Aikido & The Art of The Bullfighter – a Lethal Beauty

Way back in the late 60s, I read Ernest Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon”, published in 1932, a masterful description of the Art of Bullfighting.

Many, many years later, after years of Aikido Training, I realised that the way the Matador moved when facing the bull and encouraging it to charge, the move they made reminded me of the Aikido technique called Irimi Nage.


Matador de Toros is considered to be both an artist and an athlete, possessing great agility, grace, and coordination.

I could describe it but probably easier if you look at a Matador when working with the bull especially the moment the bull looks as if he has the Matador on the point of his horn and then the matador sucks in his midriff as he turns in a spiral away from the bull. There are times when this doesn’t go well so there is a warning about the following video.

When his timing and body movement is right the Matador’s turn becomes too tight for the Bull to follow and its momentum takes it to the edge of the spiral, drawn out by its own momentum and centrifugal force. The Bull passes so close his bloodied flank brushes along the midriff of the matador. It is the closeness of the passes that gets the most aficionados applause. A lethal beauty.

That’s what it looks like but it is so much more than that and it takes a Matador years of practice to learn the techniques and strategies necessary to confront a one ton fighting bull intent on goring him or her to death.

It is not just the technical side of bullfighting that is important but also how brave you are. Your courage, calmness and spirit in your performance is what is also measured by the audience, the aficionados.

It is this combination of technique and beauty that makes it an art.

I recently saw a wonderful documentary by Alexandra Tolstoy about different cultures and their relationship with horses.

In Andalucia, the area of South West Spain, there is a culture there of fighting bulls from the back of a horse, which being bigger than a human makes a good target for the bull. In this case the rider and horse must tempt the bull into charging so they manipulate themselves until they are in front of the bull, getting closer and closer until the bull charges.

The horse and rider are already moving, whirling away from the bull who gets so close it looks and feels like its going to make contact with the horse. The horns are just inches away from the horse’s flank. At that moment where contact seems inevitable the rider tightens the turn slightly and the bull is confronting an empty space. It struggles to stay in that turn as the horse wheels away.

The rider and horse become one. There is a situation in coaching where, by building enough rapport, it is no longer two separate people, i.e. the coach and the client, but one relationship. Like the Matador, horse rider or Aikidoka the goal is to be joined together, to be one, and then we can lead each other and this is the structure of influence.

The principle of matching and leading is vital in communication and building relationships and this would include dealing with difficult situations and people. Pushing back against strength is conflict and usually the strongest person wins.

Use another way. When they push, you absorb their push and turn and suddenly there is nothing for them to push against. You have taken the wind out of their sails. This is a physical metaphor about influence. We match and lead and in Aikido it is called awase and is one of the most important principles. Check out this short film of O Sensei and at 2 minutes and 26 seconds he executes the technique Irimi Nage which clearly shows the principle of matching and leading the person until they can’t avoid falling.

The technique, Irimi Nage is very similar to what the Matador is doing. O Sensei leads the person forward and then makes the turn which accelerates him until O Sensei is to his rear and then turns back riding over him.

Most people will do matching naturally without having to consciously think about it. Humans are designed to do this but it is when there is any sort of difficulty that we default to less than appropriate strategies like raising our voices, pointing fingers, blaming and generally getting angry.

Anger is a way of self protection by building boundaries. Some animals will do this by fluffing up their fur or feathers so that they look bigger as well as growling, roaring and screaming at each other. Sometimes we get so emotional it’s like we are being driven by our anger and we are and this can lead to being out of control.

So in the state of anger we raise our voice, tense our muscles and may begin to issue verbal threats while wagging our finger. We are certainly not matching with our language then.

As in our previous examples of fighting bulls, both from horses and on foot, they are working with the bull to build a relationship where they can lead the Bull into charging the horse or cape and then capturing its balance.

I am not promoting or condoning Bull Fighting. It is undoubtedly cruel. The fighting Bulls are bred on farms where they live longer than the non fighting bulls and are lovingly cared for. However it is a cruel spectacle and has been banned in some regions of Spain.

You can find out even more about mental martial arts, the principle of matching as well as other principles of excellent performance in my book “Mutual Mindfulness”