For me personally, the best analogy for how I’ve learned Aikido has been that Aikido is like learning a musical instrument.
When you start out learning an instrument, the piano for example, the very first thing you learn is how to sit at the piano; the correct posture, the way to hold your hands. In the same way, the very first thing you learn in Aikido is hanmi, the correct way to stand. From there everything else can happen.
Once you’ve learned how to sit at the piano, you start learning scales, which are the basic building blocks of everything you will play: learning how to move your fingers from key to key up and down the piano and learning the coordination between left and right hand. In Aikido, once we’ve learned hanmi we begin to learn ashi sabaki, or foot work. These are all of the basic building blocks of every technique and how we move through the techniques and across the mat. With tai sabaki (body movement) exercises we learn how to coordinate our hands and our feet and use both our right and left sides. Where the tai sabaki teaches us movement through the nage half of each technique, next we learn ukemi, which teaches us how to move through the other half of every technique.
Once we have those basic building blocks, we move onto learning actual techniques, or in the instrument analogy…pieces of music. One always starts out learning a new piece by going very slowly. In the beginning stages, you may even learn the left and right hand parts separately, to put them together later. As we learn these parts slowly, the movements transfer over from conscious mental processes into muscle memory. As that muscle memory builds, movements become more unconscious and as an extension, become smoother and faster: you now own the movements. From there, you can add dynamics, improvisation, etc. and the music has become an expression of yourself rather than just repeating something that someone else wrote on a page. One of my goals of Aikido is to get to that point is to make the techniques an expression of myself – to own the techniques…not just merely repeat what I’ve learned over the years (although being able to do that is very important too!). Of course, everyone must start learning the same techniques done in the same way – the basic building blocks – just as everyone in a musical sense learns from a standard repertoire. In the end though, it’s how you play the music, or perform the techniques, in your own personal way that gives them their color. Movement – power – speed – expression.