Deborah Fisher: Aikido and Power

René de Guzman defines power as the ability to make desired results happen. The advantage of using the word ability is that while it can refer to a unilaterally bestowed privilege, it also readily connotes a skill that is developed over time.

Aikido embodies a paradox that is relevant to social practitioners who are thinking about power: it is a collaborative martial art. The purpose of Aikido training is to transform conflict into cooperation, even love for one’s opponent. This is an easy and elegant thing to say, and a pretty much impossible thing to do. I also argue that it’s a transformative thing to attempt. When you sincerely approach the study of combat in a collaborative way, your skills around both combat and collaboration evolve in ways that can radically affect how you perceive and wield power.

These short clips draw out some of the ways my aikido practice informs how I use power.


Example One: Ukemi—Hayato Osawa Sensei USAF Summer Camp

This is a favorite teacher demonstrating how to receive a fundamental aikido exercise, which is one of the first things you learn. You would learn how to do it, and also how to let someone else do it to you.

In aikido you always take turns. You never compete, there’s no such thing as a winner. There is only the role of doer and the role of receiver. You will be in each of these roles half the time. This makes doing and receiving equally important.

Here, the teacher shows that when you receive, you want to focus on making a strong connection with the palm of your hand, and that you want your whole body to follow your palm so that your whole body stays connected.

Maintaining this connection is a technical commitment you make to collaboration. Taking turns, and the idea that you are still doing aikido when you are receiving a technique, are both structural commitments that the art of aikido has to collaboration. You collaborate because the class is taught in a particularly equitable way.


Example Two: Aikido Seminar with Harvey Konigsberg Shihan 3

Another favorite teacher uses the same exercise to demonstrate that because this is a martial art, you can’t simply accept these structural and technical conventions and collaborate. If you’re engaged in sincere martial training, you should constantly question and compel collaboration, not just expect it.

On a technical level, the two men receiving the technique are keeping the connection between their palm and this wrist, and their whole bodies are moving to maintain that connection, just as the first video demonstrated.

This teacher wants students to question why we maintain this connection, why we don’t just let go. There are extrinsic commitments to collaboration like technique and class structure. But how do you make it an intrinsically motivated collaboration? Are you giving your partner a good, martial reason to hold on? The demonstration that follows is about how to compel your partner to collaborate. When it’s your turn, you want to do the technique so that:

  1. Your partner does not perceive an opening to hit you
  2. Your partner either maintains their connection, or risks getting smacked by you in the face

In this framework, collaboration is conditional and earned. This is helpful because you learn more, and also because you want to increase your ability to work well with people who don’t, for whatever reason, want to collaborate on your terms. In the dojo, as in life, common frameworks and techniques that promote collaboration are a nice start, but insufficient. A big part of training is earning the respect and attention of a partner who is having a bad day; drowning in their own insecurities; thinks you are doing it wrong; focused on your gender, race, rank, or age; doesn’t like your relationship to dojo politics; hates the technique being demonstrated…

…this list of practical reasons to compel collaboration is endless.


Example Three: Aikido with Hal Lehrman Sensei at Long Island Aikikai

A third favorite teacher explains how hard it is to keep practicing combat skills collaboratively when you perceive yourself as capable of winning.

Our definition of power—the ability to achieve desired results—develops in aikido both because you learn a collaborative form within a collaborative structure, and because these collaborative structures and forms are rigorously, combatively, tested. The desired result changes all the time, but often it is simply to be able to elicit collaboration on your terms. The question you have to keep asking yourself is, “Does this technique work because my partner is collaborating, or is my partner collaborating because this technique works?”

When your partner is collaborating because your technique works, it is easy to misperceive yourself as having won something. This video talks about resisting the urge to win when you’re doing a technique. This urge is universal, and it can frighten or even hurt your partner. The urge to win also impacts your ability to receive the technique. It leads you to resist and advise your partner, rather than collaborate.

If you’re really self-aware, in these inevitable moments of “winning,” you will notice that you’ve become just like the jerks who didn’t want to work with you in the example above.

Example Four: Osawa Hayato sensei – 51th All Japan Aikido 2013

This is a demonstration for a public audience, which is an interesting place to end because aikido, like social practice, is more often experienced between participants than seen by an audience. And as with social practice, it is difficult to see the collaborative nature of aikido from this perspective. From this perspective, it looks way more like engaging in combat than collaborating with partners.

This perspective brings me back to the value of embracing paradox. You start training because you have two goals that are in conflict. You want to fight and you want to cooperate. This conflict is productive. You know in your heart that cooperation transcends the fight—that idea is just too elegant not to work. But you don’t know how, because fighting is so satisfying. So you just keep pushing the fighting and the cooperation together, and gleaning little lessons like these from each session:

  • Leadership and technique can create transformative conditions
  • Doing and receiving are equally important in a conflict
  • Question known frameworks, even ones you agree with
  • You should not expect others to collaborate
  • Beware the sensation of winning
  • A collaboration can look like a conflict

These lessons are incremental, and they mostly highlight your own flaws. But they are better than just fighting, and better than just collaboration. And they are slowly changing me in exactly the ways I wanted to change.

About the contributor: Deborah Fisher is an artist and the founding Executive Director of A Blade of Grass. She also currently serves as a strategic advisor to Shelley and Donald Rubin, and as a board member of the Center for Artistic Activism. Fisher’s art practice is focused on why and how value is created, and uses group action, entrepreneurship, ritual, creative applications of self help and the intuitive arts, and performance. She is currently partnering with Paul Ramirez Jonas on Dayjob Espresso and Culture, a cafe that offers both delicious espresso drinks and daily art assignments geared toward a general public. Fisher is a shodan, or first degree black belt, in aikido, and trains at The New York Aikikai.