Aikido is often criticised by members of other martial arts as being ineffectual for real self-defence. And to a certain extent I agree with them, despite having practised traditional Aikido for over four decades. Often, because we don’t have competitions, these critics claim that much of Aikido dojo practice bears little resemblance to real fighting situations, and therefore dismiss it as ineffectual and markedly inferior to other martial arts. I have to agree that much of what we practice is not likely to prepare us for practical self-defence. For example, not many attackers are likely to jump out from behind a bush and grab one of your arms with both of their hands as in the morote dori attack, or try to slice you in half with a razor-sharp, metre-long sword. However, I believe this preoccupation with martial effectiveness is missing the point of Aikido training, as I hope to explain.
Aikido, as its name indicates, is a do, a ‘way’, to develop one’s body, mind and spirit, and its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, devised it, I believe, as a departure from traditional Japanese martial arts that were designed for killing or maiming adversaries. Instead, the aim of Aikido was to avoid doing this and instead learn how to restore harmony from disharmonious actions. It was intended as an Art of Peace, a method of training based on fighting arts but adapted to be a vehicle for personal development and social harmony. As such, Aikido as practised in the dojo should not be judged solely on its efficacy for practical self-defence, but rather on its many additional benefits, not the least of which is the spirit of cooperation that it engenders between its practitioners.
The harmonious interaction between tori and uke is often seen as a weakness, the argument being that in real life outside the dojo attackers do not cooperate or harmonise in any way with their intended targets. But in fact, Aikido’s cooperative form of practice should be seen as a preparation for real life conflict situations where it is better to attempt to reach peaceful resolution rather than attempt to dominate the aggressor, either physically or mentally. In Aikido training, aggressively and painfully dominating one’s practice partner is generally discouraged. Rather, tori  tries to find ways of leading uke  into a position that neutralises or severely limits his/her attacking opportunities as efficiently and painlessly as possible. The dojo is a place where peaceful, non-aggressive conflict resolution is rehearsed and, hopefully, applied outside of it.
However, I think it is very important for us as Aikido practitioners to clearly identify training forms that rely on uke compliance so that we don’t become delusional regarding our capabilities. It is all too easy to become conditioned to assume that all the techniques we practise cooperatively in the dojo are effective for real self-defence. For example, tanto dori, that is knife defence techniques, bear little resemblance to what happens in real life, where knife attacks are rarely of the stereotyped forms practised in the dojo, and which are immensely difficult to defend against without sustaining serious injury.
Related to this subject of partner compliance is the sensei/trainee relationship. This generally involves students being conditioned, to a greater or lesser degree, to react in a prescribed manner when interacting with their sensei. This is particularly true of senior students who regularly assist the instructor in technique demonstrations during classes. Such students are expected to attack the instructor in a prescribed manner and, in the interests of clear instruction, also react to the instructor’s actions in a prescribed manner. Taken to extreme, students can begin to react to their sensei in such vastly exaggerated ways that it becomes almost comical, as evidenced by many YouTube examples. And instructors may be completely unaware of this exaggeration and assume that they are performing extraordinarily effective techniques, when in fact they are doing exactly the opposite.
As stated earlier, Aikido practice should benefit body, mind and spirit, so how are these requirements satisfied? Here are some possibilities:
- Bodily benefits include improved health, flexibility, stamina and coordination, all of which result naturally from regular practice.
- Mental benefits include improved concentration, relaxation, stress control and self-confidence, and also heightened physical and situational awareness. In addition, Aikido training requires problem analysis relating to assessing and improving its efficacy with a range of partners.
- One’s spirit is strengthened by assiduously attending training sessions, irrespective of physical or mental discomfort such as tiredness, illness or injury, by practising patiently with difficult partners who may be stronger and/or try to block technique, or who are generally uncooperative, and by continuing to practice through those inevitable periods when progress appears to be non-existent or even reversed.
However, one could argue that many of these benefits could just as easily be attained by other practices, such as Yoga or even Chado, the tea ceremony. So why practice Aikido? Well, just as Chado uses the preparation and presentation of tea for personal development, Aikido uses physical conflict for the same, and therefore the martial aspect must obviously be addressed. It’s safe to assume that the tea produced in the tea ceremony is perfectly palatable, even though the quality of the tea produced may not be the primary concern; so, in the same way, Aikido should, in addition to its value for personal developmental benefits, be also significantly effective for self-defence. And in contrast to Yoga, if someone tries to push you off your meditation cushion, Aikido will at least give you a basis for resisting the intrusion.
So how can we best realise Aikido’s potential for self-defence? Well this task is quite difficult without radically changing the nature of our practice. I think first of all we have to acknowledge that not everything we practice in the dojo, or what we show in demonstrations, is intended to be used for self-defence. For example, many techniques are performed to provide an opportunity for ukemi  development, allowing uke to fall confidently and without injury, in a variety of circumstances; suwari waza  develops strong legs and an awareness of the importance of the hara; aiki-ken  is good for posture and concentration. But for techniques that may be appropriate to self-defence, how can we test them?
Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, faced the same problem in the early days of its development. He introduced Judo competitions to test Judo techniques with resistant adversaries. However, he never intended it to be the sport that subsequently it has become, where winning takes precedence over all other benefits of its practice. Morihei Ueshiba was adamant that Aikido should not be competitive, maybe partly or wholly for the same reason.
Perhaps we could ask our partners to attack with real intention, and require that we respond to the attack realistically, but this is very difficult to do in practice. For instance, when we attack our partners, it is rarely with real intent to injure, and it certainly is not with raw rage of the type that can be encountered in real life. Furthermore, when attacked in real life, defensive atemi is justified, but in the dojo intentionally and forcefully hitting our partners obviously is not acceptable.
What if we require uke to actively resist techniques? This too incurs its own problems. For example, it is quite easy to resist a technique when we know what it is and when it will occur, whereas in a real situation this would not be the case. And overcoming a resistant partner can easily degenerate into a messy grappling match from which nothing constructive emerges.
Another complication we need to consider is archetyping attackers. Do we assume that they usually attack in a certain way? Are they martial arts trained? Do they make an imminent attack obvious? If we don’t make any of these assumptions, training would inevitably become very involved and possibly quite chaotic; if we do make such assumptions we are quite likely to be wrong in practice because attacks occur in all shapes and forms.
However, even though we can never be absolutely confident that our Aikido training will really work in real self-defence situations, maybe we can take steps to ensure its effectiveness to some degree. Here are some possibilities:
- Identify the physical principles that are generally attributed to successful self-defence. For example, a primary aim in the execution of all techniques is to destabilise and unbalance the attacker as soon and as effectively as possible, so we can certainly study the most effective methods of achieving this.
- Gradually increase the speed and strength of our attacks and use this progression to improve our reaction speed and timing.
- Learn to maintain a safe distance in the face of an imminent attack.
- Practice fast and controlled tai sabaki  to avoid being hit, and to move to strategically advantageous positions.
- Use Aikido variations of Hubud Lubud  training exercises to improve reflexes and reaction time for close-quarters attacks.
- Incorporate Tai Chi Push Hands training to improve effective reflexive reaction to attacks and to emphasise the importance of postural stability.
All of these activities can be integrated within typical training sessions without compromising Aikido’s other benefits.
In conclusion, despite never having needed to defend myself from physical attack in all the years I have been practising Aikido, I have to say that I do not feel in the slightest that I have been wasting my time. On the contrary, through my training, and especially from all the people with whom I have trained, I know that my body, mind and spirit have all benefitted immensely, and I will continue to practice for as long as I am able.
 The person attacked
 The attacker
 Falling/receiving techniques
 Kneeling techniques
Refers to the mid-section of the body, in the region approximately just below and behind the navel
 Sword techniques related to Aikido
 Body movement forms
 Defence sensitivity drills in Filipino Martial Arts. Aikido variations can use typical attack forms such as jodan tsuki, yokomen uchi and shomen uchi as their basis.