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The 5 elements in Aikido: Gogyo (五行)

What is the 5 elements theory?

According to the old Chinese classical texts, Gogyo in Japanese or “Wu Xing” in Chinese is not only the 5 elements, but it represents the 5 movements in Nature. It is said that the first recorded reference to the 5 elements dates to the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) and a book from the same period says: "Heaven send the 5 abilities and the people use them.” They represent natural phenomena, and it is a philosophy that pervades every part of life.

Life is like a garden, it needs to be cultivated. This picture was taken at the Morihei Ueshiba, O'Sensei's property in Iwama, Japan.

The five elements as movements of natural phenomena: Wood represents expansive, outward movement in all directions, Metal represents contractive, inward movement, Water represents downward movement, Fire represents upward movement and Earth represents neutrality or stability.

There are different sequences to understand how this theory works:

1. The generating sequence:

It is easy to understand that Wood makes Fire and from the Fire we make Earth and then Metal. Metal and minerals are in water and Water promotes growth.

2. The Controlling sequence:

Wood controls Earth, Earth controls Water, Water controls Fire, Fire controls Metal and Metal controls Wood.

This controlling sequence ensures that a balance is always maintained among the 5 elements.

The mutual generating and controlling relationships among the Elements is a fine model of the many self-regulating balancing processes to be seen in Nature and in the human body.

If we want to further understand the association of the elements, for example if I want to use a Jo or a bokken made of wood, I must know how to deal with. I must learn the material so I can use it. I am not going to use wood and metal the same way. A sword is not handled the same way as a bokken although the principle might be the same, but a sword can take a life, but a bokken can save a life during a battle.

3. The Over-acting sequence:

This sequence helps us to understand what are the actions of the elements and how each element can control or overpower another.

In Aikido, this sequence could be used to overcome an attack and choose the right techniques based on the aggression.

A translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine says the following: “When the wood energy is moderate, it spread harmony and softness, and it is called the “spreading of harmony”; when the fire energy is moderate it ascends and become bright, and it is called “ascending brightness”; when the earth is moderate, it spreads the energies of growth and transformation extensively to all things, and it is called the “extensive activation of energy”; when the metal is moderate, it is refreshing but not restraining hard and it is called the “Cautious punishment”; when water energy is moderate, it is calm and fluent, and it is called the “calm and agreeable”.

The famous quote from Bruce Lee: “Be like water my friend.” Be flexible in mind and body!

At the beginning stages of Aikido training, a student is usually very forceful or too soft so with time, we will observe changes and progress as the skills improve. The forceful will learn to be softer, and the softer will learn to be stronger. Both will meet halfway.

In Aikido, we use all the 5 elements. We are soft, hard, grounded, fluid and explosive all at the same time and sometimes at different times.

“Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions” Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

(Display cover image by Brandonchin)

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