I have spent my entire life studying one martial art or another, and I can tell you that no one martial art is actually better than another. Everyone has ways of moving that compliment them. People's life experiences, their thoughts, their philosophies, all play a role in how they apply the martial arts. But let's examine the words, "martial art".
Martial: Inclined or disposed to war; warlike.
Well that's straight forward; fighting, competing, killing etc. Now comes the tricky part, and the part that everyone seems to forget the meaning of; Art.
Art: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Dancers are taught to perform in time with their fellow performers, so that they move as one unit. Painters and other visual artists learn to manipulate elements of perspective, composition, and the use of light or shadow. Classical musicians study rules of harmony and musical form; they learn how to achieve good intonation and move their bodies in ways which produce the desired sound.
Most martial arts are taught similarly; you learn the basics of movement, blocking, attacking, strategy, etc. The result of combining those basic skills creates art and each practitioner of any martial art moves in a unique way and thus creates "Art".
Aikido takes a slightly different approach however. We have different basic concepts that, if stuck to, it almost doesn't matter what technique you do because all will create the "Art" we seek. Those Principles of Aikido are as follows:
Aikido makes extensive use of the concept of Ki. Aikido is one of the more spiritual martial arts and has been referred to as 'moving Zen'. The name Aikido can be translated as 'the way of harmony of Ki. Exactly what Ki. 'is' is a somewhat controversial issue.
Some believe that the physical entity Ki. simply does not exist. Instead, the spirit, the intention, the bio-physical - psychological coordination through relaxation and awareness are concepts being used in the teaching. These Aikidoka sometimes tend to frown upon the philosophical/spiritual aspect of Ki.
Other Aikido practitioners believe that Ki does exist as a physical entity and can be transmitted through space. They, on the other hand, make use of concepts such as Ki of the universe, extending Ki etc. The fact of the matter is that there is a large portion of Aikidoka who are still, and no doubt will continue to be, on their 'quest for Ki'.
Personally, I find that I can feel the "intent" or "energy" of an attacker when they are attacking. If this is their Ki, I am well acquainted with it. Without their intent to transfer their power into me, they can not hurt me. By developing my own physical strength, knowledge, power and how to use it, I feel I develop my own Ki.
Entering or "irimi" is one of the basic techniques of Aikido and is closely related to "blending" with an attacker. At a basic level, irimi is a movement which looks like a sliding step toward or into an opponent's attack. Aikido thinks of most movement as being circular or spiraling in nature; irimi brings a person "into" the circle of movement, so that the energy of the attack can be directed along the circular plane - much like catching a Frisbee on your finger, letting the circular energy 'spin' around the finger and then sending it on its way in the same, or an alternate direction, with a minimum of effort.
The concept of entering emphasizes the importance of placing oneself inside the "danger radius" of a partner's attack. Imagine a boxer's punch. The punch has gathered most of its power and effectiveness at or near the full extent of the boxer's arm. Beyond the reach of the arm there is little danger or threat. Similarly, inside the full extent of the arm the moving fist has developed very little energy, and again poses little or no threat. Several things may be substituted for the boxer's punch: any strike with a hand, knife, sword or staff, for example. By placing ourselves inside the "danger radius" of an attack and controlling the center of our attackers balance we can control the attacker themselves.
One's center is just that - the physical "middle" of the body. Located in the abdomen ("hara"), it serves as the source or focus of Ki energy and as one's natural balance point when executing any movement. Try lifting something directly in front of you, then try lifting the same object when it's off to one side - it's much easier when it's "centered". This is because we are largely symmetrical beings; two arms, two legs and a large center mass. Without centering our objective target we can not focus our enter strength upon it. Equally when you unbalance an opponent by taking control of their center you take away their power.
Atemi, literally, means to strike the body. A simple explanation of atemi is that they are strikes. The majority of martial arts focus on striking, transferring your strength, speed and mass behind strikes to cause damage to their opponent. Aikido however uses atemi differently. One purpose of Aikido's atemi is to distract your partner, so that they focus on your hand, or their pain, rather than their grasp. This can make it easier to move. In this context, you could regard atemi as a "Ki. disturbance".
Atemi, in some interpretations, need not be an actual strike at all, since what matters is the effect on your opponent. The upsetting of their physical and psychological balance, facilitating the application of technique. Still others claim that atemi involves "projecting Ki." toward your opponent, where this involves something above and beyond merely provoking a sort of startle reflex or response to the physical strike. The use of atemi in Aikido as a means of unbalancing an attacker versus causing them physical harm differentiates Aikido from striking arts.
Just as it is important to "remain centered", it is important to "extend" in Aikido. Many techniques are facilitated by "extending Ki." or "extending energy" during their execution. Physically and psychologically, this helps counter the tendency of many people to contract and keep their arms and legs close to their bodies. Because Aikido is generally practiced with large, sweeping circular movements, extending past our opponents center of balance is critical. Extending ourselves physically into our opponents center while maintaining our own allows a martial arts practitioner to harness the maximum amount of effect with the least amount of effort. Our own bodies support this philosophy with its Flexor and Extensor musculature.
Flexors work to bend a joint. You may recognize a common exercise term in the word "flex." When you flex your muscles, your flexors contract and pull on the bone, creating a bending movement of the joint. Try imagining a bicep curl. As you pull your fist upward to your shoulder, the angle between your forearm and bicep decreases as the flexor muscle tightens and contracts.
Extensors serve the opposite purpose - extending and straightening joints. In a bicep curl, the extensor muscles contract as the fist is let down from the shoulder. The same occurs with walking or running, as hip extensors contract and pull the thigh back to the anatomical position.
Within our bodies extensor muscles tend to be the strongest since they hold our bodies in what we consider a "neutral" position, the arm is 2/3 triceps and 1/3 bicep for example. Using this fact most martial arts "extend" punches and kicks with great force. Aikido however extends our bodies into our opponents center and balance creating equally explosive outcomes. This combined with centrifugal force, Aikido techniques create vast amounts of power with very little effort. After all what is centrifugal force? An outward force apparent in a rotating reference frame, or nature's own version of extension.
Ukemi may be described as the art of receiving a technique. The practice of ukemi involves rolls and other falls. Here are a few reasons why we practice ukemi in Aikido, and why it is such an important part of our Aikido training:
1. To stay safe. That is, not only to avoid injury in that confrontation, but to be aware of what is going on throughout the whole confrontation and therefore be able to find and respond to openings and, perhaps, to escape.
2. To experience the throw. Part of the learning process must be to understand what the "other" side of the encounter is feeling. What does it feel like to be tied up in a particular technique? Also, to observe the other person's technique, particularly if the person putting you into said position is a senior student or teacher. Being able to take ukemi means allowing the detachment necessary to "observe" and learn.
To learn to listen with your body. To throw well requires sensitivity to your partner. Often we are so caught up in the active role of responding to an attack that we forget to be receptive to our partner and move in a way that harmonizes with the person attacking. By being the attacker and flowing with the resultant technique we get a chance to emphasize the receptive aspects of body movement and in doing so learn how such movements become effective.
3. To assist your partner to learn. Being a good uke means maintaining the connection with the person you are attacking, and allowing that person to experience that connection and to really experience the technique. Being a good uke allows them to perform the technique without worrying about you being injured.
4. To condition the body. Taking good ukemi requires a lot of work; much emphasis is placed on staying connected, staying flexible and staying aware. All martial arts, Aikido included, should stress situational awareness.
Saotome Sensei says in his book "The Principles of Aikido":
"Good ukemi training will allow you to see the future truly because your vision will be based on observation and intuition, rather than an arbitrary decision made in advance of the evidence. Good ukemi represents the same wisdom as that of the fisherman who through long experience can sense what the coming weather will be."