You can learn about Aikido from books, but learning to do Aikido requires a teacher and training partners. These books do not give instructions on doing techniques. Instead, they discuss philosophy and history, the people who have influenced the development of Aikido, stories from people’s lives, and ways of looking at the art and training from a variety of perspectives.
Note – For convenience, I am including links to the Amazon page for the print version of each book. Some may also be available for Kindle, or as audiobooks. These are not affiliate links. I don’t get anything if you buy the books.
New to Aikido? Read These First:
The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons From An American Sensei – George Leonard
I recommend everyone read this first. The Way of Aikido gives a vulnerable, human, and deeply personal introduction to what Aikido can mean in your life. It may change your thinking about martial arts practice.
It’s one of the first Aikido books I read, even before I started looking for a dojo, and Leonard Sensei became an instant role model for me. I found it heartening to know that someone who started training at my same age (46 at the time), and struggled through being a beginner, as we all do, could go on to become a well-loved and respected 5th Dan with his own dojo. If you have any “I’m too old to really go anywhere with this, but I’ll just play along as best I can” thoughts haunting you, read this. Leonard Sensei wrote the famous essay “On Getting a Black Belt at Age Fifty-Two.” I made it my goal to follow in his footsteps in that regard, and indeed I did earn the rank of shodan (first degree black belt, or “beginning rank”) at age 52.
Read this book particularly if you train in a California Aikido Association (CAA) Division 3 dojo, under Robert Nadeau Shihan. In this book the late George Leonard Sensei tells of his early training experiences as a student of Nadeau. The book is full of insights about the joys and difficulties of training, particularly training with Nadeau. Having read it is one of the reasons I chose the dojo I did – because Nadeau is my teacher’s teacher and I value that influence in my training.
George Leonard, also authored the classics Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, and The Ultimate Athlete, among others. I strongly recommend both of those books as well, to anyone, not just students of Aikido. Mastery is a must-read for anyone looking to move beyond instant gratification and quick fixes in any pursuit. The Ultimate Athlete is probably responsible for first nudging me in my current direction of becoming a personal trainer and fitness coach.
Horsemanship Through Life – Mark Rashid
It was the talented horseman and writer Mark Rashid who suggested, when I participated in one of his horsemanship clinics, that I look into training in Aikido. For that I am eternally grateful. I had been a fan of his other books already, had worked with him before, and I trusted his advice.
In Horsemanship Through Life, Mark Rashid tells about his life as a well-known clinician, traveling the globe helping horses and their people, and then beginning to run into difficulties. He comes to learn of Aikido through one of his students, and it sets him on a transformational journey from world-famous expert living in his comfort zone to complete beginner in something entirely unfamiliar, with all the awkwardness and frustration that entails. He discusses the lessons he learned about being a teacher, about being a student, and about bringing the practice of our art – whether horsemanship or Aikdio – into our daily lives.
Whether you are a horse person or not, Mark’s writing is engaging and entertaining, with a certain direct cowboy wit and down-to-earth honesty. What you will get from this book, in addition to enjoying some just plain great stories, is a good sense of perspective about training in martial arts, particularly Aikido. After reading it, when you encounter the challenges common to beginners, you might find yourself saying “Oh, right… I heard this might happen.” It’s good to know some things are to be expected, and you shouldn’t let them discourage you.
If you enjoy this book, I urge you to read his other books as well. For anyone with even a casual interest in horses they are great reading, full of moving stories and important lessons.
This book was my introduction to meditation and embodiment. I was one of those people who, as is common in our culture, thought of my body as a thing whose job it was to haul my brain from place to place. It needed fuel and maintenance, like a machine. Aside from trying to keep it in good running order and ignoring occasional pains I didn’t give my body much thought. I certainly didn’t listen to it, or even consider that it might have something to say. I had no idea what meditation was for, and didn’t see the value in practicing it. I didn’t get it about experiencing or expressing things through the body. This book changed all that, creating openings for my sensei’s teachings to get through. I’m very glad I read it right at the beginning of my Aikido training.
Wendy Palmer is also a horsewoman, and was a student of Nadeau along with George Leonard – another link back to that lineage.
In Search of the Warrior Spirit, Fourth Edition: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Military – Richard Strozzi-Heckler
I found this book especially interesting because it takes a hard, real-world look at the applications of Aikido, somatic or embodiment training, and meditation practice. Solid work, with sometimes reluctant students, in a hard-core, all-business environment where results count. There’s nothing “airy-fairy” about it. The work done in this early experimental program continues to influence the development of US military personal today.
Richard Strozzi-Heckler is a prolific writer in the areas of Aikido, somatic theory (and its application), and leadership. All of his books are worth reading. He was also an early student of Nadeau Shihan, and a contemporary of George Leonard and Wendy Palmer Senseis.
Another of his books I recommend, especially if you are interested in work influenced by Nadeau, is Aikido and the New Warrior, which is a collection of about 15 short pieces by a variety of writers, several of whom trained (or continue to train) under Nadeau. Aikido and the New Warrior includes the essay mentioned above, On Getting a Black Belt at Age Fifty-Two, by George Leonard.
This is a great book for getting oriented as a new student! It includes the names of things, how some schools arrange items in the dojo, traditional events and celebrations, myths and legends about washing or not washing your belt, and what about those people who go around grunting “Oss!” I would guess his other books are worth reading, too, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.
Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training: Revised Edition – Carol M. Shifflett
Shifflett’s background is, I think, in human anatomy and technical communication. She combines them in this book of easy-to-grasp information for beginners, and teachers of beginners. I only scanned through the book, right at the beginning of my training, and luckily stumbled on some good facts and tips that really helped me with a couple of chronic (until then) problems – some things no doctor or physical therapist had mentioned. If you are interested in the hows and whys of techniques, body mechanics, safe training, and health, I recommend getting this handy and information-dense book.
Japanese Language / Aikido Terminology
The Japanese terminology we use in Aikido can be intimidating to new students. Many more advanced students and even instructors use much of it by rote, without really understanding the meaning behind the words. The Language of Aikido: A Practitioner’s Guide to Japanese Characters and Terminology, by Michael Hacker, is hands-down the best book on the subject. Here’s what I said in my review of it on Amazon:
This is a book all Aikido people will want to read cover to cover, probably more than once. It is a detailed reference work, and also human and readable. Not only is it well-written, it’s also beautifully formatted.
I bought the Kindle version so I can have it with me on my phone, for reference, and am looking forward to both the print and audio versions. This may be the first book where I see good reason for buying all three formats!
I don’t say this lightly: this book is going to be an instant classic that every student of the art should own.
Some Classics Everyone Should be Familiar With:
The Art of Peace: Teachings of the Founder of Aikido – Morihei Ueshiba, Translated and Edited by John Stevens
This is the little book of Morihei Ueshiba (O Sensei) quotes you will find in every dojo, and you should have a copy. There’s a little pocked-sized edition, but I recommend the bigger standard paperback-sized one. The brief introduction by Stevens Sensei is one of the best “What is Aikido?” overviews I’ve come across. My copy of this book always has a dozen or so PostIt Notes hanging off it, marking things I want to share in class or with friends online. If you want to share a little Aikido philosophy with a friend, this book makes a great gift.
Of course, anything at all by O Sensei would be worth reading. This book is a good starting point. Accessible and easy to grasp… relatively.
It’s a Lot Like Dancing: An Aikido Journey – Terry Dobson
This book of personal, philosophical stories and beautiful photos should be on every Aikidoka’s bookshelf or coffee table.
A first-person report of a year of hard training in Japan. A very different kind of training, in a school of a different affiliation from mine, but good reading just the same.
Interested in Aikido History?
Although I have some of these books, I have not read most of them. I bought them on the recommendations of knowledgeable friends, and feel confident in passing those recommendations along to you. The name links below go to the respective author pages on Amazon.com, so you can see the complete listings of their books.
Anything by Donn F. Draeger.
Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan – Diane Skoss
Anything by John Stevens.
Books about application of Aikido to Conflict Resolution, Leadership, Business, Health Care, Trauma Recovery and PTSD Therapy, Education, etc.
Coming soon …
More Books Worth Reading
Anything by Gaku Homma. I particularly enjoyed Aikido Sketch Diary: Dojo 365 Days, which follows a year in the life of an uchi-deshi (live-in student) at Homma Sensei’s Nippon Kan dojo in Denver, Colorado. It is a fascinating, casual, personal look at that kind of intensive training, and gives some good insights into dojo culture – especially helpful as an introduction for new students. (If you’re ever in the area, I hear the dojo has a very nice cultural center and sushi restaurant, too!)
Homma Sensei has generously shared a PDF version of Aikido Sketch Diary: Dojo 365 Days, for free, on his dojo website. It is 205 pages. If you like reading on a computer of tablet, check it out. If you like hard copies, it would probably be more economical to purchase the book.
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