Aikido Today Magazine Column

Starting with the March/April, 2004 issue, AikidoKids founder Robert Kent is providing a column focused on how to teach Aikido to kids for Aikido Today Magazine.

These columns will be reproduced here two months after they first appear in the magazine.

  1. March/April 2004 - Respect, the First Principle.
  2. May/June 2004 - Forging Character
  3. July/August 2004 - Demo Class
  4. Sept./October 2004 - Moral Equivalent of War
  5. November/December 2004 - Gasshuku
  6. January/February 2005 - Aikido Off the Mat
  7. March/April 2005 - Kids and Weapons
  8. May/June 2005 - Does Aikido Work?
  9. July/August Final Issue - Creating Community

note: all columns are ©2004-5 Aikido Today Magazine and Robert Kent

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Introduction - This is the first of what we envision becoming a regular ATM column focused on teaching aikido to kids. It is our intention to feature a variety of authors and approaches, with the conscious aim of encouraging an inclusive conversation about the many ways in which one can create and nurture a youth aikido program at your dojo, school, or community center. Your ideas are welcome and should be sent to
1- RESPECT - The First Principle

Aikido offers us a rich tradition, one both physically complex and philosophically deep. Teaching this art to kids challenges us to create a curriculum that is simple enough for kids to learn and fun enough that they stay interested, but which nevertheless provides them access to as much of Aikido's physical and philosophical richness as they are ready for. Articulating basic principles is a time-honored means to this end, as principles are in themselves simple but we instinctively acknowledge the almost infinite range of their embodiment in actual circumstances. One of Aikido's special charms is that the philosophical principles (Unity, Harmony, Love, etc.) can be found embodied in the various physical principles (moving from center, blending, the protection of one's partner, etc.). Aikido is, from this perspective, ethics made manifest or the philosophical made physical.

Thus Aikido principles, with this dual identity, are especially central to the teaching process, and therefore to this column. Two obvious principles - harmony and love - compete for our attention. Each is a valid translation of the "Ai" in Aikido, and thus Aikido, by its very name, is about manifesting harmony in the midst of chaos, about loving those who (at least temporarily) wish us harm, and about resolving conflicts as peacefully as possible. We have, however, decided that this inaugural column will examine respect, as respect seems even more fundamental than love or harmony - as one must first accept that which one would love, and one must first acknowledge that with which one would harmonize; and acceptance and acknowledgement are the work of respect. This is not a claim that respect is somehow more important or powerful than love, only that it has to come first.

Respect, in relation to Aikido, is a multi-faceted and mutual process of acceptance and affirmation that strengthens our relationships with ourselves, with our students, with our classes, with our training spaces, and with the art of Aikido itself.

Let's take these one at a time:
Respect of self - This is what gives you permission to teach class "your" way - permission to embrace your instincts and to acknowledge your abilities. It also implies the responsibility to make the class work for you too - to make sure you're having enough fun that you can keep teaching week after week.

Respect of your students - This has to flow in both directions. Clearly they will only learn from you if they respect you and what you're teaching. Similarly, you can only put forth your own best efforts when you believe your students are worth it. Happily, one kind of respect begets the other, so you inevitably generate both at the same time - as the best way to get them to respect you is to respect them first. It can well be argued that the habit of respect is itself one of the most critical things you can teach. Your respect for your students manifests in simple ways like bowing back with sincerity, and in complex ways - accepting students wherever they happen to be on the learning curve, and teaching from that point forward, rather than expecting them to learn at your convenience or on your schedule; acknowledging their progress, and not comparing them to other students (as any comparisons are negative comparisons for someone).

Respect of class - As much as the class clown, if you have one, can be entertaining, you nevertheless have to insist on reasonable and non-disruptive behavior for everyone's sake. You need to arrive early enough to have class begin on time. You need to put out lots of enthusiasm to keep things engaging. You need to be attentive to energy levels so as not to wind them up or run them down too much. Lastly, mindful of how powerfully one teaches by example, you have to constantly manifest all the aspects of behavior (attentiveness, politeness, kindness, etc.) you want to elicit in them.

Respect of the Training Space - Some of this takes time (keeping the dojo clean), and some just takes attentiveness (bowing in all the right places) and sincerity (meaning it when you bow to O'Sensei). Taking care of the mats and the shomen together before or after class is also a great opportunity for students to demonstrate their seriousness, and, perhaps more importantly, to experience themselves and their training partners as members of a community.

Respect of the art - This is demonstrated both on and off the mat of course - for the greatest respect you can give Aikido is to acknowledge that it can help guide the rest of your life - but we're more concerned here with your on-the-mat behavior. That you continue to train is important, because it shows when you walk onto the mat to teach. That you continue to make progress towards greater technical clarity is important, because it makes your teaching more effective. Respect of the art also asks us to embrace diversity (by which I mean avoid dogmatism) - because nobody has all the answers, and even O'Sensei's own direct students teach and train differently from each other. Respecting the art asks us to acknowledge that other teachers and styles are valid, though we are of course welcome to note that they are different from what you're putting on the mat today for your students. Manifesting respect in all of these ways isn't easy - it requires practicing patience, attentiveness, integrity, and compassion. The work is well rewarded, however, because it helps us teach, helps us train, and encourages our students to learn as much from aikido and from us as they possibly can.

2 - Forging Character
Last issue's inaugural column focused on respect, with the idea that respect was the most fundamental answer to the question of what Aikido IS. This column will focus on the process of forging character, which the author claims is the most fundamental answer to the question of what Aikido DOES. Subsequent columns will take on more practical topics in greater detail and will offer interviews with prominent instructors or insightful students, but addressing both what Aikido is and what it does seemed the right way to begin.

Part One - Why Aikido?
There are a host of reasons why kids might like aikido, and a similar host of reasons for their parents to send them. The best of these reasons is that aikido training helps kids become better people. It does this in part by improving both their physical skills (balance, coordination, flexibility, timing, strength, and grace) and their ability to move, and by improving their social skills (cooperativeness, intuition, and empathy) and their ability to emotionally connect.

The child's or teen's awareness of these skill improvements in turn nurtures their confidence, and encourages them to attempt progressively greater challenges and thereby obtain more significant accomplishments, both on and off the mat, in a self-fulfilling spiral of growth. As important as these benefits from skill-improvement are, however, they pale in comparison to the most important thing going on in a successful aikido program - the gradual forging of each student's character.

My contention, simply put, is that Aikido is one of the best tools yet discovered to help us as humans, of any age, face our greatest challenge and succeed at our most important task - which is to take control of our own destiny by participating consciously in the process whereby our thoughts become our actions, our actions develop into habits, and our habits form our character.

Part Two - What is Character?
One of the challenges in talking about character is that it is not something you can walk up to someone and observe - like you can observe how tall someone is, what clothes they are wearing, or how gracefully they can perform ukemi. Character is not something you see, taste, touch, feel, or hear. Character, best defined, perhaps, as what you are in the dark - is difficult to define precisely because it is most in evidence exactly when no one else is watching. Character only shows up well in the most difficult situations - in the actions you take and the decisions you make when the pressure is on. Character reveals itself best, if I may slip into a sports metaphor, when you step up to the plate down by three runs with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning and the bases are loaded.

And the stadium is empty.

We say that someone has excellent character when they choose to do the right thing not because they want to be popular, not because they want the reward, and not because they are supposed to; We say that someone has excellent character when they choose to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Someone who tells the truth only because he doesn't want to be punished for lying, someone who leaves other kid's stuff alone only because he doesn't want to get caught stealing, or someone who offers help to someone hoping to get a reward is not exhibiting excellent character. On the other hand, someone who tells the truth because they've decided that it is better to be honest, or who leaves other kid's stuff alone because he respects them and their possessions, or who helps someone without thinking about a reward, IS exhibiting excellent character.

Character is being virtuous for its own sake:

  • Character is thinking and choosing and acting with integrity - regardless of the consequences to yourself (returning the wallet that you found means you don’t get to keep the money)
  • Character is thinking and choosing and acting with integrity - regardless of your own limitations (doing your homework even if you are lazy or standing up for your friends even if you are scared)
  • Character is thinking and choosing and acting with integrity - regardless of how much easier you think it would be to do the wrong thing instead.

Character is not easy. Our conversation here about character is only a tiny piece of the work that Character requires. It is important, but not nearly enough, to think about how we make decisions. It is important, but not nearly enough, to examine - if only briefly, the person we are in the long process of becoming. It is important, but not nearly enough, to talk about how we choose to live.

Even more important than examining your life is actually LIVING IT. Getting up in the morning, going to work or school, hanging out with friends, eating, reading, training, brushing your teeth, and listening to music.

A friend and former camp counselor of mine once said that one of the best tests of character was how someone behaved when it doesn't seem to matter:

  • how hard do you work during your senior year when you've already gotten into college?
  • how hard do you play when you can't possibly win (or lose) the game?
  • or to bring it back around to how we started - How much do you care as you step up to the plate . . . when the stadium is empty?

The whole point of character is that I can't answer these questions for anyone else. The whole point of character is that each of us chooses how to answer these questions everyday - even if we're not aware of it - by how we think and by how we act. The whole point of character is that we ARE what we DO - and by acting in a particular way today, and then again tomorrow, we are creating our future selves - we are creating habits that make it more likely that we will act that way the day after and the day after that.

So how we choose to act today is the first step along a road that points directly to our future. If we want that future to be a good one, the steps we take today along the road to our future have to be good ones too.

Another way of putting this is that because thoughts become actions, actions develop into habits, habits dictate character, and character determines destiny - the thoughts we have today DO matter. Not because anyone else is necessarily watching us today, but because what we think and do today shapes who we become tomorrow, and every day after that. So our entire future life hinges upon every decision we make today, no matter how trivial each decision might seem.


Everything matters ALL THE TIME

The stadium is NEVER EMPTY.

Part Three - How does Aikido help forge character?
So now that we've established that the development of character is the most critically important task before any of us, we next seek to demonstrate that Aikido training is one of the best tools available to pursue that development. Regular Aikido training is, at its core, a joyful exercise in connecting with an ever-changing series of opponents, and repeatedly making the mental and physical adjustments necessary to turn each opponent into a partner. Aikido training is thus a habit-forming repetition, in the face of conflict, of the act of generating peaceful thoughts that in turn generate harmonious actions. Any sincere Aikido training, by its very nature, gradually makes this noble peacemaking reaction into our default response in times of stress, conflict, or attack - which are precisely the situations when Character is most clearly on trial.

One of my most sincere exhortations to those students with whom I really connect is to “Go out and prove that Chivalry is not dead.” I do not aim, with this exhortation, to have them imitate long dead warriors and kings, but to have them carry with them and to nourish, like a living flame, an attitude about the best possible relationship between oneself and other people. That best possible relationship is exactly the one that Aikido training develops and encourages.

3 - Demo Class
Our first two columns focused on respect and forging character, which laid the theoretical foundation for more practical topics, such as the one we address this issue - that of putting together a coherent and intriguing demo presentation that will capture the imagination of a school or event audience, actually teach them something they didn't know, and hopefully boost your own program enrollment.

Part One - Got Kids?
Whether you've got an Aikido program for kids going strong or have just decided to implement one - you're going to need to attract new students. Even well-established and popular programs lose students to seasonal sports teams, school plays, orchestra rehearsals, and the thousand other enrichment activities today's youth have to choose from. There is also, specific to Aikido, the built-in attrition of kids who leave the program frustrated that they're not getting the quick and superficial satisfactions of board-breaking or getting to learn the moves of their martial-arts movie heroes.

While advertising certainly can work, it is difficult to capture the essential attractions of aikido training in a quarter-page ad in the local paper - particularly in the CNN and MTV world where few kids, or their parents, take the time to even read the local paper. While Aikido can be eye-catchingly dramatic, kids have to see it happening right in front of them to appreciate that a "way of harmony" isn't as boring as it sounds. Still photos cannot capture the dynamism of training, and no amount of ad copy below a photo or illustration is going to overcome the fact that aikido is much easier to demonstrate with flying bodies than to explain with words and pictures. Thus the kind of print or radio advertising that might fit in your modest budget is not likely to be nearly as effective as putting on a show for local kids.

While some communities have festivals or fairs once a year where such demonstrations might be appropriate, every community has schools, church youth groups, and scouting organizations, and they almost always appreciate a chance to add some culture and flair to their program - particularly when it won't cost them anything. Often a parent of a current student can help to connect you with the right people (principal, youth minister, scout leader, etc.) to make arrangements.

Part Two - Sample Curriculum (what follows assumes you have at least one trained uke participating in the demo, and mats on which to take falls safely).

Introduction - The typical school group, scout troupe, or whatever group you're demonstrating for are not likely to know much about the distinctions between martial arts, nor are they likely to understand that no martial art's students get to run up walls like Neo and Trinity in The Matrix after training for a few weeks. A bit of explanation is probably in order before the actual aikido starts, to set the context and help your audience understand what you are about to show them. The needs of each audience are different, so you'll have to tailor your introductory remarks to the specifics of the particular group, but in general I'd think you'd want to include how the Samurai arts of sword fighting (Kenjutsu) and grappling (Jujutsu), highly refined by two hundred years of Japanese civil war and woven together by O' Sensei with the Shinto spiritual/ philosophical emphasis on harmony, became what we now call Aikido. A bit about your own training and experience seems a good idea, as does introducing your ukes - particularly letting the audience know how long your ukes have been studying, so everyone watching can draw some conclusions about how quickly they could learn something useful and cool if they were to start training.

Presentation - While you're giving the introduction discussed above, your ukes (assuming the mats are already set up wherever this demo is taking place) should be stretching out behind you - an activity that underscores the physicality of what is about to happen, but which isn't a distraction while you're talking. For the demonstration itself - much of course depends on what your ukes are capable of, but the basic lesson provided below can be easily tailored to your circumstances. Note that this demo-lesson assumes that you don't have enough skilled assistants to perform Randori, but if you can add that to the program, by all means do so, because it is both unique to Aikido, and makes for a rousing finish.

Demo-Lesson (spoken once you are in the middle of the mat, with ukes ready)
Every technique we study in Aikido involves practicing the art of creating a change in the situation - a situation where you are being attacked is changed to a situation of containment - a pin - or to one of escape - they are taking a roll, and you have time to get away safely.

Creating this change requires four things from us

  1. We must maintain our own balance while taking theirs - Illustrate with Tenchinage & Yakute Dori Ikkyo
  2. We must react fearlessly - Illustrate with Shomen Uchi Irimi Nage Omote
  3. We must enter into the very center of the conflict - Illustrate with Katate Dori Irimi Kokyu Nage
  4. We must understand our opponent's intentions in order to achieve resolution - Illustrate with Munetsuki Kotegaeshi Tenkan, pausing after the initial blend

When we follow these four steps for creating change, we don't just change the situation, we change our opponents.
They began the interaction wanting to attack us - believing us to be their enemy. By demonstrating our desire to understand them and by manifesting enough concern for them to make sure they don't get hurt - we change their mind, we change their anger, and we change their role.

They wanted to hurt us, and we wanted to dance. And if our Aikido is good enough, and our ability to dance is better than their ability to hurt us, they don’t want to hurt us anymore. They stop being our opponent. They start being our partner.

And everyone knows how much more we can do when we work together. (this might be a good place to insert the Randori demo, if you have enough ukes that are up to it)

Finish the lesson by asking all the members of the audience two questions:

  • Who is your most critical opponent?
  • What can you do to turn them into your partner?
4 - A Moral Equivalent of War
Examining the extraordinary importance of "an aikido attitude" - Today's kids are, whether they are ready for this or not, going to be running the world someday. And no matter where you are on the political spectrum - it seems clear that the world could use a few more leaders exhibiting compassion and creating harmony. This column examines how best to create the kinds of heroic statesmen the world so desperately needs today, and tomorrow.

Part One - The role of conflict and the rise of heroes
Most people think of Aikido as a peaceful art, inherently at odds with all the war and strife that seems so often to dominate both our lives and the evening news. As martial artists however, we should not shrink reflexively from either conflict or chaos. Indeed, these are the very elements we are training to dance with - to render harmonious and orderly. It is only by embracing the concept as well as all the individual manifestations of conflict that we, as peacemakers, can actually have the harmonious impact we are training to be capable of.

Violence, conflict, and chaos have at least one thing to recommend them - they are exactly the conditions that seem best able to generate, or reveal, the heroes amongst us. Some of these have been historical warriors - Churchill, Kennedy, and Washington - some have been literary warriors - such as Odysseus, Arthur, Cyrano, Wolverine, and Aragorn, and some are not seen as warriors at all - Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. Each of these, whatever their warrior status, were leaders of a people in the midst of conflict, and as such needed the same warrior attributes - discipline, charisma, strategic vision, perseverance, and courage - that we try to nurture in ourselves as Aikidoka. All of these individuals were at least in part a product of their circumstances, thus if we are to appreciate our heroes, we have to allow ourselves to appreciate the violent, chaotic, and conflicted circumstances that helped make them heroic.

Heroes seem to emerge whenever a real crisis threatens a community or a nation. The evil of Hitler’s Germany was met by the resoluteness of Winston Churchill, Khrushchev was matched by John Kennedy, and Klansmen and segregation by Martin Luther King. Since heroes almost always appear when they are needed, it seems obvious that there must be some number of potential heroes constantly milling around waiting for a crisis to propel at least one of them to greatness. Thus an important role of conflict or crisis is to focus people’s attention and bring out our most heroic behaviors - whether this is a battalion charging into battle, or firefighters charging up the stairs of the World Trade Center.

Part Two - Generating heroes in an ambiguous modernity
If we want to survive the next decade or so, our little planet is going to have to come up with workable solutions to a variety of difficulties - economic, environmental, political, ethnic, technological, religious, etc. If we want to survive, we must quickly figure out how to unkindle the fires alight under the tinder of Islamic militancy, how to guide China out from under the shadow of the Communist Party, how to balance the legitimate needs of industry with the sustainable limits to environmental resources, how to prevent the spread of fissionable materials and technologies, and how to overcome the enormous economic influence of arms merchants, drug smugglers, and tobacco companies. These solutions, whatever they are, will not come from the barrel of a gun or the blade of a flashing sword; the problems we as a planet face at the beginning of the new millennium are simply not the type that can be cured by violence. We have many good soldiers doing what soldiers do in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, but in the grand scheme of things our problems will not be solved by soldiers but by statesman.
All the problems we face are rooted in, and nourished by, conflict. Aikido teaches us that the most effective approach to conflict resolution is not to "become stronger than one's opponent" because the only real opponent is the conflict itself. Instead, one must act as the catalyst by which the conflict itself is eliminated. Aikido training can help us to become such a catalyst, both on and off the mat.

20 years ago when I graduated from college, I saw many of my friends going off to become doctors, environmental lawyers, and social workers, but even though they may have been propelled by a tide of a hundred noble sentiments, I nevertheless saw my friends as engaged in an attack on the symptoms of society's discontents, rather than on the cause. To invoke Thoreau, I saw that "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root," (Walden, Economy) and I believe Aikido training can help us become such a one as he discussed.

If "conflict" is the true phylum name of whatever genus or species of problem we may encounter, then "solving the world's problems" becomes a matter of resolving the conflicts that engender the problems, rather than myopically focusing on the problems themselves. Were Heracles to have come up from behind and killed the body of the Hydra instead of frantically attacking all of its heads from the front, he might have had an easier time of it.

Our age is, however, more complex than the one that the Greek hero had to grapple with. Vanquishing our enemy with mighty sword strokes and some burning embers is no longer an option. Today the Hydra is a protected species, swords require a permit, and to burn embers one must first submit an environmental impact statement. The mythic description of the titanic contest is also out-dated. Closer examination of the field of battle reveals that it is no longer home to two elemental opposing forces. We are, as Nietzsche put it, beyond Good and Evil. The Greeks saw life's challenges as pairings of monsters and heroes. On our field of battle, however, there is only the Hydra: venomous, wounded, dangerous, and alone. Just as Pogo discovered his enemy, we must understand that the great beast is us. There we are, with our many heads quarrelling in an otherwise unthreatening expanse. There is no opponent against whom we must, or even can, wage war; rather it is these heads, connected to our common frame, that must learn to wage peace. There is no "enemy" other than conflict, but since there is conflict within our collective breast, there is still a battle to be won. In that battle, for there to be "victory," we must somehow learn to tame ourselves.

Thus the challenge to the contemporary would-be hero is the ambiguity of modernity - we live in a world without dragons to slay and damsels to rescue from distress. Being a knight in shining armor was a lot easier when the bad guys wore black and the “good” thing to do was stick your sword though them a few times. The ultimate challenge, however, of conquering our own demons is still available to us would-be heroes centuries after dragon slaying became unfashionable. Nevertheless, living an enlightened life, as challenging as that may be, seems like it might not be enough when so much of our world is going to hell - if that enlightened life is played out quietly off the main stage of the world’s events.

Part Three - What's all this got to do with kids studying Aikido?
The world seems to be in desperate need of the kind of statesmanship that could have figured out by now what to do about terrorism, AIDS, global warming, and poverty. Maybe I missed something on the evening news, but leaders on that order do not seem to be making the headlines.

My contention is that it is up to those of us who have already found the aikido path to either make the headlines ourselves, or create from amongst our children and students the leaders who will. O'Sensei famously claimed that Aikido was a way to heal the world. While this seems an extravagant claim, who amongst us has devised a better way? There are, in this 35th year since the founder's passing, a few hundred thousand of us scattered around the planet, a group which constitutes a veritable army of harmonious change - if we do not put this healing into practice, who will? If our art is unable to resolve the conflicts that plague us, what art can? If we do not believe that training children in Aikido improves their chances of waging peace as adults, why do we teach this to kids? If we do not keep our expectations high and believe our students must be made ready to take on the world's great challenges, how can they be prepared to do so? Margaret Mead once wrote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." While there is nothing wrong with using aikido to teach kids to be a bit more coordinated and a bit more confident, it is not enough; we must, as teachers of children, also wield aikido to create the kind of thoughtful, committed citizens that can manifest the art's potential for leadership and healing.

The practice of war, which mankind seems so reluctant or unable to give up, is good at drawing out the heroes from our midst. It is bad, however, on so many other levels that the price of finding those heroes never seems worth paying. Aikido training, however, has the potential to be groomed into the moral equivalent of war - for if it is war that awakens the great heroes amongst us - it will be the moral equivalent of war that will, without any violence and chaos required, awaken the great statesmen.

5 - Gasshuku

This issue's column focuses on putting together special training opportunities, or Gasshuku - that energize your program generally, that provide an extended and rigorous opportunity for students to focus on particular aspects of their technique, and that serve as powerful community-building events. Our column for next issue will offer real stories about how training can improve a kid's life off the mat.

Breaking past the limits of regular training
Let's face it - Aikido is not a quick study - it takes lots of time before techniques even start to flow naturally.
More than just time of course - our bodies need to groove a technique into our muscle memory by performing hundreds or thousands of repetitions. Trying to do all these repetitions at once would take more time than one class offers, and would take a much greater attention span than most kids (or adults, for that matter) can bring to the mat. Thus as teachers we don't usually have the luxury of concentrating on one technique long enough for students to feel they've made significant progress. We find ourselves hoping to see small improvements in several techniques, and tossing in a favorite game to end up class on a high note.

There's nothing wrong with this pattern for regular weekly training, but we don't have to settle for this as the only way to train. Indeed, it seems to be the pattern of progress in Aikido (articulated well by George Leonard in his book Mastery) that we plug along for a while, getting steadily better, and then we hit a wall that seems to halt our incremental progress. Frustration and self-doubt ensue, and eventually if we do keep training a breakthrough occurs, and we find ourselves substantially better than we were.

Extended and intensive training events - called Gasshuku - are a great way to up the ante and break through whatever barriers to progress the patterns of regular training have allowed to build up. Whether this is a special afternoon training away from the dojo, or a multi-day seminar, Gasshuku serve to both jump-start each student's progress and re-invigorate everyone's normal training. In the next section we'll outline a few different events you might want to try - but whatever you come up with will probably be a great experience for your students.

Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water - Training in the great outdoors
Training away from the sterile environment of the dojo - out in a forest clearing, on a beach, alongside a creek, or simply in the middle of a soccer field - is a great way to allow students to tap into the larger forces at work in nature. It can also help to shake loose whatever mental blocks might be inhibiting their progress. Depending on the availability of portable mats, training can be otherwise normal, or you can forgo taking falls and focus on weapons work.

At our dojo, we've organized an annual "Weapons on the Beach" kid's seminar on a Sunday afternoon. Jo and Bokken training - solo and paired kata and weapons takeaways - from 1 to 4, followed by a chance for the kids to make their own patch of zen sand-garden with landscaping rakes we borrow from a dojo member who runs a local nursery. A barbeque overlooking the ocean puts a nice finish on the event, and everyone is home by 7 with time to finish whatever homework they might have. As the pictures demonstrate - the beach we've been able to use (see below) makes this day really special, but even with a less spectacular location, the training and the barbeque would be a valuable experience for everyone.

Some Gasshuku are intended to really push physical limits, and in doing so generate both a startling intensity for the training, and a powerful camaraderie amongst the students who underwent the experience together. At the dojo where I began my training in Kyoto, there was an annual festival in December where the students gathered at a local temple, changed into their keiko gi, and ran thru the streets for a mile or so to the banks of the Kamo river, where mats had been set up for a few hours of class. Running barefoot thru the snow-flecked streets and training outdoors in winter is not for the uncommitted - but the crispness of the air in your lungs and the tingle (some might call it numbness) in your feet makes for pretty memorable training.

24 Hours, or more, of Aikido - Training, and Training, and then more Training
Attending seminars is such an important part of adult aikido training that Honbu dojo requires yudansha to list seminar participation as part of qualifying for promotions. While no such standard exists for kids or mudansha ranks, seminars can be just as valuable for less advanced students. Intensive seminars - where students are in the dojo for 24 hours or more continuously - are, like training outdoors, a way to change the circumstances of training and accomplish what regular classes cannot.

How you should schedule such an event depends of course on available facilities, student schedules, and instructor availability, but most dojos can probably put together a 24-hour Gasshuku that strings together an orchestrated sequence of classes - preferably not all by the regular kid's instructor, as these special events are also a way to tap into the expertise of other adult members of the dojo - interspersed with meals, some related activities (calligraphy, meditation, samurai films, or yoga), and a sleepover.

At our dojo we start our annual Gasshuku on a Saturday afternoon at 2:00, after the regularly scheduled adult morning sessions, with a stretching class led by member of the dojo who happens to be a physical therapist. The first of three thematically-linked technique classes focuses on entering and balance taking for the entire hour - a luxury made possible because the stretching has already been done, and all the kids know there will be time for games later in the evening. The second technique class - on responsiveness and proper spacing - spends an hour on paired weapons exercises, principally introducing the kids to the 31-jo kata "dark side" practice. Dinner and some downtime are followed by a group discussion, some O'Sensei videotapes and a Kurosawa film, and some late-night yoga helps everyone settle down energetically and get to sleep.

The kids, after breakfast and some cleanup, then join the normal adult Sunday morning weapons and general classes - which is both thrilling for the kids to experience being taken seriously by that many adults, and is fun for the adults to get a full dose of kid-energy (photos above). Lunch and a final class - focused on blending and awareness - concludes the training, and a short "talking stick" ceremony allows all the participants to voice what the last 24 hours have done for them, and brings the Gasshuku to a close.

6 - Aikido Off the Mat
This issue's column combines two submissions from other authors - one real story about how training can improve a kid's life off the mat, and an essay about how a famous literary character does Aikido off the mat under our very noses. If you have a something you'd like to contribute to the conversation - send it to for possible inclusion.

Intro and story by Alex Vanderburgh, Aikido West

While Aikido is my true love in the martial arts, I have been teaching in the inner city after school programs, and finding that the students were much more interested in fighting than they were receptive to Aikido and it's concepts of non-violence. It has been a long and challenging road to blend with their energy and bring them to an alternative understanding. While many of my students, all African American and Hispanic youth, have been challenging, one student in particular really comes to mind.

Thomas has several family members in prison, some for homicide. He had wanted to be on the school football team, but was rejected - he was too wild to follow instruction. He simply could not control the wild bursts of adolescent hormones, and his behavior showed it. He joined my roughest program and was on the edge for several months, constantly having extreme difficulty managing himself. While he never seriously injured another student, he came close many times. I refused to kick him out entirely, although there were some really difficult afternoons. My sense was this- that if we are truly teaching youth to deal with bullies, we cannot lull them into thinking that we, the adults, will always be around to protect them and create a controlled environment that has zero tolerance for threats. Or, as Thomas and the rest of class like to remind me, there was no martial arts technique for planes flying into buildings (this class began in September of 2001). Thus, part of the training in my program works to help students who are calmer, quieter, and frightened deal with students just like Thomas.

In December, we had an unexpected event, a panel of 30 adults - the board of directors for the umbrella organization that funded our after school program - were having a party the following night, and we were asked to give a demonstration. Four of my more challenging students were able to come. During this demonstration I chose to have the four students break boards, but not in the traditional way. Instead of just demonstrating the power of destruction, I have my students use the board as a metaphor. I have them write on the board something they wish to break through, an obstacle that they feel is keeping them from success in life. As a child of the 1960's, I had hoped for great things like "racism" "sexism", or "class oppression". Instead, as these are middle school students, many of them with learning disabilities, I got "Math".

Another feature of the demonstration and a part of every class I teach, is a minute of what I call "still and quiet", where the students sit still- sort of- and quiet- sort of- for one minute before and after each class. The adults watching the demo where amazed that these wild kids could actually do this! What was significant here is that after the demonstration, the adults asked questions of the students. Thomas answered the questions he was asked calmly and thoughtfully. The next day he came to me and told me that adults had never listened to him or taken him so seriously in his life. Shortly thereafter he went to the football coach and was able to get on the team, where he still is today. While he no longer trains with me, he has sent his younger brother and half sister to my class, and they still attend. I believe that by blending with his energy, not trying to force him to be different, but by letting him be who he was and help him learn to contain himself in a larger context, he was able to succeed.

The Best Aikidoist That Never Existed
Essay by Gordon Teekell, Oakland Hills Aikido

All the aikido instructors I have trained with have insisted that aikido does not rely on strength to make techniques effective. They also espoused a belief that the greatest expression of aikido will not happen on the mat in the dojo, it will happen in the events of everyday life. O’Sensei has told us that aikido is for reconciling differences and bringing peace to the world.

I have not found many clear examples of this in real life. I have, however, been more successful in finding examples of real life aikido in works of fiction. Movies have been the most prolific source of stories that demonstrate how the principles of aikido can be used to resolve conflict situations in a peaceful yet direct way, but I think the best example comes from a series of books. As it turns out, these are books you can count on kids being pretty familiar with.

J. K. Rowling may have provided the world with the best Aikidoist that never existed. She offers us one indelible character who is consistently able to bring love, peace, and understanding to every situation. Who faces adversity with an unwavering strength and stability. Who remains calm when others panic. Who can get to the heart of every situation, see through deception, and encourage those that need love and support.

Whenever this character is confronted with a tough situation, they are able to apply the principles of aikido to resolve the conflict in a just, fair, and caring way that leaves others with their dignity and a chance to make the most of the experience they have just had. I am speaking, of course, about Professor Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Those of you who have read any of the Harry Potter books will no doubt have noticed how calm and wise Dumbledore is. He is the master of every situation. He has an awareness that goes beyond the moment or the immediate scene. He is able to see to the heart of the people he encounters and to bring out the best in them. If they insist on persisting in destructive behavior, he will find a way to have things work out for the greater good.

How many of us have experienced conflict situations at work or at school with individuals that out-rank us? In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, just such an event occurs. Cornelius Fudge is the Minister of Magic, the head of all wizards and witches. While Dumbledore is the Head Master of Hogwarts, he in no way has the executive power of Cornelius Fudge. Early in the book, Harry has been accused of practicing underage magic and is summoned to a disciplinary hearing before a committee of the Ministry of Magic. The hearing has been rigged to put Harry at a disadvantage in defending himself. He is facing the board of adults all alone, when suddenly, Dumbledore appears at the hearing to speak on Harry’s behalf.

During the exchange that follows, Dumbledore uses several basics of aikido philosophy to guide the proceeding to a favorable outcome for Harry. First, he does not clash with his partners. As he enters the proceedings, he assumes an amiable disposition and makes himself comfortable in the hostile environment. By doing so, he demonstrates centeredness, confidence and projects an aura of power.

As the hearing proceeds, Dumbledore is able to stay one step ahead of Fudge’s efforts to convict Harry. He never directly conflicts with Fudge and uses his knowledge of wizard law and the circumstances of the incident to guide the review board to the conclusion that no offense was committed. When Fudge tries to introduce offenses not related to the subject at hand, Dumbledore is not distracted but stays focused on the center of the issue and prevails. Dumbledore uses logic, reasoning, and the Ministry’s own rules to help the committee reach the conclusion that Harry was innocent.

Throughout the series of Harry Potter books, the Hogwarts Headmaster demonstrates his ability to master any difficult situation. He never becomes angry or loses his perspective. He remains calm and centered. He demonstrates awareness of his surroundings - physical, political, tactical, and practical. Dumbledore has superb technique. It is obvious he knows magic and he knows people. He has practiced his craft to the point of mastery. He reaches his goals through blending and guidance rather than the crude application of force. At the conclusion of a conflict situation, Dumbledore's antagonist(s) remains unharmed. They emerge physically intact, but changed. They know they have been bested but have no way to resist, no power to undo what they have just agreed to.

Albus Dumbledore could teach all of us to be better aikidoists. Professor Dumbledore has taken aikido off the mats and applied its’ principles to everyday life. This is the ultimate incorporation of training, theory and philosophy into one’s lifestyle. Each individual who encounters Dumbledore is aware of the man’s extraordinary competence, his prowess in the arts of magic, his complete commitment to integrity, and the loving protection of all those he comes in contact with. Doesn’t that sound like the best aikidoist that never existed?

If this notion intrigues you, reread a Harry Potter book and look for the aikido principles used throughout Dumbledore’s appearances. Who knows, you could learn to get more of those principles working for you in everyday life.

7 - Kids and Weapons
This issue's column focuses on training weapons - jo, bokken, and tanto - and a discussion of how and why to incorporate them into a youth program.

From almost every kid's perspective, weapons are cool. All the best comic book heroes, knights in shining armor, and action movie stars have them, and those weapons - whether they are adamantine claws, enchanted swords, or MI-6 issued Berettas - empower their heroes to vanquish evil and save the innocent. Weapons can be scary too, especially in the hands of the wrong people, but they are always going to get a kid's attention.

And most teachers agree that getting the kid's attention is half the battle.

Training weapons, however, offer far more than a flashy means to get the student's attention. They offer a genuine experience of samurai training, they offer clear reasons for many technical forms, and they offer a powerfully visual guide to how good one's posture is. Safely integrating training weapons into a youth program, however, requires some thought.

"Real weapons" vs. "Fake weapons"
Very few aikido dojos train live steel, and that level of intensity, while it may have its place in serious adult training, has no place in a youth program. Even if 99% of the time students paid meticulous attention and trained with the most rigorous care (and most of us would be thrilled with such seriousness), the remaining 1% means someone would get hurt.

The other extreme, assuming you incorporate weapons into the program at all, is to use only padded or plastic approximations. While movements can be taught this way, my instinct is to make the experience as real as possible, and go with genuine bokken and jo. This requires some class time be spent emphasizing that weapons training requires that students respect the weapons and their training partners appropriately, as even ash and oak can be dangerous in untrained or unsupervised hands.

For younger kids, or if you're just trying to be extra careful, there are several harmless alternatives to genuine bokken and jo. Traditionalists might take the Kendo route - which addresses the safety issue by using the split-bamboo shinai. Less traditional, and less expensive, options include foam-padded PVC pipe, or sticking a broom handle inside an appropriate length of funoodle.

Whatever weapons are used, be aware that kids will reproduce the training movements they learn in class once they get home, or at school, and thus it is incumbent upon us as teachers to make it clear that swinging a stick around is not something one should do casually. Especially if they train with harmless padded weapons in class, but only have a not-so-harmless baseball bat to play with once they leave.

Embodying the Samurai Spirit
One of the great things about weapons training is that it connects students across the centuries to the samurai children who trained the same way. When students realize that they are becoming part of a respected and time-honored tradition, they have that much more reason to respect themselves. For those more future-oriented students, it may help to remind them that aikido weapons training will prepare them to wield a Jedi light-saber - as soon as someone starts making them.

Having a sword (wooden or foam) in their hands also provides an opportunity to talk more meaningfully about the ethics of conflict - how the samurai could only be willing to kill to the extent that they were willing to die: for to attack someone with your sword you have to come within range of theirs - and thus fights between individuals, which were rare, were always about something important (or at least, the samurai thought the reason was important).

Bringing out weapons also, obviously, can bring both the excitement and empowerment levels up several notches, especially when you teach take-away techniques. While learning to swing the sword is important, it seems even more important to learn how to face someone else's weapon - for while pinning someone who tried to punch you is cool, learning to disarm and control someone who tried to stab you with a knife or cut your head off with a sword is awesome.

Discovering the Source of Technique
Many Aikido techniques derive directly from Samurai sword techniques, or Kenjutsu. 200 years of civil war between various Japanese clans served to refine these techniques to an extraordinary degree: only the best swordsmen survived to teach the next generation - for 10 generations in a row - so that we can have great confidence in the martial validity of what has been passed down to us.

Often nage wields their partner's forearm (as in Shihonage or Yonkyo) as if it were a sword, and thus knowing how to swing a sword properly is a necessary component of performing those techniques. To the extent possible, it is usually a good idea to demonstrate Kenjutsu-derived aikido techniques both with and then without weapons, so that the students can see for themselves where the movements came from and why they "make sense". Even without weapons in hand, it can be a useful exercise to imagine them back into place, as that act of imagination helps the body to naturally extend ki outward in the direction of the weapon's blade or point.

Revealing Extension
While an observer can always tell if a student's posture looks grounded and balanced, it is harder to tell if their movement is tapping into the power of their center unless you are taking ukemi directly. Put a 3-foot bokken or a 5-foot jo in their hands, however, and the degree of alignment of the weapon with their center makes it self-evident whether and how a student's movement should be changed. Small movements of their hips generate large motions of their weapon, making stance and posture errors easy for both teacher and student to see.

Similarly, grasping a tanto makes uke's movement both more dramatic and more clear - as it accentuates the direction of the attack, and thus makes it easier for nage to see what he or she is trying to blend with or block.

Tip of the Sword, Tip of the Brush, Tip of the Iceberg
One last useful point to make about weapons: The extension of ki out from one's center which is so central to wielding a jo or bokken properly (especially in the emotionally-charged circumstances of someone else wielding a jo or bokken at you) is also central not only to performing empty-handed technique but even more importantly to meeting challenges off the mat as well. Wielding a brush for calligraphy requires the same poise, breath control, and focus. So does extending energy forward in order to weave thru a crowd on the sidewalk or at a concert. So does holding one's ground and staying focused and calm when someone's yelling at you. So does virtually any situation in life where staying calm and centered and still able to move might be important.

Which is to say it helps with every situation you'd otherwise ever be scared of. Amazing what learning to swing a wooden stick can do for you.

8 - Does Aikido Work?
This issue's column addresses the oft-debated question "Does Aikido Work?" from a perspective relevant to kids, teachers, and parents.

Many of the conversations one encounters on various aikido-themed websites engage in a not-always civil disagreement on the general subject of "Does Aikido work?" Kids exposed to all the martial arts movies are likely to ask the same question, and parents who do not train themselves are unlikely to be equipped to answer it for them. The question is certainly one that kids are likely to hear from their friends, and that aikido teachers are likely to hear from both parents and students alike. The question certainly sounds pretty important and fundamental, but in truth it is very misleading - as asking that question expects an answer to be about what aikido can teach one to do to someone else, and expects an answer to ignore what kind of person aikido can teach one to be.

Nevertheless, let us begin by addressing responses to the question itself. One side will argue that Aikido, derived from well-established and highly evolved traditions of battlefield combat, is extremely sophisticated and that any unimpressed observer falsely concludes from the gracefulness of the movements that they are not in fact also brutally effective. The counter argument will probably cede the point that the origins of aikido are genuinely martial, but insist that contemporary training methods - specifically the cooperative training where uke does not constantly counter or resist, and partners do not actually "fight" to determine a winner - do not prepare Aikidoka for anything resembling an actual street fight.

There are three things to keep in mind about questions about how effective Aikido is as a fighting art.

1] Hypotheticals - The first problem is that there can be no reasonable answer to these questions if they are posed regarding a generic hypothetical situation - for it matters too much what the exact conditions of the combat are and who is doing the aikido. Thus you can't really ask "Will Aikido win versus X" where X is Jujitsu, Karate, Wu Shu, etc. Nor can you ask, "Will Aikido allow me to prevail if I'm mugged in a dark alley?" To both questions the only answer is a not very helpful "Maybe". Even more careful questions like "is kote-gaeshi going to work against a punch from a trained karateka?" are too hypothetical to determine just by talking about them. All such questions, careful and not so careful alike, can only be answered by executing the scenario in question. Doing so, however, still only answers the specific instance -whether Aikido Person A's kote-gaeshi worked effectively against Karate Person B's punch - embodied in the scenario. General and sweeping answers to these questions simply are not possible, and the questions themselves therefore may engage our ego but not our intellect.

2] The practitioner or the art? - The second problem with the question "Does Aikido Work?" is that asking the question suggests that it is the entire art, not the individual practitioner and their own training, which is at fault if someone does not prevail in a conflict situation. As a martial art, Aikido's potential can be fairly judged only if one looks at a broad cross-section of prominent instructors (to determine how good it can be) and a broad cross-section of students (to confirm that the art can in fact be taught effectively); it cannot be judged by any single person, with the possible exception of O'Sensei. If I were to get beaten up, the odds are quite good that it is not Aikido at fault, but me. Particularly because I would probably have had something to do with the fight starting in the first place - something probably not in keeping with the ideals of Aikido.

Someone can, of course, be attacked without any provocation, and regardless of his or her innocence, their Aikido may not be enough to save them. While this outcome may be tragic, it does not answer the question in any general way - as all that it teaches us is that their Aikido, confronted with those attackers, was insufficient.

3] Aikido isn't "fighting" - Much more important, however, is the objection that asking such questions completely misses the point of Aikido - for trying to rate Aikido on some scale based on how effective it is as a fighting art ignores O'Sensei's rather central contribution of realizing that we're not supposed to be fighting in the first place. Nor are we even supposed to be competitive enough to want to know if our aikido is better than someone else's. The real purpose of aikido training is to gradually eliminate the anger, competitiveness, and egotism within ourselves - with the result that we can experience all of life as one energetic whole and transcend the dualistic sense of opposition that underlies all these questions regarding combat effectiveness.

O'Sensei wrote that "Budo is Love" - and thus training in his art is not training to be the one everybody is scared of, but the one that nobody would want to attack in the first place.

Internal vs. External grounding - This is not to say that martial effectiveness is thereby irrelevant, indeed martially effective technique is how the love that one feels for the universe is manifested in moments of conflict so that one can protect those that one loves. Nor do I intend to suggest that training should not be rigorous or realistic - indeed, Shugyo or intense training seems, as a practical observation, the best if not only way to achieve the sort of technical competence that could guide one safely through a street-fight.

But conflict is a much broader spectrum than just street fights, and Aikido has the potential, if not the responsibility, to address issues of conflict along that entire spectrum. Focusing only on the combat-effectiveness of Aikido hurts us in two ways - it takes our attention away from all the conflict-resolving things we could have done to avoid a street-fight in the first place, thus making street fights more, rather than less, likely; and it also engages a combativeness and a fearfulness that triggers our primitive fight / flight neural mechanisms and therefore inhibits our best aikido at exactly the moment we may need it most.

We are thus faced with a situation where the best response is the Zen command Mu! or "un-ask the question!" It is not intense training that is the problem; it is the debilitating and unanswerable questions about combat effectiveness that are the problem. Instead of caring, therefore, if Aikido works (which is really asking if Aikido works against other people), the conclusion is that Aikido training must focus instead on harmonizing oneself first - for it is Aikido's core concept that genuine effectiveness flows outward from an internal harmony rather than an external competitiveness.

Each of us is uniquely positioned, therefore, to answer the question we should be asking about Aikido, which is not "Does Aikido Work?" but which is instead "Is my Aikido training helping me, however slowly, become a more integrated, compassionate, and loving person?"

Creating Community
In this final Aikido for Kids column we discuss how, in a post-Aikido Today Magazine world, to maintain and nourish the community of kid’s teachers and their students we’ve been trying to serve. We will celebrate and examine the creation of community - a task central to the success of any dojo, and a task particularly critical to the process of teaching kids. As always, your ideas and suggestions are welcome and should be sent to Robert Kent (

A community of one - getting them to know themselves
Aikido training puts us face to face, and hand to wrist, with a steady stream of new partners. Each of these moments serves to offer us a small reflection on who we are and how we’re doing. Cumulatively, training teaches us as much about ourselves as it teaches us about our training partners. Most kids don’t have a very clear idea of their place in the world, what other people think of them, or even what they think of themselves, and thus Aikido’s ability to teach us about ourselves has great potential to help kids start forming reasonable and healthy ideas about themselves. As a healthy self-identity is the bedrock upon which all subsequent healthy relationships are built, the importance of Aikido training’s ability to help us know ourselves can hardly be overestimated.

A community of two - connecting with each student
The kids in your class are very unlikely to really appreciate the long years you have put into training. Not that they mean to be disrespectful, but just that a 9 year old will have trouble imagining studying ANYTHING for longer than they’ve been alive. Additionally, and naturally, each kid’s world tends to rotate, more than for an adult, around themselves – such that it is incumbent on us as teachers to make ourselves relevant TO each kid’s world by connecting with each kid. These ideas combine to form the aphorism “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

The only way to really teach kids is to engage them on their own terms, which means that one must form genuine personal bonds with each student. This doesn’t mean you have to have the class over for dinner (though it doesn’t hurt if you do), but that you need to get down on one knee to look your 7-year old in the face and gently explain the technique – rather than simply admonishing coldly from a distance. Personalized attention is irreplaceable.

A community of the class - creating common identity
While kids will naturally become progressively more comfortable with the rest of the class as time goes by, they will not form a genuine community without some guidance and instigation from their teacher. Special events like dojo sleep-overs, picnics, etc. help the kids start feeling like they belong to the aikido class in something like the same way they belong to their school, family, church group, or camp.

The student’s sense of group identity can also be encouraged by games and competitions in class that pit them against you, characterized by as much enthusiasm as you and they can handle.

A community of practitioners - casting a wider training net
Moving outward from their own class, we can create opportunities for kids to realize they belong to the larger training community. Adults enjoy the chance to train at seminars, or just at another dojo while traveling. We can, and should, create chances for kids to train outside the boundaries of their normal classes in a similar way. A few ideas regarding how:

  • Talk to your neighbors – Find out, if you don’t already know, who’s teaching kid’s classes nearby, and give them a call. Offer to co-teach a class every so often, taking turns having your kids to travel to their dojo, and having their kids travel to yours. Setting this up once a quarter won’t be too disruptive, but certainly has the power to help your students realize that they are part of a larger Aikido world.
  • Engage your kids in the larger written Aikido community – Get your students reading some of the many good Aikido books that are available, send them to,,, and other online communities that foster ongoing conversations between practitioners.
  • Help students train while traveling – Whether your kids are only gone for a spring break vacation, or a summer at camp – encourage them to take their gi with them and use the various online dojo-finders. Even a single training session with a different sensei and a new group of students is likely to open their eyes to some of the impressive variation available.
  • Offer a kid’s seminar – Find a free day or a weekend, enlist neighboring sensei to get the word out (and quite possibly to share the teaching load), put together a curriculum that will fill the time productively, toss in a fun group activity or two in addition to the aikido classes, and charge what you need to charge so you don’t actually lose money on the deal (or at least not much).

A community of people - aikido is for everybody's sake
O’Sensei clearly had a vision which portrayed Aikido as a “means to heal the world”. Aikido, in other words – is not just for those of us who practice it – but in fact helps everyone that all of us ever interact with. I’m not sure how much philosophy one wants to impose on younger kids, but it seems important for everyone to know, eventually, that the larger purpose of our training is to make us better people, and thus to help us inhabit a better world.

 Robert Kent, San Dan, runs the youth program at Aikido West in Redwood City, CA (under Frank Doran Shihan, 7th Dan) and is the founder of, the web's first online community for everyone who teaches Aikido to kids, and for the kids they teach. The site features game ideas, equipment and curriculum recommendations, instructor profiles, and a community forum.