Aikido for All
DU Aikido Club is celebrating 40 years since one of its founders, Sensei Sean MacRuairi, began teaching aikido outside the university club he helped set up. We got the chance to catch up with Sensei MacRuairi and ask about what aikido means, how it fits into the world today and how it all began
Aikido is relatively obscure even now, despite the fact that Charmed character Prue and The Walking Dead‘s Morgan are known practitioners of the martial art (in fictional universes), as is the film star Steven Seagal. Aikido clubs are usually hidden within college campuses, attracting only those who actively seek them. This wasn’t true for Sensei MacRuairi, who explained how he came across aikido and how he helped create the club that still exists today. He describes it as a series of coincidences.
“I was a student in Trinity College. I had been a member of the Judo Club under a Mr Matthew Folan. When he had been in Japan, he had seen aikido, watched a demonstration and was very interested in it. He thought I might enjoy it. That was the first mention of it. That summer, I had a J1 visa and I was in the States. I was looking for a judo class, but because it was the summer, nothing was going on. The local library had a book about aikido. I went back to college and I found an ad up about an aikido class in the Trinity gym. This notice I saw was a demonstration to try to attract an interest among the student body, in order to start an aikido club. I turned up on the day that the demonstration was on and I became the club captain.” Even now, Sensei MacRuairi still has a high level of involvement within the club, liaising and working closely with all captains.
But what would draw you to aikido? For me, there are many aspects. You train with people of any size, any height and any gender. Having muscle strength doesn’t qualify you as instantly better at aikido techniques; you use your centre of gravity as a force against others to unbalance them. You also learn how to throw them or pin them to the floor with minimal effort. One of the first things you pick up when learning aikido is that if you’re using force to bring your partner down, you’re doing it wrong. For a martial artist who has had back injuries, like our captain, aikido is sufficiently energetic (with a half hour devoted to rolling sometimes), but also helps you to refrain from injuring yourself and others.
“I have always found aikido an excellent way of escaping the world for an hour and a half – forgetting problems and clearing my head, no matter how terrible I feel beforehand. I have found the concentration and focus needed when practising techniques to have similar effects to meditation.”
What also might interest you in aikido is that it is non-competitive. We do not win trophies, we do not compete, we don’t even differentiate between kyu-graders – everyone wears a white belt until you reach dan-grading, where you wear a hakama. Sensei MacRuairi explains why this drew him towards aikido rather than judo while studying in College.
“The things that Matthew Folan spotted about me was that I really enjoyed training, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the competitions in judo. I was quite happy with the sort of, randori – free practice. The [judo] competitions were always very rough, and so you were out to take somebody down, which was what you had to do to survive, because they were trying to take you down. It wasn’t something I enjoyed.” Aikido is quite unique in its principles of equality and peace; Sensei MacRuairi explains how it remains, in this respect, remarkably different to other martial arts.
Talking about the lifelong friendships he has formed internationally through aikido (studying and teaching across the world, from Britain to Japan), he says: “Aikido is like that […] it’s a very co-operative activity. There are very few group activities in which the whole coinage of the activity is co-operation, where the ethic and discipline is entirely geared towards maintaining constructive training relations with people, where there is minimal amount of risk and injury. That degree of physical trust – you’re literally allowing people to throw you around – those factors build a kind of trust with people over that amount of time, in what you would find in very few other activities. Certainly my impression of a lot of activities is that even though they may be similar in background, once you have that element of strong competitiveness in the activity, it inevitably leads to people falling out – jealousies, physical contact injuries. Aikido in potential is very unique.”
“For the people who are interested, lots of aikido practitioners do practice some form of meditation, but by and large the starting place is without prejudice – nobody is required to do meditation practice as part of aikido.”
Some people are wary of joining an aikido class because in addition to the training its ethos might make it seem focused on a weird, philosophical or spiritual aspect – the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba, in developing his system, not only placed a strong emphasis on protecting the opponent but also on spiritual and social development.
It’s quite uncommon in most martial arts, but Sensei MacRuairi explains that you don’t need to be philosophical or spiritual in any way to get real enjoyment out of aikido. “One quality of aikido is that somebody could come in and just look at a class, and for some people, that might make an impression that might wake ideas. Then, there are people who have no philosophical genes in their body, but who really like training. There are people who engage in aikido very briefly, and then of that population, there are people who get more and more involved and it becomes something of a significant part of their lives. I suppose a lot of activities are like that, but what’s great about aikido is that if you take it at that level, you can practice it into your 60s, and even into your 70s.”
I decided to ask him about meditation. I have always found aikido an excellent way of escaping the world for an hour and a half – forgetting problems and clearing my head, no matter how terrible I feel beforehand. I have found the concentration and focus needed when practising techniques to have similar effects to meditation. I asked Sensei MacRuairi for his thoughts on this view of aikido. “The reason I was invited into the Judo Club was because I had taken a interest in yoga, which was a very rare, esoteric and exotic thing in Ireland in the 60s and it was very hard to find anything out about it. I did have some idea about meditation. To me, aikido was a continuation of that. I did, and still do, Zen meditation.”
“You train with people of any size, any height and any gender. Having muscle strength doesn’t qualify you as instantly better at aikido techniques; you use your centre of gravity as a force against others to unbalance them.”
He warned, however: “Everything I say about aikido and Zen meditation is completely wrapped up in my experience. It’s true that if you have instructors who have adequate knowledge of what a meditation state is, that they can certainly help guide people’s aikido so that their focus and breathing and posture gradually acquire a quality of flow or immersion that would really be quite liberating for them. For the people who are interested, lots of aikido practitioners do practice some form of meditation, but by and large the starting place is without prejudice – nobody is required to do meditation practice as part of aikido, it’s something you may have an interest in or your teacher may be doing it.”
Aikido may not be for everyone, but it might be worth giving it a go. The club has a long forty-year history enveloped in Sensei MacRuairi’s path. Remaining quite hidden and unknown in the college for some time, we think it’s time to promote a martial art that, for us, is based on peace and equality. Also, if you want to learn to throw people around in a controlled (and peaceful) manner, it’s also worth a look-in.
DU Aikido Club train in the Ancillary Hall A on Tuesdays from 3–4.30pm, and Wednesdays from 7.45–9.15pm. Anyone is welcome to join us at any time during the semester – all you need is an open mind!