Is the practice of Suwari Waza obsolete?

Kneeling techniques in Aikido have been criticized to the point that many adepts and teachers have chosen to skip them altogether, while others still see them as an absolute necessity. In any case, understanding the coherence of the system studied, and the raison d'être of each part composing it, is a necessity to avoid eliminating useful parts, or losing the sense of the remaining elements.

The myths associated with Suwari Waza

For the gatekeepers of the tradition, as well as their opponents, Suwari Waza is regularly perceived as a vestige from the past, a traditional element coming from a culture in which sitting on one's knees was usual. Traditionalists therefore obviously want to keep this work, while practitioners in favor of a practice that evolves with its time will tend to give it less credit in an era when chairs are predominant. I personally don't consider myself a traditionalist, and I find it hard to accept that we can do things for a simple question of tradition. On the other hand, I believe it is essential to take a deeper look and assess if the elements we perceive as simple vestiges of a past tradition were not originally established for much deeper reasons and, in this case, if Suwari Waza does not enable the development of useful qualities in the practice of Aikido.

Among the many explanations for using Suwari Waza, strengthening the legs and hips comes out most often. Again, this explanation is relatively limited: how does kneeling practice help strengthen the legs and the hips? Are there not more effective methods that would put less stress on the knees? The simple fact that many Aikidoka end up having knee problems after several years of practice has always made me ponder.

A third explanation we hear frequently is that kneeling techniques are a preparation for Ne Waza. A dangerous argument I must say. I don't know many Aikidoka who would do honorably on the ground in front of a BJJ practitioner, even at an intermediate level.

Ueshiba Morihei

Is Suwari Waza easier for Japanese people?

It is often said that the difficulty in sitting in Seiza and practicing Suwari Waza is mainly due to body differences between Japanese and non-Japanese people. However, it is important to note that even among Japanese people, opinions diverge. Gaku Homma, who was one of Osensei's last Uchi-Deshi and teaches in the United States, typically no longer teaches Suwari Waza to his students, considering that this practice brings more harm than benefits. In an article written about ten years ago, he was particularly critical:

"As a martial artist who still practices actively, I would like to speak in this article to the issue of “knees.” Especially for Aikidoka, knees have been a part of the body that have suffered maybe the most damage and are a cause of problems for many. During my travels to countries around the world, I constantly meet people who can no longer sit in seiza, or who wear braces and supporters because of knee injuries suffered while practicing Aikido. I have met students whose knees are so damaged they can’t really bend them any longer, much less sit in seiza. "

"Knee problems are not the sole property of students outside of Japan. There have been famous high-ranking Japanese Aikido Instructors both living in Japan and abroad who have suffered knee injuries during their Aikido careers. It is one thing to develop knee problems due to aging, but there are many Aikido instructors who have developed knee problems through the over-practice of suwari waza… and they had the advantage of a cultural heritage that prepared them for the practice. "

The physiology argument is clearly questioned here, but it should be noted however that Gaku Homma more particularly criticizes excessive kneeling practice. To this, I would like to add two elements. 
  • The type of movement performed in Suwari Waza: if kneeling practice is present in many Koryu, it is only in Aikido that we find large circular movements from this position. Most often in the old Jujutsu traditions, the movements on the ground remain relatively short
  • The thickness and softness of the mats: Koryu practitioners were often not practicing on tatami mats, and when they did they used tatami mats that were much harder than the ones we use today. If these modern tatami mats protect our bodies from hard falls, they also have the effect of allowing the knee joint to sink in. The large circular movements applied in these conditions can, therefore, have unfortunate consequences if the knee gets stuck during the rotation. Even more so if the bodyweight is falling into the knees, which is a common error.
Gaku Homma adds that in the 60s and 70s, Japanese teachers who went abroad to teach received special instructions:

“Remember that many of the new students you will be encountering will be bigger in stature than you. Suwariwaza techniques will be difficult for them, so practicing suwari waza will put you at an advantage despite your size difference. To gain control over your students, practice suwari waza. And during examinations, if there is some individual testing that you are not fond of, have them test last, and make them wait in seiza until it is their turn.” 

Simplifying learning for beginners

However, despite all these criticisms, if kneeling techniques are present in Aikido as well as in a number of old traditions, it is obvious that they must have a real purpose. Among the potential objectives of such techniques, I believe simplifying learning for beginners to be the most obvious.

Aikido techniques require a good level of body awareness. The upper and lower bodies must be able to work properly together, while Tori needs to harmonize with the attack of his partner and perform a movement that matches a large number of technical criteria. Without excellent basic coordination, it is nearly impossible, and clearly frustrating for a beginner.

Simplifying the learning process

If I personally abhorred Suwari Waza for a long time for the pain it caused me, I found a real pedagogical interest in it, especially with my students who are less comfortable with their bodies. For Tori, working on your knees allows you not to have to worry about connecting the upper and lower bodies, the legs now having a limited role and the hips getting naturally in the right place. In doing so, it becomes easier to focus only on the upper body and hand movements. In the same way, the possible reactions of the partner are being limited, making the technique even more simplified. In parallel, it is also a useful simplification for a beginner taking the role of Uke and who finds himself having to fall from a much lower and, therefore, less frightening position. 

Improving mobility 

A few years ago at a seminar, Akuzawa sensei explained to us that at the Sagawa dojo it was common to practice Age Te (Suwari Waza Kokyu Ho) for three consecutive hours. Although he did not seem particularly enthusiastic about it, he noted however that beginners felt severe pain, especially in the ankles and knees, and had trouble keeping the position longer than a few minutes. He noted, however, that more advanced practitioners had developed great mobility in their joints and in particular in the hips. It is important to note that this was not a "Shikko" type mobility with large circular movements which tend to damage the knees more than anything else.

Standing up without pushing into the ground

In Aunkai, many exercises are practiced from a kneeling position, although they are mostly practiced in seminars as the Hombu dojo has no mats. Age Te, of course, but also exercises where the two partners start with one knee on the ground and that allows them to work more specifically on this search for mobility and on transitioning to Ne Waza. Some Tanren (solo exercises) of the method, Shiko and Tenchijin in particular, can also be performed from a kneeling position for the same reason. 

According to Sagawa sensei, mobility and power of the hips is a prerequisite for the acquisition of Aiki:
“A person with underdeveloped hips and legs will tend to rely on the strength of their shoulders. A person who moves with flexibility has the potential to become good. A rigid and tense person is already hopeless. "
Sagawa Yukiyoshi

By increasing our joint mobility, we increase the space available in our bodies. It allows us, on one hand, to move better and with less tension, and, on the other hand, to have more space to absorb the forces transmitted by our partner. One only needs to watch videos of the founder of Aikido to recognize the importance of a mobile body.

If there are much faster and more effective ways to strengthen the power of the hips or to approach Ne Waza, kneeling practice, in my opinion, remains one of the rare practices that can significantly increase mobility. However, to achieve this mobility, it is also necessary to have moved away from the technical form to get into a more playful approach, allowing to release tensions. This does not necessarily require a partner and it can be simple movements from a Seiza position: making a transition from Seiza to Zazen for example, or from a kneeling position to a standing position - or vice versa - without pushing into the ground with your legs.

 Take a playful approach to mobility

Aikido is a complete and coherent system, even if some parts can sometimes seem strange, obsolete or ineffective. The shortcomings we perceive are not, however, the shortcomings of Aikido itself, but rather those of our practice. If we don't find any sense in it, it may simply be that we have somehow missed it.

This article was originally published in French in Dragon Magazine Spécial Aikido in June 2019.


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