Future of Aikido

Article by George Ledyard:


Aikido finds itself at a crossroads in its development. My generation of teachers rode the wave as Aikido grew and spread from its modest beginnings in Japan to a world-wide presence. But times have changed, the demographics are different, and we are presented with several serious challenges going forward.

To start with, Aikido, particularly in the United States, has an aging population.

To summarize his points on aging population:

  • The number of young adults who join and continue practice is low.
  • The earlier trend of more people seeking a “thoughtful” martial art is no longer.

Next is about economy and rents:

Consequently, Aikido (especially in the US) finds itself in a state of what I call “Aikido colony collapse”. Declining numbers are making it increasingly hard for teachers to keep the doors open. I have any number of friends who have lost their spaces and had to return to community centers to keep a group going.

Couple the decline in numbers with the economic boom occurring in many of the major urban areas and you have a double whammy of declining membership fees and rapidly rising rents for dojo space.

Next, the impact of demographics on practice:

The aging population has an impact on training. When I started Aikido, everyone in the dojo was in peak physical condition, their bodies were young enough to absorb the impact and injuries and recover quickly, and the training was very intense and demanding, often a bit frightening, making you feel like you were right on the edge of injury. In fact minor injuries were commonplace as you’d expect when physical training is that intense.

But when you have a dojo where 75% or 80% of the students are over 40. Where the vast majority of new students coming in the door are already past their physical prime… It changes the nature of the practice. The priority ends up being ensuring a safe practice which means the intensity is toned down.

“The consequence: practice is mostly adapted to older, physically less robust students and the young students don’t enjoy the process and results of practicing hard.

What are the implications of few to no people who practice hard?

First, fewer people who get to know the art more broadly and deeply.

Second, the ability level of the population as a whole declines significantly.”

I think we can no longer depend on the individual dojo to produce the next generation of teachers.

George’s points: “Individual dojos don’t provide the intensive training environment necessary to cultivate expert practitioners for the future. What we need to do is work collaboratively to create such an environment, in the form of special events taught by multiple senior teachers. The variety among the instructors is important.”

An intensive experience once in a while is better than none, but it isn’t enough to accomplish the deep reprogramming that training is meant to do.

Most of our organization run one or more camps where everyone can get together with their senior teachers to train. Unfortunately, these events are often more social than intensive. What I envision is Shodan, Nidan, San Dan training on an invitation only basis for those students identified by the senior teachers as having the potential to go the distance.

My first objection here is that, fundamentally, occasional events in contrast with a continuous practice is not going to do the kind of conditioning or “forging” that is necessary. It will simply be an opportunity for a student to receive stimulus and knowledge. I think George’s use of the word, “intensive”, is off the mark.

As far how to offer more intensive training for the rest of our aging Aikido population, I find that weapons work can offer much of the same set of insights if done properly. While a student might get too old for break-falls and impactive training to be sensible, work with the sword or jo can allow a very intensive practice that can take the student right to the edge.

I somewhat agree that weapons practice can cultivate mental focus and control, as well as provide insights. However, I highly doubt that the “intensive” weapons practice that George envisions is realistic. The average student will behave like an average student, with corresponding level of concentration and seriousness.

Also, my view is that the training of the body and the “body language” that is used when practicing with other bodies is key to aikido. This is regardless of age. One has the opportunity at any age to realize one’s potential at that age. Abandoning physical practice because it is hard work, and pursuing another endeavor e.g., weapons, is exactly that, pursuing another endeavor. (If it is possible to adapt physical practice such that the student still moves, has contact with others, and needs to concentrate, but reduces physical demand, then I would be for it.)

Are we doing what needs to be done to have a generation of future teachers ready to step into the shoes of the top seniors we have had? I do not believe that we have been doing so. But I also believe that there is still time to do so. I think we have a fifteen-year window while the uchi deshi still have a few folks left teaching, and the people who trained directly under these teachers are still available as well.

As mentioned above, I think organizing events is a quick-fix approach. What’s needed is more of a cultural normalization of aikido as a continuous life practice, one that may be done intensively or lightly. Both, if done properly, can inculcate many good things. What is happening all around is not even beneficial light practice. Among those who style themselves high-brow aikido, it’s mostly “brain and mouth” exercise with some “I broke a sweat” practice thrown in. Among those who prioritize “traditional”, physical practice, it’s too often physically damaging and not conducive to technical progress and refinement.

What needs to be done – particularly among those concerned with the future – is create a culture in one’s own group or dojo of “body and mind” practice. Normalize learning how to learn, as opposed to expecting and relying on the teacher to explain and teach explicitly. If learning and technical progress aren’t the emphasis, fine, then it should be cultivating mindful movement and contact with others i.e., improved awareness and consciousness of mind and body. Whether it’s technical progress or improved mindfulness, the dojo culture should still be one of, “pay attention and quiet your verbal and intellectual brain”.

And if there are those who seem especially interested and invested and up to the task, nurture an ethic of curiosity, research, and self-discipline. After some introduction to the greater aikido and martial arts world, they will seek out on their own seminars and other teachers and otherwise deepen and broaden their knowledge. They will challenge themselves. I wonder if there is any concern about the future of aikido in the “traditional” dojos. It’s just speculation but it is more a concern for the continuity of the respective lineage of a dojo/teacher, not the art on a global/historical scale.)

Some students will be more casual but enthusiastic. Some students’ interest will be closer to professional. The first type will travel to special events and visit other teachers, but mostly pick up “brain and mouth” material, or socialize and enjoy picking up additional aikido experience. They may show little change over the years. For the second type, some degree of stimulation and inspiration can occur at special events. Maybe they attend to maintain some memory of the feeling of working with the instructor. However, there should be little dependence on those events. The person, if they are truly making the most out of their normal, “everyday” practice context, will take stimulation/inspiration back home and work on it themselves.

The more serious student will make progress or make aikido pervade their everyday life independently and be less swayed by external circumstances e.g., their teacher is absent one day, their teacher said something vaguely, their teacher didn’t do the same technique again, etc. The less serious student will either be swayed (e.g., in their progress as well as attendance and overall motivation) or ignorant (e.g., no increase or decrease in progress whether the external circumstances improve or decline in the short run).

Growing more serious students will always be hard because they will always be so few. So the most important thing is to create an environment and dojo culture that will be rich “soil” for these rare “seeds”. Such an environment is one of “body and mind” practice, not “brain and mouth” practice. The information provided by the teacher will provide the conceptual structure for this environment/culture. Such structure will ideally benefit the more casual student by providing a consistent and basic baseline that will enable that student to benefit even from practicing lightly. Light, low pressure practice can still be one that cultivates mindfulness through physical practice. The structure will also be “true” for the more serious student even as they progress; not only “true” but also forever deep, forever something that they can work on.


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