Aliveness, with respect to training, is the notion that the degree of efficacy of training is related to the degree of realism in the setting and circumstances of the training. That is, training against a resisting opponent makes you more able to apply a technique while an opponent is resisting in a live context (not training).
Aliveness is a spectrum. On one end you have complete compliance. Tori charges up some ki and blasts a compliant uke who falls of their own accord. On the other end you have actual experience. Nothing will prepare you for an MMA fight as well as being in an MMA fight. Somewhere between those is everything we do in training. It’s important to note that the far side of the spectrum, the most realistic side, depends heavily on what the goal is. Being in an MMA fight won’t prepare you to stop a mugging necessarily. Some skills will likely transfer over, but stopping muggings will better prepare you to stop a mugging. Whatever your defined end-goal for training is becomes that far side thing.
Just like engineering doesn’t really exist without physics which doesn’t really exist without math, I don’t think higher levels of aliveness training would exist without the lower levels having done some research first. At some point someone in Japan was dissecting corpses to see how tendons and ligaments connected tissues and bone. Many of the old jujutsu masters were the equivalent of orthopedic surgeons. This dissection and experimentation on the ultimate complacent opponent let them test and discover the directions and angles which give efficient leverage against joints. That then gets tested on complacent (but alive) individuals, then with slightly increasing resistance up to the point of what we consider “full resistance”. We’ve all done that – you play around with something, when it seems like it will work you drill it, then you try it in rolling to see how it fairs there.
I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial up to this point, but I think we now at least have a common language for the real topic at hand: what degree of aliveness are you really doing, and what degree do you think is the minimum acceptable for training in preparation for your goal?
If we were to take two schools training judo – one for sport, one for recreation – the sport school would likely have students who are better able to execute throws in situations against resisting opponents. They’re more likely to have intense randori sessions. They’re more likely to have competition experience where they’ve had to figure out how to throw someone who’s resisting. One school is clearly more likely to produce an Olympian than the other. For the goal of sport judo, you want something that mimics those sport situations as close as possible. However, if the goal is self-defense, it could be argued that the recreational school is a better choice. Even though it has a lower degree of resistance in training, not having to mimic the conditions of sport rules means not having to worry about gripping restrictions or limitations on grabbing the legs. Honestly, it’s a balancing act of assumptions. If I can throw a competition judoka, I can probably throw anyone, but if I train without restrictions I’m probably better equipped to deal with my partner not having to give me a certain grip.
Many people will criticize the martial arts which have lower degrees of realistic training. For some minimum degree of aliveness, I think it’s reasonable to call bullshit when a martial art advertises itself as being effective in an untested situation. Like, ki blasts are pretty much never going to work on someone from outside your class who hasn’t been conditioned to fold when you yell at them. Aikido has a pretty bad reputation in this regard. It’s largely seen as working solely on compliant partners, being often criticized as a form of self-defense. When an aikidoka is paired against a wrestler it seems to always looks incredibly one-sided. I’d argue that the two should have vastly different goals, and that those goals should be taken into account when determining the efficacy of techniques and level of aliveness appropriate to training.
Let’s pretend I am the head bouncer at a bar, looking to hire a new bouncer and two individuals have come to me – one a nikkyu in Aikido, the other a blue belt in BJJ. Let’s assume they’re both about equally fit – similar heights, similar weights. One candidate likely has experience with wrist-locks in a martial art that professes non-aggression. The other likely knows better how to fight for MMA or theoretical self-defense scenarios. I’d hire the Aikidoka. I’ve known a lot of bouncers who bounced for many years. Few of them have had to be in a fight. Almost all of them have had to escort a drunk out of the bar without hurting them. Techniques like the Devil’s Handshake, Bouncer’s come-along, a basic hammerlock, or a similar basic wrist lock tend to be the favored means to do this. The Aikidoka is likely to have a better base to be shown these. This does assume I’m not running some Roadhouse-style dive bar where fights break out with a high frequency and kicking your rowdier patrons in the face doesn’t seem to carry a risk of lawsuit, to be fair. It’s betting escorting someone out is more likely than having to fight someone. But under those circumstances, I’d say Aikido is the more applicable of the two. Now, if I were in the business of managing MMA fighters and I got the same two applicants, I’d pick the BJJ blue belt. In that context, I want the person who’s more likely to win a fight, and for that context my bet would be on BJJ.
Everyone has a set of assumptions about their end goal(s). If you assume you’ll be in a situation where your partner is more or less compliant (too drunk to fight back, hasn’t noticed you because they’re engaging someone else), then there’s no real problem with polishing your compliant partner techniques. Problems really arise when we project our assumptions and end goals onto other arts, or when other arts are not internally consistent between their assumptions and training methodology. If someone training BJJ assumed that BJJ would prepare them for gun violence, but never trained situations with guns, there would be just as much of a problem as someone doing Aikido assuming they can step to the side of a shot from a trained wrestler. If we assume a majority of fights go to the ground, of course a martial art with no groundwork looks bad – but it’s likely not an assumption they hold. Almost none of us are training in perfect simulations unless our goal is easily reproducible like sport. Almost all of us rely on some level of assumption. Many arts have different assumptions from each other, and that’s what you really need to get at to evaluate someone’s training – what are their assumptions and why or why not might they be valid?