No Muscles & No Confrontation: 2 Valuable Aikido Lessons

Photo by Ben White on

When I studied aikido, I was often (kindly) reprimanded to not use my muscles when practicing the moves.

Whaaat? How could I possibly stand the competition if I wasn’t to use my strength? Sometimes the people I was practicing with were taller than I was. In fact, even if I wanted to pick up my swords, I still needed to use some muscle, right?

For years, I didn’t understand what that all meant. I knew that aikido was a martial art that focused on redirecting your opponent’s attack momentum, but I couldn’t comprehend how little ol’ me could flip an adult male who was charging at me. It was the opposite of what I had learned about sports growing up in the USA. In my opinion, to be successful at any sport, you needed to get stronger, leaner and healthier.

The fact is, however, that I was able to move people who looked stronger and taller than I am, and that had to do with a) guiding their momentum away from me and b) understanding how our bodily joints work in securing holds. 

I won’t get into too many more details, but just know that it is possible to “win” in an aikido match by being calm and knowing how to outmaneuver your opponent without using your muscle power. In fact, being too strong could be your demise. 

The 2nd Lesson:

Besides “strength”, I learned another great lesson from practicing aikido: don’t fight. I initially started learning aikido for self-protection, and once I got the hang of it, I was almost itching to use it in real life. I even asked my sensei if he thought I would win if I got involved in a fight, and he would just laugh and say, “the point is not to fight – the point is to diffuse the situation and walk away.”

I’d like to emphasize my second aikido lesson here by relaying a rather famous aikido story that you can read about here and here. In it, American aikido pioneer Terry Dobson writes about a situation on the Tokyo train, which I will summarize as follows:

Terry had a few years of aikido training under him, and thought he could test out his skills when he saw a drunk man get on the train and start terrorizing passengers. Seconds before the brawl was to begin between the “hero” and the “bad guy,” an elderly gentleman interrupted the fight in such a stunning way and invited the “bad guy” to sit with him. The elderly man started a gentle conversation that caught the “bad guy” off-guard, who eventually admitted tearfully that he was miserable and happened to take it out on innocent bystanders. Terry’s conclusion? “What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words.” 

So how do these two lessons affect our lives? 

  1. No muscles: sometimes it’s best to not try so hard and relax into the situation. The perfectionist in me struggles with this, but sometimes I find that when I don’t push so hard, the journey is easier and more enjoyable.
  2. No confrontation: put yourself in the antagonist’s shoes. All of us road rage-aholics take personal offense when someone cuts us off or doesn’t let us in, but perhaps that person is in a hurry because of an actual emergency. We just won’t know, so it’s not worth it to get angry over something that the other person probably doesn’t give a second thought to. Let those things go. And in the case of Terry Dobson, instead of fighting, figure out a way to get to the core reason – you just may surprise yourself. 

Photo by Ben White on

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top