It’s pretty common for people to select a place to practice Aikido, or any martial art for that matter, without much perspective on what to look for in a training environment. Sometimes this works out just fine. They stumble onto something that meets their needs and go with it. Sometimes though, people don’t find what they’re looking for and decide that martial arts, or Aikido in particular, isn’t for them. This guide is to help you understand some of the variations you might find among Aikido dojos (schools) and think through what to look for to find a good fit for yourself.
The list of topics below is split into three categories: (1) things everyone should consider in choosing a dojo, (2) things you may want to consider depending on your own preferences, and (3) things you may be tempted to consider but are not actually very useful for assessing your options.
1) Things everyone should consider in selecting a dojo
Fortunately, the things at the top of the list to look for are also the most intuitive.
How you feel practicing - When you visit a dojo, try out a practice. If you’re feeling timid, watch a practice first and then try one out once you’re more comfortable. How do you feel while you’re training? Safe? Challenged? Intrigued? Excited? Encouraged? Included? Not every dojo is the right fit for every would-be practitioner. If you’re in the right place, training will feel positive.
Practical considerations: Location, schedule, costs - No matter how much you love practice, if you can’t make the schedule or afford the costs, it’s unlikely to work out for you. As a side note, if cost is a concern for you, make sure you understand everything you might be paying for (initiation fee, dues, annual memberships, uniforms, rank promotion fees, training weapons, etc,) Also ask if there are scholarships or other ways to help offset costs.
2) Things you might or might not choose to consider in selecting a dojo
Martial emphasis - If you’re looking into martial arts because you’re interested in fighting, such as in a competition or to settle your disputes, Aikido in general may not be the right fit for you. That’s just generally not what we do. If you’re interested in self defense, literally having to protect yourself physically from an assault, Aikido can offer the same promise as every other martial art. There are no guarantees of success, but you’ll be better equipped to handle the situation than if you had not trained in something. That said, there is a wide range within Aikido schools as to how much emphasis is put on self defense. Some make self defense nearly the entire goal of practice while in other schools' practice is barely recognizable as even related to self defense. Most live somewhere in the middle. All approaches have something interesting to offer, and you should be aware of how each school approaches this if you feel self defense is an important outcome for your training. In our dojo, we recognize the martial aspects of training as essential for growing toward something greater. Practicing toward meaningful self defense for us is not the entirety of the goal, but is an indispensable north star.
Role of rank and rank promotion exams - Most martial art schools, Aikido included, use rank promotions as a way to recognize progress in training. How rank promotions are used and what they signify can vary considerably though. Some schools have a curriculum built around rank promotions where at each rank you're learning a different set of skills. These dojos are more likely to have frequent rank promotions recognizing smaller increments of progress. In some cases, fees associated with frequent rank exams are a significant part of the dojo's operating income. Other dojos are less rank-centric in their training focus. In these cases, rank is more likely to reflect a depth of development in training versus new skills more superficially acquired. It also means that rank promotion exams will likely be spaced further apart in time. That's not at all to imply people are learning more slowly, only that each rank represents a larger step in progress. Neither of these approaches to rank exams is inherently better, but each will have a different influence on your experience of training. It is also worth noting that different dojos also have different kinds of formalities and traditions in how higher and lower ranked practitioners interact with each other. In our dojo, rank promotions tend to be infrequent and are more focused on recognizing the quality, not the breadth, of development. We have minimal formalities governing the interactions between practitioners of different ranks.
Level of fitness - If one of the reasons you want to take up Aikido is to get some healthy exercise, find out if practices are active enough to give you an opportunity to do that. Conversely, if you’re not in great physical shape, find out if you can still participate at your own pace. In our practices we craft our training to help ensure everyone can practice with the physicality that suits them individually. Note that much of the exercise you might get from Aikido practice comes from playing the role of the attacker (Uke) and taking falls. To do this at speed takes some skill development. So your level of activity in your early practices might be lower than it will become once you’re safe and comfortable falling.
Level of mystery and mysticism - Some martial arts, including many Aikido schools, include a lot of what we’ll call “mystery and mysticism”. That is, their explanations for how they do what they do require a belief in something that’s seemingly magical. Some people are comfortable accepting these explanations, while others find it off-putting. It is worth observing for yourself if you feel like the instructor is genuinely trying to help you understand, or is deliberately obscuring something in order to fascinate you. Practicing with us will require you to believe in nothing more than physics, physiology and your own experience. At the same time, we have no need to preclude you from believing whatever you believe. We may, for example, ask you to visualize energy (Ki) flowing outward from your body. It’s up to you to decide if there really is energy flowing from you, or if this is just a useful visualization. That said, you will see, hear and feel things in practice that may seem inexplicable initially, but we’ll always do our best to help you understand and experience what’s happening.
Size of practices - Typical Aikido practices can range from just a couple people to 20 or more. Smaller practices will tend to be a bit more individualized, emphasizing an aspect of practice that’s particularly appropriate or relevant to the people present. Larger practices can let you see and experience more variation of skill levels and body types. Smaller practices can encourage a closer-knit community, while larger practices give you an opportunity to meet more people. You might or might not end up having a preference for either larger or smaller practices as both can have a lot to offer. If it’s important to you, find a dojo with practice sizes that fit your liking. Our group's practice size fluctuates, but we value more individualized training and practices of 4 to 8 people are common.
3) Things that you can probably pay less attention to than you might think
Instructor experience - It’s a natural and reasonable desire to want to train with the best instructor that you can find. The issue is that there’s not really a meaningful, objective way to compare them. Ranks held are not remotely uniform across Aikido. It’s very possible that a 2nd degree black belt in one dojo could have more skill and experience than a 4th degree from a different background. Years of experience might get you a little closer, but someone who trained 4 days per week for 10 years is likely going to have more to offer than someone who trained 2 days per week for 15 years. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t expect some reasonable credentials. There’s no overall governance. So anyone could call themselves an Aikido sensei. One good question is to find out who gave the instructor their rank. Does it seem like there’s a credible lineage of training that you can follow? Does the instructor have more senior instructors or peers that they continue to learn from or are they off on their own? Once you’ve established their reasonable credibility though, rather than trying to sort out which instructor is better in general, decide which is the better fit for you personally. How you relate to the sensei and what they’re teaching will be much more important to your own success.
“Production Values” - Some dojos present with a lot of polish, maybe having glossy flyers, a big bright practice space with lots of Japanese-looking things decorating it, professional videos on their website, etc. Others will use shared spaces like at a YMCA or university recreation center and have only bare-bones promotional information. Don’t be lured by the polish alone. Either kind of dojo (and everything in between) could offer exceptional quality practice and be a great fit for you, and either could be a poor choice for you as well. As attractive as the high production values of a dojo might be, they tell you much more about how the dojo approaches their marketing than how they approach their training.
Dojo Affiliation - The world of Aikido schools is subdivided into styles of Aikido and organizational affiliations. When visiting a dojo, it may be interesting to find out about their style and/or affiliation, but ultimately these are not reliable indicators of the quality of the experience you’ll have. Individual schools vary considerably even within styles and affiliations. Our dojo practices a style of Aikido called Kokikai and is a member of the Aikido Kokikai Federation.