Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Bulletin of Structural Integration Ida P. Rolf


From ancient Japanese systems of self-defense and unarmed combat, Aikido has evolved into a modern discipline for mind-body training. Aikido might be translated “The Way of Spiritual Harmony.” The Chinese characters used for Aikido literally mean harmony (ai), mental energy or spirit (ki), and the way do).

There are three major aspects to Aikido training,1) harmonious mental attitude, 2) centering and relaxed, coordinated movement, and 3) ki using mind and body together. Virtually all traditional Japanese arts have stressed inner, spiritual development. In Aikido it is even clearer that self discipline and personal growth are necessary for true mastery.

The founder of Aikido, Master Morihei Ueshiba, studied many of the samurai arts including jiujiu tsu, or unarmed combat, swordsmanship, and the use of other weapons such as spear and staff. He developed Aikido almost 50 years ago from a combination of these arts. Master Ueshiba sought out religious and spiritual disciplines to further develop his mind and perfect his art. Aikido as practiced today is influenced by Yoga, Shinto, and Buddhism (especially Zen).

Aikido Philosophy

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Master Ueshiba reevaluated the aggressive principles of the samurai disciplines. He discarded much of the old Aikido. The master told his students, “If you try to defeat an enemy by using strength, you will generally lose. Just as Japan lost the war, you will rely mistakenly on your strength to defeat others. To truly win, you have to use your strength properly. . that is, to use mind as well as technique properly. If your mind or heart isn’t right, the techniques won’t be right. If mind is right, first of all discord will not arise. That is why in Aikido no one ever seeks a fight or challenges others.

“Mr. Koichi Tohei, chief instructor of Aikido, has explained the basic principles of Aikido as follows,?..

There are many people who train their bodies but few who train their minds. Apparently few realize that the mind like the body becomes soiled if it is not washed, weak if it is not trained.

Another important fact to remember is that actually the mind rules the body. It is the mind that leads and the body that follows. Aikido realizes this truth and teaches that before you attempt to move your body, you must use your mind, and when you are trying to throw your opponent, before you move his body, first lead his mind. Try to throw your opponent by brute force alone and you will find it heavy going. Remember that the mind has neither weight nor volume, that a big man does not necessarily have a heavy mind. If the art of leading the mind is learned and mastered, even a woman or a child can easily defeat a big man.

…In Aikido, every art was designed in obedience to the laws of Nature so that there is no strain in its execution. Obey the laws of Nature in all your movements and win; disobey and lose. Let your opponent go where he wants to go; let him return where he wants to return and bend in the direction he wants to bend as you lead him, and then let him fall where he wants to fall. There is no need to strain yourself unduly.

You can try to turn back a stream, but you will have to use brute force to do it. How much easier it is to honor the power of the stream and lead it wherever you wish.

Again if a rock weighing 100 pounds is falling directly toward your head, it would be a tremendous feat to stop it with your bare hands. But if instead of trying to catch it, you step nimbly aside, the rock drops to the ground without doing you any harm. If the rock weighed 1,000 pounds, it would be just as easy to step aside. There is a limit to what you can accomplish by physical force, but what you can accomplish by non violence is limitless. In Aikido, there is no practice in the use of brute force but there is training in how to use an opponent’s own strength in leading him. To the degree that the feeling of contention disappears, your technique progresses. Women, children and older men may practice the Aikido arts easily and develop amazing strength.

For this reason, Aikido can call itself “the non fighting martial art.”

Aikido is not merely an art of self-defense but into its techniques and movements arc woven elements of philosophy, psychology and dynamics. As you learn the various arts, you will at the same time train your mind, improve your health and develop an unbreakable self-confidence.

. . . In most martial arts, an enemy is put up and the training is aimed at learning to defeat him. In Aikido, the aim is not to conquer the enemy but to conquer oneself. This is why Aikido is said to have leaped from the material, physical martial arts to a spiritual martial art. (K. Tohei, What is Aikido? Tokyo: Rikugei, 1952, pp. 17-19.


In actual practice, Aikido teaches to concentrate the mind in tiara, or the lower abdomen. This is the center for relaxed, balanced, and coordinated movement. The greater the ability to concentrate one’s mind on the lower abdomen and move from there, the stronger one is.

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Some Western teachers of body movement have called this practice “centering.” The practice of Aikido is one of the most effective and efficient ways to learn to center. Since Aikido involves interaction with a partner, there is constant feedback on the student’s ability to keep relaxed and centered. Most techniques will not work well if an Aikidoist is tense and tries to use strength alone. The beginning student quickly discovers whenever he is too tense, and he also learns how much more effective is relaxed, coordinated movement.

From the physical practice, the Aikidoist learns mental and emotional discipline. During practice sessions partners work in harmony with each other, learning to yield momentarily, not to resist or create conflict.

The Ki in Aikido

The central concept of Aikido is that of ki-spirit, mind, or mental energy, An Aikido student must first learn to control his own ki, through concentration and relaxation in motion. As he becomes more proficient, the Aikidoist works toward leading his partner’s mind, or ki. Instead of using force against force, the Aikidoist learns to develop self-control to stay centered, and to keep one step ahead of a partner or attacker. Then, after the partner is unbalanced both mentally and physically, an Aikido throwing technique is used.

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Let’s examine more fully the concept of ki as used in Japanese. The first sense of ki in the Japanese language is mind or mental energy. To have “young ki” (Ki ga wakai) is to be young at heart. A brave or stubborn man is said to have strong ki (ki ga tsuyoi), and a timid person’s ki is small (ki ga chiisai). A person who is dispirited or who has lost heart says he has lost or dropped his ki ( Ki qa otosu).

Ki also refers to intention, will, or desire. A man whose ki goes forward in a given task (ki ga susumu) is eager or inclined to act; when he is shy, reluctant, or hesitant, his ki does not go forward (ki ga susumanai). To change ki (ki ga kawaru) is to change one’s mind. To do a piece of work with your ki in it (ki ga irete yaru) is to work in earnest, to concentrate energy and ability on the task. When a man says, “I have no ki to work on such and such today,” (hataraku ki qa nai), he means he is in no mood to do that particular job, or that he has tried to begin but can’t seem to find the energy, can’t “get into” it.

Ki is also related to emotional dispositions. To have violent or rough ki (ki qa arai) is to be quarrelsome. A man who is good natured or good humored has good ki (ki ga yoi). A patient, deliberate man is said to have long ki (ki ga nagai) and a short tempered man has short ki (ki ga mijikai). A man whose ki is fast (ki ga hayai) is excitable or short tempered.

Another sense of ki is attentiveness. To apply one’s ki (ki o tsukeru) means to be attentive or careful. As a command, this phrase is used as frequently as “be careful” in English. Japanese children hear constantly “that’s dangerous, apply your ki” (abunai, ki o tsukete). To have one’s ki taken by something ki ni torareru means to be distracted by it, or to be absorbed in it.

Ki also has an intriguing secondary meaning connected with air or atmosphere. Kika or “becoming ki” refers to vaporization. The “ki world” (kikai) is the atmosphere, and “ki studies” or “ki-ology” (kigaku) is not psychology or occult studies, but pneumatics. The ki tube (kikan) is the windpipe.

Both Chinese and Sanskrit equivalents for mental energy (ch’i and prana) also refer to the breath and the atmosphere. Eastern psychology in general tends to view man in close interaction with nature. The very energy of the body is in constant interchange with the infinite energy of nature. This takes place primarily through the breath, the major process of physical interchange with the external world and also one of cite great regulators of the internal states of mind and body.

In Eastern philosophy, ki is the primal energy from which the physical universe was formed. It is present as life energy in all living creatures, in the air, in the earth, and in the rays of the sun.

The major underlying sense of ki is mind-body energy, or life energy. “Ki strength” (kiryoku) means vigor or vitality. To stop or cut off ki (kizetsu) is to faint. The essential, active quality in something is its ki; for example, when a beverage has gone stal_? or flat, its ki has slipped out (ki ga nukeru). Electricity is denki, the ki or energy, of lightning. Health and energy are expressed as having original or primal ki (genki). Illness, on the other hand, is “sick ki” (byoki).

To an Aikidoist ki is real, not just a metaphor. Theuse of ki is an essential part of each Aikido technique; every Aikido student soon learns if he has strong ki or not, if he is using ki properly or not. He finds, through repeated experience, that strong ki depends on both mental and physical considerations. First, the mind must be right, this means an attitude of harmony and blending with a partner. Trying to directly overcome another leads invariably to a clash and a contest of strength in which ki is of little importance.

The body is also important. It takes timing and relaxed, smooth movement to actually put the ideals of yielding and blending into effect. No matter what one’s attitudes, if the body is tense, ki doesn’t flow. Instead, there is a physical clash.

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Aikido is a philosophy and spiritual psychological discipline with a physical manifestation. These three aspects interact in the concept of Ki. The physical effectiveness of Aikido techniques depends in great part on one’s mental state. Conversely, personal growth and development can be concretely demonstrated in the physical techniques. One of the great advantages of Aikido is that it is not possible simply to intellectualize the ideals and philosophy without real experience or understanding. The physical aspects of the discipline keep students honest. If they can’t perform, they know their understanding is still limited.

Aikido concepts and principles can best be understood by doing. Second best would be to observe a demonstration by trained Aikidoists. I would be happy to arrange Aikido demonstrations for any interested groups in the Bay Area. I will also offer two weekend Aikido workshops in the Santa Cruz area this summer, June 20-21 and September 26-27.

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