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What Is An Aikido Test Testing?

Updated: Jul 6

Image: Lining up to prepare for our last tests October 23, 2023

With our tests one week away, and with rich memories of Birankai summer camp in the rear view mirror, I want to ponder the problem of aikido tests. Aikido, by design, is not about winning or losing anything. Rather, we move through repeated, simulated conflicts earnestly, with full commitment, because each encounter in training is a powerful and complex tool for self development. Self development is an inherently subjective thing to measure. Each person is going into testing with a different set of strengths and challenges. But a test is about doing a number of techniques correctly. Birankai has a more developed curriculum than other aikido associations I have tested under, and this interests me. What is the curriculum for? I’ve been thinking about the way it’s an elegant and necessary accountability device. Ideally, an aikido test is holding everybody in the dojo community accountable in multiple ways. 

First, aikido tests are a great way to reflect on the student-teacher relationship. Aikido depends on a strong student-teacher relationship precisely because we aren’t here to objectively win at anything–we’re here to do something far scarier and more open ended. The dojo becomes a safe place to work on oneself in large part because the teacher is creating a setting that the students can trust, and give themselves over to fully. High-quality tests are a good indication that this relationship is productive. With this in mind, one of the things I will be looking at is the group as a whole, to get some feedback about how I am doing my job. Am I communicating that this is an important opportunity to deepen practice? What is everybody getting right? Are all the students learning the curriculum, or are students who have experience elsewhere still doing their old style? What are the things that everybody is doing wrong because I do them wrong? The curriculum provides a useful yardstick to make these assessments because it’s as external to me, the teacher, as it is to everybody else. I didn’t make it up, I just agreed to use it, as it was taught to me. 

Second, aikido tests are a great way to measure the technical proficiency of each student, and technical proficiency is slippery. Everybody’s body is different, and some people come to aikido with profound obstacles to training. Technical proficiency should always be considered first in terms of a student’s progress over time. Viewed this way, technical proficiency is a pretty great proxy for seeing self development, because giving oneself over to something as arbitrary and nuanced as the one correct variation on an aikido technique challenges the ego and habits. A good test requires the tester to get over themselves repeatedly, engage in sustained self-observation, and then commit, repeatedly, to not just seeing the mistake, but choosing over and over again to do it differently until a new groove is worn. We are here to master ourselves, and that starts with mastery of our physical bodies as we learn these forms. Testers who internalize details like consistently keeping their feet together in shikko, or correct openings for gyakku and ai hamni techniques, are showing themselves and everybody else in our community that they can apply themselves to what is truly at stake here–our capacity to recognize and move beyond our habits. Being able to do this with something external, like an aikido technique, is how we open the path to all the other kinds of self mastery that are possible. 

This idea that technical mastery is about progress and commitment is a great window into the personal journey that each student is on, and this lens can certainly accommodate obstacles to training and still be meaningful. Often, the most exciting part of watching a test is seeing how earnestly the student has applied themselves, and how much they have improved, which is not the same as how great they did. That’s why a young, athletic, unencumbered, totally healthy person who has previous martial arts experience and can train five days a week is absolutely going to give a “better” test than a forty-five year old with a job, spinal stenosis, and three kids… but not necessarily in a meaningful way. Some of the most boring, empty tests I have ever watched have been done by testers who are just naturally good at doing aikido, so they don’t really struggle or improve or get over themselves. These tests, in which the tester is simply doing it right, without laying anything on the line or really learning anything about themselves, are an important anchor in my own thinking about tests. When judging tests, it is far more important to me to see the way in which aikido is helping the student on their journey of self-mastery than it is to see a checklist of correct moves. 

To a point. 

To a point! This relativity inherent to testing, and the way it is really about the individual’s journey, has limits. We are also being asked to be accountable to the art of aikido itself. Every person who learns aikido, at every level, is taking on the responsibility of being a lineage holder–a practitioner who holds and transmits the art to others. That is why someone can truly do their best, and improve a lot, and still fail a test. If the aikido done for a test is not expressing the curriculum faithfully, within the individual’s capacity of course, that student cannot pass. We all have a responsibility to do not just good aikido, but to do the same aikido–the aikido on the curriculum. There is a lot of emphasis in the United States on developing one’s own style as an aikidoka. We don’t do that here, because aikido is not self expression. It is about opening to something beautiful that is far larger than yourself, and sharing it with a community, and holding this art in common–making a corporate body or intentional community through it. You simply can’t do that if you’re invested in doing your own thing. In an interview shortly before his death, Chiba Sensei rightly pointed out that aikido is a fragile, sensitive art. It has no way to preserve or protect itself, and needs us to protect it. There are a lot of ways to do that. A straightforward way to start is to subject yourself to the rigor and accountability of testing and do the best, most sincere, most open aikido you can. Do what you’ve been taught. Do aikido that looks like what everybody else in this dojo is doing, so that we can hold and expand the art together. 

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