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There are lots of excellent aikido resources on the web. Two of the best are The Aikido FAQ and AikiWeb (which generously supplied the kanji for "aikido" at the top of this page). This page is just my own take on some of the questions most commonly asked by visitors to the dojo and non-aikidoka friends of mine. I've been training at Shobu Aikido of Boston since 1993, and have reached shodan rank (first degree black belt). In aikido terms, that means I'm still a beginner, but I'm starting to understand how little I know.
Some people have described aikido as the art of using an attacker's force against him. My teacher once said, "that's true, but it took me twenty years to understand what it means." It's easy to say that you should step aside and let an attacker's energy dissipate harmlessly, but much more difficult to actually do that.
Some people have described aikido as a purely defensive martial art. In my opinion, those people have never seen a high-ranked aikido instructor in action. Far from passively waiting, a senior instructor will control the timing and direction of the attack to an uncanny degree. He doesn't seem to be doing much of anything, but somehow the attacker is always off balance.
An instructor at another dojo I visited talked about aikido as the art of being an observer. Remaining calm and dispassionate, as if watching a machine, and simply stepping out of the way of the mechanism. That explanation has been very helpful to me at my present level.
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If you have a specific and immediate need for self-defense skills, take a self-defense course, buy a gun and learn how to use it, and/or call the police. You cannot learn to use any martial art effectively in a weekend.
But if you want to avoid being a target, if you want to be able to protect yourself should the need arise, and especially if you need to be able to subdue someone without injuring them (police officers, mental hospital staff, and parents of abusive children come to mind), you might want to find out more about aikido. The Aikido FAQ mentioned earlier has a good collection of stories about real-life applications of aikido. Carol Shifflett's excellent books, Ki in Aikido and Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training, discuss these questions in lots of detail as well.
Me? I orginally started studying aikido for self defense reasons. At my level, I should be able to handle any situation that I'm likely to encounter. But I haven't needed to test the theory, and the whole issue seems less important the longer I train. In my interview with Raso Hultgren Sensei, head instructor of Aikido of Missoula, Montana, she talks in some detail about reasons to study aikido other than self-defense.
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It's true that most aikido styles do not include sparring in the way that karate and tae kwon do do. Part of the art of ukemi--the art of receiving technique--is attacking in a focused way, giving your partner enough energy to work with, but having enough control to protect both yourself and your partner if the attack or technique fails. Yes, I could probably attack strongly enough to overwhelm a beginner and prevent him from using a particular technique. But what would be the point? What would either of us learn from that?
Likewise, studying a particular response to a particular attack is, of course, a somewhat artificial situation. I could easily attack in a different way and force my partner to improvise a response. Again, what would be the point? How could either of us learn to handle the specified situation then? And how is someone supposed to learn to improvise if they never have the opportunity to study the building blocks?
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For beginners with no relevant experience, learning to fall takes in the neighborhood of three months.
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