The“Aikido Koan” And It’s Implications For Our Practice

By Ania Small

Most everyone training Aikido is familiar with the famous O’Sensei quote: “There are no contests in the Art of Peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing. Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within.My teacher, Saotome Sensei frequently reminds us thatAikido is Budo”, and we should treat each interaction on the mat as if it was a matter of life and death.  On the other hand, he tells us to take care of our partners, and execute the technique without force. What are the implications of these teachings for our practice? What is our ultimate goal, in light of the Aikido founder’s and Saotome Sensei’s words?

I would like to look at the seeming contradiction of the “non-competitive martial art”, and potential challenges presented by it.  As a psychologist, as well as Aikido student, I’m interested in understanding the philosophy, and finding ways of developing a path aligned with the vision of the Art of Peace.  In doing so, I hope to keep the clarity of purpose in my own practice and teaching at our dojo. I would like to be able to clearly communicate the goals of training, and the path towards reaching them to students, and to other people interested in Aikido.


I think that we can miss the purpose of practice by either lacking martial intensity, or by overly focusing on winning. In other words, we can train in either aggressive or passive way. There is also a risk of developing a passive-aggressive attitude. Trying to manifest the message of peace leads sometimes to training without connection, and to frustration when “the magic” does not work. It can result in giving partner extra resistance, when it’s their turn. One can also try to make up for the technique not working by telling their partner that they are open, or showing them potential atemi. All of these ways of training can take us away from the goal of conflict resolution.

Just from paying attention to ourselves and others, as well as larger Aikido community, we can conclude that competition is alive and well in our practice and politics outside the mat.  We get frustrated, if the technique doesn’t work, and sometimes try to force it.  We try to teach or resist others.  The world of Aikido is divided into different organizations, which don’t always get along. We often feel that our teachers are better than others.  We follow a “style” of Aikido that we believe to be more “real” or “effective”. Are we missing something, and even if we hold back the need to compete while executing technique, we unleash it elsewhere? How do we get rid of “the spirit of contention”in our own practice and prevent it from morphing into divisions in the Aikido community? Could exploring what “martial” means, and aligning our practice on and off the mat with O’Sensei’s vision help us with some of these issues?


The ideal vision of O’Sensei is not easy to manifest. We picked a difficult  martial art to practice and track our progress in. Aikido’s ideals might be elusive to people looking for self-defense. We often hear questions like “does Aikido work?”, “are the attacks of Aikido real?”, or  “what style of Aikido do you do”? All these come from a mindset of competition and fighting.  We are conditioned to think about martial arts that way.

Thinking of O’Sensei’s vision for Aikido requires a paradigm shift in defining what a martial art is. The goal of this art is not to win a battle, but to prevent a war. In this paradigm, the path of Aikido is one of personal transformation of getting rid of “fighting”, and creating unity (Aiki) in both mind and body. Saotome Sensei sometimes demonstrates a way of walking in the street, that discourages attack.  It is peaceful and calm, but definitely not passive.  It carries confidence and awareness, but not aggression.  I’ve heard him calling it manifesting  “your awesomeness”.  I believe that way of being in the world, and the impact it has on others is the real goal of our Aikido practice.


I love the quote from O’Sensei: “If your heart is large enough to envelop your adversaries, you can see right through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelop them, you will be able to guide them along the path indicated to you by heaven and earth.”  In other words, Aikido has a goal of developing body and mind that doesn’t support aggression, and doesn’t give others reasons to fight.  Conflict resolution in Aikido is based on a feeling that we are all connected.  Realizing that connection makes competition nonexistent. It is martial, since it gets rid of conflict and the need for it. The process of developing unity makes Aikido a personally transformative spiritual practice. It makes it a unique martial art, keeping many of us captivated for years.

Without that aspect of Aikido practice we might get stuck just copying movements of our teachers, and worrying whether they “work” in defeating our opponent. Or we can hold back in practice and engage in “fighting” elsewhere.  We can also struggle internally, never experiencing benefits of training. Connecting the seemingly contradictory martial and non-competitive aspects of Aikido, can hopefully help us, students, teachers and organizations move beyond fighting, and focus on our own progress.


How exactly does one “defeat contention”? How to go about finding strategies that would bring us closer to the goal of “no contention”? I think that it’s as much about inhibiting old habits as it is creating new ones. That’s what makes it more difficult. 

The physical approach, through Aikido movement can be transformative, and can help to chip away at our tendency to fight. O’Sensei said “progress comes to those who train and train; reliance on secret techniques will get you nowhere”. The physical way relies on putting energy into practice, focusing on developing ability along with relaxation, and finding a way to engage the partner with intensity of connection. Nage’s path is to execute the technique effectively without forcing it, while uke’s path to absorb it while working on relaxation and balance.

The physical approach is closely intertwined with the psychological one.  It’s probably easier not to fight with our partner, if we don’t think of “doing the technique to them”, and instead, stay connected and pay attention to our relationship. Inhibiting forcefulness requires awareness of it. We are also less likely to exert force, if we feel confident in ourselves and are respectful to our partner. It works the other way too.  It’s easier to feel peaceful, and not see oneself in opposition to the other person, if we are not fighting physically. In psychological terms, effective aikido technique could be seen as assertiveness: connecting with, and respecting our partner, while clearly communicating the path to what we need.

The psychological approach seems to be less represented in teaching of Aikido. O’Sensei said “as soon as you concern yourself with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weaken and defeat you.” In other words, technique alone is not enough. The other layer of Aikido practice is a process of awareness, and letting go of “fighting” within our own body and mind. How can we apply this to our practice?  I believe that it requires a conscious cognitive and emotional effort.  It applies to “training” on than off the mat. Aikido doesn’t have a clear moral code like Buddhism or other spiritual practices. Could it help us to adopt one as guidance? Either way, it might be important to create a habit of pausing before forcing technique or judging, to ask “how is that helping my Aikido practice?” A path to reducing internal fighting could be through intentional focus on connection, confidence and respect for our partners. After all, Aikido doesn’t “work”, when we try to force it, and in the process give up our awareness, relaxation and balance.

I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions to this topic.

Ania Small teaches at Aikido of Maine and holds Ph.D in Counseling Psychology