Modern martial art is a growing force at Finsbury and Dalston centres

Black belt Imogen Burman (left) grapples with Rich Johnson at the Shodokan Aikido class in Ball Pond

Black belt Imogen Burman (left) grapples with Rich Johnson at the Shodokan Aikido class in Ball Pond Road - Credit: Archant

A well-known proverb declares that attack is the best form of defence, yet it could be said that the reverse is true of Shodokan Aikido.

The Japanese martial art, which has been growing in popularity around the globe, is commonly used by stars of action movies such as Steven Seagal – yet it is essentially devoid of attacking moves.

Rich Johnson has been involved with City of London Shodokan Aikido Club, based at Finsbury Leisure Centre, for almost five years and, more recently, has overseen their training sessions at a second venue in Ball Pond Road, Dalston.

“We don’t actually teach any attacks, it’s a defensive martial art,” said Johnson, who is also the club secretary. “It’s about using an attacker’s strength and energy against them.

“The mentality here is not about showing how strong you are or beating people up. Go to kickboxing or something similar if you want that kind of experience.

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“A lot of our basic principles come from having the correct posture and balance and learning how to take away your opponent’s balance, then we teach distance as well.

“There’s no actual aggression, it’s about clarity and focus and our classes are a transition from the hustle and bustle and craziness of London. I see that with people who come along after cycling or rushing on the Tube.

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“Mental strength is very important. Doing a martial art brings a sense of discipline and develops your respect for everyone you’re training with.”

The club’s specific brand of aikido, which is also known as Tomiki after the name of its founder, is a relatively modern one, drawing on influences from longer-established martial arts such as judo and ju-jitsu.

Shodokan is divided into two sections – kata (practice) and randori (the competitive element), which introduces a foam dagger (tanto) into the equation.

The dagger is held by one of the combatants, while the other attempts to evade and then throw them to score points, with the roles reversed in the second half of the contest.

Johnson, who dabbled in karate and tae kwon-do as a youngster and is now a brown belt, feels one of the attractions of Shodokan is the extra health advantages it can bring.

“Although I wanted to do more to keep fit, I didn’t want to go to the gym because I found it boring and that’s a core reason for people coming,” he said.

“When you get into it, you find there are more benefits than you realise. It increases the fitness of your joints as we do a lot of stretching and that’s why, in Japan, you get 70 or 80-year-olds moving as smoothly on the mat as younger people.

“When people turn up for their first class, they often haven’t a clue and they tense up. If you’re tense you can’t move freely.

“A lot of it is about muscle memory – three or four classes in you see that people are showing more awareness and techniques are starting to come through.”

The majority of Johnson’s students are young professionals – with most classes comprising a male/female ratio of almost 50/50 – but the sessions are open to all.

Those run from 7pm to 9pm on Mondays at Finsbury Leisure Centre and at the same times on Wednesdays at Ball Pond Road. Students should bring tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt.

The cost of each session is £9 per person, but there are introductory offers and payment schemes available, as well as concessions for students.

Meanwhile, Johnson is aiming to secure his coveted black belt grading in December, but he now regards that as almost secondary in importance to the growth of the classes.

“When you start out, the black belt is your main ambition, but it becomes less significant,” he added.

“I get more enjoyment from teaching and seeing people progress. For me, the ideal situation would be to have classes running every single day, that would be amazing.”

For more information about the club, call 020 7112 8859 or visit

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