A Case for Taiso
A paper by Shihan Scott Kelley
Most every martial art that I have had the pleasure of practicing or at least observing
includes an aspect of training which involves sequences of movements designed to
practice just that; movement. In my karate study, one such exercise is called a
kata. Kata, in Japanese karate is a series of movements that mimic actual techniques
and build a scenario around an imaginary confrontation which is always (conveniently)
won by the performer of the kata. There are many papers and writings on the benefits
of kata, so it wouldn't be appropriate in this paper to go over all that. Instead,
this paper is about a similar concept that we find in our Aikido practice, Ki No
Ki No Taiso, or just taiso, is a collection of exercises that we perform at the
beginning of every class. According to AikidoJournal.Com, taiso is defined as “Aiki
exercises; refers to various movements and blending exercises practiced before training
in techniques; designed to teach the principle of aiki.” The taiso that most people
practice today originate with Koichi Tohei Sensei, one of O’Sensei’s senior students.
He was one of the first to see that O’Sensei was not only teaching techniques, but
that there were principles behind these techniques. Without a good understanding
of the principles, the techniques would never make much sense. To this end, he developed
many methods for teaching the four basic principles of ki, and one of the exercises
he used was taiso.
Not all aikido schools perform these exercises, and in my opinion, they are missing
out on a very important aspect of martial arts practice. The exercises that we perform
comprise many of the movements that we find in the majority of our techniques. By
practicing these movements ahead of time, we can teach the body the fundamentals
in a more controlled environment. This way, when the stress of the attack comes,
the body already knows about proper footwork, balance, posture, and other physical
aspects basic to performing aikido techniques. Also, from a more esoteric point
of view, these exercises help to train our spiritual side so that we can harness
the power of ki and more effectively execute the techniques the way they were designed
to be executed.
When I first started Aikido, I hated the taiso. I admit it without shame. I hated
it so much that I contemplated coming to class late to avoid it. Unfortunately,
I have met several students who do seem to show up late to class, seemingly just
to avoid these exercises. To miss this part of class is to be incomplete as a practitioner
of Aikido. Over the years, I have learned to see their value. Do I like them? The
answer to that is no not really. I suppose I should clarify that. I don't dislike
them but they are not my favorite part of class. I do, however, understand that
they play a vital role in my aikido training and for that, I am happy to practice
taiso and learn what they have to teach me.
What is Taiso?
Taiso is a set of exercises performed by the student while standing alone or in
a line. These exercises are simple, repetitive movements that reinforce movements
that are taught in class. No one is grabbing or attacking at this point. It is just
you and your body, moving and feeling. For example, we go through a variety of wrist
stretches, which teach us what it feels like to have a wrist lock performed, at
the same time warming up our joints to receive these locks while minimizing risk
of injury. We have other movements that stress good posture while moving your hips,
legs and feet in the right way.
Our school has about 28 separate taiso that teach posture, stretching, concentration,
relaxation, movement, ki extension and other basic principles of aikido. Some of
the taiso are exactly like a corresponding technique, while others are simply movement
drills designed to help you learn to move from the hip. In all, they encompass many
of the principles we learn in class.
What are the benefits?
As a teacher, I have come to love the taiso as a teaching aide that make my job
easier. Let me give you an example. In our taiso, we do what I like to call the
Aiki-Two-Step. This movement is where you step forward with one foot, and then spin
to bring your now back foot around behind you, winding up facing the other way.
We do this with Ikkyo Undo, Kokyu Ho, Ude Furi and other techniques. When I start
to teach a technique that involves this foot work, I often notice people don’t understand
how I am moving the way I move. This is when I relate what we are doing in the technique
back to what they are doing in the taiso. At this point, I like to see the light
bulb go on. They now have a link between what they practice at the beginning of
class with what they are doing on the mat right then.
If we take all this to the next step, then what I hope to accomplish as a teacher
is to use the taiso to teach the basics. That way, when I am showing how to move
into Kote-gaeshi, I don’t have to focus so much on the footwork. I can show them
the specifics of a joint lock and how the hand positions relate to each other. I
also don’t have to worry about posture. If the taiso are done with appropriate posture,
then it is not as big of an issue during the practice of the techniques.
How should you practice Taiso:
When practicing taiso, it should be done with concentration and treated with as
much respect as a technique. Taiso is a vital part of your training. When going
through the motions, try focusing on the following things.
- Move your feet properly. This is a great chance to see what your feet are doing.
Remember, if your foot is 2 inches off the ground or 2 feet off the ground, it is
still off the ground. You are not stable when your feet are not touching the ground.
- Watch your posture. Pay attention to the way your body is positioned during the
practice. Make sure that you are not moving your head out from over your body and
your body out from over your hips. The farther your body parts are away from your
center, the harder it is to keep your balance.
- Pay attention to the people around you. While working on these skills, you should
use this time to practice being aware of the people around you. Awareness is probably
one of the most important skills in any martial art. You should never tunnel in
and tune out the rest of the class
- Watch your breathing. One of the things that does us in before class is over is
when we run out of steam. This is exacerbated by not breathing properly. During
the taiso, you don’t have anyone attached so relax, settle and breathe. The more
you practice proper breathing, the greater chance you will have of it happening
when you are not thinking about it.
- Do this outside of class. Most Aikido needs to be done with a partner. Taiso gives
you the opportunity to improve your Aikido movements without the need for a partner.
Use them to improve the basic principles and you will find that when you do the
techniques in class, you will have a better understanding of them and consequently,
have more fun in class.
- Focus on the four basic principles. This is an opportune time to focus on practicing
the four basic principles as outlined by Koiechi Tohei Sensei: Focus on the one
point, Relax completely, Keep weight underside, and Extend Ki.
One saying that I have grown to embrace over the years, I learned from Shihan David
Isgett. He told me “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Practice makes permanent.” If we engage in less than perfect practice, then that
is what we will become. So the lesson here is to practice as close to perfection
as we can get, so that what becomes permanent is what we desire to become permanent.
What do others think of Taiso:
While putting together this paper, I have reviewed many posts online concerning
Taiso and found that there are varying opinions of whether or not this type of practice
is beneficial or worthy of our time. Understand that these exercises were developed
by one of O’sensei’s senior students in an effort to better understand and teach
the basic principles of aikido. Learn them well and your time in class will be much
Taiso also has other benefits in class. Some of them provide certain stretches that
help the student warm up. Other benefits include a good cardio vascular warm up.
I have even found some of the gentler movements, while holding your infant child,
can sooth them back to sleep at two-thirty in the morning. Learn to enjoy taiso
and your efforts will be rewarded.