This article originates in a conversation with a man down the pub. Actually it was two men. We were talking about Trafford being the fourth club I have trained at, and Lancashire Aikikai the fourth association. They quizzed me about the differences I had noticed at each club (spoiler alert: there are lots). The four associations (and clubs) are: Yama Arashi (Coventry), Keitenshinkan (Manchester University), British Aikido Federation (Chester), Lancashire Aikikai (Trafford). I've entitled the article "22 Sensei" because, if you take into account the Dan Grades who provide coaching support to the Daicho of each club, my calculations are that I must have received regular coaching from at least 22 instructors. It's probably higher. But "22 Sensei" has a better ring to it.
Whenever I have changed clubs the Aikidoka have consistently asked me two questions during my first training session at the new club. The first is: "have you trained somewhere else?" There is usually a follow up question: "was it in a different style?" The first time I was asked this question I recall being utterly confused. A different style? What did they mean? Aikido is Aikido. Surely, wherever you go, it is the same? Aikido translates as "the way of harmony". How can there be different styles? That wouldn't be very harmonious.
My first move from Yama Arashi to Keitenshinkan was from a "traditional" Aikido association (traditional has been deliberately placed in quotes) to a "Ki-style" association (also in quotes, because I have never understood the descriptor - surely all Aikido involves using Ki?). My Aikido appeared rather forceful to the "Ki-style" sensei and I was politely asked to tone it down a bit. Those who practice with me regularly might find it surprising to learn that I was ever asked to stop being so rough.
The debate about styles of Aikido progressed even further when my job relocated me to Chester for five years and I joined the local club. When I explained my previous club was "Ki-style" the usual response (especially from the Yudansha) was, "Ki-style? That's not even proper Aikido". This was when I first learnt about the "schism", of when Koichi Tohei Sensei disaffiliated from Hombu. I had happily practiced for years in blissful ignorance of this knowledge. But I was now learning all about different styles of Aikido. I was advised that I would need to "unlearn what I knew", in order to absorb this new style - which was, I was repeatedly assured, the proper Aikido - not that namby-pamby stuff I used to practice.
How do these differences in style manifest themselves? Balance taking, distance from partner, exploitation of "centre", width of posture, leading and following, grabbing (or not), connection to Uke, contact with the floor, use (or not) of Atemi, how Ukemi is received, and (the most fascinating point of difference) the degree of the initial blend. That's my own non-exhaustive list of the fundamental pieces in the Aikido jigsaw. I have encountered very different approaches to these points at each club. The differences are so numerous I have had to be selective.
To take one example: is it permissible to finish in straight line posture, rather than the feet in strict T posture? It is at some clubs, even to the extent of allowing the back heel to rise off the floor, rather than stubbornly pushing it down. The rationale was that it helps finish with both hips more completely aligned in the direction you want to project. If that seems crazy, I would make the observation that it occurs in Iaido (and Aikido is based on sword arts).
Another example: in "Ki-style" it is permissible to leave the ground if necessary, especially on Tenchinage and Iriminage. I recall being publicly admonished in front of the class by a particular sensei for hopping. "Why are you jumping around? This is Aikido, not ballet." Cue, sniggering from the students. Leaving the ground is one of my personal favourites. There are times when I still do it on Tenchinage (it is very liberating and is great fun to do!).
I have deliberately not mentioned weapons. Don't even get me started on weapons.
If I was to choose the one single factor that differed most between associations it would be the principle of leading and following. Some sensei rarely mention it at all; some only mention the leading part and not the following; whilst some mention it week after week after week. Some sensei go as far as actually teaching students how to follow. I anticipate many LA students reading this might find it odd that there are some clubs out there who spend the first half hour (or more) of a class practising how to follow. How the heck do you learn how to follow? Surely it just happens over time? I've seen an array of partner exercises over the years that teach blending, timing, leading and following. My own perception (which I accept could be mistaken) is that LA students prefer to crack on with things, and get to the 'juicy stuff' of throws and immobilisations. There are many times I've said to a Tori who is struggling to throw me using only their shoulder muscles, "just lead me round, and I'll follow". Often it generates a puzzled look. Another common question is, "why can't I throw you? Why won't my technique work on you?" My usual reply is, "because you haven't taken my centre." Another puzzled look.
The counter-argument is that this is more an issue of "variety", rather than different "styles" of Aikido, and that I am overstating the differences. Perhaps that is correct, and it is me who has misinterpreted my experiences. However, it seems to me akin to the sport of Rugby: are Rugby Union and Rugby League just variations, or are they different "styles" of Rugby? (Rugby itself uses the term "codes".)
These are purely personal views. I am prepared for the fact people might disagree. But this has been my own experience of changing Aikido clubs and associations.
Finally, I would like to thank Marco Ford and Algy Cole for the discussion that prompted this piece, and also Mr and Mrs Baird for never once saying the words "that's not how you do Aikido" at any stage during the last 18 months.
David Jones Published 2017