All you need to know: NUS Aikido
Updated: Jan 13
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Dear readers, welcome back to another Martial Arts CCA review! This week, I had the pleasure of visiting NUS Aikido.
In case you’ve forgotten, there’ll be: an introduction to the martial art; the training menu of the day; interviews with club members; and a short Q&A.
Aikido (合気道) is one of the more modern martial arts featured in this article. It was developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century from his practice in Daito-ryu aiki-jujustu, one of the most famous schools of jujutsu, another Japanese martial art (if it sounds familiar, that’s because judo also came from jujutsu).
Aikido techniques could be classified into 4 groups: entering; turning; redirecting opponent’s momentum; and throws and joint locks. As you might have guessed, these techniques aren’t as damaging as punching and kicking, and preserves your attacker’s wellbeing, which is why some people say that it’s a very “gentlemanly” martial art.
Another interesting point is that aikido techniques help a Nage (defender) use an Uke’s (attacker’s) momentum against him. The importance of using better technique and timing to overcome a stronger enemy is a little similar to judo. However, aikido training focuses much more on the movement and getting every little step absolutely right. This is done by being totally cooperative during training so you can focus on doing the techniques without strength, whereas you might rely on your strength a little when training with a resisting opponent in judo. This way, you’ll know if you’re performing the moves wrongly if you find yourself having to exert more strength than needed.
There are several famous aikido practitioners, of whom action star Steven Seagal is probably the best known conventionally. Other than that, a K1 kickboxer I used to follow, Tetsuya Yamato, practises aikido, which has helped his kickboxing ability (this will be relevant later).
Club trainings take place weekly at 7-9pm on Tuesdays and Fridays. Normally, they train at MPSH 2. As the session I attended took place during recess week, the MPSH was set up for exams so we trained at the Stephen Raidy Centre’s Practice Room this time.
Our warm-up began after bowing to the class and to the instructor and consisted of a series of basic stretches, breakfalls and movement drills. Since there were several new members, the instructor took some time to teach us how to do the more unusual moves, so I didn’t look that out of place.
Training – Teaching
After the brief warm-up, the instructor taught us a basic turning technique. Turning and footwork are the pre-requisite for all other aikido training: every throw / joint lock starts with the appropriate footwork. Aikido turning techniques are the most efficient way of entering an attacker’s range and moving to his weak spot, so you’re in the best position for performing your techniques. The idea is similar to how a boxer moves to his opponent’s weak spot after slipping a punch, then following up with his own techniques, although the actual footwork is different (since aikido throws are different from punches in a boxing match).
Next, now that everybody knew the proper footwork, we moved onto full techniques. The instructor showed everybody how to perform a throw, then how to react to it. Learning how to react to a technique is important for several reasons. Firstly, knowing how the throw works informs you where and how you’re supposed to fall, or you might get hurt if you fall awkwardly. Secondly, being sure of what to do when your partner throws you helps you to follow your partner’s movements better, which is necessary for the training. After that, everybody practised the techniques in pairs.
This is where aikido draws a lot of (in my opinion, undeserved) criticism: many think that aikido can’t work in a real fight because aikido training is done against a compliant partner, so the moves won’t be effective against someone resisting (e.g. in judo). However, I would argue that this view is incomplete. Training with compliant partners is important in the beginning because it helps you build your muscle memory and refine your technique, so you can fully coordinate your limbs with your hips to get the most out of the technique. Of course, it would be difficult to apply the same technique to the same proficiency against someone struggling, which is why they practise their techniques against resisting opponents once they’ve built up their basic proficiency! If they started off against a resisting opponent, they might develop bad habits like relying on strength so the techniques wouldn’t work against someone stronger than you.
The class practised a series of throws for a while, before the instructor split the class up and separately taught beginners and seniors more experience-appropriate techniques. The seniors practised some advanced throws while the juniors did a more basic one. Also, the instructor focused on the group of newcomers and taught them how to do a forward rolling breakfall.
An important observation was that the seniors were practising at a much faster pace. Since they actually know the technique, they can afford not to worry about form so much (since it’s already quite solid) and could focus on doing the throw fluidly and quickly.
One throw they did was also a combination of throws: nage would start doing a throw, which uke would try to escape, prompting nage to adapt and finally toss uke. It’s a bit like how you learn one punch then later learn how to throw longer combinations and feints, but with throws and joint locks instead.
This one here is a reaction to a strike to your face.
Meanwhile, the juniors were practising an individual throw and rolling. It doesn’t look very impressive as a GIF, but it’s not that easy to get that throw just right! Knowing how to do a basic move like this smoothly is a pre-requisite to doing the effortless throws that aikido is known for.
The last thing on the training menu was a partner drill. Each pair would kneel facing each other (like a tea ceremony without tea), and uke would grab the nage’s wrists. Nage has to throw the uke while staying in the kneeling position. This sounds like a party gimmick like “Hey, we can make you float using 1 finger!” but it’s really a training exercise to teach you to use your hips. The trick is to coordinate your arms, shoulders, hips and spine so you can use all your power to throw your partner. It won’t work if you just yank on your partner with your arms. It’s pretty neat on its own, but it was personally an eye-opener because I’m not very good at coordinating my hips so this really taught me something I’d been missing for a long time!
Q & A
1) What’s the timing like?
Trainings are on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 7 o’clock to 9 o’clock.
2) Is there a steep learning curve?
Yes. When reacting to an attack, you need to be able to intercept and quickly respond to the technique correctly. Since aikido moves are so precise, you need good muscle memory to know how to move and good sense to know when to move. Building up these skills is not something you can rush!
However, it’s not like your first years at aikido will be devoid of satisfaction. There are a lot of basic skills you can start to practise from day 1 and there’s a lot of growth waiting for you!
How much money am I going to spend on it?
The membership fee for each semester is $XX. Other than that, you need to buy a gi, which costs $XX. It’s fairly light (like a karate gi, not thick like a judo gi) and quite comfortable. When you reach a senior belt (brown belt for ladies, black belt for gentlemen), you get to wear the hakama, the black pants . Out of the martial arts with a gi, I think the full uniform with the hakama looks especially cool because it looks like something a samurai would wear!
3) Is aikido very tough?
Nope. In my opinion, aikido is quite a gentle martial art.
Firstly, the emphasis on technique over strength is much greater than in other martial arts. You don’t have to be super strong or fit to pull the moves off. In fact, you’re discouraged from relying on your physicality to compensate for poor technique.
Secondly, aikido techniques also focus on the wellbeing of the opponent. Every throw is done with the intention of protecting the person being thrown and joint locks are done with restraint. Although it’s not like other martial arts training is done with any measure of bloodlust, the propensity for getting hurt can be higher if training is done full-force as it’s harder to control the force.
Thus, I think aikido would be great if you’re already doing another sport (and don’t want to get worn out or hurt) or less sporty.
5) How much of my training is conditioning? How much time do I actually get to “play”?
Hardly any of the training is spent on physical conditioning. The brief warmup (10 minutes at most) just gets your body loose and limber for the practice ahead. It’s not like sports where you have to build up your muscles to progress in the sport.
The rest of the training is spent on practising individual moves or sequences. These are usually done in pairs when you try throwing your partner, or react to your partner throwing a strike, for example. In that sense, you get to spend a lot of time training in aikido.
However, aikido isn’t like other martial arts (judo, karate) with fully free-style sparring, so there isn’t any real “fighting”, which is something to consider.
6) Is aikido useful for self-defence?
Yes, but only if you train really hard.
In my opinion, aikido techniques are very hard to master. For them to work most effectively, you’ve got to get the timing, footwork and many other details just right. Obviously, you can’t go about training this by just memorising the steps and practising them. It takes good tactile sense and reflexes, which you need a lot of training to build up. Otherwise, it’ll be very hard to apply the techniques when someone throws a punch at you, since real fighting is really unpredictable. With the ingrained muscle memory, you’ll know how to react properly and move your body to get the throw / joint lock when you need it. Hence, I don’t think you can start throwing knife-wielding thugs left and right like Steven Seagal while you’re a white belt, but you might be able to do it more fluidly if you put in the years of practice.
Once you do master them, I think you’d be a very good fighter. I was speaking a senior in the club about this and asked if there was any way for me to counter his wrist lock and throw. He said, “No, because I’m not doing anything. It’s all you!” Indeed, I think aikido techniques are pretty profound because they really do use an attacker’s own strength against them, more so than other grappling martial arts I’m familiar with.
That said, I don’t think the end product will really look as flashy as an action movie scene.
My image of aikido in action is probably what you see police do when they arrest a suspect: intercepting the bad guy’s attack, quickly throwing or restraining him.
Something interesting I noted was that aikido can improve your other martial arts. Although I was only there for a short 2 hours, I feel like I have learnt how to relax my upper body and coordinate my limbs more effectively. That’s really important for getting power from my legs, through my hips to my arms for all sorts of other throwing, punching and kicking techniques. In fact, some famous kickboxers picked up aikido to improve their striking power.
7) Is aikido safe?
Yes! Aikido is very safe.
Firstly, training is done at a low pace and intensity. When practising, both the person performing and receiving the technique know what to do and expect. Additionally, since the person receiving the technique doesn’t resist, the person performing the technique can perform it gently and predictably so the person receiving the technique can fall nicely.
Secondly, even if someone should fall a bit more forcefully than they should, everybody is taught how to perform breakfalls from the beginning, so there’s no reason one should ever get hurt. The use of nice, thick safety mats is yet another assurance against injury.
Lastly, while joint locks can hurt if applied strongly, nobody goes hard enough during training that you don’t have time to warn your partner if it hurts.
8) Can I take part in tournaments? Will I be able to get any fortune and glory even if I’m a newbie?
Aikido doesn’t have any tournaments, since full-contact fighting is quite contradictory with the nature of aikido training and a competition with 2 compliant competitors would look quite unusual.
NUS Aikido does “perform” demonstrations at the Student Life Fair and MADNUS (Martial Arts Day).
NUS Aikido has previously run Introduction courses to showcase the martial art to other students.
9) What’s the social life of the club like?
NUS Aikido isn’t very big, but they’re very warm and welcoming. The members usually hang out before and after training, and have lots of fun outside training too!
Many of the members are alumni, so it’s a good way to meet all sorts of cool people. In fact, the instructor leading the training I attended is an alumni of NUS and the club. I also met a professor currently teaching Political Science at FASS (pictured left)!
with TS and Bryant
How long have you been doing aikido?
TS: I have been doing aikido for about 6 years but I am still learning new things every training session, I like it because it’s a good workout also it’s a soft martial art that is suitable for people who are less sporty or in fact anyone is suitable as long as they come in with the right attitude to learn.
Bryant: Well, I joined NUS Aikido when I was just a freshman and stayed with the club ever since. All work and no play make Bryant a dull boy! So I decided to join something that I have no experience whatsoever. Sure, it was intimidating at first because I didn’t know anyone in the club, and I was pretty awkward during year 1. In fact, I was struggling trying to keep up with training because most of the time, I couldn’t hear our Sensei explaining the techniques (fun fact: he speaks really softly!). However, the seniors were really friendly and were always willing to guide you along during training. They are a huge part of the reason why I decided to stay on in NUS Aikido until now. Another reason is because I can be quite unmotivated to exercise at times so being able to train together with friends and keep myself physically fit is a big plus.
What do you like about NUS Aikido?
Bryant: We do take our training seriously but that does not mean you cannot have fun! We like to have supper after Friday training sessions. A recent trend in our supper is the fire instant noodles from Korea and we challenge each other to finish one whole bowl by ourselves. Not exactly sure why we are torturing ourselves after training but it certainly made for some good laughs ( and diarrhea).
TS: The people in the NUS Aikido are nice and the sensei is strict with us as he wants us to learn this art with the right attitude as this art is usually meant for those who are more patient or want to become someone patient.
Bryant: If you are a NUS student, you should definitely train in NUS Aikido instead of an external club. Our training venues are either in MPSH or Utown so it will be more convenient to come for training after your lessons instead of having to travel outside of school to an external venue. Moreover, our monthly training fees ($27 per month for undergraduate) are cheaper compared to other external clubs which can sometimes charge more than $100 per month. Last but not least, we are a super chill group of people so if you ever need an escape from the stress of school life, you are always welcome to join us!
Would you recommend aikido to an incoming freshman / other student?
Bryant: I would definitely recommend Aikido to an incoming freshman/student!! A common question that I often encounter is whether you need prior experience in martial arts or not. Actually, you don’t need any prior experience to join us and our trainings are catered for beginners. In fact, the motto of Shoshin Aikikai Singapore is “The Beginner’s Mind”. The focus is on the learning process and not how good you are as compared to others. Do join us to see how our trainings are like!
TS: Yes, but the person learning need to keep in mind that this art takes many years to master so when they start out, they need to take it slow but do it sincerely to their best ability by mimicking the sensei movement as closely as possible.
Bryant: Don’t worry if you are not strong! Aikido techniques emphasize on using your opponent’s strength and momentum against them instead of using your physical strength.
As our training sessions are considered beginner class, the techniques that we often practice are also going to be suited for beginners and not dangerous. Furthermore, as a newcomer, you will be paired with a senior during training and he/she will guide you along based on your own pace.
What advice would you give someone who just joined NUS Aikido or is thinking about joining?
TS: Practice the movement as much as possible on their own and all the different kinds of falling methods so that when they are training with a senior member, they would be confident.
Bryant: As someone who struggled with Aikido at the start, here’s my advice. Don’t focus on what you have done wrong. You are bound to make mistakes at the beginning. Instead, focus on what you have done right and keep that in your mind. It certainly is easier said than done since there are numerous techniques taught every week and it can be difficult to remember all the pointers from the instructors and seniors. Eventually, before you realise it, you will start to get the hang of it and your movements would become smoother. Persevere and never give up!!
A big thanks to NUS Aikido for allowing me to visit your training session! It really was quite eye-opening for me. Aikido always seemed so alien because I couldn’t imagine how the throws could look so effortless, but I got to learn how the throws work and it’ll be an invaluable addition to my own training! I hope you’ve got a better idea of what aikido is and what their training looks like. If you think it’s for you, give them a try.
(I don’t have anything cool to show this week, but I can show you my tripod set-up for my phone: a selfie stick tied to a camera tripod using my shirt! Improvise, adapt overcome!)
I’ll see you next time with another exciting peek into a martial arts CCA. This time, I’ll be heading to NUS Silat!