Recently I happened to read one of the perennial Youtube comments of a video of a skilled aikido teacher and her average student. The comment said, “It’s just WWE (professional entertainment wrestling)”. That stuck with me because it rung so true.
A comparison of the two: It’s comprised of two people, one of them flinging themselves at the other to be thrown and apparently “defeated”. The roles and throws are largely agreed upon. When it looks “good”, an outside observer has more trouble discerning the level of complicity i.e., how much the person falling is cooperating, assisting, and aware of what is being done to them. People tend to give approval when they judge that the amount of pain, force, or unintended consequences apparently experienced by the person falling is real.
How do aikido people typically refute skepticism? They usually claim that the pain, force, or unintended consequences (i.e., loss of control) is real. However, the skeptics likely cannot avert their attention from the prearranged, predecided aspects of the interaction e.g., the roles, the attack. However true it may be, it’s not very convincing to say that the pain, force, or loss of control is much greater than you woulda thunk!
The above way of refuting skepticism is actually a low-brow way of fighting low-brow criticism. In addition to its ineffectiveness, doing it more convincingly is the same as doing worse aikido (i.e., more painfully/forcefully/out of control).
Another way to respond to skepticism/criticism, while not more likely to win over critics (in fact, dismisses the low-brow skepticism), leads us more to the essence of budo practice. The difference between WWE and aikido is that we in aikido examine and improve the relationship between the partners. While repeating the agreed upon forms, we strive toward sincerity – a sincerity that is austere and demanding. The interaction may not end with a spectacular fall because, in contrast with WWE, that is not the objective.
In addition to the relationship, the other objective is about the individual practitioner. Is the person developing an unfettered mind? a more functional body? a finer perception and concentration? These aspects may develop in a person practicing other sports and arts – but is it the objective? I believe this is where the difference lies.
There are people who do aikido with the WWE mentality. They learn to generate power, they develop athleticism, and they cultivate certain mental aspects. But these are byproducts – not the main purpose – if a person just practices the low-brow, sport-like aikido.
I have two criticisms of low-brow aikido, closely related to the fact that, in the real world, it is not practiced vigorously. Imagine the difference between the WWE stars on TV and doing the same moves with you and your cousin in the living room, with little to no practice – one is going to be unmistakably more spectacular and more demanding than the other.
The first problem is that the physical techniques are not actually performed in a way that is fine or outstanding enough to beget the mental benefits, let alone the physical. Physically, is the person learning how to generate or receive power? to use exacting timing? to operate with thin margins? to use their body to the utmost? It is possible to do techniques with pain, force, and unpredictability without any spectacular results. If you are being neglectful of the spectacular or sublime results and also not emphasizing the mental objectives, then your practice is lacking.
The second problem is relying on the measures of pain and force, and the resultant suffering and fatigue, to judge your practice as “real”. Becoming numb to the poor, haphazard use of pain and force, both as the giver and the receiver, is in direct opposition to the individual objective of budo, which is to preserve oneself physically and become perceptive and mindful mentally. The physical and mental toughness are simply byproducts of good practice and requisites to continue along “the Way”, just as acquiring technical knowledge is.
These days, I worry when I see that most aikido fits the above description. There is little looking inward, little development of connection with partner, while also little spectacular results (and the standards for calling something “spectacular” are apparently dropping, too). There is negligent use of force and almost meaningless inflicting and receiving of pain. This is the easiest target for skeptics and poorest representative for the fine aspects of aikido.
There is some of the kind of aikido that is spectacular in the WWE way, benefiting from the byproducts related to physical function, durability, exacting timing, etc. However, practitioners that do this well are few and are likely limited to the most youthful and vigorous practitioners.
To people who advocate an aikido that is more inclusive, the low-brow, neglectful aikido is easy – people will naturally default toward it. As teachers, and leaders within the tradition of aikido, I think it is a responsibility to make an effort to keep out in front the positive aspects that distinguish aikido from bad WWE acting. If it cannot be the most strict, mentally/attentively focused kind of practice, then some infusion of the exacting, sincere relationship as well as inward examination should be paramount.