What makes Suenaka-Ha Aikido unique?

A Synthesis of Physical and Spiritual Aikido

In the months before his death, O’Sensei spoke these last words to young Suenaka Sensei: “Never stray from the Path of Aiki.” Thus, in his severance from both the Aikikai and Ki Society, Suenaka brought the two back together, the martial and the spiritual, as Ueshiba intended. The result is a martial art that is “street effective,” yet respectful of others, a martial art that can control and defend with or without damage. With its concern for life, Aikido is perfect for a society in which a fight, even in self-defense, can begin on the street and end in the courtroom. The Aikidoka uses only the force necessary and never harms without cause. This was the vision of the founder, the man who taught that the secret to budo was love.

Humble Beginnings

In 1975, Sensei Suenaka formed the American International Ki Development and Philosophical Society (AIKDPS), teaching a synthesis of what he learned under both Ueshiba and Tohei, which he  dubbed Suenaka-Ha Tetsugaku-Ho Aikido (Suenaka style, philosophical way). The use of the more modest ha to denote a branch of a style, rather than ryu to denote an exclusive style or system, was a deliberate choice. Aikido was not Suenaka’s system, but Ueshiba’s, yet the style was a conscious melding of Ueshiba’s and Tohei’s teachings, an offshoot, so to speak, of both. Similarly, using the word Tetsugaku reflects Suenaka’s belief in Tohei’s ki training methods, excepting the body exercises, in concert with Ueshiba’s philosophy of takemusu aiki, just as the name of Suenaka’s organization, the AIKDPS, reflects Tohei’s Ki Society influence.

The Importance of Ki

Sensei Suenaka states that ki in terms of Aikido refers to the latent energy within a person. For instance, if someone is excited, or if someone is afraid of something, his body automatically produces adrenaline to make him stronger, to make him faster. That’s what ki is all about in Aikido—the ability to call upon this energy, to utilize it and control it without having to be excited or scared and, in so doing, to perform a technique with the proper amount of strength necessary for that technique to work against a certain size person or in a certain situation. Of course, at the same time you have to use proper technique and use the attacker’s force also. This is not to say that ki is adrenaline, but it is like adrenaline. For Aikido purposes, you can define ki as spiritual adrenaline. It is a very real energy, energy of purpose and of intent, of focus, of uniting body,  mind and spirit together in one moment, to allow ki to flow through you and through your technique.

“In our techniques we enter completely into, blend totally with, and control firmly an attack,” Ueshiba wrote. “Strength resides where one’s ki is concentrated and stable; confusion and maliciousness arise when ki stagnates.”

Therefore, without a conscious application of ki and ki principles, aikido becomes simply the  physical manipulation of joints and limbs, a battle of strength against strength, or speed against speed, a purely physical contest, contrary to Ueshiba’s philosophy.

Sensei Suenaka states, “I have met some people who have studied purely physical Aikido for a number of years, who say, ‘Aikido does not need ki to work.’ These same people have no real power in their technique. They have no knowledge of the true mechanics of Aikido, the subtlety. They move physically, and that’s it. They use all muscle. If they’re extremely strong, they might get it to work, but not likely. Even a weaker person will be able to resist against a stronger person who does not use ki in his technique, and of course, a stronger person won’t be affected at all, and no matter how strong you are, there is always someone out there who is stronger. So strength alone is insufficient. But, if you know the mechanics of proper technique, and proper flow of ki, you can throw someone very easily, no matter how strong they are. Even if you have good technique, but no ki, it isn’t aikido, and it won’t be as effective.”

Accepting this, how then does one reconcile effective physical technique with the “softer” aspects of ki?

It’s true that Aikido is an art that should enable one to put down an attacker for good if necessary. But that’s not the aim of aikido. One has to resolve the situation, but in a way that does the least harm to the attacker. That’s part of what Ueshiba meant by “the loving protection of all things.” It doesn’t mean one doesn’t hurt his attacker at all, because aikido is a method of self-defense, and self-defense often involves the pain of twisting and colliding limbs and bodies. It means that one does only what is necessary to gain control of a situation, causing as little harm to his attacker as possible in the process. Some people go to the opposite extreme and say Aikido should be about love and is not meant to hurt anyone. But if one practices a philosophy such as that and is attacked, he has no means to protect himself. “The loving protection of all things” includes the protection of self and loved ones, and an ineffective method of self-defense will only serve to harm  further those in need of protection. Thus, in aikido there must be a conscious development not only of physical technique, but of ki. This martial and spiritual development cannot occur separately for aikido practitioners, for “the heart of martial valor is true bravery, wisdom, love, and friendship.

“Ueshiba wrote, “Emphasis on the physical aspects of warriorship is futile, for the power of the body is always limited.”

Difficulty in reconciling martial intent and spiritual love on the mat and in daily life should not be viewed as a flaw in aikido itself, an “either-or” situation, but as a sure sign that the aikido practitioner is progressing on his or her journey towards Takemusu Aiki, or ultimate martial creativity, the union with spirit through the coordination of mind and body.