Aikido Master Koichi Tohei Explains the Concept of Ki (Internal Energy)

This look back at our martial arts roots comes from the pen of Koichi Tohei (1920 – 2011). Koichi Tohei was a student of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba and served as head instructor at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. He later split from Morihei Ueshiba’s organization and founded the Ki Society.

Koichi Tohei, who was a 10th-degree black belt when he died, is the martial artist credited with popularizing aikido in the United States. Among his more famous aikido students is actor Steven Seagal.


“Power of mind is infinite while brawn is limited.”

Time and time again, our daily newspapers run headlines regarding “Man Throws Piano in Fit of Anger,” “Tiny Woman Lifts Car to Save Son” and other incredible feats. Such stories baffle not only readers but also scientists. For centuries, man has endeavored to find a logical answer for these apparently superhuman deeds without much success.

But to an aikido practitioner, such astonishing acts are readily understood. If, at a given moment, your mind or spirit coordinates perfectly with your body, incredible strength results — more than 10 times your normal power. This perfect coordination of body and mind, unfortunately, will never occur for the great majority of people. The uninitiated few who gain this power almost always experience it during an emergency.

But a highly trained person such as an aikido practitioner can execute and command this strength whenever he deems it necessary. The question that follows naturally is, “How can you coordinate your mind with your body?” To answer this question, you must first learn the meaning of ki (mind or spirit).

Koichi Tohei (right)

Ki is not a component of your brain, whose chief function consists of thinking. The ki that an aikido practitioner refers to is located at the center of one’s anatomy — a point just below the navel called saika no itten. From this central point, human power or strength originates before flowing to other parts of the body.

This can best be illustrated by imagining that your body is similar to an electrical mechanism. Your brain operates like a battery. It sends messages to a starter point, which in turn acts like a generator and transmits strength to any part of the body.

For another illustration, imagine your arms as rubber hoses attached to the saika no itten point, which acts as a valve. The water is the ki. As you release the water, the hoses (your arms) become firmer and stronger as more liquid (ki) flows through them. Your fingers must be fully extended, permitting the ki to flow through them. If your fists are clenched, the force is cut off, very much like bending a rubber hose and thus cutting off the flow of water from the nozzle.

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Paradoxically, ki is simple and plain — yet it is difficult to describe. Ki is around us like the air we breathe. But until we develop ki ourselves to a stage where we can actually feel it within us, explanation will be hard. It is like trying to describe a vivid scene to a person who is blind. Each of us is endowed with ki at birth, but most of us remain unaware of it.

However, as we develop our ki through training, eventually we can even sense another person applying his ki. Until we are in that position, most exhibitions of aikido will seem phony because all the throws and maneuvers are done with such ease and grace.

What is aikido and what part does it play in our modern way of living? Aikido literally means “mind together with your opponent’s.” Although aikido is an art of self-defense, self-defense is of secondary importance. Developing ki is the primary objective.

But in order to develop your ki, one must first learn the throws and movements of aikido. Once these are mastered, you can concentrate on synchronizing your ki with your techniques.

As our modern world grows more frenzied and chaotic, we tend to create tension within ourselves — eventually, this results in neurosis and often in stomach ulcers. To attain relief, humans have consumed millions of sleeping pills and tranquilizers. But usually these are only temporary expedients. To find permanent relief, many have turned to yoga, Zen and aikido.

This latter art is intended for modern man because ki training need not be done impassively; it can be performed as one goes about his daily work. Actually, a highly trained aikido practitioner can even keep his ki animated while he sleeps. …

A Lesson in Pain Management! What Karate Stylists Can Learn From Aikido Stylists

There are many reasons karate stylists should make friends with people who practice aikido. Here’s a good one: A major fault of the modern martial ways is the narrow-minded view of combat that’s fostered in many dojo.

For example, Joe Karateka believes his art is the final word in self-defense or character development. Therefore, even if the highest-ranked black-belt aikidoka from Tokyo were to put on a demonstration on Joe’s front lawn, Joe would rather be in the backyard whacking his makiwara. (Don’t be smug, all you aikidoka who are reading this. Practitioners of judo, kendo and other budo are the same way. You make disparaging remarks about other arts, and you don’t know anything about them.)

The reason I’m suggesting you befriend some aikido practitioners, however, isn’t to foster understanding between martial artists or anything quite so noble. It’s because aikido techniques can teach you some valuable lessons about how to manage pain.

Haruo Matsuoka Photo by Robert Reiff

I know that some of you will tell me you could write a book on the subject. If your karate training is even halfway serious and you’ve been at it for a while, you already know a lot about pain. I hope you weren’t seriously injured in the process, but I expect you absorbed your share of bruises, sprains and a host of other physical misfortunes that often accompany karate practice.

Furthermore, I’ll bet nearly all those injuries came suddenly and unexpectedly. You stopped a reverse punch with your nose. You tried to throw a roundhouse kick at head level when your hip and groin muscles wanted to kick at stomach level. You went one-on-one with the makiwara and found that your fist and hips were stable as all get-out but your wrist was just a little weak.

The kinds of pain we encounter in karate tend to be like that. Karate — except for those few systems that concentrate on grappling — doesn’t feature the kind of pain you can inflict slowly and deliberately, in gradually increasing degrees. Aikido, on the other hand, specializes in it. You’ll also find similar techniques in the Chinese art of chin-na. (I’m using the example of aikido because that’s the martial art with which most karateka are most familiar, and they’ll probably feel more comfortable in an aikido dojo than in a training hall for a non-Japanese art.)

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But wherever you choose to go, you should go. Show up before the classes begin or after they’re over, and bring a case of soda or some other gift. Explain to the instructor what you want to learn and ask him to teach you some basic pinning techniques that inflict pain as well as immobilize the opponent.

Nikkyo, the “second teaching,” is a good one; sankyo, the “third teaching,” is even better. These are sophisticated methods, so you won’t learn all their subtleties in a short time. What you want is to be able to execute them on a partner who’s going along with the movement. I’m not talking about making a wrist lock work in combat because even a skilled aikido exponent might not want to rely on pain-compliance techniques in a real fight. Rather, I’m talking about what they can teach you.

I have seen skilled karateka receive instruction in such techniques for the first time, and it’s a remarkable event. You can see them go from skeptics about the efficacy of the locks to real believers in the space of half a second — the length of time it takes to have their wrist captured and controlled.

What’s most interesting about this reaction is how uncontrolled it is. These same karateka might barely react to a punch that splits their lip. They’re accustomed to that kind of pain. However, in most cases, the pain of a wrist lock is entirely foreign to them, and they respond dramatically and without any sense of self-control. That’s precisely why they need to feel it.

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The joint locks of an art like aikido cause intense pain, but when done correctly, they don’t inflict any injury. Now, I’m not suggesting you go to an aikido dojo and ask to have your wrist broken. What I want you to do is have the lock applied, learn to do it yourself and then practice executing the technique. You’ll find that, with time and training, your reaction is much less immediate.

You’ll also begin to see that even when you know pain …

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka throws an opponent while Steven Seagal (far right) looks on.

Haruo Matsuoka is a study in contrasts. Although he speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent, he’s eloquent in his English explanation of the esoteric concepts of aikido. While he’s known as one of the most combat-competent aikido stylists on the planet and was one of the very few who could take falls for Steven Seagal as he executed his vicious aikido throws, he remains disarmingly humble and glows with a happiness that only true stability, contentment and harmony can bring.

Conversations with Haruo Matsuoka lead in a variety of directions, all of which are enlightening and inspiring yet grounded in reality. Perhaps what is most amazing is how his life has mirrored his art, meeting conflict and strife with patience and integrity.

When I recently arrived at his dojo in search of answers, he met me at the door as if greeting an old friend, then sat on the tatami mats for the duration of the interview. It was as if there was no distinction in rank, yet there was no lack of etiquette.

The History of Aikido

Born in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, Haruo Matsuoka received an early introduction to aikido and the customs most closely associated with it. His father, Shiro Matsuoka, was into macrobiotics — a diet that’s popular among aikido practitioners in Japan. One year, he took young Haruo Matsuoka to a summer camp dedicated to promoting macrobiotics, and that was where the youth witnessed his first aikido demonstration.

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Later, during his high-school years, he participated in judo, which was a standard part of the physical education curriculum.

Just before his 16th birthday, Haruo Matsuoka began taking classes under an instructor named Kobayashi. But the man disappeared after a short time, leaving the dojo unmanaged and unattended. Six months later, Steven Seagal moved to Osaka and reopened the facility as his now-famous Tenshin Dojo.

At 17, Haruo Matsuoka had his first meeting with Steven Seagal, and it left a lasting impression on the youth. Reminiscing about that day, he beamed with a sense of wonder: “When I first met Seagal sensei, his Japanese wasn’t so fluent, but his technique was remarkable — unlike what I’d seen before. He was so fast, very fluid. Seeing him doing aikido changed my life.”

Haruo Matsuoka signed up on the spot.

“Nothing in my earlier martial arts experiences came close to that moment,” he said. Steven Seagal’s school sat in a rough part of town known for its yakuza gangsters and prostitutes. “It was only a five-minute walk to the dojo from the train station, but it seemed like a long, long walk,” Haruo Matsuoka recalled. “There were many times when I was really scared, as a skinny kid, and walked as fast as possible so I could avoid getting into trouble.”

Initially, Haruo Matsuoka trained three times a week, attending classes that were tough and strict. Steven Seagal’s aikido had a reputation for being hard core and effective even on the street. And his training philosophy backed that up: Make everything practical for this world — otherwise, it’s useless. “Seagal taught a very practical aikido — swift footsteps, hand movements like sword cuts and a body posture that was very straight, very strong,” Matsuoka said.

Steven Seagal emphasized the relationship between kenjutsu sword work and aikido, and Haruo Matsuoka began to understand the ways in which hand, foot and body positioning in a sword fight translate to aikido. He could see how those skills enabled the practitioner to smoothly glide out of harm’s way while thoroughly exploiting the other person’s openings.

“Seagal sensei was my first real master,” Haruo Matsuoka said. The American took a personal interest in his new pupil’s aikido development almost from the get-go, frequently inquiring about his plans after high school. Before Matsuoka had the opportunity to test for his black belt, Steven Seagal pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to accompany him to America to help him make movies. To the impressionable Japanese teenager, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, inspiring him to persevere in his practice.

Haruo Matsuoka’s relationship with his master would never be the same.

Steven Seagal began using him as his uke, demonstrating throws and other aikido techniques on him during class despite his rank. (According to Japanese etiquette, the head instructor demonstrates techniques only on the most senior student, allowing him to learn quickly by feeling each move.) Steven Seagal put him ahead of his seniors and gave him the opportunity to absorb knowledge directly from the source and …

Aikido Moves Video: Haruo Matsuoka Behind the Scenes at Black Belt Magazine!

Aikido moves master Haruo Matsuoka in action at Black Belt magazine.The June/July 2014 issue of Black Belt magazine will feature a cover story on aikido’s Haruo Matsuoka, a student of Seiseki Abe and the former chief instructor at Steven Seagal’s Tenshin Dojo.

In the story, titled “Synergy, Strength & Simplicity,” Haruo Matsuoka is shown executing a number of empty-hand aikido moves, as well as aikido moves for defense against weapons, in a profile wherein he discusses what makes aikido applicable for everybody as a traditional design for modern living.

Still photos, however, don’t do his elegant yet powerful aikido moves justice.

So we proudly present this bonus video of Haruo Matsuoka’s aikido moves in action from that shoot — along with a breakdown of the feature stories for the June/July 2014 issue!

Haruo Matsuoka Behind the Scenes at a Black Belt Magazine Cover Shoot

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Aikido Moves: Guillermo Gomez Shows You How to Stop a Front Choke

Guillermo Gomez has devoted the past 26 years of his life to perfecting his aikido moves. The focus of his training in aikido moves has been on what all traditional martial artists should be aspiring to: mastery of the intricacies of all the techniques he was being taught rather than merely rising through the ranks. In this pursuit of technical mastery, he earned his fourth-degree black belt the hard way under the tutelage of sixth-dan Nelson Requena of the Venezuela Aikikai in Guillermo Gomez’s hometown of Caracas, Venezuela.

When Guillermo Gomez visited Black Belt, we asked him to teach basic aikido moves that even nonpractitioners could use to fend off attacks they might encounter on the street.

Guillermo Gomez Shows You How to Stop a Front Choke

This exclusive video captured in our photo studio finds Guillermo Gomez explaining several basic aikido moves and how to apply one of them — nikyo, the second immobilization technique of aikido — in the event of a choke attack.

“[Nikyo] enables me to control the wrist,” Guillermo Gomez says, “after which I bend the elbow and use my hips and the rotation of my body to put more pressure on it.”

Initiating the choke, the attacker starts with the fingers of his right hand wrapped around Guillermo Gomez’s neck. Guillermo Gomez grabs the attacker’s hand and rotates his entire body to create pressure on the wrist.

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“This [sequence of aikido moves] works because I control the thumb,” Guillermo Gomez says. “I use my right hand, along with the rotation of my body, to put pressure on his wrist until he releases the choke.” His grip on the knife edge of the choking hand augments the leverage he applies to the offending appendage.

Next, Guillermo Gomez circles his left arm under the locked limb, securing it in the crook of his elbow. He uses his forearm to drag the elbow outward, bending the arm until it’s shaped like a “Z.”

He keeps the pressure on, courtesy of the wrist lock, while he uses his left hand to force the angled arm — and the attacker — to the ground.

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Once the attacker’s down, Guillermo Gomez has the option of further aikido moves (as depicted in the April 2012 issue of Black Belt) such as moving his left hand to the man’s right elbow and guiding the arm into a straightened orientation so he can apply pressure to the joint. Such pain infliction would easily drive the opponent to the mat.
For more information about Guillermo Gomez and his multifaceted martial arts and fitness curriculum, visit…