After training for long enough, most Karate practitioners will eventually reach a plateau. Some plateaus can be overcome simply continuing to train regularly; however, other plateaus may be overcome more efficiently by exploring another art. Aikido is an excellent pathway for returning Karate students to a period of growth in their training. Aikido and Karate are complementary arts—in other words, time spent in Aikido doesn’t steal time from Karate. In fact, Aikido provides a path to developing high-level Karate. At the same time, Karate practitioners bring excellent focus and energy that increase the level of practice in Aikido. Karateka usually come to Aikido as beginners with heightened zanshin that most Aikido students will take time to develop. In addition, they come to Aikido with strong kamae and a well-developed striking ability that further enhances Aikido practice. However, along with these excellent traits often comes tension, which can cause slowness and inefficiency.
Learning to Relax
Many Karate practitioners are constantly told by their sensei to relax. Hearing this can be very frustrating, especially if one already feels relaxed. Though high-level Karate employs tension only briefly upon impact and releases it immediately, the structure of the typical Karate class lends itself to holding muscular tension. Many instructors push their students to go faster and ramp up their intensity level, but neglect to explicitly teach them how to release that tension to increase their efficiency and rise to the next level. Developing intensity is critical, but to become more skilled, Karateka must learn to take the tension out of intensity. While Aikido practice is certainly not the only way to learn this skill, it is an effective way.
Practicing Aikido teaches Karateka to release tension by providing what Saotome Shihan calls “biofeedback”: immediate kinesthetic feedback observed through their partner’s response. Since most Aikido training is partner practice, Aikido provides instant non-verbal feedback when the body has too much tension. While most Karate movements can be executed (albeit slowly) with excessive tension, Aikido does not work if the technique is forced. Although it is possible for a bigger, stronger person to force technique in an Aikido class, it is readily apparent to both partners as well as observers that the technique was forced. To generalize, Aikido instruction provides a physical message of tension which speaks to the body, while Karate instruction provides a visual or verbal message of tension, which speaks to the brain. The brain can “know” that the body is tense and should relax, but the body actually has to let go of the tension. Aikido training teaches the body to bypass the brain to discover where tension exists and release it.
Aikido is an effective path to follow to learn to release tension, but it is important not to lose the ability to use sharp, precise movements in training that are characteristic of many karate moves. Like Karate, the class structure in Aikido is serious, but the pace of training is set by the Aikido student and her partner more so than by the instructor. There is less pressure to just push through; in an Aikido class, there is more time to slow down, let go, and find the place where there is no tension and waza is effortless.
The real application of Aikido for Karate students is when the lessons learned in Aikido are brought back to Karate. The Karateka will find that her technique hasn’t lost its sharpness after a foray in Aikido; rather, it may even become sharper because it she has learned to apply sharpness more deliberately. Aikido practice has less rigidity of form than Karate does, and removing that structure for a while makes the form more flexible and versatile than it was before.
Sensei Meredith Abel holds a 2nd degree black belt rank in Aikido recognized by the Aikikai World Headquarters, and a 2nd degree black belt rank in Wado-Ryu Karate. She has been training and teaching for more than 20 years.