New deputy Sport editor Jason Segall sat down with Aikido Club President Brendan Mackay to discuss the nature of the club and how it differs from other martial arts in the mainstream media.
The Saint: For someone who has never heard of the martial art before, what is aikido?
Brendan Mackay: To give a proper explanation, you need to go back to the origins of the martial art. Aikido was founded as a passive martial art that wasn’t based on the idea of killing or beating an opponent. The founder, Morihei Ueshiba, decided he wanted to found a martial art based not only around his methods of fighting but also his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which centred around a form of the Japanese religion Neo-Shinto. Today, aikido would best be described as a passive self-defence technique in which the safety of the attacker is as important as that of the attacked.
TS: How does aikido compare to other martial arts, including judo and karate?
BM: Of all of the martial arts I have experienced, aikido would have to be the most unique. Most martial arts follow a formula of learning how to not lose to an attacker, with any harm which may befall said attacker being disregarded. Aikido, on the other hand, takes the opponent’s well-being into account, which is in line with the philosophy of the founders of the martial art. Additionally, aikido differs in its method of training, as it is much more collaborative. In most martial arts, the person on whom you are practising a technique may give you advice, but advancing your ability is a more individual process. In aikido, the person being attacked, known as uke, is just as important as the attacker, known as tori, because the uke can feel mistakes in the technique of the tori that they might not feel themselves.
TS: Is aikido practised competitively, such as in tournaments?
BM: One of my senseis once said that a proper tournament of applied aikido would be two old men staring at each other and then sitting down. It is difficult to organise aikido in a tournament style since it is so focused on redirecting attacks, and our club does not engage in any form of competitive aikido. We focus instead on the fitness and self-defence aspects, as well as, for some, the spirituality of the martial art.
TS: You mention the spiritual aspect of aikido. To what extent does the club focus on this?
BM: It is not something which is often discussed at the club, so for the large part not very much. The concept centres on an idea called ki, which is meant to be a kind of life energy. Mostly, we would discuss ki in terms of physics. So, for example, we would extend through an opponent as if they were not there, which, for complex physical reasons involving vectors and the like, is more effective than using sheer strength to overpower our opponent.
TS: How hard is it to become accomplished at aikido?
BM: While it is easy for beginners to start, it is not easy for them to stay on long enough to become truly great. It is not hard to begin to learn the techniques and to understand the principles of aikido, but it is difficult to continue to trust the senseis saying that it will develop into a far more useful self-defence technique than it starts off as. In the beginning, the training has to be slow in order to remain safe for the practitioners. The uke needs to be trained in how to fall safely, so you actually have to be fairly well trained in aikido before it starts to become more applicable as a self-defence technique.
TS: Can aikido be used as a genuine self-defence technique to defend yourself on the streets?
BM: Yes, entirely. From the very start of aikido training, you will learn techniques that will be immediately useful to you. However, don’t expect to learn everything necessary to defend yourself in the first session. On the other hand, aikido is, I would say, more easily applied than other martial arts. You will learn techniques that are effective for specific scenarios and how to use these techniques together to defend yourself. This is in contrast to, say, karate. In my first karate lesson, I learned how to punch. This is all well and good until an attacker surprises you from behind.
TS: What should someone starting aikido be prepared to bring mentally to their training?
BM: I would say the most important thing is to remain open-minded. There’s a joke among the martial arts groups at St Andrews that there is always someone in every group who refuses to listen to the senseis and ends up in horrible positions because of it. This is not something where you would want to be critiquing the instructions given to you by the sensei, because they will be teaching you in a very procedural manner, and the ideas presented to you will become clearer in the light of future concepts.
TS: When does the club train?
BM: The club trains three times a week at the sports centre gymnasium. The training times are Saturday 4:00 to 6:30 pm, Sunday 12:30 to 2:30 pm and Thursday 7:30 to 9:30 pm. All sessions are attended by at least a second dan black belt or one of our senseis, and sessions are open for all abilities.