Shu-Ha-Ri: The Road to Mastery

Plant Sequence

In Aikido, the student goes through a certain learning curve to become adept in this martial art. This concept of learning is following the principle of Shu-Ha-Ri. In this entry, this 3-step principle will be discussed individually.

Shuhari roughly translates to “first learn, then detach, and finally transcend.”

  • shu (守) “protect”, “obey” — traditional wisdom — learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs
  • ha (破) “detach”, “digress” — breaking with tradition — detachment from the illusions of self
  • ri (離) “leave”, “separate” — transcendence — there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical



In Aikido, where there is no competition in the training repertoire, the Aikidoka trains by following a set of basic movements  (kata) to be able to have a kind of “martial skill box” from where he can pick out different techniques and do these techniques on different attacks. These techniques are all part of the training regimen/syllabus of an Aikido Dojo.

The teacher presents these set of techniques in each class, and the student will follow these basics without question,  exactly as they are presented. The student will complete this task without the imposition of will, opinion, or judgement, but with a total openness and modesty. It is from this beginning that the rigorous training of Aikido by a student is started, and it is here that the very basic steps are learned.

The point of Shu, is that a sound technical foundation can be built most efficiently by following only a single route to that goal.

Mixing in other schools, prior to an understanding of what you’re really up to is an invitation to go down a wrong path. A path where the techniques developed will not have sound theoretical or practical value.  It’s up to the student to follow the instructor’s teaching, mindful to be much like ‘an empty vessel to be filled up’.

When the knowledge and skills are fully internalized; they become ‘muscle memory’. This means the student does not need to think about the rudiments of the techniques; the student automatically does as he has been taught. The learning strategy in this stage offers defense against external negative influences, and from falling into danger and making mistakes.



After learning the basic forms, and doing these over and over again, the Aikidoka gets better in doing  these basic steps.  He now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates these learnings into his practice.

In Ha, the student must reflect on the meaning and purpose of everything that he has learned and be able to come to a deeper understanding of the art. At this stage, since each technique is thoroughly learned and absorbed into the muscle memory,  the student is beginning to reason about the background behind these techniques. It is here that realizations in the meaning of the technique is probed in more ways than pure repetitive practice can allow. 

This is the stage, spiritually or mentally, when it is necessary to have a high mind of inquiry and self-reflection.

This is the stage wherein it is required to rearrange or reconstruct what the teacher has taught.  These changes are based on the student’s acknowledgment of his own capacities in relation to his circumstances such as his temperament, personality, style, age, sex, weight, height, and body strength. This includes getting rid of what is thought to be undesirable, unnecessary or unsuitable.

More than anything else, it is required to attain a true and unshakable understanding of oneself as an individual. In other words, it is necessary to have a clear vision of one’s own potential and the best possible way to stimulate it.



 Ri, is to transcend. This is to go beyond traditional learning and all available knowledge. The Aikidoka must now think originally and develop from one’s own background knowledge, using original thoughts about the art and test them against the reality of his or her knowledge of everyday life.

 In this stage, the student is no longer a student, in the normal sense, but rather a “pioneering practitioner.”  

In Ri, the art truly becomes the practitioner’s own and to some extent, his or her own creation. Spiritually or mentally one no longer depends or relies upon external help or guidance. It is here that creativity and correctness in technique join together, and the birth of various waza may be seen.


In summary, I think Seishiro Endo Shihan rightly states the interaction of Shu-Ha-Ri and how it can be applied in our everyday training:


“It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”

Shu-Ha-Ri is the concept of mastery in Aikido. An Aikidoka may find himself ether in Shu, in Ha, or in Ri. In all practicability however, this system is fluid- it is a flux. And with going back and forth between the stages, Aikido can blossom within the practitioner in more ways than what was initially thought possible.

(Want to learn more? Please also see:Aikido: Kata is NOT Waza


One thought on “Shu-Ha-Ri: The Road to Mastery

  1. Pingback: Progression, imitation et clonage en aïkidô | Paresse martiale – 怠惰武道

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