really qualifies as training, or if it was just hazing.

But maybe there was a lot more method to my teachers “madness” than I ever realized.
Perhaps, instead of just verbally filling my head with theory and principles, things I wouldn’t have understood at the time, he made me learn them first hand. He forced me to use, and develop senses I didn’t even realize I had. He brought out the latent abilities that I needed to avoid being seriously hurt, made me overcome fears in a productive manner, and got me to trust my intuition.

He forced to me to re-work my body, to retrain how my body moved. I learned to mentally prepare myself for a confrontation, and to use instinct rather than conscious thought both defensively and offensively.

He didn’t “give” me my martial skills, he made me take them, and make them my own.

In conversations we had later, when I was an adult, he claimed to have taught us in the same manner that he was taught. Maybe that was how things were done before the commercialization of the martial arts. I don’t have enough knowledge of traditional arts and their training methods to give a definitive answer about that. But if you know me, you know what answer I’m leaning towards.

Traditional or not, I don’t know that how I learned was the best method. It certainly was not a path most people would undertake by choice. I was just dumb kid who didn’t know any better.

But looking back from where I am now, I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.

* * *

* I’ve heard that “baka da” can be translated in many ways.
The word “Baka” can mean jerk, dolt, imbecile, fool (foolish), stupid, worthless, absurd, ridiculous, and/or idiotic. Any of these worlds might describe how my teacher felt when I did things wrong. All of them probably applied when I did things wrong repeatedly after receiving corrections.

The translation I’m going with is; “What you did was stupid.” Although the word “absurd” would fit his personality better than “stupid.”

Of course I guess he could have also said, Baka yamero yo, which I believe translates to “don’t be such an idiot.” This phrase seems to be more appropriate, but given the nuances of the Japanese language may have other connotations that made the phrase inappropriate to use.

I like Baka Janai, myself, which means: “are you stupid or what?” But I think that’s more slang.



When I was a kid, I used to spend my summer vacations visiting my father who lived in Sulphur, Louisiana.

Now, the city of Sulphur used to be one of those small rural cities you could drive by and miss if you blinked. It was the type of place where everyone seemed to know everyone and most people were related to each other in some manner or other.

It was “good old boy” country, except most of these good old boys were Cajun. They spoke French, listened to Zydeco, and who proudly referred to themselves as “Coon-asses.” (Yes, the term “coon-ass” is historically derogatory, but they called themselves that with pride. Go figure!)

Sulphur was also one of those places where there was almost nothing to do. I mean, they didn’t even have a movie theatre, and unless you were on a little league baseball/softball team a kid could die of boredom. It was clearly a place that if you weren’t interested in watching the daily soap operas on TV (must see TV for my relatives) you had to have the inventiveness to find alternative ways of entertaining yourself.

However, while visiting Sulphur could be frightfully dull, it was a place surrounded by wilderness, fishing holes, and small family farms with almost every variety of livestock imaginable. For a city boy like me, who loved animals and nature, Sulphur was paradise.

Or maybe I should say that it was because of the animals that I found Sulphur to be a so much fun. To be perfectly honest, as much as I like the “simple life,” if it weren’t for the animals and my father’s relatives (a very interesting lot), Sulphur would be more like Hell. If the heat and humidity don’t kill you, chances are the swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, alligators, garfish, torrential rain and lighting storms, or toxic sulfuric fumes from the refining plants will.

Of course as a kid, none of the heat and or other hazards seemed to matter, and I looked forward to my yearly trip. It was my chance to be the “farm boy,” to play with the animals, to go fishing, and to walk in the woods whenever I wanted to. It was a chance to experience country living, far away for the noise and congestion of the city. In addition, there was the added bonus that I could drive my fathers riding lawnmower each and every time the grass needed cutting, and the grass always needed cutting. For someone not old enough to legally drive that was a big plus.

Now before I get into heart of my story I should inform the reader that there is a big difference between raising animals for food, and raising animals as pets. Those individuals that raise animals for food view farm animals as commodities; while I never witnessed any animals being mistreated, these people know where the animals will eventually end up, so never really build an attachment to them.

I on the other hand, being from the city viewed all of these farm animals as “cute and cuddly” pets, or—should I dare say—as playmates. The realization that many of these animals would end up being someone’s dinner didn’t occur until many years later. I mean, how could anyone eat poor Fluffy?

Because I viewed all animals as “pets,” I rarely considered the potential hazards of interacting with them, or the possible injuries these animals could inflict. At the time, it didn’t even dawn on me that many of these animals had little or no exposure to humans, and if given the choice would avoid human contact all together. Needless to say, I often learned this lesson the hard way. And let me tell you, even a duck can cause severe injuries with the right provocation, even provocation with the duck’s best interest at heart.

Of course, interacting with various animal species does teach a person a lot, especially how animals think and react to specific stimulus and how to read body language correctly. These lessons were useful for understanding and dealing with the more unpredictable two legged animals in my career in law enforcement many years later.

More importantly, interacting with animals can also teach one a lot about life-protection skills. Skills such as: how to run very very quickly when threatened or outmatched; how to dodge/block oncoming attacks from beaks, claws, horns, and teeth; how to improve vertical jumping skills in order to clear high hurdles/fences; and how to develop the art of improvised defensive weaponry. I think I know at least 20 ways to use a feed-bucket in the art of “Barnyard-Jutsu.”

Of course, a lot of these lessons could have been avoided if I would have listened to the people who were raising the animals in the first place. Giving credit where credit is due, farmers know a lot about the animals they raise. While a lot of what they tell you seems far-fetched, normally their advice is worth taking. Their advice illustrated in advance the risks I took; I was clearly informed what could happen and how to avoid it. Of course if I had taken their advice my life, at least as far as my training in the martial arts, may have turned out very differently.

Now I don’t want to give the reader the wrong impression. My father didn’t have a farm, nor was he a farmer. However, he always had a variety of animals on his property.

Most of the time he kept rabbits and several types of chickens. But every now and then he would decide to raise something bigger, that he would eventually use to fill his deep freeze.

One particular summer, when I was about 14 years old, that larger animal turned out to be a male Holstein calf I named Peanut.

Now, for those of you not well versed in the various breeds of cattle, a Holstein is a fairly large breed. It is one of the most common breeds found in the US and Holstein’s are famous for their unique black and white patterns (no two Holsteins have the same pattern). Calves are often born weighing a hefty 90lbs or more, and by the time they are adults a bull can weigh over 2000 pounds, stand 58 inches tall, run at over 25 miles per hours, and have a vertical leaping ability of over 6 feet. Fortunately, they are fairly mild-mannered; but if provoked, threatened, or agitated they are a force to be reckoned with.

Now when I first met Peanut, he was about four months old. He still had the oversized ears, big brown eyes, and lanky awkward gate of a calf. But he was already at the point where he was maturing into a little bull—or should I say, a “big Bully.”

Peanut was definitely king of his pen. He made it clear to all intruders that their presence would only be tolerated for a certain period of time. That time was normally no more than what it took to feed him and change his water bucket.

Intruders out-staying their welcome were confronted with snorts, aggressive head swipes, and mock charges. If that wasn’t enough to make the intruder leave Peanut then went into head-butt mood. At that point, the intruder had a choice: either run or do your best impression of a Matador.

Now for those who have read some of my other postings, you may already be aware that I have somewhat of a stubborn streak. That was even truer when I was younger. Certainly, I was of the mindset that I wasn’t going to let some little bull boss me around or chase me out of his pen. The battle of wills was on.

Round one definitely went to Peanut. I learned that getting a full on head-butt to the back and legs is quite painful. I also leaned that bulls don’t stop once their target is down. No, Peanut wasn’t about to stop hitting me until I was out of territory. To say I got my butt kicked that day would be an understatement.

Of course it was also a learning lesson. I first learned that calves can move really quickly, and can turn on a dime at full speed. I also learned that they have the uncanny knack to move one part of their body in one direction while the other seems to go in a completely opposite direction. In other words, bulls can move in a really deceptive ways.

Well, after our first encounter, I made it a point to be in charge of feeding Peanut. Twice a day I would enter his pen, and twice a day he would go through his routine of posturing, mock charging, and ultimately attacking at me.

At first Peanut would win and I routinely had to run out of the pen. However, battered and bruised I vowed, “Tomorrow was another day.”

A few weeks later, as I caught on to Peanut’s tactics, our clashes became more dance-like. Peanut would charge and I would evade by turning or stepping out of the way at the very last instant. Ole’!

Within weeks I finally started applying the aikijujutsu skills I had been learning back home against Peanut. At first, my movement wasn’t efficient enough nor was my timing accurate to always get off line enough to avoid being hit. Initially, I was also unable to do follow up evasion movements that would counter Peanut’s ability to turn or twist as he realized he missed me. I also had to watch out for his ability to kick with his hind legs—in almost any direction he wanted to—which at first caught me by surprise.

If I learned anything at this time it was that tension really can kill; the more tense I was the harder it was for me to react or flow with the impact. In addition, I discovered that thinking about what to do didn’t work. I had to let my instincts and natural survival skills direct my actions.

By the end of my second month of vacation, Peanut and I were “playing” more equally. He would get his shots in, but more often than not I was evading, blocking or blending with his movements. His attacks, however, became slower and more calculated. For anyone who thinks animals don’t learn, Peanut slowly discovered what I was up to and made adjustments.

These adjustments were a good thing though, since they forced me to make my own adjustments and develop the mindset not to react until I really processed what was happening. In other words, I learned a certain level of zanshin, calmness when confronted with a potential threat.

As I learned to relax, my reactions became quicker, and more precise. I started thinking less about what I should do and stared just doing things reactively as Peanut went about his various charges, twists and turns.

I would still be hit from time to time, but that happened less often, and even when it did the force was greatly reduced. I didn’t get knocked to the ground as often, and normally our sparring matches would end because Peanut would get bored and trot off to chase something else. He was, needless to say, a poor sport when he didn’t get his way.

As my summer vacation drew to an end Peanut became less interested in sparring with me. We had developed a certain understanding, and he was happier to show his superior physical prowess by head butting other objects (tires, big 55 gallon buckets, chickens, etc) in his enclosure and making sure I knew he had the ability to destroyed these items.

Of course being partially ignored lend to another lesson in the life-protection arts. NEVER TURN YOUR BACK on your enemy or any potential threat.

Now, I’m not sure how a 500-pound plus bull sneaks up on a person, but he managed to do just that. Out of nowhere Peanut charged at me full out. If I hadn’t rolled to my side he would definitely have gored me, which I’m sure was his intent.

Flustered, all the lessons I had learned went out the window. All I wanted to do was run, and run I did. Bull bearing down, I ran at full speed until I hit the electrified fence, which fortunately wasn’t on at full power. Ricocheting back towards my charging adversary, I did a back roll—basically rolling under Peanuts legs.

My actions must have startled poor Peanut because he went crashing into the fence also. Laying there on the ground all I saw was a bull tumbling back towards me.

Now I can’t say just what I did to avoid Peanut from landing on me, but just as he hit the ground I moved out of the way.

Now just imagine this picture, a bull and a boy lying on the ground looking at each other both knowing what the other was thinking. It was a look that said, “What the hell just happened here, and I hope no one saw that.” If Peanut had been a person I’m sure we would have shared a momentary laugh; but Peanut just got up, snorted, and walked off like nothing happened, or as if he had meant to do it.

I was a little more stunned, so it took me a while to get up and leave. In addition, by the time I came back to my senses, my father was already present. He was yelling about the damaged fence, and how it happened. I’m not sure at that moment what I was more scared of, my father or another sneak attack from Peanut.

This sneak attack marked one of our final battles, and a few days later I was on a plane returning to San Francisco.

Returning to my teacher’s house, I was exhilarated to tell him about how I had used my evasion techniques and blending skills to avoid Peanut’s attacks. I also couldn’t wait to tell him how our summer long sparring match had given me new insights to relaxing when threatened. All aspects he had been trying to instill upon me during our daily practice.

I’m not sure just how my teacher reacted to my story, or felt about the fact that I had spent my summer bull fighting, but he did notice the changes in how I reacted to being attacked. I now flinched a lot less, reacted more instinctively, and focused less on the attacking object and more on my whole surroundings.

Whatever the pros and cons were in spending my summer sparring with Peanut, that period when I returned to San Francisco became the turning point of my training. It was the point when I went from just doing basics to learning the more in-depth elements of the martial art I now teach.

I owe that little bull a lot of thanks.

Now I would love to end this story saying that Peanut lived a long full life, but that was never his fate. While it’s true that I would have loved to believe the story my father contrived to spare my emotional ties to Peanut, I will never be able to forget the fact that my father’s deep freeze just happened to be bursting with beef when I went there the next year.

Sure there were other bulls in the area to spar with, and since Peanut’s time I’ve even had the chance to interact with some major Rodeo bulls that weighed in at over 1800 pounds. However, none of these other bulls had the same zest Peanut had when it came to attacking me.

These full size bulls might have hit harder and moved quicker, but they lacked the delightful smirk Peanut had when his attack was successful. They didn’t seem to revel in the pleasure of the battle. They didn’t seem to have the same tenacious personality that made them attack me daily or with the same intent.

No, battling these bulls, never felt the same. I stilled learned valuable lessons about how to move my body, blending, and relaxing when threatened, but it never felt the same as my summer with Peanut.

What Does it Mean to be Aiki[ju]jutsu?

We usually refer to the art we practice as aikijutsu or aikijujutsu as a way of saying that we do subtle traditional jujutsu and weapon arts. Sometimes use these words to describe the whole art and sometimes for specific parts of it. It’s hard to describe to people what these terms mean. In fact, I’ve read a lot of angry opinions on what aiki arts are and who has the “right” to use the word aikijujutsu.

Traditionally, marital arts were not called aikijutsu/aikijujutsu. These are modern (well, post-Edo) words for very subtle jujutsu either coined or popularized by the art of Daito-Ryu. However aiki is a much older word for certain principles of the martial arts.

Defining aiki is not easy; nobody quite agrees on a definition. I like to use the term “misdirection”; aiki techniques are ways of tricking your opponent’s body and mind into betraying him. Many Aikido folks use metaphysical—or even magical—concepts of ki to define aiki. The simplest tongue and cheek definition is: any technique you can do to a piece of furniture is jujutsu, any technique you can only do to a human is aiki. The important thing is that techniques accomplished with aiki are very subtle and require little mechanical force. The reams of essays that Gary is in the middle of writing for this blog give some indication of how deep the study of aiki is.

But as for “aiki-jutsu” and “aiki-jujutsu,” some controversy abounds. Is any jujutsu accomplished using aiki aikijujutsu? For that matter, is Aikido (which is descended from Daito-Ryu) a form of aikijujutsu? Does only Daito-Ryu have the right to call itself aikijujutsu?

By my own observation, when a school claims to teach aikijutsu or aikijujutsu, it usually means one of four things (in descending order of legitimacy):

  1. The school is related to (or part of) Daito-Ryu.
  2. The school teaches an old and subtle style of jujutsu and uses the word aiki[ju]jutsu to distinguish itself from harder or more modern jujutsu styles.
  3. The teacher has learned both Aikido and jujutsu and is combining them, possibly trying to resynthesize more traditional aikijujutsu.
  4. The school teaches straight-up jujutsu with little aiki but is using the word to stand out from other schools.

Of course, getting an honest answer from an aiki[ju]jutsu school about which they are teaching is hard. Certainly, many schools who are in #4 spin lineage tales to claim a connection to Daito-Ryu, even if they use little aiki (bringing back the question of “what is aiki?”). After all, everybody always wants to be a little more special.

The current consensus (on the English speaking Internet at least) seems to be that only category #1 can be “aikijujutsu” and that category #2 can be “aikijutsu.” I do not know if that makes sense or not, but as we are in #2 I’ve tried to be politically correct in public and only use the word “aikijutsu” on our website. In private, we say aikijutsu and aikijujutsu pretty interchangeably.

This position is probably best articulated in this post by Toby Threadgill. It is worth noting that his art (Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Kai) is referred to as “jujutsu”, even though aiki seems to be a core part of the art.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the usage of the word “aiki” outside of Daito-Ryu is this passage from an interview with Kuroda Tetsuzan

Kuroda sensei does not use the word aiki. When this word was becoming popular his grandfather Yasuji felt that all jujitsu should be that subtle and there was no need for a word to describe it.

Well said.

Video of a Younger Don Angier

As an interlude among all the dense theory, I wanted to link to this old video of Don Angier. This seems apropos; Mr. Angier has been an inspiration for Gary to improve his understanding of aiki principles. In many cases Mr. Angier provided a new way of looking at things or a new vocabulary to use.

This video is truly sublime.

When I have seen Mr. Angier do techniques in recent years, he looks quite different. He has refined his art to a degree that he can now be barely seen to move—ironically, his technique is so good that it now makes for a poor video.

This was put up on YouTube by a former student of Mr. Angier’s, Richard Elias of Yoshida-Ha Bujutsu. I highly recommend all of the other videos he has posted as well.