The New Martial Art on the Block

The power of aikido for children.

I am watching eight children play a game. Between 6 and 10 years old, the kids laugh and shout as they take turns running at each other. They duck out of the way at the last second to avoid touching. While having a grand-old time playing the elaborate game of train dodge, the children are also learning to avoid conflict in a noncompetitive and safe environment. They are learning aikido.

Aikido is a traditional Japanese budo (martial art) that roughly translates as “the way to unify and harmonize with universal energy.” On a very basic level, aikido is a highly effective form of protection that teaches self-defense without the use of violent kicking or punching. Instead of encouraging users to strike out, aikido uses a combination of graceful, fluid and almost dance-like movements to create throws, locks and pins. The flowing movements allow for the redirection and neutralization of the energy contained in an oncoming attack.

Through aikido, a person can join with even the fiercest attack to redirect its power safely and effectively. Aikidoka learn how to defend themselves without meeting force head-on with more force.

Because aikido doesn’t rely on physical strength, men, women and children of all ages can practice the art.

After their game ends, the children are asked to make lines on the mat. They receive instruction on basic aikido movements. They practice walking around the mat on their knees, looking a bit like baby turtles pushing themselves down a beach. Knee-walking is reinforced with a quick giggling game of red-light, green-light, and then the kids move on to learning rolling techniques.

Back rolling is next on the menu as the kids practice stepping, kneeling down and rolling backwards with their feet in the air, then returning to a solid standing position. The children squeak delightedly when the sensei moves in to test the strength of their stance, gently pushing on each child in turn. Finally, the kids move on to forward rolling over one’s right side and then left, with the children moving individually down the mat in a series of cartwheel-style rolls.

Each of the exercises begins slowly, introducing a progression of skills that build to a coherent movement. Eventually, the exercises are brought up to speed, and the children spin like tops and wheel around the mat with real grace and control. It’s pretty amazing for an age group that is better known for falling out of bed and tumbling down the stairs.

Aikido is a great martial art for children to practice because it is the only martial art in which the teachings and the techniques focus on harmonious resolutions to violence. Aikido also emphasizes collaboration and teamwork between partners. It teaches children to cooperate with each other, one as the nage or “one who throws” and one as the uke or “one who falls.” This works in concert with children’s natural tendency to roll around with each other in playful situations. Staying true to its philosophy, there are no competitive tournaments in aikido. In a typical class, students learn through repetitive practice, taking turns as nage and uke in an energetic yet noncompetitive and safe atmosphere.

Now the children are lined up on the dojo mat, sitting on their knees in traditional seiza and watching sensei Adam and sensei Kurt give instructions on the technique they will be practicing in a moment. Today’s technique incorporates the same avoidance movements the children practiced in their “dodgem” game. When one child moves to grab another’s wrists, the nage simply steps out of the way and moves the uke in a circle, keeping the uke close and building momentum. The nage drops his arms down when the uke is most off balance, requiring the uke to roll backward with control in order to avoid falling down in a heap.

The entire technique is a set of smooth movements that rely on cooperation between the children for success. Both kids must do their part in combination, ensuring there is no conflict, no hitting and no winner or loser here. The children are now paired up and begin to practice with each other under the supervision of their black belt instructors. After a few tentative attempts, the kids begin to recreate the technique properly, laughing and smiling as they work together.

Aikido is not about fighting. Children who practice the martial art are more effectively able to deal with aggression and bullies without becoming aggressors. The practice of aikido guides children to avoid confrontations and stay calm and centered in the midst of adversity. The goal of aikido is the development of patience, compassion and peace, as expressed through its techniques.

Aikido is the creation of one remarkable man, Morihei Ueshiba, commonly known as o’sensei (great teacher). Although o’sensei studied a variety of traditional martial arts including jujitsu (unarmed combat), kenjitsu (sword fighting) and sojitsu (spear fighting), the creation of aikido is more than a synthesis of those arts. Ueshiba became one of the most renowned martial artists of all time. However, in the aftermath of World War II he saw how futile fighting was. He concluded that the road to ultimate victory came not from fighting with aggressors but from harmonizing with them. Aikido is the expression of this understanding. “Aikido is for the entire world,” said Ueshiba. “Train not for selfish reasons, but for all people everywhere.” In many ways, the physical aspects of aikido are just a stepping stone to the true understanding of peace and harmony.

As today’s training session comes to a close, the children scramble to line up before their sensei. They practice their breathing techniques, calming and focusing themselves for several minutes. After bowing to their sensei in respect, the kids bow to each other, thanking each of their partners for the cooperative practice.

From watching the children’s class today, I have seen how aikido may nurture a child’s confidence, self-discipline, cooperation, health and well-being, while helping a child to remain calm in difficult situations and focused to achieve one’s full potential.