Aikido Turns Conflict on its Head

For 60 years, American practitioners have given up the fight.

Growing up in a tough neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, Andrew LeBar learned from an early age to hold his own. When someone pushed him, he pushed back.

“I had hard eyes,” recalls LeBar, who still carries the stance of a bulldog and has the square jaw to match. “If you look like a victim, you’re going to be taken advantage of.”

Heading back to school at the University of Kansas in his 30s, LeBar decided to try aikido, a Japanese martial art, thinking he might pick up some self-defense techniques. At first he was intrigued by the group’s teacher—a “little old Japanese man.” LeBar had never seen anyone move with such grace or agility.

Then the sensei began to speak, and LeBar felt his foundation shift.

“It was about dealing with someone’s direction or force in a peaceful way—taking that energy and changing it.”

While other martial arts might involve punching, kicking, or grappling, aikido teaches students not to resist or confront an attacker, but to unite with their opponent and move together, leading the other person’s energy in a new direction.

It didn’t take long for LeBar to realize aikido would teach him something much bigger than how to handle a punch. “Relationships are what it’s about,” he says—“how we deal with people, how we deal with ourselves.”

Introduced to the United States via Hawaii 60 years ago this spring, aikido can trace its origins to early 20th-century Japan, where it was developed by Morihei Ueshiba, first as a modified form of jujitsu, then as its own art. The techniques evolved further under Ueshiba’s top instructor, Koichi Tohei, who had also studied Zen and who had developed an interest in breathing and meditation practice while serving as a soldier in Manchuria during World War II. After his master’s death, Tohei went on to form his own branch of aikido, with a greater emphasis on meditation and spiritual development.

In Tohei’s “ki-aikido” practice ( ki, loosely translated, means “energy” or life force), students don’t spar but instead practice dozens of intricately choreographed attacks and defenses, moving together with their partner almost like a dance. Students advance toward a black belt as they master more and more challenging techniques, but they also progress on a parallel track of ki development, with solo exercises that test their ability to remain calm and stable when challenged.

The partnered techniques, or “arts,” can be physically effective, but they actually have a more symbolic purpose, says Christopher Curtis, an eighth-degree black belt and the Hawaii Ki Federation’s chief instructor. “They represent the conflict in the relative world,” he says. “Really the purpose of aikido is to learn to be calm and clear and effective in the midst of conflict.”

Meditation is an essential part of the practice, to strengthen a student’s capacity to find and maintain a sense of calm and awareness. But the study and use of martial arts techniques deepens that training, Curtis says.

“You can’t really have one without the other – it’s a package…”

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