So what are the main, real life purposes of aikido that work? Anything specific? Short range? Long range? blocking? striking? etc? What are the most likely times one would probably use it?
What you're really asking for is insight into the strengths and weaknesses of Aikido pertaining to self-defense scenarios.
Aikido uses a small number of throws, joint locks, submissions, and strikes. There are some holds and submissions done from the ground. A number of breakfalls are trained. There is some weapons training as well, notably the 4-foot Jo staff. Core to all of its training is its footwork and general theory which derives from the idea of "merging" or "blending" with an opponent. And on top of that is the idea of doing the least harm in order to stop your opponent, and no more.
It bases its self-defense on a small set of attacks which they practice defenses against: grab to the wrist, grab to the shoulder, punch to the face, punch to the stomach, downwards knife attack to the head, back-fist to the side of the head, etc. These are intended to mimic real-world attacks.
Drills in class almost always involve partners, except for breakfall practice and solo sword or staff training. Attackers will perform the attack technique, and defenders will practice one of the counters to the attack. This is repeated many times until the students gain proficiency in the defensive technique.
Offensive techniques (strikes and weapons slashes / thrusts) are not trained nearly as much as defensive ones.
A very small fraction of Aikido schools, such as Shodokan Aikido (sometimes referred to as "Tomiki Aikido"), involve competition similar to what you see in Judo. The goals, rules, and techniques are different from Judo, but the intent is to give some practice with "live" partners doing things in a spontaneous way while actively resisting one another, rather than practicing rote technique in drills with a partner who just does the same thing over and over again in a compliant way.
When developed to a high level, a practitioner can utilize his footwork to effectively neutralize many real-life situations. Aikido students train to be sensitive to slight shifts in their opponent's body weight, foot positions / stances, and movement in general. Being able to pick up on this subconsciously allows them to move seemingly automatically in such a way that not only neutralizes their opponent's threat, but can also turn their opponent's attack against themselves, usually resulting in their opponent's balance being taken which causes their opponent to fall... This to me is the essence of Aikido and why it has value.
(Unrealistic attacks.) Attacks are done in a "fully committed" way so that defenders in Aikido classes can "blend" with their opponents properly, using their momentum and body extension against them. In real life, that doesn't tend to happen. Most people don't throw punches fully committed. For example, instead of starting from 5 or 6 feet away and doing a lunge punch with full arm extension to you, people in real life would start much closer and would throw not one but a flurry of quick, uncommitted strikes.
(Unrealistic attacks, part 2.) Attacks done in Aikido don't resemble attacks you'd actually see in real life. One of the most common attack scenarios in Aikido training is the sustained wrist grab, usually done with one hand but sometimes practiced with two hands. Most real-life attacks do not involve any wrist grabs, and if someone does grab your wrist, they're not going to continue holding on like they practice in Aikido classes. Expecting an attacker to not let go throughout the entire defense is unrealistic. Two-handed wrist grabs are also more or less non-existent in real-life. Another unrealistic attack is the overhead downward knife stab to the forehead with a fully extended and locked arm. Or a karate-like straight thrust to the abdomen starting from 5 or 6 feet away. Or the knife-hand chop to the side of the head. Nobody does these in real life, at least not very often. More realistic scenarios such as someone getting up close to you, grabbing your shirt, back of the neck, or hair with one hand and repeatedly punching you to your face and body with quick, non-committed strikes in the other hand are not usually trained in Aikido.
Partners are too compliant. Training with fully compliant partners makes you thoroughly unprepared for the real world, where you will have to deal with an opponent who resists everything you do, doesn't throw himself into your throws, and who is trying to beat you up at the same time. Aikido has a basic etiquette rule for all new white belts that they must not resist anything. Some Aikido schools increase the level of resistance as they gain rank, but this is still almost always too compliant.
Partners aren't "live". By that, I mean that it's like you have a partner who's a robot, trained to do the technique and stop. It's predictable. You always know what's coming. And because he stops what he's doing and lets you do your defense technique to him, you won't be aware that you're vulnerable to a number of obvious follow-up attacks. Yes, Aikido training does involve some live training with partners who throw random things at you, but this tends to be a small part of the training. And these random attack training sessions don't resemble real life fighting at all. In class, the random attacks come one at a time, from a long distance away, and with long delays from one attack to the next. In real life, most attacks are started much closer in and happen in rapid succession without much delay between them. Also, Aikido only has a small number of attacks, so this makes it much easier to predict and to select a defense ahead of time, especially given the distance and lead time typically given in class. This isn't sparring, either, so after an attack is complete, the one who attacked will let the defender do the technique without resisting any further.
As a result of #1-4, you get a false sense of self-confidence, which can be very dangerous. The first time you get into a real fight, you will quickly find yourself in unfamiliar territory. In general, you perform the way you're trained. But if you trained unrealistically, you won't know what to do in real life. It won't resemble anything you did in training. Your reactions won't be quick, because your subconscious mind doesn't recognize what's going on. Fear takes over your mind. You might even freeze up. Or you might try something, only for it to fail, sometimes spectacularly.
No practical ground-fighting. It's not Brazilian Jiujitsu, nor Judo. Its ground techniques are very limited and non-systematic. They might know how to pin someone to the ground, but they don't tend to train in what happens when they get pinned to the ground and need to escape it.
No practical free striking. Its atemi (strikes) are very limited. It's not boxing, or even karate. What it does have is usually just used to take your opponent's attention away from what you're doing. And related to point #2, the strikes people do during the drills aren't really developed into proper strikes and are typically a pale imitation of striking done in arts like karate.
There is some hypnotic stuff going on in many Aikido schools I've seen. The problem is that Aikido trains its students to be non-resistive and fully compliant partners. Some (not all) Aikido schools will put enough safe-guards in place to make sure that students are not going further than that. And by further, I mean anticipating what your partner is going to do and beginning to move in some accommodating, compliant way even before your partner touches you. It can result in students being "thrown" by others who don't even touch them. The students say they actually "feel" like they're being thrown for real, like a mysterious force is controlling them. This is a kind of hypnosis, also known as auto-suggestion. In extreme cases, students start to fall down, as if being pinned underneath a car, or they actually get knocked out due to their partner projecting invisible "Ki" energy at them from 6 feet away. And no, Ki is not a real force - it's only in their heads. Furthermore, when students and instructors repeatedly perform these magic no-touch techniques on other students, they start to convince themselves that they actually do have a real, supernatural power. The problem is that it only works on other students from the same school. When they attempt to project their Ki at people in real life, it won't work. They end up looking very foolish. It's not usually this bad, but in pretty much every Aikido school (Aikikai, Ki Society, etc.) I've ever been to, I've seen people who, in my opinion, have crossed the line from compliance into hypnosis / suggestion. It's something to watch out for. Here's an excellent video explaining why it happens in Aikido, including examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qWJQldKa8U
Having said all of that about the weaknesses, I still think Aikido training has merit, especially if you deal with all of the itemized points I laid out above. My recommendation would be to go train in Gracie Jiujitsu, Judo, or MMA for a while. Or go train in a competitive version of Aikido like Shodokan (Tomiki) style. Only then will you gain an appreciation for partners who are truly alive and who resist everything you do with all they have. Take that awareness back into your Aikido training.
Without specifically working on any of the negative points I mentioned above, my only suggestion for "making it work" in real life as-is would be to make sure you take your opponent by surprise. That means you have to do something to make your opponent lose sight of what you're really doing. Atemi (strikes) are one way, and even Ueshiba (founder of Aikido) was noted for saying that atemi are required by Aikido to make it work in real life. But atemi aren't the only ways. Whatever you do, it must be done fast, before your opponent has time to square up and throw punches at you.
Why? Because if all of your training (more or less) is with compliant partners who don't resist in any realistic way, then you need to make sure your opponent (in real life) is completely oblivious to what you're really doing. That way, he doesn't resist. Then maybe you have a chance. This, I believe, is a big part of the core essence of Aikido.
Hope that helps. And sorry if I ruffled any feathers out there from my Aikido friends. Talking about a martial art's weaknesses can often stir things up. That's not my intent. I'm not trolling. I'm just trying to answer the question as seriously as I can.
Below is a link pertaining to a 3 month white belt who used Kotagaeshi to defend himself. It goes with the adage that self defence is 80% confidence. Basically a lot of things will work from a lot of martial arts, it's having the presence of mind at the time when your adrenaline is pumping that counts in that context. It has controls, pins and throws, teaches evasion, timing and sensitivity as do many martial arts.
Though people say Aikido has no strikes, actually many clubs emphasise atemi and anyway the ability to control distance and have good timing which Aikido promotes will lend itself to strikes. Most people can and do strike regardless of what style if any they practice in.
I feel however if ones only interest is in being tough then there are probably better routes to this. For me Aikido, especially as I get older is an activity to keep body and mind healthy and I enjoy it. I may never be in another combative situation but I will surely age and still I have a family and job to manage, that for me is the real life use of Aikido.
I think a lot of people take Aikido out of context.
Aikido is constantly belittled for the "here grab my wrist" thing, which is admittedly ubiquitous, but it is not the style to blame - it's the instruction.
Similarly, the "compliance" thing is often tagged to Aikido too, and this is another area where there is nothing inherently defined in the style that suggests compliance is a requirement. Indeed, this is also an instructor problem. I assume those who discuss this particular topic are referring to advanced students: beginners, of course, need a degree of compliance so that they learn the movement. In time, the attacks they defend against ought to be more realistic. If advanced students are still relying on compliance, that's an instructional problem not a style problem.
And then there's this thing about no striking, which I find striking, given that striking is an integral part of Aikido defense. That is what atemi is. Atemi is the strike for the purpose to distract or offbalance. Just because Aikido-ka don't use striking to immobilize or to kill does not mean there is no striking. The style defines it, the style encourages it, and so, it's definitely there. You may not see beginners using it, and there's a reason for that: they're focusing on getting the technique down. When they get more experienced, the strikes become real.
Aiki is a concept of harmonizing with the adversary. Aikido applies this concept of Aiki to jujitsu (lending to "aikijitsu" which is the fighting aspects of jujitsu with aiki applied; and lending to "aikido" which is also a blend of aiki and jujitsu but also with philosophy (a way of life) added in), but aiki can be applied to anything - taekwondo, tai chi, boxing, hockey, football, office management, customer management, shotgun shooting, and bonzai.
Aikido can be summed up in several neatly-wrapped mantras, like "it is control through flow". Or philosophically it is the "intent to change the adversary's intention".
Detractors always look to the Aikido-ka who is lying on the ground getting pummeled: what's he gonna do now?
And that is where your question begins and my original postulation starts: what part of Aikido can be used in real life without taking Aikido out of context?
The guy getting pummeled on the ground has no hope except for a good constitution, some luck, a friend, or some extraordinary strength. In any case, Aikido isn't going to help him, he has already failed to use it, so it's not going to help him now. Perhaps, the jujitsu part of Aikido (you know, the thing that Aiki was applied to) might help. But in this case, there is no flow or harmonization, he'll have to find something else to use. It is like asking a police officer who's being pummeled to the ground how is his service weapon going to help now? It isn't. He'll need a good constitution, some luck, a backup officer, or extraordinary strength to get him out of that pickle. (He could reach for his service weapon, but the perp would try to stop that by grabbing his wrist; the problem is, all of the Aikido detractors say that the wrist grabbing is a farce, so, that would never, ever happen in real life ;-)
It is like the difference between tact and diplomacy. Diplomacy gets you out of situations that tact would have kept you out. Aiki / Aikido is like the tact. The rest of your self-defense capabilities is the diplomacy. If you fail to use tact, you will rely on diplomacy. Don't blame tact for the problem: you failed to use it. If you fail to use Aikido, don't blame Aikido, you failed to use it.
Some mentions were made about the wrist grab (as did I in my snarky comment), an unfair but very common complaint about Aikido. A good instructor will explain that such attacks are not inherently natural, and usually come followed up with something else, since that is the attacker's intention. Who, after all, just grabs at a wrist without a backup plan? But in reality, another aspect of Aikido - changing the adversary's intention (and control through motion) - is the invitation to attack. A generally accepted attack would be a rush (to a bear hug, or a punch, or a kick, or a thrust of a knife, etc) and in that rush, the Aikido-ka OFFERS the wrist. Well, not really an offer, but he does it in such a way that causes the opponent to instinctively grab at it. For instance, sticking up the hand as if to poke the eyes. The attacker will either rush through with the attack (and get poked in the eyes), or will instinctively grab at the poking hand to protect his eyes. To offer the wrist and threaten to poke the guy in the stomach isn't going to help. The attacker will instinctively sacrifice a poke to the belly - unless that "poke" is a knife. Now he has reason to change his intention. THIS is the wrist grab. THIS is the change in intention. The change in intention went from a rush to a bear hug to a grab of the thing that's going to blind him. THIS is control through motion. THIS is changing the opponent's intention. This does not work when being pummeled on the ground. To blame this on Aikido is to take Aikido completely out of context.
Does your style have atemi?
Boxing does, it's called a fake, fein, and a jab. Karate and Taekwondo have it. Wrestling has it. Aikido hasn't by any means cornered the market on changing the opponent's intention, or controlling someone through their motions. What it has done is capitalized on the concept, codified it, and said "this is how you do it. Apply it to your style how you wish".
Aiki was never meant to be a complete self-defense system out of the box. But Aikido was. And it is a very viable means of self defense, particularly when you adopt all of the philosophies it encompasses (no winners no losers, for example) as it is compatible with self-defense to children, adjunct training for law enforcement, and so on. But if you take it as a rigid square peg and try to jam it into the proverbial round hole, you're not understanding what Aikido is.
Aikido's main uses are to change the opponent's intention, and to control his motion through flow. If your opponent has you on the ground and is opening a can of ground-and-pound on you, you are going to need a miracle to give him something else to worry about.
Most of the techniques in aikido are based on creating an opening for you to manipulate/control your opponent through the use of leverage and/or pain. In order to do that you are going to have to get within arms reach of your opponent or literally toe to toe in some cases :). Aikido really shines when you can create that opening and use one of techniques i.e. (ikkyō) to put your opponent into a pin. Your opponent maybe be bigger, have more stamina and be angrier yet will have a hard time continuing if you are literally sitting on his or her arm.
You may learn some strikes as a way to create some openings for you to do some of the techniques but most of the emphasis is on technique(s) itself.
What I took from Aikido is to discover the least harmful way to respond to any attack, to subdue your opponent in the most complete and least harmful way possible, and to practice these responses so frequently that they become the automatic instinctive response to said attacks.
I think it was intended to be almost like a non-lethal krav maga in a way, where there is a response to any attack you can think of that can quickly subdue an opponent, including opponents with weapons, but I think the method of teaching has become too systemized in order to keep the schools more unified and to keep strong tradition as part of that.
My understand of the theory of "The Way of Peace an Harmony" is that a master of the martial arts can win any fight without taking any damage, nor harming their opponent. A saying in Aikido is that is something like "whomever strikes first loses."
Whether that is mainly how it is used or not, that is my understanding of how it is intended.
I don't have any statistics, but my personal experience with Aikido as self-defense is that it's best used in situations which have not yet turned violent, but involve attacks, where you don't want to cause lasting damage. The classic example which my teacher used was an unwanted admirer trying to slip an arm around you, or a relative deciding to "show you kung fu doesn't compare to fisticuffs" at the family barbecue. I have had the opportunity to use self-defense in that sort of situation and it does a pretty good job of avoiding the confrontation turning violent.
Simply put, a wrist-lock dissuades a person without having to strike them, or even knock them to the ground.
I do, however, note that I never got very far in Aikido, so I may not be fully informed on its use in more combative scenarios.
For modern street self defense, traditional arts are not a particularly efficient way too learn to protect yourself.
Aikido is fun though, elegant art and complements iaido nicely, my local school was full of egos especially When they found out i had a karate black belt, so i left before i got a chance to get advanced. i never got the chance to train elsewhere.
edit to clarify my answer Aikido is not good for street defence. my opinion is based on research. For reference purposes see Geoff Thomson books, and Angry white pajamas by Robert Twigger.
The best defence is a good offense. Peter consterdine, Geoffrey thompson, Dave Turton, Jamie okeefe and many other validated self defence experts agree that preemptive strikes are the most effective way to defend yourself. Aikido has no strikes.
Finally as a part of my "he's a karate guy" initiation I was always asked to be the that punched to Illustrate techniques. Even slow, basic punches from a standing start connected easily with Aikido black belts.
edit 2 Note for clarification; angry white pajamas is about doing the one year intensive course that the Tokyo riot police has to do, Twigger talks about its intensity but was skeptical on application, apologies for not clarifying (very interesting read all the same). I think it is best for me not to be pulled into this any further as I've been in these types of discussions before and they never get anywhere. but to say that my comments come from assessment of many publications, self defence seminars with top instructors, as well as holding a 1st Dan in shotokan karate, belts in judo and kickboxing, silver medal British and irish universities amateur boxing 2001 as well as training in Aikido, systema, several other styles of karate, TKD and the British combat association. i know what I teach family and friends and I believe that 30 mins with me makes them safer in a confrontation than 6 months training in a traditional art (Good point on preemptive strikes in comments, although uk law is clear - if in fear of your safety, if you smile and say 'hhe got what he deserved' then you are in trouble!)
I like most of Steve's answer, it is very thorough. Not enough rep to comment so I have to make my own answer.
I wish people would not focus so much on the fighting, this is not the only aspect of self-defense.
I hear so many talk about "who would win in a fight between xxx and aikido" and variations on this. Steve also brings this up in his comment on little training in ground fights. Aikido is in most cases about not fighting. Yes, there is in my aikido experience (mostly aikikai) no training in ground fighting, because if you accomplish what aikido tries to accomplish, you would not get in a grappling fight. You could say it is not part of the system. It is similar to going to driving school and starting practicing swimmimg. Why? If you drive off the road and into water, it is very good to know how to swim. If you keep your car on the road, though, you don't need to swim. Of course, if your focus is to be the best fighter, you should study all parts of fighting. However, Aikido is not about being the best fighter. And sadly, people are too often interested in "what's the best martial art [for fighting]".
That being said, read Steve's answer, because it is spot on in many places. A good answer to a poor question. I too know of many who live in their own "aikido bubble" which they have defined by themselves with little attachment to the world around them.
Edit: to actually answer the original question: I have heard that karate was taught to footmen and aikido was taught to generals. I have no proper source for this, sorry. Edit: and the meaning was probably "what aikido is based on" in the sense of samurai arts, and it could be wrong. But /Edit The point is that one focuses on strategies, options, acting - not reacting. At the core of old shotokan karate was apparently "one strike, one kill", that was the idea, optimal fighting efficiency. The first time I saw the interconnectedness of aikido techniques, it blew my mind.
My answer: At some level aikido will work at any distance. For fighting, aikido is all about contact. The distance it "works" at is the distance you need to make contact. Fighting, though, is about two or more people being against each other. Aikido teaches you not to be against anyone. If you are, you're doing it wrong, i.e., not according to the central principles. You ask: what works in a fight. I ask: why would you be in a fight? Were there really no options leading up to that point? Aikido or self-defense does not "start" at the beginning of a fight. I encourage you to try a bit for yourself. I believe everyone can learn something from aikido. Don't get me wrong though, I have seen aikido that would have "worked" in "real life".
And to tackle that bull: if I suddenly was in a cage fight with literally no options but to fight, my aikido would not look pretty. With equal training (opponent would probably be better trained ...) I would probably lose the fight. I could win if I got lucky, I guess. I have been in a fight and got my opponent to yield through wrist lock. It was not a pretty move or "correctly" applied, but it worked. So you can get hold of an arm or wrist, personal experience. But what are you training for anyways? Do you really expect to get jumped by a trained fighter?
Good Aikido is good for self defense.
Good Aikido teaches you real budo (warrior's way) so you can avoid being caught up in a bad situation.
Here are some good Good Aikido Demo. Masters are demonstrating in this post.
What impresses me the most about Good Aikido is anyone can do it. You don't need to big or powerful to get out of a bad situation. You also don't need to be in a punch up situation. Avoid, Control the situation and prevail.
Good Aikido is the real Mental Martial Arts (MMA). Mental Martial Arts are the daily application of martial arts in the modern world. Have a look at mental strategy books like '48 laws of power' by Greene.
May I suggest that you visit an Iwama Style Aikido or Yoshinkan Aikido.
The biggest question I get is, 'if Aikido is about peace then why are we learning martial art. Doesn't that contradict each other'.
My answer is 'It is better to be a warrior in the middle of a garden, than a gardener is the middle of a war'.