Friday, November 28, 2008

How to teach aikido to older adults

A while back I wrote a short article about why aikido is a great martial art for older adults. As short as the article was, it elicited some controversy when I suggested that striking arts or grappling arts might (IMO) be of limited use for older adults. One commentator asked if I thought 80 year olds would be able to sustain the falling frequently associated with aikido. My response was,

No, most everyone with any sense slows way down on the ukemi [falling practice]after about 40 or 45 and stops almost entirely sometime soon after that. This is simple self-protection. Fortunately, you don't have to fall down to do aikido...

I have run a decent-sized cohort of beginners [in their 80's] and they did great...
These octogenerians did aikido just like everyone else and worked on the same stuff.

The only other training tool common in aikido that I'd dispense with for 80 year olds is suwari [practicing techniques while kneeling] - but that is an after-black-belt thing anyway. sort of a neat little bit of historical preservation, and not really a core training method of aikido. I have seen people with bad knees perform suwari seated in chairs. Works great. So, in summary, yes, 80 year olds can do all the same aikido that the youngsters do - except ukemi and kneeling suwariwaza.

So, what aspects of aikido do I emphasize and de-emphasize for elders?
  • No suwariwaza (kneeling techniques), or perhaps suwari from chair
  • Minimal, easy ukemi (falling), maybe only w/ crashpad
  • Emphasis on lower extremity strength/flexibility and balance. Footwork exercises can be done very slowly, leading to great increases in balance and mobility. Basically this is aikido done in a slow, deliberate way in order to get some of the proven benefits of taichi. Note that I'm not saying that slow aiki=taichi. It is not, but slow aiki does have some of the same physical health benefits as slow taichi practice.
  • Wrist releases and chains of techniques based on wrist releases
  • Evasion and brush-off
  • Toshu randori (slow sparring) again, I am hesitant to draw connections between aikido and taichi, but this slow-motion partner exercise has many similarities to some of the push-hands practice I've seen tai chi guys doing.

Working in this way on this large subset of aikido is easily within many elders' ability and it produces great martial artists, in many ways equal or superior to their younger counterparts.


  1. I studied aikido a LOT when I was a young man. One of the reasons I am studying Taijiquan now though, is that at 51, I simply didn't think I could move the way I remembered that I could. I thought it was best if I looked back fondly on those days, with my memories intact.

  2. You're right, Rick. I didn't say older people could do younger-people's aikido. I said that they could do the same stuff and be just as effective and learn and benefit from it just the same.

    Shoot, I'm old enough that I look fondly back upon how I used to move, and my left knee is sore a lot of the time - but my aiki is getting better and better!

    Older adults that want to play aikido need to find an instructor that understands that 'aiki' doesn't mean 'move like an 18 year old' but it means 'work within your nature and the nature of the universe.'

  3. Back when I trained in aikido, in my early 20's, there was an "old guy" whom I used to admire. He BEGAM his aikido training in his 50's.

    He had never done anything athletic before in his life. He showed up every class, happy to work on whatever it was we were doing that day. He also worked a lot on his own.

    I came to rezlize recently that I'm about the age now that he was then. I still admire him. I go to class as often as I can, happy to work on whatever it is they're doing that day, and work hard on my own.

  4. What a great attitude to have about practice, Rick. Might you be interested in moving to Southwest Mississippi and practicing aikido and judo and tai chi with me at Mokuren Dojo? ;-)


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