Remembering Yamada Sensei

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai

Yamada Shihan and Chiba Shihan at 2012 Birankai North America Summer Camp

Please also visit Aikido Journal for Josh Gold’s Spring 2022 interview with Yamada Sensei.

The recent passing of Yamada Sensei marks the end of an incredible era of Aikido in America. Yamada Sensei was the first of a wave of Japanese Aikido pioneer instructors to establish themselves in America. He was one of the last remaining of those pioneers and arguably the most impactful, proving to be an extraordinary ambassador for our art for nearly 60 years.

I first met Yamada Sensei in 1973, while I was training with Saito Sensei in Iwama, Japan. Yamada Sensei was visiting Japan with a group of students. A stop in Iwama, O-Sensei’s long-time home and home of the Aiki Shrine, was essential. While that first encounter was brief, it’s one I still remember, largely because I found Yamada Sensei to be disarmingly charming.

Over the course of the next few years, I encountered Yamada Sensei at various seminars, and was always charmed by his friendliness and openness. However, during the late 1970s, most of what I heard on the west coast regarding Yamada Sensei was resentment on the part of the local American Aikido teachers, including my own, because the organization he co-founded and headed, the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) was the only organization in the United States to be recognized by Hombu Dojo. Dan ranks could be processed only through the USAF, and all US based instructors who wanted to have their students’ ranks registered with Hombu had to be members of the USAF. (It was known as the “one country, one organization” rule. Interestingly, it was Chiba Sensei, after his arrival in the US, who was instrumental in persuading Hombu Dojo to abandon that policy, and agree to recognize multiple organizations within a country.)

In October 1980, Yamada Sensei brought Chiba Sensei to visit San Diego, as a possible place for Chiba Sensei to settle and establish a dojo. As it happened, I was designated to pick the two of them up at LAX and be the tour guide for the day. Yamada Sensei was thus the person who first introduced me to Chiba Sensei, for which I shall be eternally grateful. Yamada Sensei did almost all the talking during the day. Chiba Sensei didn’t speak with me until the evening, when I sat to drink with him at the bar in Hanalei Hotel, where they were both staying. The difference in personality between Yamada Sensei and Chiba Sensei was quite striking. Yamada Sensei’s warmth and friendliness put me at ease — Chiba Sensei’s quiet intensity, not so much. One thing became clear to me during that day (and was confirmed with further conversations with Chiba Sensei), without Yamada Sensei’s efforts to bring Chiba Sensei to the US, convincing both Chiba Sensei and the leadership of Hombu Dojo that it was a good idea, it would not have happened. We in Birankai owe Yamada Sensei a special debt of appreciation for his striving on behalf of our teacher and our community.

Although my exposure to Yamada Sensei’s teaching was limited, there were numerous occasions where he most graciously offered me his personal support. As an early example, during the first year Chiba Sensei was in San Diego, while I was teaching a class, Yamada Sensei showed up at the dojo, by himself. He sat to observe my class. I was nidan at the time, and was extremely intimidated by Yamada Sensei’s presence, yet following the class he chose to give me only positive feedback and encouragement. The last time I saw him was at the BNA summer camp in 2016 in St John’s University in New York, his home ground. We taught classes back-to-back. I trained in his class, and he watched my class. It was 35 years later than the first time he watched me teach and I was just as intimidated and again, he offered only positive feedback.

Taken at the 1994 USAF summer camp celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the New York Aikikai.
Front row (L to R): Sensei –  Kawahara (British Columbia, Canada), A. Tohei (Midwest, USA) Tamura (France),  M. Ueshiba (WakaSensei, now Doshu, Hombu) Chiba (Western USA),  Kurita (Mexico)
Back row (L to R) Sensei – Kanai (East Coast USA), Shibata (Western USA), Yamada (East Coast, NY, USA), Sugano (East Coast USA, Australia)

I started with the comment, Yamada Sensei’s passing marked the end of an era for Aikido in America. He, Kanai Sensei and Chiba Sensei and other Japanese Shihan have laid a foundation for the development and growth of Aikido in this country and beyond. It is now our and our students’ responsibility to apply the same passion, commitment and expertise demonstrated by our teachers, now gone, to sustain and advance our art into the future. 

Darrell Bluhm
January 2023
Ashland OR

In Memory of Yamada Shihan – January 15, 2023

Kristina Varjan, Chief Instructor, Aikido of Kohala

There are special people in our lives who never leave us even after they are gone.
Yamada Sensei was one of those people.
How can someone that has given so much to others ever be forgotten?
He can’t and he won’t!
Yamada Sensei introduced me to our amazing world of Aikido in 1975.
He was generous, a great cook, a strong leader, with a great sense of humor, and a true diplomat as well.
He made everyone around him feel special.
Being on the mat teaching to so many, meeting new people, that was what was truly
important to him.
Spreading Aikido to as many people in as many places as possible was his mission in life.
It seemed like he never tired, but he did. He was human.
He came to teach a seminar in Hawaii at our dojo (Kohala Aikikai) in 2003.
I saw him outside the dojo preparing for the seminar and asked him if he was ok.
He said: “I’m nervous. I still get nervous after all these years. Like it’s the first time that I am getting on the mat to teach!”
It seemed to me like he was once again embracing the concept of “SHOSHIN”, beginners mind, every time he taught a class or seminar.
I think many of us have felt the powerfulness and the freshness of his dynamic teaching in each class stressing the basics, even if it’s Ikkyo again and again.
Get everything you can from your Senseis, talk to them, and stay in touch with them.
Their commitment and vast experience are invaluable.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart Ms Yamada, Mika, Risa and Tatsuya for sharing Sensei with us all.
And when your Sensei says “ROLLS”, throw out a few on the mat!
Some of you will know what I mean…

Kristina Varjan

A Tool For Your Path

Archie Champion, Birankai Senior Council Member and Chief Instructor, Central Coast Aikikai

People too often undervalue the benefit of martial arts practice and its ability to transform one’s life. To have good health, power and energy at any age is a blessing. Being healthy is a virtue that every individual should strive for to the best of their ability. The muscles of the body are naturally designed a to be challenged by bearing weight, and being lengthened and contracted. The bones are designed to bear weight, to continue to grow, to replenish themselves and to remain strong. It is the body owner’s responsibility to know these things and to engage in practice designed to fulfill these functions that has been handed down from the ancestors. People suffer from many health issues that decrease quality of life and lead to premature death, which can be changed through Aikido practice. Having practiced Aikido almost every day for 44 years, I don’t consider myself old or close to the end of the road.

We live in a postindustrial, digital, AI culture, programmed to believe and operate as if our human consciousness is no longer capable of focusing for extended times to achieve true development. Especially in this day and age of technology, it is essential you create something with your hands. We no longer really develop and hone our physical skills; instead we simply express ourselves with filters and quickie videos. Nowadays, if you want to learn something you watch YouTube, not a book or manual in your hands. Yet it is through the body we experience the world, coming to sense the mystery of life, and a feeling there must be something beyond it. It is through the body that we express our true Self.

Our physical body is the alchemical laboratory in which we can test what kinds of foods, how much physical training or rest, and what kind of mental attitude we need to cultivate an ” Aiki body”. A human being who develops an Aiki body can circulate life force. Developing an Aiki body requires humility to learn from nature – the natural world, and your own nature/body, working with the hands, the body, the physical. To work with the body is to engage creative spirit, becoming co-creator with nature. Similarly, our emotions are stored in the body as energies we sometimes must work through physically, rather than talking about them. Aikido movement helps you go into that space, where those emotions live and move this energy through the body. Bodywork helps you learn to release fear or anything else that is not you, and learn to trust your intuition.

The lockdown over the last two years caused me to stop doing body arts and to only teach Jo. (Usually I switch every year, but the uncertainty of the times compelled me to stay with Jo.) First let’s remember every weapon has its own “spirit” and a manner in which it likes to do things,  almost as if it has a personality. Furthermore, weapons tend to create their own “rules” for body methods and training. The Jo’s versatility is the liveliness of the grip, making practice very enjoyable and flowing, as there fewer limitations on what can be done and achieved. The Jo can be held with junte, gyakute, or a combination of grips. In fact, the hands can grip at any position, even at the butt of the Jo, and at any distance across the length of the weapon. With such diverse grips, the hands can also easily adopt some of the qualities and methods used with swords and can move similarly to many empty-handed techniques. When pressed against uke’s joint or bone, the Jo often enhances joint-locking techniques. Stand in left or right hanmi, you still enjoy practice: left hanmi, symbolizes our attraction toward divine light and spirit, and progress; right hanmi symbolizes our individual body, and regression. 

(Earlier I said every weapon carries its own spirit – with Jo that spirit is wood. Human beings have used trees and their wood as friends, medicine, and vessels for their creativity. We evolved to coexist with trees and other plants in the deepest sense possible. I personally have had an affinity to wood for as long as I can remember and believe deeply this is an innate human trait. Even traditional Chinese medicine recognizes trees and wood are related to our livers and Hun (ancestral spirit). They also see wood virtue being adaptable, you can pull, push, press, thrust, smack, chop, redirect, divert, absorb, block, spiral from the middle and sides.)

In sum, the ideal of our Aikido has always been to create a body of work that set the standard for others. Today, if the body is uncomfortable doing something outside its normal range of natural ability, or if the breath is not developed enough to move and circulate life force, many simply give up and move on to that which can be done with little/no effort, depriving our mental and physical development. Others go through the motions, recording the “hours”. Few actually change their diet, adopt a holistic or spiritual way of living and become actual practitioners committed to a lifetime of consistently  engaging your body with this wonderful tool called a Jo. Those of you who are willing to follow their hearts and connect with your core being will in this tool find solace and meaning. Seek to make it more than a weapon, and it shall serve to guide you on the path.

The Uncanny Valley

Alexander Gheorghiu, student at Ei Mei Kan

Editor’s note: Like delicate flowers peeking through the melting snow, writings on Aikido begin to emerge as more aikidoka return to the mat. My heartfelt thanks to Alex for reflecting (and writing) on why he trains.

When the world couldn’t breathe and isolation-separation became the normal way of life, my teacher, Mooney Sensei, made the rounds to all of his students with one inquiry: ‘Why do you do Aikido?’ This simple, seemingly innocuous, question, he admits, is not really answerable. And yet, it is worth asking. In fact, it is essential to ask it. When put to me, I realized that I had many possible ways of responding, but none of them were really true. It took a while before I thought of a real answer: I do Aikido because of what I have learned doing it. This is what I am summarizing below, an exegesis of my practice.

Mooney Sensei 7th Dan Promotion Celebration at Ei Mei Kan (February 2018). L to R: Tim Sullivan, author, Christopher Mooney, Pierre Alexis-Mouthuy

In a 1970 essay, Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, made a curious observation about people’s reactions to robots that looked and acted almost like a human: as a robot becomes more human, our affinity for it increases, but after a certain point our response suddenly turns to strong revulsion, and only after significant further development does our response become positive again. Mori called the sudden onset of nauseous dislike the “uncanny valley”. Though he did well to note it outright, the observation is not a modern phenomenon, the concept of an uncanny valley has, in fact, lingered on the edge of our collective consciousness for some time; Charles Darwin, for example, recorded in The Voyage of the Beagle how the expression on the face of a snake he saw produced in him a certain disgust and loathing, and suggested that this was likely due to it having features somewhat proportional to a human face, prefiguring Mori by over a hundred years. I am concerned with another, non-aesthetic, version of the uncanny valley: personhood.

The rough mise-en-scène for the peak-valley-peak of the uncanny valley I am considering is captured by three riddles:

A human that is not a person is someone baby-like; that is, someone whose world extends precisely to the limits of their mind, someone with no concept of a world around them. I do not mean anything pejorative in this description, it is only a metaphor designed to capture the defining quality of the initial peak — in analogy to Mori’s uncanny valley, they are robots that do not appear to be human at all. This is the starting point from which we will develop an understanding of true personhood.

One descends into the uncanny valley from the initial peak by a typical process sometimes referred to as growing-up, which means extending one’s conscience beyond oneself: we adopt ideologies, doctrines and creeds. This acquired collection of ideas constitutes the individual ‘I’ with whom we identify. And yet, this ‘I’ is really just a character composed of the sum of our history and the collection of our values, and these values are simply judgements — yes-no, good-bad, etc.— about the world, so it is not really us: the character is not the actor. Ironically, the acquisition of personhood is the process by which we forget who we are. (I am reminded of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the genius so carelessly scrapped in the 1931 film adaptation, and sadly ever since, was that the monster was a most erudite and sophisticated thing while being the grotesque stitching together of ‘bits of thieves, bits of murderers.’)

A person tumbling down the valley reaches the bottom when they are fully convinced by the character ‘I’, submitting fully to the associated world-script. It is the abjection of this mode of life that George Orwell so perfectly captures in the hauntingly creepy last line of 1984 (‘He loved Big Brother.’): it is not the destruction of Winston-the-human that is disturbing, but rather the destruction of Winston-the-person. In other words, the trough of the uncanny valley is inhabited by human automata: those who simulate life but do not really live it — yes, Mori, humans can approximate robots too, and the effect is equally dreadful. These individuals are machine-like, emptied-out, void; they have a routine that simply keeps turning, but it is performed without feeling or awareness, sleepwalking without sleeping. What is so dire about this position is that the world-script will always differ from reality, resulting in continual dissatisfaction.

Intensive Seminar at Ei Mei Kan (Sep 2019) Tori: Christopher Mooney;  Uke: Kaitlin Sabnish Thomas

In precise antagony to the trough, the final peak is defined by being entirely free of all rote behaviours and thinking; that is, in contrast to the ghoulish somnambulists of the bottom of the uncanny valley, the population at the zenith of personhood are fully alive, fully awake. They are free from the character ‘I’, rendering them fully real-ized persons — let me put that again, slower: fully realized persons. Not only do they see themselves truly, but they see the world too just as it is. In their freedom, there is a particular similarity between the inhabitants of the initial and final peak, and yet the uncanny valley stands between them — ‘I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free’ says Catherine in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, wishing to be free from the burden of adulthood.

I confess, I am in awe when considering this group of beings. I do not think my wonder is misplaced. Allow me to momentarily trapeze between drama and melo- for rhetorical effect: there is a certain divine quality to these free persons. Recall that when Moses asks God for his name in the book of Exodus, God does not answer with ‘Yaweh’ or ‘Jehova’ or ‘Allah’ or any of the other myriad appellations conferred upon him by mankind, instead he says simply ‘I Am that I Am.’ Therefore, one may think of these fully real-ized persons as an evolved specifies of human, homo deus (pace Yuval Noah Harari). I defer to Lee’s unforgettable analysis of the Cain and Abel story in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, where he explains that ‘this is not theology’. The freedom from this character ‘I’ means that the full persons cannot say ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set’ because all occurrences of ‘Do thou’ and ‘Thou shalt’ in the world-script are replaced by ‘Thou mayest’. In contradistinction to the human automata — or, for symmetry, homo automaton — who are stuck in a kind of self-fulfilling predestination, the homo deus is free to move in any direction… Apologies, Lee, I interrupted you:

More may be said along the same (melo-)dramatic lines: the free persons possess a kind of preternatural power — I am purposefully avoiding saying that there is something super-natural, for they are, by definition, maximally natural people. Gazing up from the uncanny valley through the hazy mists emanating from the chartered Lethe, it seems that a homo deus lives an impossible life; that is, the effortlessness with which they conduct themselves while achieving tremendous success in their actions seems like a kind of magic — a word I chose without blushing. Their harmony with the world, in some general sense, is their divine quality. A more secular account may use the word grace instead.

So, having descended into the valley, how are we to ascend the other side? How do we become free of the character ‘I’? Here the ancient Greek injunction of ‘Know Thyself!’ is pertinent and has an exhilarating symmetry with the more familiar personal question: ‘Who am I?’ And yet, the Delphic maxim is not very useful since it is, to borrow from the poet William Blake, the mind-forged manacles that are the hardest to shake off. At the same time, the personal question is never satisfactorily answered because the paradigm in which it is asked is one of the character ‘I’ and their world-script. So what are we supposed to do?

To exit the mire of the uncanny valley requires a total capitulation to the way things are, as opposed to how they are perceived or judged or believed to be. One must cast away the discriminating character ‘I’. And this giving up is not trivial, it is not a setting aside of things, it is letting them blow away completely and irrevocably. Using the metaphor of the sleepwalkers in the uncanny valley, this is awakening to reality; put more dramatically, since we live vicariously through the character ‘I’, they must die, and since this ‘I’ is us, this death is our death — ‘You want it darker,’ says Leonard Cohen, ‘We Kill the flame’ — our awakening is our extinguishment. Indeed, in every myth I know, death is ancillary for apotheosis.

So, what would be left if I were to take away your body and your history, your opinions and your power, your name and even your smile? Well, nothing. For me, understanding this ‘nothing’ is difficult. Perhaps the earliest recorded account trying to understand the concept of nothingness is due to Parmenides in the 5th Century BCE and argues that ‘nothing’ cannot exist by the very fact that it is spoken about. The argument seems sound to me, but one of the premises seems dubious, rendering the conclusion dubious: viz. that you can speak of true ‘nothing’. Instead, I think it reasonable to suppose that one cannot even vocalize true nothingness, that the word ‘nothing’ is only a finger pointing at it. Well, then, I cannot really claim to be able to define ‘nothing’ any better than the question above: what is left when one lets go of everything? I may say this though, this ‘nothing’ is not a kind of nihilism. The character ‘I’ and their world-script do indeed constitute a world; in particular, it comprises the world of those things that are real in a relative sense — name, body, etc. — so that the ‘nothing’ I am discussing is the relief to this relativism. Using capitals to emphasize a platonic metaphysics, I may capture this idea with an ironic slogan: form is Nothingness and Nothingness is form.

In short, I claim that a person is a gestalt, by which I mean that the components do not make up the whole. The ‘nothing’ that is left behind when the character ‘I’ is given up is the actor, the true person. I may call it the soul of the person — I simply refuse to blush here too. The impossible art of M.C. Escher captures this notion perfectly: look at any fragment of Ascending and Descending and it makes sense, but look at the painting as a whole and it does not; the whole is more than the sum of the parts, it is imbibed with something none of the components have.

Somewhat unexpected, since this nothingness is all that is demanded to exit the uncanny valley, and since it is we ourselves that hold onto the something (i.e., this character ‘I’), there is actually no barrier to climbing out of the uncanny valley at all! In other words, the demand that we let go of the character ‘I’ is a gateless gate, a concept that is not only Kafkaesque but actually is Kafka, appearing in The Trial as a moral of the sub-story Before the Law. So why should it be so difficult? Paradoxically, letting go of the character ‘I’ and their world-script requires not holding onto something, but it is like having swallowed a red hot iron ball: you try to vomit it but cannot.

Intensive Seminar at Ei Mei Kan (April 2018)

I am detaining us with these philosophical ruminations, we have a long journey to make… We must, at last, begin the ascent from the uncanny valley! What do we require for the journey? I defer to King David: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ (Psalm 23:4). We require great faith to cross the vale of personhood — I know, quelle surprise, but I shall do slightly better than mere platitudes — and also great doubt and great determination.

The place of faith is our journey is in recognizing that this character ‘I’ is not the whole truth; that is, that there is something beyond the world-script. Faith is articulated through action, through ritual and tradition and practices (‘…thy rod and thy staff…’). One may call these practices religion, and indeed religion can be a very good way to cross the uncanny valley. More generally, I would propose that this is the defining quality of art; that is, a practice constitutes an art when it is a way to seeing through the character ‘I’. Of course, it is essential that one’s practice is sincere and with focus on the freedom and not the art itself, otherwise the practice simply becomes another routine, another aspect of the character ‘I’ — let’s not forget that the sin of idolatry is the first of the Ten Commandments. It is here that the way in which the rituals of religion are practiced becomes paramount: no one who has witnessed a service done by people of faith could say that it is not artful, but a service done without faith is mere choreography (a bad, bland and boring dance) and, consequently, worthless.

With great faith comes great danger: one may try to carry one’s practice out of the uncanny valley! This is impossible. The one and only condition for ascending the final peak is that one gives up everything, and that means one’s faith must also be let go. As Rushdie puts it in the The Moor’s Last Sigh, ‘To give up one’s own picture of the world and become wholly dependent on someone else’s — was not that as good a description as any of the process of, literally, going out of one’s mind?’ Therefore, faith must be counterbalanced, but with what? Rushdie answers us in The Satanic Verses, ‘Question: What is the opposite of faith? Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself is a kind of belief. Doubt.’ Hence, we require great doubt to exit the uncanny valley.

Heart Sutra Calligraphy at Ei Mei Kan

Even with great faith and great doubt, and perhaps because of them, one is likely to encounter great disappointment, great frustration, and great pain. It is too easy to imagine a devout who has spent their whole life reading, studying, learning and memorizing all of the liturgy of their religion and has not managed to see beyond the character ‘I’; or, an artist who has mastered their craft at an incredible technical level but has never produced anything of significance. Perhaps in their final moment at the end of their life there is a single, simple instant in which they break through the gateless gate; and then again, perhaps not. By their practice, these wretches stood a chance at ascending the final peak. Worse, just because one practices a craft with integrity and sincerity does not mean that one will be any good at it. What does one do in this case? Quit? No: too final, certain, closed. As Kipling puts it in If, all one has in the moments of calamitous sorrow when one’s heart and sinew are giving up is the ‘Will which says to them: “Hold on!” ’ Therefore, to exit the uncanny valley and ascend the final peak of personhood, one requires great determination.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what has any of this to do with Aikido? In any martial art one is confronted between one’s idea of things and the reality of things; the first may be represented by you going that way, the second by a fist going this way… Bang! Aikido is the martial art that takes as its founding principle harmony, meaning accepting every- and any- thing just as it is without judgement. In practising Aikido one attempts to literally embody the freedom discussed above. Taken beyond the training mat, this freedom is the letting go of ‘I’.

Letter to Chiba Sensei

Coryl Crane, Birankai Senior Council Member and Chief Instructor, North County Aikikai

North County Aikikai 20th Anniversary Seminar, December 2011

To throw oneself into the extraordinary having isolated oneself from the lifestyle so long ago adopted. – Chiba Sensei in an article on Sesshin.

Dear Sensei, every year since you passed, I think about what it meant to train with you and how that relationship changed my life.

As a teacher, you gave yourself fully to every encounter with your students. You would walk onto a mat full of students, and the power of your intention spoke to each one of us. From the beginning, my personal encounters with you were often fearful because inevitably I found myself in a place I had never been before; but the more I opened up the more I let you in, and the more I gave you the more you gave back to me. When you worked with me, we were the only two entities in the world at that moment.

There were truly painful times along the way that took time to heal or to understand – after all you were as human as I and as prone to errors of judgement. Yet through it all, in your own way, you always respected us as part of the one human race.

You were a profound thinker and your grasp of the English language enriched your vision for us. You saw Aikido through many lenses and articulated them in depth and often poetically. You could describe the movement of Aikido as a brushstroke on rice paper, or as the physics of body movement extending from the spine. And when we were ready, you made real the martial edge between life and death. Aikido was always an art form within a martial context for me.

You expressed an Aikido for each one of us, if we could see it. For me, as a woman and an artist, you made it beautiful as well as powerful. Because of you, I threw myself into the extraordinary and stepped away from the lifestyle I was born into. I am eternally grateful for your teaching.

Coryl Crane

Learn more about Chiba Sensei’s life in Aikido with Power and Grace – Portrait of a Master: T.K. Chiba

Chiba Sensei in Nagoya

John Brinsley, Birankai Teachers’ Council Chair and Chief Instructor, Aikido Daiwa

Chiba Sensei in Nagoya, November 2002

June 5 marks the sixth anniversary of Chiba Sensei’s passing. While I was not his student, I was fortunate enough to train irregularly at the San Diego Aikikai for about three years. In his memory, here is a recounting of one weekend with this remarkable man.

In November 1961, O-Sensei and Kisshomaru Doshu gave a demonstration in Nagoya, Japan’s industrial heartland, to inaugurate the opening of the city’s first Aikido dojo. Hombu then dispatched 21-year-old Chiba Kazuo to be its first teacher.

The Tashiro Dojo was and is unusual because it jointly teaches Judo and Aikido. It was founded by Tashiro Keizan Sensei, a Judo 8th dan who became acquainted with O-Sensei and wanted his own students to learn Aikido. Chiba Sensei spent several months teaching there before returning to Tokyo, and in his wake other Hombu teachers were sent to Nagoya, including Kanai Sensei.

When Chiba Sensei moved back to Japan from the U.K. in 1976, he renewed ties with Tashiro Dojo. He taught a seminar there in 1979 and again several times in the mid-1980s after moving to San Diego. There is footage of him teaching in Nagoya during a trip he made with several of his San Diego students in 1986, with Juba Nour Sensei taking ukemi. The connection was such that several Tashiro Dojo students traveled to San Diego to practice on at least two occasions.

In November 2002, Chiba Sensei traveled to Nagoya to (belatedly) mark the 40th anniversary since he’d first taught there by giving a two-day seminar.  I went down from Tokyo with Didier Boyet and a few others, including Miyamoto Sensei, who was only able to attend the Friday class. Also there were Murashige Teru and Robert Savoca, who had arrived from New York only a few hours earlier. We were warmly welcomed by Dojo-cho Wada Akira Sensei, now an 8th dan, who had begun Aikido under a very young Chiba Sensei.

Tashiro Dojo is old, musty and not large. There were probably 50 people on the tatami that night and another 10 either sitting or standing watching in street clothes, despite a complete lack of audience space. Not everyone had enough room to stretch out during Sensei’s warm-up. But once training started, it didn’t matter.

Most of the hour-and-a half keiko was suwariwaza. I had never seen Chiba Sensei teach in Japan before, and he was in his element. He practiced with his old students, taking ukemi as they exhausted themselves trying to move him, and was expansive in a way that was different from classes at the San Diego Aikikai or at seminars. He wore Robert and Teru out, however. Both of them had skin scraped off their shoulders from all the ikkyo ukemi, in part due to the hard tatami. Practice was in very close quarters, and the windows fogged up thanks to the steam. I got to train with Miyamoto Sensei and Wada Sensei, which was terrific. I remember looking over at Didier and seeing him grin as his partner struggled to throw him.

Saturday’s keiko was in the prefectural budo center (virtually every town of any size in Japan has at least one), a much bigger space. There were at least 100 people on the mat from various dojo. Chiba Sensei taught a body arts class, focusing on aihanmi, and then did some basic bokken waza, which was new for many of the participants. Once again, Robert and Teru shined in taking ukemi. Not everyone stuck around for the second part of the class.

Then Chiba Sensei gathered everyone and talked a bit about his youth and finding Aikido. Much of what he said – as far as I can remember – echoed remarks he’d made elsewhere, but one comment stuck. “All I really wanted was a place where I could sleep, eat and train eight hours a day,” he said. “Where I was very fortunate was that O-Sensei was there. I probably could have been happy doing Judo or Kendo, but he was the big difference.”

Saturday night, several of us accompanied Sensei to an onsen – a hot springs inn. Unless it’s for a romantic getaway, there are really only three things to do at an onsen: eat, bathe and drink. After arriving, we spent a long time in the bath, followed by a beer or two. Then we had a wonderful meal, which was probably served around 7 p.m. and lasted at most an hour or so. Which of course left the rest of the evening for two things: drinking and bathing. Did I mention drinking?

My roommates for the night were Didier, Robert, Teru and William Gillespie. My memory for some of this is hazy, but I’m pretty sure at one point either Sensei came to our room for a bit or we visited his. Either way it was nice. Things went downhill from there, particularly when the five roommates returned to the bath at some ungodly hour, and did drunken Sumo. A word of advice: never do drunken Sumo with Teru in a bath (or any other place). The long and short of it is I ended up with a nice purple eye, thanks to a blow to my face.

The next (same?) morning, looking and feeling very much the worse for wear, we straggled to the bath before breakfast. And despite our states at the time, Didier, Robert, and I all have strong memories of what we saw as we entered: Ishii-san, who had begun Aikido under Chiba Sensei four decades before as a teenager, washing Sensei’s back. Public bathing remains a strong part of Japanese culture, and it’s not uncommon for a younger person to wash an elder’s back. But seeing it then touched me deeply as a gesture of devotion.

It also recalled another episode in Sensei’s life. When Kisshomaru Doshu passed away, Chiba Sensei wrote a memorial in which he recounted how much Doshu had meant to him and the Aikido world. In it, he writes about how he quit Hombu in 1979 over some disagreements and went to live in the Japanese countryside. One day, without warning, Doshu arrived at the Chiba family’s home. The two men spent the night at an inn, where they shared a meal and a bath and Sensei washed Doshu’s back. “I believe he came to make sure I was all right,” Sensei wrote.

That struck me as I made my way behind Ishii-san and Chiba Sensei as silently as possible, and left me ruminating while nursing my head. And it stays with me as I think about the legacy Chiba Sensei left to his students and the dedication he inspired. I hope he rests in peace, secure in the knowledge that he touched a great many people, and in so doing changed their lives.

Learn more about Chiba Sensei’s life in Aikido with Power and Grace – Portrait of a Master: T.K. Chiba

Cultivating An Aikido Body, Part 3: Liveliness and Openness

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai

“Take musu aiki”, brushed by by Chiba Sensei, describes the highest level of Aikido where one is capable of spontaneously executing perfect techniques.


As we continue to explore the process of developing and maintaining an Aikido Body, I want to review and expand on earlier topics. An Aikido Body is of course, a human body. Even more fundamentally, it is a living body. Our language – the English language, specifically – biases our self-perception, so we see ourselves as objects or things, when, in fact, we are, as all of life is, ongoing processes. We are not objects, we are subjects, actively engaged in the process of living. At some point we will all die, and as corpses we can be considered objects – although the process of decomposing is also quite dynamic. But, as living, embodied beings, embedded in a living world right now, we are gifted with life, bodies, consciousness, and the ability to make distinctions and choices. We can recognize what is toxic or nourishing in our world and choose appropriately. Movement is one form of nourishment. Unfortunately, many of us develop habits of movement that are to movement what junk food is to food.

Training can strengthen our capacity to sense ourselves with greater refinement, so we may learn to distinguish functional, effective action from junk. For our training to fully serve us, however, we also need to extend our conscious awareness to our everyday actions: how we lie, sit, walk, breath, bathe, cook, play, and receive the nourishment that being alive in this world offers us. When we, through conscious practice, learn to move as whole beings, connected to our partners and the world at large by means of our center and all our senses, a liveliness emerges in our movement and responses.

Aikidoists tend to discover this quality of liveliness, on the mat by practicing ukemi. Chiba Sensei, having discovered this liveliness, said of it, “The practitioner frequently experiences a sense of pleasure and joy in the discovery of the body’s previously hidden potential – an experience often accompanied by a sense of safety and security while training.” He continues that, in his experience, “Sustaining injuries during training is largely the result of [the person] handling his or her body in a fragmented manner…” 1

Sensei described the art of ukemi as “preparation for the unexpected” and counseled us to avoid mechanical or rote habits of practicing ukemi. He defined ukemi as “the means for receiving and neutralizing force, without resisting, trying to escape, collapsing or flying away.”

The process of neutralizing a force coming towards or into us requires an acceptance of and joining with that force and is best accomplished with a passive will, as opposed to a will seeking control. In our practice, whether as uke or nage, using weapons or in solo practice, we build a repertoire of actions that take residence in the deepest resources of ourselves. Usually when we practice, we consciously observe ourselves as we do it. Yet there are times on the mat when we respond to a given situation with our “adaptive” unconscious or non-conscious mind. When this happens, we move from the domain of kata, or form, to that of true martial technique or waza, which is formless. Many of us have experienced this in the role of uke, where we find ourselves getting up from the mat with no conscious sense of how we arrived there. 

Chiba Sensei exploring liveliness through ukemi
(Ukes: Lizzy Lynn, Jim Hauer, Mikey Roessner-Herman, Mike Flynn)

Eventually, through training, this quality of liveliness can manifest in all aspects of one’s practice and by extension, off the mat, in one’s everyday life. There is a natural and pure quality to our acts when, to use Chiba Sensei’s words, “perception, judgment and action arise spontaneously and simultaneously.”

In our daily life, our conditioned responses, developed on the mat, can at critical times serve to save our self or others. I have experienced this in mundane ways, such as braking to avoid hitting a deer with my car before my conscious mind realized that the deer was there, or catching a falling object without conscious intent. This kind of non-conscious action is known in the Japanese martial tradition as mu so ken – dream-thought-sword.

Mu so ken – acting without conscious thought

Chiba Sensei wrote about several intense, life-or-death situations where he experienced this spontaneous, unconscious action. A couple of those situations involved saving himself when attacked. Other situations led to him saving someone else. On one occasion, while waiting to catch a train in Japan, a non-stop train approached the station at a high speed, as two brothers on bicycles approached the crossing. The older brother decided to play “chicken,” by riding his bike across the tracks in front of the approaching train. His younger brother, following, fell on the track. Without thought, Sensei rushed forward, threw the bike off the track, grabbed the fallen boy, and launched them both forward across the tracks with a forward roll, just in front of the oncoming train. Another time, while fishing at the pier in Ocean Beach, San Diego, Sensei spied a young girl drowning in the ocean below. He instantly jumped in and rescued the girl. When I asked him about it, years later, he said he simply acted, without hesitation or forethought.

These, and other more combative experiences, confirmed Sensei’s belief that the body responds more quickly and effectively in the present moment than does our discursive mind. While his teaching is often misunderstood and misrepresented as harsh, one aspect of it was a deliberate attempt to create conditions on the mat by which we could discover and nourish this developed spontaneity (mu so ken) to protect ourselves and others.

Frequently when teaching, Chiba Sensei tested his uke’s liveliness by executing a technique, such as ikkyo or irimi nage, where he would cut them down, allow them to recover and cut them down again and again, before finally completing the technique. This situation required uke to remain connected, centered, extended, lively, and fully present, perceiving everything. Often, Sensei would change to a different technique, and his uke was expected to follow. This practice, which requires we perceive deeply with all our senses, leads us toward the cultivation of openness.

Bluhm Sensei demonstrating Chiba Sensei’s practice of testing connection
(Uke: Ea Murphy)


In his recent Biran article, “Still Here”, Champion Sensei describes the Aikido Body as having “an expansive frame around a compressed core”.2 In the first part of this series I addressed the development of a compressed core in the discussion of centeredness and connectedness. To clarify further how a “compressed core” supports and interacts with a “expanded frame” I would like to expand on these earlier remarks.

The discovery and nourishment of our tanden, which is essentially our movement or “action center”, is the starting point for exploring the cultivation of an Aikido Body. The tanden works with two other centers: a “feeling” or “heart center” in the chest and a “navigational center” in the head. As upright creatures, these centers are balanced along our central axis and relate to the spine and our alimentary canal (gut). When I think of a “compressed core”, I think of these three centers functioning as an integrated and dynamic whole:

Our action center, which resides in our lower abdomen and pelvic bowl, connects us through our legs and feet to the ground, enabling us to move through the world. This lower center relates to our survival, individual conservation and reproduction.

Our heart center connects us through our arms and hands to one another, our tools, and allows us to bring the world to us. It sits on the central tendon of our diaphragm, is suspended between our lungs and its function is closely associated with our breath. This middle center relates to feeling, sensation emotion, and our relationship to others.

Finally, our head center orients us and allows us to navigate the world. Our head houses all of our teleceptors, organs of perception that connect us to the outside world, eyes, ears, vestibular system, taste and smell. This upper center, resides in the center of the head– where the skull sits on the first cervical vertebra — at the level of the eyes and ears.

These three centers all have perceptual aspects. Our lower center is associated with exteroception, which is the sense of contact with our base of support, our ability to recognize the firmness, amount of friction, or stability of the surface we are moving over. Our heart center is associated with interoception, our sense of what’s happening within us, which includes emotions, as well as the many sensations generated by movement, muscular and visceral. The center in our head, enables us to access the world outside ourselves. Action and perception mutually inform each other. The balanced, combined functioning of these three centers empowers us to act with confidence and competence in an expansive and expressive way.

The language by which the body, heart and mind communicate is that of feeling and sensation. Essential to refining our action in the world is learning to listen to that language. In learning to listen in that way, we open our senses to see, hear, smell, and taste, supporting a deeper engagement with the world we are a part of.

In Aikido, our capacity to generate and neutralize power correlates with the development of our tanden. Concurrently, our ability to make and sustain sensitive, lively contact with our partners is influenced by our hearts. I believe that emotion colors our perception, perception guides action, and the clearest perception comes with love. To be able to move to the right place, at the right time, with the right choice of technique (where, when and what) arises only when all centers are open and our frame is well conditioned and expanded.

The foundation of openness is the ability to listen with all of our senses with the attitude of a beginner (shoshin), or the wonder of a child. To accomplish this, we must consciously close at least one important opening: our mouth.

When we sit in seiza or zazen, our posture is upright and relaxed and our focus is centered on the present moment. Included in right posture is our “oral posture.” The lips should be lightly closed. The tip of the tongue should lightly touch the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. The jaw should be forward, but relaxed. This position of lips, tongue, and jaw ensures we breathe through our nose, which conditions our unconscious breathing away from the unhealthy practice of mouth breathing.3 Correct sitting posture assists us in quieting our internal chatter or mental noise, which deepens mental and physical stillness.

When we practice on the mat, it is Birankai’s tradition to keep our mouths shut. Of course, there are times when the vigor of training requires us to open our mouths to take in more oxygen to meet cardiovascular demand, but there are almost no times in our training when it is necessary to open our mouths to speak. Talking during training distracts from our engagement with our own senses and our presence in the given moment, creating noise on the mat that can endanger those practicing around us. This is a critically important element in Chiba Sensei’s teaching. On his mat, conversation was not tolerated.

When training vigorously, especially on a crowded mat, we must rely on hearing, as well as vision and kinesthetic awareness, to avoid collisions with our neighbor. Verbal noise creates a safety risk. With our mouths shut, our senses open, our breathing is healthier, and our mind more focused. When we sit to observe a teacher’s instruction, we endeavor to keep our internal dialogue quiet – and our internal mouths shut, just as when practicing Zazen. By so doing we enhance our learning, enabling us to cultivate “eyes to see” – to see what is, as opposed to what we think we know – and eventually to engender our “eyes to see through” – to see beyond outer form to the inner, normally invisible elements of what is shown.

Champion Sensei, in the article referenced above, discussed the martial principle of ichi soku ta, meaning “one equals many”. This principle speaks directly to the importance of openness, notably, the recognition that when practicing with a single partner, the potential for multiple attackers is always present. How we enact any form (shihonage, ikkyo, irimi nage, etc.) should reflect this understanding. Regardless of the form we do, our gaze should be soft, our peripheral vision wide, hearing active, our ability to turn and change direction readily available.

Chiba Sensei demonstrates ichi soku ta
(Ukes: Jim Hauer and Mike Flynn)

While it is true that in certain circumstances action can arise simultaneously and spontaneously without conscious thought, when training or in other learning situations we yoke our attention to our actions. This allows us to make choices and create opportunities to step out of our habitual patterns and refine and expand our understanding of and ability to execute any form. In this way we can discover how each element of our practice reflects the whole.

In presenting the five principles of Centeredness, Connectedness, Wholeness, Liveliness and Openness in his essay, “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness”, Chiba Sensei wrote, “Openness is both generated and characterized by a strong interrelationship between body and mind…In this stage, the physical and mental aspects respond to one another in mutual and nearly simultaneous development.”

While the thrust of this three-part essay focused on cultivating an Aikido Body, the development of an Aikido Mind cannot be ignored. Of the five pillars, openness probably contains more psychophysical aspects than the other four. For myself, the qualities of mind and attitude that accompany the cultivation of physical aptitude in Aikido are humility, curiosity, flexibility and creativity. When our Aikido Body/Mind matures through the forging and awakening influence of our training, we can bring the foundational principle of O Sensei’s post-World War II Aikido, that of take musu aiki – the martial generative power of aiki (union with nature) – into being. Essential to discovering the creative potential within our art is the necessity of dissolving our attachment to our egos. Our art, as George Lyons Sensei so beautifully expresses, offers the opportunity to step out of any fixed world view, to detach ourselves from our social and cultural biases, so we can see the world with fresh eyes. 

In conclusion, I want to add a few comments regarding physical conditioning, and to offer a few references I have found useful.

Chiba Sensei did not limit his physical/mental/spiritual training to Aikido. Sensei came to Aikido with extensive experience in Judo, and other martial arts. He incorporated into the Birankai “curriculum”, Iaido and Zazen. He also practiced Yoga, beginning with the Yoga of Tempu Nakamura and later, that of B.K.S. Iyengar. He spent intense periods of misogi, or purification, training at Ichi Ku Kai.4 In addition, he ran, bicycled, loved to fish and practiced and appreciated various artistic traditions; painting, calligraphy (Shodo), poetry (in both Japanese and English), and on occasion, singing. 

I have found several other disciplines very helpful to my development as an Aikidoist. Particularly valuable, when I was young, was extended periods of time backpacking, often at high altitudes, which not only provided elements of physical fitness, but placed me intimately in the more-than-human world. I have practiced Tai Chi Chuan for as long I have practiced Aikido, and fenced for over 30 years. My Tai Chi teacher, Choy Kam Man, and fencing coaches, Charles Selberg and Michael D’Asaro Sr., influenced me tremendously as a teacher and as a person. I have been practicing Iyengar Yoga the last few years, and find it deeply enriching. I have practiced the Feldenkrais Method professionally for the past 25 years, and have extensive experience with the Alexander Technique, Structural Integration (Rolfing), Tui Na (Chinese massage), and other approaches to movement and the life of the body. All of these various activities inform my Aikido training.

For resources related to movement and physical well-being, I suggest the following books and websites. For teachers, I hope these resources prove useful in expanding what you incorporate into your warm ups and conditioning elements in your classes. For all of us as students of Aikido, I hope these resources provide more movement choices to support our ongoing development of our unique Aikido Bodies.

Books (please choose “Birankai International” on Amazon Smile) :


There are of course many more great resources. The most important resource is your own movement, driven by your own curiosity!


  1. Thanks to Shiun (Biran Continental Europe newsletter) for the Chiba Sensei quote, excerpted from “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness” Shiun, Vol 5, No.2, 2007.
  2. “Still Here”, Archie Champion, Shihan, quoted in Biran, Fall 2020 print edition.
  3. I strongly recommend Breath by James Nestor, which describes the plethora of negative health consequences of mouth breathing.
  4. See Adam Sorkin’s recent article in Biran, Fall 2020 print edition

Cultivating An Aikido Body, Part 2: Connectedness and Wholeness

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai

The discovery and development of a dynamic center naturally leads to greater core ability, which includes core stability, mobility and reversibility. It also leads to a stronger connection of the various parts of ourselves to each other: upper body to lower body, front to back, left to right. 

In his classes, Chiba Sensei often followed the exercise for discovering the center, (found in Cultivating an Aikido Body, Part 1) by what he called a “seesaw” exercise.

The exercise involves sitting on the mat, maintaining a strong extension through both legs with ankles and toes pulled toward one’s center, spine extended, with the head balanced on top. In this position the legs are lifted, center engaged, so that the upper body and lower body are held in a V-shape, and one rocks backward and forward without allowing the feet to return to the mat. This exercise is easily integrated into the basic practice of backward ukemi. 

Ukemi as a whole plays a central role in the forging of an Aikido body. The practice of ukemi, receiving and neutralizing the energy generated by nage (and by gravity) while falling and recovering is done repeatedly in our practice. Chiba Sensei often likened this aspect of training to the act of beating and folding iron in the traditional construction of a Japanese sword. No matter how well the blade is shaped, sharpened and polished, the smith will not produce a quality blade without first going through this initial stage of the process. The “beating and folding” that is promoted through the repeated enactment of basic forms, ikkyo, nikkyo, irimi nage, shihonage, etc., is the primary means by which we unify our bodies. This unification process, in my understanding, should be well underway by the level of third kyu, and completed by first kyu. 

We do not abandon this process as we advance in our art and as we age. As martial artists, we necessarily make a sustained commitment to physical training. In my experience, if the forging process is not well established in the early stage of training, the physical expression of one’s art becomes arrested and tends to break down with age. The development of one’s intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding can, of course, continue to grow, but to maintain and refine the physical aspect of our art requires a commitment to the life of the body. This requires adjusting and adapting how we train to the changes living brings. It is much easier to do if we lay down a solid foundation early.

Finding and working with our center both connects ourself to ourself, but also deepens our connection to the lived-world in which we exist. In Part 1 of this article, under the section titled “Centeredness”, I introduced the concept of the “field of promoted action,” which refers to the learned ways that we habitually eat, walk, sit, stand, dance, defecate, and otherwise use our bodies in the culture into which we were born. The experienced world, which we each inhabit, is even more complex and varied than “the field of promoted action,” as it extends beyond physical movement to all aspects of our subjective experience. 

However, within that great expanse of variability there is a common foundation, the earth itself, what Chiba Sensei called our Big Mother. There are primordial ways that being creatures of the earth support and nourish us, whether we are conscious of them or not. Deepening our awareness of our connection to Big Mother can enrich our Aikido practice in countless ways. We are connected to the earth and to the atmosphere surrounding her through our feet, our breath, our hands and our organs of perception, eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin and proprioception. 

Our feet provide the understanding for our action in the world. Adapted to the demands of this task, our feet are complex and wondrous instruments that dynamically connect us to the earth.

Each foot is comprised of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, numerous ligaments binding the bones, accessory bands and sheets of connective tissue and all the tendons attaching the twenty intrinsic muscles (originating from the bones of the foot itself) and dozen extrinsic muscles (originating from the bones of the leg above). The organization of these bones, joints, connective tissue and muscles in association with blood vessels, nerves and sensory organs (for pressure, pain, movement and position) allows the foot to mediate between the terrain of the ground below and the distribution of body weight and mass above. In accomplishing this role as mediator of above and below the foot acts as a sensory organ as well as an organ of support and mobility.

Living in a culture that imprisons feet in shoes from an early age, and within an environment that provides mostly even, two dimensional surfaces to move over, denies our feet the opportunity to develop the sensitivity, flexibility and strength that running, walking, climbing over varied natural surfaces provides. Martial practice offers antidotes to the dullness our feet acquire through our modern lifestyle. If you watch Chiba Sensei’s warmups you will see a variety of actions that work the toes, feet and ankles. Moving on our knees in shikko also works to enliven our feet. When enlivened feet act in accord with a conscious dynamic center, our ability to meet the fundamental demands of our practice — to manage distance, to transmit force from the ground through the whole of ourselves, etc. — is greatly improved. 

Chiba Sensei often began his classes, especially morning classes, with a series of breathing exercises derived from Tempu Nakamura, known as the Father of Japanese Yoga. One exercise that Sensei frequently taught, independent from the series, connects breath to the feet, center, spine and vision via our imagination. The exercise is done standing, feet close together, spine extended, eyes focused on the ground six to ten feet in front of oneself. Beginning with the inhale, one begins to float upward onto the balls and toes of the feet, ideally maintaining the weight over the balls of the first and second toes, while one breathes in through the nose and imagines drawing the breath into one’s center through the soles of the feet. At the top, maintaining balance, one engages the tanden and begins to exhale and lower the heels to the ground with the image of strongly breathing out through the heels. At the end of the movement down, one tries to empty the lungs of air through the mouth, audibly, with a strong contraction of the expiatory muscles. The exercise was usually done three times. Sensei encouraged us to use our imagination to develop a more conscious connection to our feet, breath and center and to explore our ability to experience our weight creatively, learning to intentionally become light or heavy.

Another breath exercise (kokyu soren), one that often followed that described above, also involves the use of the imagination, this time linking the breath, center, spine, feet and hands. After jumping both feet out into a wide stance, one inhales extending the fingers and arms upward overhead, rising up on the toes and balls of the feet at the end of the inhalation and extending the fingertips and arms up and forward, then exhaling, lowering the arms and whole body to the starting point. The instruction, given by Sensei, was to imagine breathing in through fingertips, arms, down the spine to the tanden, then breathing out through spine, arms and hands, extending our consciousness as far as we could imagine (“to the furthest ends of the universe.”) Both inhale and exhale are to be done quietly, through the nose, with an emphasis on relaxation.  

This exercise is reflected in the basic kokyu exercise done in hanmi. Hands are raised overhead, thumb leading the motion up with the inhale, weight shifting forward, and then cut out and down with the exhale, little finger leading, fingers strongly extended and consciousness extending out from the center, while shifting weight onto the back leg. The same image is applied to all basic cuts with the sword, or strikes with the jo. I can still hear Sensei say, “Don’t contract your muscles, extend your consciousness!”

Our feet connect us to the ground, and within the martial context, they function optimally when in the service of our center. Our hands connect us to others. The human hand is the most sensitive and sophisticated manipulative instrument in the known universe. While our lower body moves us through the world, our upper body brings the world to us. When we contact each other in Aikido, as uke and as nage, our hands, be it through grabbing, striking or controlling, should connect us, center to center. An oral instruction I received from Sensei was, “When your students’ handwork is weak, help them strengthen their center. If they need to strengthen their center, work with clarifying their hand work.” 

Having established vital connections to the ground through our feet, to the air through our breath, to our partners and our tools via our hands, we also must connect to the world at large by means of our organs of perception, most of which reside in our head. To function as a whole being engaged in the world, every action we make involves orientation, using our vision, hearing, smell and possibly taste to direct our attention and or action appropriately. In developing ourselves as martial artists, we seek to cultivate “Ten direction eyes” — that is, an awareness in all directions and the ability to move in any direction without hesitation or preparation. This requires a well-organized posture, in which the head sits balanced on the spine, free to move easily, supported below by our feet and center, using our senses to guide the complex actions of daily living and the wonderfully varied forms of Aikido. The unification of the body that arises through an awakened center, connecting all parts into a cohesive whole, exists in collaboration with a fully embodied and awakened mind. 

Wholeness of being allows for wholeness of action. As Chiba Sensei wrote, “… (It) activates (an) essential life force manifesting as strong physical liveliness and culminates in the reification of the psychospiritual virtues such as humility, receptivity, modesty, etc. that are necessary to the process of raising (ones) art to its highest level.”

Cultivating An Aikido Body, Part 1: Centeredness

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai 

“Study your own body through basic forms. Study the centralization of the body.” – T.K. Chiba

Chiba Sensei often spoke of wanting those of us he trained as teachers to understand the ways he helped his students condition their bodies through and for training in Aikido. He expected us to be able to assist each of our students to develop what he called, “their Aikido Body”. When he spoke of the Aikido Body, he spoke not in the abstract but from his extraordinary experience in working with his own body, and from the practical means for shaping and conditioning his students’ bodies that he developed over decades of teaching Aikido to many different students in many different cultures. He would sometimes refer to the ‘Aikido Body” as the “Natural Body” or the “Instinctual Body.” However, he was very aware of how unnatural the social and physical environment of the modern world is. We humans have created a world for ourselves that resembles a zoo more than it does the wild world our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in, and in which our bodies evolved. In a very real way, we resemble captive or domesticated creatures more than adaptive embodied beings. The question Chiba Sensei sought to answer for himself and for us is: How do we, as modern humans, reclaim the natural abilities that exist within each of us?

In trying to answer that question for myself, in this three-part series I look to the five principles of embodied Aikido which Chiba Sensei identified: centeredness, connectedness, wholeness, liveliness and openness. Underlying these principles is a foundational assumption that the body is inseparable from the mind, and (as stated in his essay “On Food and Diet”) the body and the Earth are one. While I will explore this topic from the perspective of the primacy of the body, I too believe the body exists in union with mind and no body/mind union exists independent of a social and physical environment.


We are literally shaped by our everyday movement. Much of our movement is determined by what is known as the “field of promoted action”: the ways we eat, speak, defecate, dance, and so on, in the culture we are born into. This is different from culture to culture and even family to family. In the Japanese culture of the early to mid-20th century when, through the genius of Ueshiba O Sensei, Aikido emerged, there was little need to teach people how to move from their center. This teaching was embedded in patterns of action woven into daily routines: sitting on the floor in various postures, moving from sitting or squatting to standing and back to the ground. Now, in the 21st century, sitting cross-legged or on one’s heels on the floor (seiza) is uncommon. The chair intervenes between bodies and ground for many contemporary people as soon as they learn to walk. We sit, often while looking at a screen, more than we engage in any other posture. This creates challenges, even when confronted with simple actions such as kneeling, bowing, or getting up and down with ease.

To understand what it means to be centered, and to know how to move from our center, we need to have a clear image of where our center is and how it is related to the whole of ourselves. Chiba Sensei taught a very simple action for us to use to sense where our tanden resides and how to engage it actively:

He had us lie on our backs, place our hands by our sides (or sometimes place our fingertips on our lower belly) and with a sharp inhalation lift our head, arms and legs from the mat, hold for a moment and then with our exhale release our head and legs back to the mat. Try this for yourself. You will feel the engagement of your tanden and hopefully experience a sense of physical unity. This should be done carefully and without excessive muscular effort. Locating the center is the first step in cultivating our ability to use our centers dynamically.

To move in any way, we have to coordinate the mobilization of some parts of ourselves while stabilizing others. Given that our physical center resides in the basin of our pelvis, to mobilize that center requires fluency in the movement of the hip joints. If you watch video of Chiba Sensei conducting warm ups, you will see many actions both in standing and seiza that require movement in all planes of action, where the pelvis rotates over the hip joints, or the hip joints move relative to a stable pelvis, as well as very dynamic use of the tanden and breath:

Chiba Sensei 1986
Chiba Sensei 2009

For kinetic energy to be transmitted from the ground through the body to the hands, the hip joints must be fluid and the spine must be well organized, extended, flexible and stable. As teachers working at this time, we need to recognize that a life of accommodation to the chair has compromised the ability of most individuals entering our dojos to move freely at the hip joints or to have the requisite flexibility in their feet, ankles, and knees or the stability in their spines to execute the most basic actions of our art, sitting, bowing, suwariwaza, etc. Chiba Sensei modeled many ways to address this reality both through his warm ups and conditioning exercises, and in the precision with which he executed basic Aikido forms. I believe that going forward we need to study what he developed, and to expand it to meet the needs of our present students.

“Everything is hidden within your spine. The state of the spine is an indicator of the unification of the body and spirit. To study the body is to study your spine.” – T.K. Chiba

The primary function of our skeleton is to provide support to the body within the field of gravity. As upright, bi-pedal creatures with large brains — and consequently heavy heads — that task is complex. Literally central to that task is our spine. As mentioned earlier, in order for us to move freely, the spine provides the stability to transmit the forces generated by gravity downward and the forces generated by ground reaction forces and muscular action upward. Skeletal alignment, the organization of parts to each other and the whole relative to the ground, develops for us during infancy and early childhood. The movements of rolling side to side, front to back, lead to sitting and crawling, and create the strength and organization of muscles, connective tissues and proper neurological stimulation necessary to then stand, walk, run, jump, roll, etc. Returning to a closer relationship to the ground through seiza, shikko, rolling, etc. gives us an opportunity to refine and expand the quality of our movement by strengthening the stability of the pelvis and spine and their ability to support the actions of the body as a whole.

The quality of support we sense, relative to the ground, influences the amount of effort and the distribution of effort utilized in any action. Just as learning to walk as children required moving from the ground up, learning to move from our center in Aikido is promoted by the practice of sitting in seiza and executing suwariwaza (kneeling) technique. Paradoxically, our instability as upright creatures enhances our overall mobility. All martial arts involve an exploration of stillness and motion. Finding stillness in standing is required in balance poses in yoga, the most basic being Mountain Pose or “Tadassana.” Tadassana is very challenging, yet, moving from standing requires almost no effort. I have become very aware, in my personal Iai-batto ho practice, of the difference between moving from the large triangular base provided by sitting in seiza compared to moving from standing, At this point in my life, due to 70 years of wear and tear on my knees, seiza and shikko are no longer accessible to me. The foundational form in our system of Iai is Shohatto, executed from seiza. The standing version of Shohatto is called Koranto. This form has become the root of my present practice. Without the years of practicing Shohatto and its sibling forms, from sitting, where stillness is more readily available and moving from an engaged and vital center is essential, I would not be able find the rhythms of stillness and motion, mobility and stability, necessary to execute Koranto in a satisfying way.

If we as teachers of Aikido within Birankai wish, as our newly drafted vision statement states, to “meet our students where they are”, we need to develop ways to help them find comfort in their relationship to the ground and learn to mine the treasures accessible to them in the fundamental actions of sitting, bowing, knee walking etc. For those who can’t get all the way to the ground, we may need to explore ways we can help them discover their centers and how to move dynamically from their centers in and out from a chair (or zafu). What we must never do is remove seiza, bowing, shikko, etc.  to accommodate the many who will be challenged by them. To do that would be to  abandon the foundations of our practice.

Cultivating Connectedness in a Time of Distance Webinar

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai and Cultivating Connectedness Webinar Moderator

Click on link above to view webinar.

Much of the credit for the conception, organization and presentation of the two webinars must go to Rob Schenk, Chief Instructor of Aikido Institute of San Francisco, and technology wizard. Rob initially proposed the idea of Birankai North America holding webinars and offered his expertise to the organization to make them happen, serving as host to both events.

Personally I’m grateful to Rob for prompting and supporting us in creating a means to remember and honor Chiba Sensei with the first “memorial” webinar on June 6th. I felt strongly it was important that we, as a community, could come together during this challenging time in remembrance of our teacher.

While I was involved in planning that event, I participated as an audience member and greatly enjoyed hearing the stories and comments of my colleagues and friends. For me it was a healing balm to the feelings of sadness and emptiness that still arise within me as I continue to miss Sensei’s physical presence in my life. I was also encouraged by the level of participation and general enthusiasm expressed during and after the event.

The success of the memorial webinar led to a desire to host a follow up event, in part, to create an opportunity to address some of the questions that remained unanswered from the first webinar. We chose to focus the discussion on Chiba Sensei’s development of bokken and jo practices and their integration into the whole of his Aikido “curriculum”. This choice was stimulated by the reality that for many of us, our weapons practice is what sustains us during this time of social distancing where the physical contact we’re accustomed to is not readily available.

The selection of panel members was made with the intention to select teachers with extensive weapons training and experience working directly with Chiba Sensei. The panel clearly met that criteria and were able to provide a lively and entertaining conversation. This  time I did have the opportunity to participate actively in the event as the “moderator”, a role that  proved much more enjoyable than I imagined!

It’s my hope that we will continue to hold these kinds of webinars going forward, with a wider level of participation and structured to address the needs and  interests of our teachers and general members.

Chiba Sensei Memorial Event Webinar

Coryl Crane Shihan, Chief Instructor and Founder, North County Aikikai and Chiba Sensei Memorial Webinar Host

Select image above to view webinar

The June 6, 2020 commemoration of our inspirational and much loved teacher, Chiba Sensei, was a moving, visual, and experiential journey into his life. He came alive again for us all. The Zoom webinar connected over 100 people from 10 different countries around the world. Many had trained with Chiba Sensei and knew him personally, while many were second generation and knew him through their teachers and his reputation. Five years since he passed on June 5, 2015, and here we still think about Sensei and the effect he had on our lives.

The webinar started with a moment of silence during which time, and each in our own way, we could remember Chiba Sensei. We then saw his 2008 video interview with Lori Stewart, and it felt for me like I was sitting at that table with him while he talked about shoshin, beginner’s mind, and his relationship with the metaphorical, unobtainable Princess, that was his Aikido – the treasure he lived his life to protect. Next, we were immersed yet again, watching Sensei in action on the mat, in a selection of video clips highlighting his always dynamic, powerful, and physical presence.

But what better way to know Chiba Sensei, the teacher, than through the personal memories and direct experiences of those students who spent many years in close and intense training with him. Webinar participants were invited to ask questions of four panelists: Archie Champion Shihan, George Lyons Shihan, Roo Heins Shidoin and Leslie Cohen Shidoin. The panel answered wide ranging questions from, “What was it like to take ukemi from Chiba Sensei?” to, “What was he like as a person?” The responses were unique in each case. What became apparent, however, was the panelists’ shared common bond of love and respect grown from a life-changing relationship with their teacher.

From this first webinar, which had more questions than there was time to answer, ideas for a follow-up webinar soon grew. Held on July 18, Darrell Bluhm Shihan moderated our second webinar on Chiba Sensei’s concept of connectedness, with panelists Didier Boyet Shihan, Diane Deskin Shidoin, Dave Alonzo Thierry Diagona Shidoin, and myself. There were 52 attendants from 6 different countries.

We very much hope to build on the interest generated by Chiba Sensei’s memorial and open up discussion on subjects of interest to you all. Please let us know what and who you would like to hear more from.

Gassho, Coryl Crane, North County Aikikai, 8/14/20

Food and Diet

T.K. Chiba Shihan, Birankai Founder

“Aikido is not limited to a mat space…”

We did ikkyo, shihonage, kotegaishi to confirm the importance of basics. You know training can  be kind of boring – year after year the same thing, over and over. That’s what it is – nothing exciting… it’s just like a meal you eat every night, night after night. If it’s something very exciting you get sick. A healthy meal is sort of a boring meal – no excitement…

All of Aikido is to work with your body. The body is the foundation for everything. Work with your body…

Of course, Aikido is not limited to a mat space like this. There is a huge world out there, what I call big Aikido or big dojo. Practice Aikido principles within the big Aikido, right out there! That is what true Aikido is.

T.K. Chiba, from Oct 2, 1998 lecture at Siskiyou Aikikai, Ashland, Oregon

The atmosphere of our contemporary lifestyle surrounds us with a multitude of tools and equipment, an unprecedented variety of conveniences. Yet the complaint is often that it is difficult to find a place where one can study or acquire competence in some discipline. All that a person needs is “a sincere willingness to study.” If one truly wishes to study, one can do so under any circumstance.

Shozo Sato, From Shodo: The Quiet Art of Japanese Calligraphy

Chiba Sensei’s essay from the 1998 Summer Edition of Sansho, entitled “Food and Diet” is both philosophical, noting the body and earth are inseparable, and practical, as Sensei offers clear guidelines to eat a healthy diet which sustains us in our practice.

In this unprecedented time, facing the challenges of a global pandemic, with our normal rhythms disrupted, attending to what, when and how we eat is especially important. We are all faced with how to maintain our practice, outside our dojos and without (physical) contact with our training partners. If, as Sensei says, working with our body is the foundation of our training, and as Shozo Sato reminds us, “A willing heart is the dojo”, we can use this time – wherever we are – to grow our practice. Refining our diet can therefore be an important element in our personal study during this predicament.

Many of us who practiced with Chiba Sensei directly received his instruction on diet – recommendations which closely resemble those of writers Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Alice Waters and many others. In his book Food Rules, Pollan sums up his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Pollan elaborates his first rule with, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. As you will read, Sensei would offer, “Eat food, as whole as possible, from what is seasonally available where you live”.

Sensei’s quote above observes how our approach to training and to eating can be similar: with an attitude of reverence and adherence to basics, without too much attachment to what’s exciting.  As part of our series on becoming more antifragile, I hope Chiba Sensei’s reflections encourage you to practice big Aikido, to seize opportunities for growth where you can, even at places like your dining table.

– Darrell Bluhm Shihan, Ashland, Oregon 1 May 2020

My basic philosophy of Diet is “Shin Do Fu Ji: Body and earth are inseparable.” Shin (body), means the physical body and presence, the “being.” Do (earth) is the multitude of conditions that comprise the “being,” including the environment, locality, and seasons. Fu Ji (inseparable), means that body and earth are one. This philosophy corresponds to the concept of the circulation of energy: Human beings absorb energy from other entities through eating, and create new entities with the energy we take in. This view also parallels the Buddhist concept of reincarnation — the foundation of the Buddhist view of the cosmos.

All life forms depend on the presence of other life forms. We exist in a continuously flowing cycle of life in which we eat other life forms, absorb their energy as a source of our life force and create other life forms with the energy we have absorbed. The reincarnation theory of Buddhism is not only an abstract concept of rebirth to another life, but also a reality happening before our very eyes. We must recognize the fact that all the life forms we consume are a necessary sacrifice to maintain our lives. This recognition is fundamental and is the wellspring of reverence toward life. Through it, we gain awareness of the importance of self-sacrifice in our own lives as well.

To restate this philosophy as a simple universal law applicable to all life forms: “Respect others!” Reverence toward life can be manifested through three principles of recognition: (1) Know what is enough. (2) Do not waste. (3) Do not devour. These are the principles of eating. These three principles point to one central theme: We should sacrifice more than what we need in the universal flow of life.

These principles of recognition lead us to the importance of mindful chewing when we eat. Chewing well is important because of the physiological necessity of absorbing nutrition, but it is also significant because it creates a quiet dialogue with the life forms being sacrificed. Through this dialogue we unite with other life forms. Only then are we able truly to taste the essence of the sacrificed life forms.

The Eastern and Western views on this subject are quite different. Christianity teaches us that God and human beings are in separate domains, and that humans and other life forms are also in separate domains. It teaches us that other life forms are created for humankind. This is a very “human centered” view of the universe.

Buddha taught that “Weeds, trees, the earth and all creation can have Buddha’s nature.” In this view, not only human beings, but also weeds, trees, earth and rubble may have Buddha’s nature!

Similarly, Shinto religion teaches us that there are eight million gods in the universe. This means that from a Shinto perspective, we see gods within all life forms as well as in natural phenomena. In Buddhism and Shinto, humans are not above all other creatures, and therefore cannot do whatever they wish to other life forms.

Now let’s return to my basic theme, the “Shin Do Fu Ji” philosophy. First of all, the actual practice of the philosophy — in other words, the fundamentals of diet– should be based on the earth. This means that the food you consume should be based on the life forms indigenous to your locale, i.e., life forms which grow in the same environment in which you live. Moreover, you should eat food in season (spring, summer, fall, winter). The advancement of refrigeration technology and worldwide transportation allows us to eat anything at any time. Without being conscious of it, we eat foods from all over the world, even if they are not in season locally. In this day of modern convenience, we need to pay particular attention to the food we consume.

Second, you must eat food which is as close to its original form as possible. Thus, when you eat rice, eat genmai (brown rice). When you eat wheat, eat unprocessed flour. When you eat fish, eat it whole, as much as possible. Small fish should be eaten as they are (head and all). Large ones can be cooked with skin and bones intact. If you eat vegetables, eat roots, leaves, stems and flowers. In short, you should basically eat foods which are processed to the least extent possible.

Third, eat foods that still have life (ki) in them. The question you should ask is whether what you are about to eat will grow if you plant it in the earth. Is it alive? (Does it have ki?) Eat food that is as close to this state as possible. Examples of these foods are root vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, seaweed and seeds. They are closest to the ideal foods. In the case of fish, the basic method of cooking should be cooking whole (head, skin, flesh and bones). Dried or smoked fish, deep fried fish, small fish tempura, etc., are ideal methods of fish preparation.

You should be careful about meat, however. Meat can be appropriate for people in cold climates. On the other hand, we Japanese have been vegetarians for a long time and have a rather short history with the practice of eating meat. Consumption of a large quantity of meant has physiologically harmful effects on us. We have a longer small intestine than Europeans (because we were traditionally vegetarians). Therefore meat remains in our bodies longer, and the decaying meat acidifies our blood.

When you eat meat, also eat colorful vegetables, potatoes, and drink red wine to balance the meat’s extreme acidity. Most meat in today’s marketplace is artificially raised. Thus, most chickens are diabetic because they are crammed in a small area without freedom of movement and fed high calorie feeds and antibiotics. When it comes to fish, yellowtail tuna, which most Japanese love to eat, tastes completely different when naturally caught in the ocean than it does when farmed. If you must eat meat, to the greatest extent possible select kinds that are raised in a natural environment. Lamb is close to the ideal meat in this sense.

The reason why I fish so frequently is that I don’t trust the fish that are available in markets today. Prepared filets can be washed too much, to the point where nutrients have been washed off the meat. Also, they are no longer a totally balanced food since they are missing heads, bones and skin. They have no power to harmonize.

The importance of diet is that it is the foundation of the creative development of life and living. We must not neglect what kind of food we consume. The conscious choice of diet is also a concrete way to recognize and feel one’s participation in the law of universal nature.

It is important to understand that each individual must choose his or her best diet with comprehensive study and actual experience, based on the customs, seasons and climate of the area where he or she lives, his or her profession, individual body constitution and characteristics, family environment, etc.

Take, for example, a man who has physical flexibility but who lacks muscle and body strength. If I describe flexibility versus strength as negative (-) versus positive (+), he is too much on the negative (-) side. In order to regain the ideal balance in his body, he must include the following items in his diet: high quality protein (grains, beans, naturally raised meat or fish), a variety of vegetables (burdock, carrots, radish, turnips, yams, onions, potatoes, etc.), and all kinds of seaweed. They are positive (+) yang foods. Consumption of these sorts of foods will offset his strong (-) tendency. In addition, he should include high quality vegetable oils and salt, such as sesame oil and natural vegetable oil and neutralized salts such as sesame salt, miso (soy bean paste) and umeboshi (pickled plum). These are (+) foods. Even if he doesn’t like fish bones, smelt and smoked whitefish — when broiled well — are good companions to beer. Ancient Japanese wisdom created miso soup with dried small fish in the soup stock.

It is a well known fact that during the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars, Japanese soldiers’ body strength (stamina) was number one in the world — even though, based on European standards of nutrition, it should have been among the worst because of their “poor” diet, from a European point of view. Nowadays the simple traditional Japanese diet is being reevaluated in light of contemporary nutritional excesses.

As I mentioned above, diet is the foundation of life activities. At the same time, as we are social animals (beings), it is the foundation of harmony among people. The consumption of food should have a social aspect to it. Excessive insistence on a certain kind of diet may disrupt harmony in groups and within your family. In your association with food you must keep flexibility in mind during those times when you are the host who provides food for others, as well as during those times when you are the guest who is treated to a meal. It takes great internal strength to practice this middle-of-the-road lifestyle. It is a difficult road to travel — that of clearly knowing the foundation of your own diet while having a sense of balance and understanding of how to harmonize with other people in society. My own motto is: “Harmonize yet do not get swept away.”


**Editor’s note: when purchasing books or other items online, please consider using Amazon Smile, designating “Birankai International” to receive donations generated from your purchases.

Are you “antifragile”?

Biran Online Editor

The antifragile gain from disorder, volatility, and other stressors

Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, is to feel stuck next to him on a long flight. During the journey, you’re confused, intrigued, frustrated, inspired, and uncomfortable. Most significantly, you’re motivated to get back out into the world and apply your hard-earned knowledge…much like our current predicament with COVID-19.

If you have the time and fortitude, Taleb’s book is exceptionally insightful and worth the effort.  For the rest, being antifragile means to gain from disorder, volatility, and other stressors.  By contrast, the fragile wants stability and predictability, and the robust doesn’t care.  The wind extinguishes a fragile candle and enlarges an antifragile wildfire.  A forest which endures periodic fires is more robust than one which hasn’t withstood a fire in centuries. Fragile is bad, robust or resilient is better, antifragile is best.

The philosophy of antifragility complements Aikido, if one appreciates the peace, love, and harmony we aikidoka strive for comes from working through and even seeking conflict, pain, and disorder.  Making the commitment to train. Shaping the body through ukemi, off-mat training, and diet. Practicing techniques until they are instinctive.  Working through injuries.  Maintaining commitment to train when life events and other competing priorities emerge. Assuming leadership roles in the dojo and Aikido community. Perhaps, becoming a teacher, responsible for transmission to new generations and maintaining a dojo. Wherever you might be on your path, consider the following principles Taleb promotes in Antifragile:

If one has nothing to lose, then everything is a gain, making one antifragile.

One’s ability to switch from one course of action to another is an option.  Options allow you to benefit from the positive side of uncertainty without a corresponding serious harm from the negative side. Continuously set conditions which maximize your options, preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended payoffs.  Avoid being “squeezed” – having no choice but to do something, regardless of costs.

When you’re fragile, you depend on minimal deviation and demand predictability – a rarity in our increasingly volatile world. The antifragile need only the wisdom to not do things which might harm themselves and to recognize and seize emerging favorable outcomes. 

Base decisions principally on fragility, not probability. Failure to predict a tsunami or economic meltdown is excusable; building something fragile to them is not.  Natural systems are antifragile thanks to layers of redundancy – high birthrates, extra organs (kidneys, lungs), the ability to store fat or lose tails to a predator…

By tinkering, one incurs lots of small losses at minimal cost to occasionally find something rather significant.  A “loser” or “victim” is one who, after making a mistake or suffering harm, doesn’t reflect and exploit the lesson for gain.

So, which are you? Your dojo? The Birankai community?  More importantly, how are you working to increase antifragility among the people and things you care about?  Biran Online posts in the coming months will meditate on these questions and make suggestions for greater antifragility.  Please email your submissions to

Structure Of Shu, Ha, Ri, and Penetration Of Shoshin

T.K. Chiba Shihan, Birankai Founder

Chiba Sensei and Aikido Founder, Morihei Ueshiba c.1960

The article “Structure of Shu, Ha, Ri, and Penetration of Shoshin” was first published in the 1989 Winter edition of Sansho, the Aikido Journal of the USAF Western Region. Two more articles on Shu-Ha-Ri followed, which were transcribed from interviews between Chiba Sensei and Shibata Sensei.

The article below was written when Sensei was a fully mature teacher with a clearly developed methodology to his teaching. Having taught Aikido for nearly 30 years, Sensei presented his understanding of “shoshin”, beginners mind, in a clear and powerful way. In his last advice to us, his students, in 2015 he returned to this frequently referenced principle, admonishing us to never lose our beginners mind.

Sensei’s later essays on Shu-Ha-Ri  expanded upon the concepts below, striving to help students assess their current and future levels of development. He wrote, “I am writing about Shu-Ha-Ri to help students understand where they are in terms of the stages of advancement in training. By developing ‘eyes to see’ what stage they are in, I want them to grasp what direction to take in their future training.”

This article and the principles presented in it introduced elements of Sensei’s teaching that he continued to develop through his life. They are central to what he gave us. Please read with an open heart and an open mind.

Darrell Bluhm Shihan, Ashland, Oregon, 2 January 2020

Among those words we commonly use and supposedly understand are those that, when paid close attention to in order to define their meaning, reveal how unclear and obscure our understanding really is.

Perhaps the word shoshin, which is commonly used by martial artists, is one of these. It is understood that Budo (martial art) begins with shoshin and ends with shoshin. Budo, therefore, cannot be understood without first having a clear definition of the meaning of shoshin.


What follows is a description of the meaning of the two Chinese characters that make up the Japanese word shoshin:  The character sho means first or beginning. The character shin means mind, spirit or attitude. The two together have been translated as “beginner’s mind” and indicate the mind (spirit or attitude) of a complete beginner when starting Budo training. This is marked by modesty, meekness, sincerity, purity and a thirst to seek the path.

In Japan, Budo discipline is commonly recognized as, or expected to be, severe and hard, requiring many years to master. Within shoshin one finds a spirit of endurance, sacrifice, devotion and self-control. Why do the Japanese see Budo training in this way? (In contrast to the American attitude where, in general, it seems that pleasure and enjoyment come first.) The Japanese understand that it is impossible to master the art without the determination to go through many years of training, passing through various stages and being required to go to one’s physical limit and sometimes even beyond. The Japanese also recognize that in the final completion of the physical mastery of the art, there is spiritual realization that can take one further.


The state attained through spiritual realization, the highest state of Budo, is often expressed as mushin, the state of No-Mind. It is represented by the image of a clear mirror reflecting everything that comes before it exactly as it is. The state of No-Mind reflects everything that passes in front of it, whether coming or going, without interference of will or self-imposed view. However, there is an important distinction between a static mirror and this active state of mind. The active mind responds spontaneously and simultaneously to the reflected image without attachment or interference, right or wrong, gain or loss, life or death. What makes this state more difficult to attain is that it requires physical motion (technique) to simultaneously accompany the mind responding to the images reflected upon it.

The state of mind like a clear mirror — the state of No-Mind — may be attained through other spiritual disciplines such as meditation. What makes Budo unique, however, is found in the simultaneous and inseparable embodiment of mind and the physical motion (the technique.) This stage of training is known as the Sword of No-Mind or the Sword of No-Form, or even as the Sword in a Dream. Only when this stage is attained is one’s art considered complete.

Shoshin is the mind or attitude required to follow the teaching. This implies sincerity, modesty, meekness, openness, endurance, sacrifice, and self-control unaffected by self-will, judgment or discrimination. It’s like a piece of pure white silk before it is dyed. It’s also an important condition for the first stage, in which a beginner learns to embody the basics precisely, point by point, line by line, with an immovable faith in the teaching.

Shoshin, however, is not only the state of mind required for a beginner, but must be present throughout every stage of training. The manifestation of shoshin therefore varies depending on one’s status: whether a beginner, intermediate, or advanced student. What’s most important is that one becomes, ultimately, one body inside and out, finally developing into Mind of No-Mind. This is the completion of Budo training.

One’s determination to hold firmly onto beginner’s mind is a key factor in the completion of one’s study. But how difficult this is to do! That determination is very vulnerable to being destroyed by fame, position, rank, or being lost through haughtiness or conceit.

Like everything else, shoshin encounters and experiences various challenges and can retreat, weaken, decay, or break down. It also can become clearer and stronger.

It’s vital to maintain a strict, self-reflective attitude throughout study to prevent shoshin from decaying or breaking down. It is necessary to be decisive, crawling out from a crisis not just once, but twice, three times, to keep on going. Loss of shoshin means the stopping of growth, and this almost always happens where and when one does not recognize it. This is a characteristic of losing shoshin. It is both a sign and a result of human arrogance.

If arrogance is the main cause of losing shoshin, modesty, its counterpart, is necessary to maintain it. A modest mind is one that recognizes the profoundness of the Path, knows fear, knows the existence of something beyond one’s own reality, while continuing to grasp one’s internal development.

Shoshin is also an idea strongly associated with self-denial, while arrogance is founded upon uneducated self-affirmation and superficial self-assertion. In many senses, self-denial works like a mid-wife to stimulate the birth of a true richness of heart. Paradoxically, while self-denial broadens, the reflection and understanding of human nature deepens.

In general, the difference between Americans and the Japanese lies in whether hardship or pleasure/enjoyment are anticipated in the study of Budo. This seems to be largely due to differences between the two cultures.

There still remains a strong influence from medieval ideas within all Japanese traditional artistic disciplines, including Budo, as well as within the present day Japanese consciousness.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi woodblock print of Miyamoto Musashi.

It is largely because of Yoshikawa’s work on Miyamoto Musashi that Musashi’s life is deeply appreciated by the Japanese people. He has now become a long-standing national hero. This is not only due to an appreciation of his accomplished swordsmanship, but also an appreciation of his austere way of life, which deeply moves Japanese consciousness. A similar respect can be found in the attitude of the Japanese people towards O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido. Despite the differences between Musashi and O’Sensei (the Zen influence strongly characterized Musashi’s life, while Shintoism influenced O’Sensei), what is common to these two gigantic individuals is the depth of their self-denial.

It is necessary to pay strong attention to the profoundness of this self-denial because it contributes to the birth of an even stronger self-affirmation.

Self-denial is a vital force that contributes paradoxically to the development of humankind. Through self-denial, one can attain cosmic consciousness and achieve greater self-recognition by transcending the restraints of the ego.

This process is basic to the progressive development/structure that is commonly understood within the traditional artistic disciplines, including Aikido. However, before I enter more deeply into this subject, I would like to touch briefly on the meaning of kata.

The Role of Ki in the Practice of Kata

Strasbourg, 1975

The study and disciplines of kata are the fundamental and common methods found throughout the traditional Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, painting, calligraphy, dancing, theater and Budo.

Kata has been translated into English as “form.” However, “form” seems to cover only one part of a larger whole, superficially limited to the physical appearance of kata.

While form covers only the physical part of the whole (the visible part of kata), there is another element that works within, which is invisible in nature. It is the internal energy associated with the flow of consciousness (ki). There are schools to be found in the old records of budo which describe kata as the Law of Energy, or the Order of Energy. Kata, therefore, does not limit its meaning merely to its physical appearance. Its appearance can be taught and transmitted physically with reasonable effort, as it is visible. However, the internal part requires a totally different perspective and an ability to master it. Since it cannot be seen physically, it cannot be taught but must be sensed and felt.

Ki, for instance, as a manifestation of control and flow of consciousness, works jointly with physical energy inside and outside of the body within kata. It is sensitively associated with the quality and combination of opposite elements that integrate and exchange: purity and impurity; brightness and darkness; wholeness and emptiness; contraction and expansion; positiveness and passivity; hardness and softness; lightness and heaviness; explosiveness and quietude; speed and slowness, and the like.

Kata comes into being as an organic life form when the two opposing elements, inside and outside, harmoniously integrate within a martial necessity. The kata then breathes, manifests, comes into being, and dies at the moment of execution. One must then let it go.

Furthermore, what makes kata significant is that it is deeply characterized by a school, especially a school’s founder, as well as the school’s successive personalities and experiences. Ultimately it crystallizes as a particular philosophy, which is then passed down to its successors. This is the heart of the school.

In its original form, kata is described as combative motion (against an enemy) and is the accomplishment and collective essence of each school. It results from the pursuit of efficiency, economy, and rational thought in any given circumstance.

By being exposed to — and trained in — kata, under a methodology unique to a school (or teacher) for a number of years, one can learn the physical forms and internal order of energy as well as being penetrated by the heart of a particular school.

Although the foundation of Aikido training is based on the repetition of kata, its approach is much freer and more flexible than in the old schools. It can be said that it is kata beyond kata. The reason for this can be found first of all in the positive fact that Aikido draws a wide diversity of people to it, compared to other budo disciplines. However, on the negative side, this contributes to a superficial overflow of individualism.

The second reason can be found in the fact that the Founder himself repeatedly transformed and changed his art and in particular its physical presentation. These changes were synonymous with his personal development and age. Without doubt, this is one of the reasons we see the different styles of kata, or different ways of expressing the essence of the art, among his followers. These students completed their training under the Founder at different periods of his life.

This continual development of Aikido is clearly due to the Founder’s endless exploration of the Path, a search with which, I assume, he was never satisfied. The best way that I can describe his attitude in this regard is that he used to tell his followers that if they advanced fifty steps, he would advance one hundred. I’m convinced that it was truly his intention to encourage his younger followers.

Although there appear to be differences in the approach to kata between Aikido and other arts, the mastery of kata still carries substantial weight in our study. It might, therefore, be helpful to describe the three progressive stages that appear in the study of the traditional arts that exist in Japan. Some of these I will illustrate with the hope that visualization will help the reader grasp them more fully!

Stages in the Study of Traditional Art


The first stage is known as shu, and can be translated as follows: to protect, defend, guard, obey, keep, observe, abide by, stick to, be true to. From these definitions, the characteristics of this particular stage can be said to be: protection (by teaching), observation (of teaching), keeping one’s eyes open (on the teaching.)

As one can see, there are two factors: one a subjective issue, the other objective. For example, to be protected (by the teaching), to be defended (by the teaching), and to be guarded (by the teaching) all refer to defense against external negative influences, and from falling into danger and making mistakes. These are all objective issues. On the other hand, to obey the order (of the teaching), to observe (the teaching), to stick (to the teaching), to be true (to the teaching), are all subjective, internal issues.

Technically, what is characteristic of this stage is the learning and embodiment of the fundamentals through the repetition of kata, exactly as they are presented, without the imposition of will, opinion, or judgment, but with  total openness and modesty.

This is an important basic conditioning period both physically and mentally, wherein all the necessary conditions are carefully prepared for the next stage. Physically, this is the time when various parts of the body are trained — joints, muscles, bones, overall posture, how to set the lower part of the body centered around the midsection, the use of gravity and its control, the balanced use of hands and footwork, etc.

Mentally, one learns how to focus and concentrate attention on any particular part of the body at any given time, how to generate internal energy and its natural flow through the use of the power of the imagination. Furthermore, one learns faith, trust, respect, endurance, modesty, sacrifice, and courage, all of which are considered to be virtues of udo.

There is no set time or period to this stage. It all depends on the strength, quality, ability, and capability on the parts of both teacher and student. Generally speaking, however, it does not have to be too long, say from three to five years. Needless to say, this is said on the assumption that one trains earnestly, trains every day, and makes training the first priority of that time of one’s life.      


The stage that follows shu is known as ha. The definition of ha translates as: to tear up, rip, rend, break, crush, destroy, violate, transgress, open, burst

As these definitions indicate, this is a rather dynamic stage in character and strongly leans toward negativity and denial. However, paradoxically this negativity leads progressively to self-affirmation.

The stage of shu, described before, is centered on the denial of individualism. That which then develops afterwards is a stage of self-affirmation, which is based on denial of the first stage, shu. A new horizon then opens up. It requires a totally different perception in order to grasp the whole meaning of what is happening at this time.

This stage demands careful preparation by both teacher and student. The strength of the teaching and deep insight and recognition of the potential of the student by the teacher, and the ceaseless and earnest study carried out by the student in response to the teaching, are essential. This is not a superficial self-assertion or pose of individualism, because its strength comes from having been through the flame of self-denial.

Technically, this is also the stage when it is required to rearrange or reconstruct what the teacher has taught. This includes the elimination of what is undesirable, unnecessary or unsuitable and allows new elements to be brought into the study as food for growth. These changes are based on the true recognition of self, together with accompanying conditions such as temperament, personality, style, age, sex, weight, height and body strength.

This is the stage, spiritually or mentally, when it is necessary to have a high mind of inquiry and self-reflection. More than anything else, it is required to attain a true and unshakable understanding of oneself as an individual. In other words, it’s necessary to have a clear vision of one’s own potential and the best possible way to stimulate it. This might require that one abandons or denies that which is already an asset or strength in one’s art. In this stage, in particular, gaining does not necessarily mean being creative, but often means losing or abandoning, and this plays an important part in the process. It is indeed a difficult task to carry out and one often does not see its necessity due to lack of true insight and courage.

Due to human nature, it is indeed difficult to deny what one already has, especially when it’s considered to be a good part of one’s possession. This is where most people get stuck and cease to grow. It is a matter of insight and perception in relation to the true recognition of self. In relation to human growth, this stage is still the period of the infant and youth and therefore still comes under the wing of the teaching and the teacher. Another, very significant part of this stage, is moving from the complete passivity of the previous stage to active responsibility for one’s own training.

What happens in this stage is that the one who gives (on the part of teaching — an external effect) and the one who receives (on the part of the student — an internal effort) simultaneously contribute towards the birth of individualism. It is exactly like the moment when the baby bird within the egg begins to break the shell from the inside as the parent bird helps to break through from the outside. If the time is not mature, the death of the bird results.

Again, there is no set time or period for how long this stage takes. However, this is an important transitional period. Grow from infant-youth to a complete, fully grown individual appears only after this stage.


The final stage is known as ri.  The definition of the character is: separation, leave, depart (from), release, set free, detach.

As the definition indicates, this is the time of graduation. The completion of one’s study is here, though it isn’t the end of study. In this stage, one is given recognition as a Master of the art, as well as recognition as a complete individual, independent in the art. Obviously, in this stage, one has to acquire every required technical skill, knowledge and experience, and a dauntless personality. Spiritually or mentally one no longer depends or relies upon external help or guidance. One depends upon one’s own continual inquiry. This is the stage where one may begin to see the Mind of No-Mind, or the Sword of No-Mind, through an as-yet misty horizon.

Summer Camp 2013

Needless to say, to attain this stage takes work and study that is beyond expression in words. This is where one liberates the self from external reliances, including one’s teacher, until cosmic consciousness, the Mind of No-Mind and the Sword of No-Sword, are revealed. And it is the state of shoshin with its continuous growth that is the key to its attainment.

I’ve given a brief description of shu, ha, and ri with their progressive development and structure. However, these three stages do not necessarily set up in mechanical form with clear boundaries between them, although their progression and transformation are basically acknowledged through a certificate given by the teacher.

Referring the above system to the present ranking system practiced in today’s Aikido, the stage of shu is applicable up to the rank of third Dan, the stage of ha up to fifth Dan, and the stage of ri to sixth Dan and above. Obviously it doesn’t apply to everyone’s rank, for both negative and positive reasons. The quality of rank is often questionable; and then there is the genius, someone who is not necessarily restrained by any system.

One who has attained the stage of ri is considered to be a master of the art. He/she has become one of the successors of the Path who stands as the embodiment of the art to all others. Obviously, one is still regarded as junior to one’s teacher within the line of transmission. Nevertheless, one is equal to any other master, including one’s own teacher, in responsibility to continue to transmit the art to others. And by this continual transmission of responsibility the art develops through further generations.

Whether the above-mentioned system is still practiced in today’s Aikido in Japan, or whether it is workable here in the United States where culture, life-style, and way of thinking are so different, is not my present interest. I am convinced, however, that this system still carries profound value for today’s society, as it presents deep insight into the growth of humankind. Furthermore, it clarifies the responsibilities of the teacher and the student, thus contributing to the establishment of an ideal relationship between the two.

Whatever changes American Aikido makes in the future, it will still require a close association with Japan. This is not limited to the technical level, but is meant more broadly from a cultural perspective. Culture exists as an undercurrent within the art wherein knowledge, wisdom, experience, and insight with regard to human growth through physical and spiritual training can be found.

Seeing all change as creative development is a dangerous concept, especially when this is given affirmative recognition based on the superficial assertion of one’s own creativity. Equally dangerous is the harsh demand for independence of the art based on political or racial reasons, or giving too strong an emphasis on the differences between two countries (East is East, West is West . . . is an extreme attitude). This is important, especially as American Aikido as a whole is still considered to be in its youth.

Change is unavoidable and only natural.  However, it is illogical to think only of change while not recognizing those things which do not change. Changes derive from differences. Their counterpart — no-change — comes from something common and unified between the differences, through which the value of the art becomes a universal asset or property of mankind.

Whether one places importance on a part that changes or on a part that does not change, it’s necessary to have a delicate balance. Ultimately, it is shoshin which will bring about both a deeper insight and a sense of balance.

In the final analysis, it is perhaps shoshin that American Aikido as a whole needs, to be truly creative and independent in the future.

Cultivating Birankai’s Next Generation

Rob Schenk, Chief Instructor, Aikido Institute of San Francisco

Many of you are aware Doshu was recently hosted for a weekend seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area (September 2019). During the weekend activities, I was fortunate to attend a special discussion on ‘The State of Aikido in the United States‘, held by Josh Gold, of Aikido Journal (Josh took over after Stanley Pranin’s passing).

The statistics that Josh shared during the discussion are sobering. Since 2004, interest in Aikido has dropped 90%. This interest continues to decline 9% PER YEAR at a consistent rate. 82% of Aikido practitioners are over 40 years of age. Less than 16% of United States Aikido practitioners are women (clearly Chiba Sensei was ahead of his time: Birankai has more women Shihan than men!)

It is clear that if we keep doing things as we have been doing them, our art will die a slow death and fade away.

Bold steps, open minded leadership, getting outside of our comfort zones, and new ways of engagement are needed NOW. We in the Northern California Region propose a way to slow down this trend and ultimately reverse it, is to refocus on and expand our Youth Programs.

To do our part to create some new energy, the NorCAL Region held its 1st Annual Kid’s Seminar on August 31, 2019.

Members from Aikido Institute of San Francisco, Alameda Aikikai, Grass Valley Aikikai, and Gassaku Aikido participated in an energetic afternoon of conditioning games, learning about Aikido principles, and practicing ukemi basics. A potluck followed with camaraderie, community building, and good food.

It was wonderful to see a large turnout with students open to receiving positive and engaged instruction from Marci Martinez from Grass Valley, Bernard Dalay from Alameda Aikikai, and Gerard Enriquez from Aikido Institute of SF.

For Aikido to thrive into the future, it really comes back to the kids. If we can engage and inspire kids with the positive messages of Aikido, including discipline, focus, character development, respect and martial awareness, we will carry on O’Sensei and Chiba Sensei’s legacies. We look forward to developing and extending our shared lineage through continued, dedicated practice, one child at a time.

-Rob Schenk, Aikido Institute of San Francisco

I completely agree with Rob and think that these children are the future of Aikido. This regional seminar was needed to bring us all together and see the future and potential of our region. The way the kids seemed to get along and the support and camaraderie that we just witnessed this weekend was inspiring.

Mitsu Nobusada Flynn, Alameda Aikikai

The First Annual Northern California Regional Youth Seminar had a great turn out of students and teachers.  It was fantastic to see how the youth from different dojos were comfortable playing and training with each other using Aikido as their common bond.  Our students had not seen youth in hakama before. Those with hakama helped the younger students with how to engage at a seminar and that it was safe to try new things. Not only did they train together, but it feels like they inspired one another.  One of the youth from Grass Valley had a fire lit within him, and for most of the way home, he was talking about how he couldn’t wait to show the other kids how he practiced Ikkyo.  This seminar has created a more intense hunger in our students that they will share with their other dojo mates. This will help drive them to train at a different level than before and to feel comfortable training with students from other dojos.

-Marci Martinez, Grass Valley Aikikai

The 3 Most Important Words in Birankai

Phil Mansour, September 2019

For years I stated a passionate opinion.  Eight years ago, I was encouraged to capture this opinion in writing since my “journey has been different than many”.  I struggled with the notion that somehow, there was anything unique about my Aikido experience.  Isn’t everyone’s path in Aikido unique?  In recent years as I travel, hearing others’ journeys, learning as much as I can and passing on as much as I can from those lessons, I finally found the inspiration to put my views into text.

I will provide a bit of background:  I first saw Aikido in 1983 at Michigan State University.  To me, it was the best example of applied physics among human interactions I could imagine.  All I wanted was to be able to do “it”, even if it took a lifetime.   I was an extremely uncoordinated computer geek; much later in life, I discovered I fell just outside the Autism Spectrum.  My best friend’s father introduced me to “it”.  I hung around the dojo, learning the philosophy from the Sensei and participants long before I ever stepped on the mat.  Right out of high school in 1985, I joined the club dojo – a Yoshinkai dojo, which had beautiful Aikido and still exists today.  I trained for about 18 months, passed a number of early tests, and then was banished because of some dojo politics with senior students.  Though not in the dojo, I still practiced bokken (with very poor form) and read and dreamed about aikido.  

In 1995, I stumbled onto a new Aikido club in town:  a non-affiliated dojo, with instruction once a week.  I began studying again in earnest.  The group soon grew and joined the U.S. Aikido Federation (USAF) Eastern Region.  Our fledgling group attended summer camps, seminars and traveled to a USAF Western Region dojo in Ann Arbor as often as possible.   I passed my 5th, 4th, and 3rd kyu tests, dropping into dojos and seminars as I traveled.  Five years later, Lansing, Michigan received a great gift from the Universe (at least in terms of Aikido) when Frank Apodaca Sensei moved into town.  He took in our motley crew of dedicated students, beginning a new chapter in our journey.

It was obvious the standardization of the Birankai curriculum, the basics, and the body movement led by such an incredible instructor would be a wonderfully challenging journey.  For years we studied.  For YEARS we tested and retested and retested before anyone was awarded a new rank. 

I continued to train on the road, often in San Diego and in other Birankai-affiliated dojos.  When my only option was another style, I was almost always warmly welcomed and made numerous friends.  This experience taught me there are many systems and ways to learn Aikido:   affiliated and non-affiliated; beginning with the body then developing the mind; beginning with the mind and then developing the body; building strength, then working toward flow and softness; working from softness to then build power; and so on. In each approach to training lies various ways to measure performance and rank.  Clearly, they all produce great Aikidoists, and it’s been my honor to train with many.

For me, progress in Aikido began when I found an extrinsic system I could trust to measure myself against, coupled with a gifted and patient instructor who unwaveringly transmitted the system.  During years of intense training and struggle, blind to all the changes in my body and mind and lacking reference (since my classmates were improving as well), this system removed my concern about level, rank, and progress.  I could simply submit to the process.  Rarely, if ever, did I find someone in the community of a “higher rank” who wasn’t more skilled than I. This was a constant testimony to the measuring stick for which I had signed up and allowed me to relax further into the system.  The system has an integrity which instills a sense of trust.  

At the heart of that integrity are three simple, beautiful and powerful words: “Please Try Again”.   These words are amazingly inspirational to me.  They scream, “Phil, you can do better.  You have more room to grow at this level.  Go find it!”  These words are an external validation of where I am in the system and where I am not.   Absent of politics and external motivations, these words are the only reason the word “PASS” has any value. 

I was honored last fall to participate as an uke in a test for kyu ranks ranging from 5th to 2nd kyu and practice tests for shodan and nidan.  I was reminded how testing is really about looking into a mirror and seeing its clear reflection.  I was thrilled that day to hear these three words.  I saw the integrity of the system upheld by a next-generation instructor.  I was also thrilled for all the students who heard these words.  I spoke with the recipients of these three most important words, explaining how lucky it is to hear them on a 3rd kyu test, and that I too heard them a half dozen times on my 3rd kyu practice tests from Apodaca Sensei more than a decade and a half earlier. 

Those hearing the word “Pass” had a bit more confidence in their ability.  

The students appreciated me relating my experience and are continuing to work hard.

These words, “Please, try again”, administered by a community of instructors, generally of the same mind set, generally on the same curriculum, with generally of the same philosophy, continue to produce students who reaffirm the “trust” so crucial to a standard.  The system is a classic feedback loop:  the measuring stick gets stronger as these words are administered in a true and honest way. The system becomes stronger and avoids erosion.  I may never reach another rank within the system.  This is OK.  What I know, and will never question, is the rank I achieved.

I continue to travel, 250+ days a year now.  I train wherever and whenever I can, regardless of affiliation.  I have visited more than 75 dojos across the world, many for only a single class, others for weeks or months of training.  Thanks to the integrity of the Birankai system (because of those three words), I am confident in where I am and where I am not, and now have evolved to simply allow everyone I train with to be my mirror, my test.

Thirty-six years after seeing Aikido for the first time and wanting to be able to do “it” and twenty-three years after beginning Aikikai training, I still cannot.  On rare occasions I can see in my uke’s eyes I am doing something close to “it”.  I hope I have a number of years left to keep learning and getting closer to my goal.   I never waiver in my confidence that following the Birankai system is the way for me to get further and allow me to always know where I stand.

The journey is well worth it.

Introduction to a Collection of Essays by T.K. Chiba

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai and member of BNA Senior Council

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a future book presenting Chiba Sensei’s extensive writings on aikido, some of which will be republished in Biran Online over the coming year.

In traditional Japanese artistic disciplines such as Budo, it is understood that the teacher/student relationship is the means through which the transmission of the art (or Way) occurs:  the art is transmitted directly from the body/mind of the teacher to that of the student.  The articles in this collection of writings by Aikido master Kazuo Chiba must be understood in this context.  The wisdom expressed here emerges from the effort to transmit the art of Aikido — not in the abstract, but as a living breathing force from one person to another.  The commitment and passion that characterizes Chiba Sensei’s  teaching can be found in part in these writings, but the reader unfamiliar with the master himself should try to appreciate the intensely physical and personal nature of his life’s work.  Those of us fortunate enough to have studied directly with Chiba Sensei knew that he taught by example and through his ability to recognize each of us as a unique being.

The word sensei, Japanese for teacher, literally means “one who walks on the path before me”.  Chiba Sensei embodies this.  When I first began training with Chiba Sensei upon his arrival in San Diego in 1981, we practiced in a yoga studio that required us to put down and pick up the tatami mats before and after each class and clean the hardwood floors with damp rags. The latter was accomplished by holding the rag to the floor with both hands and then running across the floor, pushing the rag from behind, back and forth until the surface was clean. This was a strenuous enterprise, following an always exhausting training. Chiba Sensei would join us and when one of us would ask to relieve him of his rag he would refuse, stating, “It is my privilege to clean the dojo”.  Once the routine for cleaning the dojo was established, Sensei eventually left the task to us, as there were many other demands on his time. 

In his everyday teaching, Chiba Sensei never asked his students to submit to any rigor that he himself had not undergone. This offered little solace to us as students because Sensei’s arduous physical training was legendary (one mile of bunny hops, 3,000 continuous sword cuts, extended and intense periods of meditation and self-purification training).  While his commitment to his own practice was uncompromising, he tailored his expectations of his students, taking into account age, temperament, health and each student’s level of commitment, challenging and inspiring us toward our development but never in a by-rote or mechanical way.

The responsibility of a teacher is to recognize his or her students for who they are and help them awaken to their own potential within a given discipline. This is inherently different from a parental role in which one is responsible for the nourishment and daily care of a child, while the deeper manifestation of who that child is, is by proximity hidden from the parent. The parent is too close to the child and their own emotional attachments and expectations cloud their perception.  A teacher has a more objective and detached perspective to see into a student. In the Japanese martial tradition that Chiba Sensei followed, the teacher does have a responsibility to the spiritual nourishment of the student.  

The requirement for achieving that obligation within this tradition is that the teacher must possess the eyes to see deeply into the student along with “the heart of the Buddha and hands of the devil” with which to awaken him or her. An outsider observing an interaction between teacher and student may only witness  “the hands of the devil” and not appreciate the compassion that underlies the action.  This aspect of Chiba Sensei’s teaching was linked to his commitment to sustaining the roots of Aikido training that lie in its historical and living relationship to Budo.  Aikido, as created by its founder Morihei Ueshiba, is directed towards cultivating the harmonization of  self with others (enabling individuals to act responsibly in a civil society), rather than the capacity to survive by any means in combat, which was the objective of past martial training.

The founder’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, furthered his father’s work promoting Aikido as a highly ethical discipline, cleansed of many of the more vulgar aspects of martial arts, yet true to Aikido’s source, Budo.  On the surface, the martial essence of Aikido can be difficult to recognize,  especially when it is presented in its most flowing form, with large circular movements, graceful and elegant. Seen this way, it appears unrelated to the martial imperative to recognize where, when, and with what technique to kill an opponent.  

Chiba Sensei brought the martial essence of Aikido closer to the fore, clarifying the highly rational and structured elements of his art, yet faithful to the deeper, more instinctual processes at work in each vital martial encounter.  Within the crucible of his own dojo, he created the conditions for transmitting this art to his students, forging their bodies and characters in the fires of daily training.

The use of story, song, poem and philosophical discourse as a means to further the understanding and accomplishment of students has a long tradition in Japanese martial arts.  Chiba Sensei’s writing draws from a deep well of literature from his own cultural tradition as well as sources outside.  Having lived in Europe and the United States for over 35 years, he was also familiar with much of western philosophy and literature, such as the writings of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and others.  He always encouraged those of us who were his students to express ourselves in writing, exposing us to Japanese literary resources and prompting us to look within our own cultural traditions for inspiration. Within the first months of my training with him he requested that I read “The Swordsman and the Cat” from the appendices of D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture  and submit to him an essay based on my reactions to the story.  

Every time one was tested for advancement in rank under Chiba Sensei’s direction, an essay on some aspect of training was required. While he encouraged students to draw from cultural literature as an influence for thinking and writing about Aikido practice, he was most pleased when the writing reflected an understanding of self and circumstance that had emerged directly from training.  The writing presented in this volume represents knowledge distilled from a lifetime of training, a knowledge not limited to the intellect but one deeply connected to the body and the deeper and richer recesses of being.

For those readers who are not practitioners of Aikido or who have never had the opportunity to experience Chiba Sensei’s teaching directly, the essays offered in this volume can serve as an opening into a master’s world.  The photographs and reproductions of Chiba Sensei’s brushwork that accompany the writing can widen that aperture and deepen your appreciation.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then to feel the touch of a master is worth a million pictures.  For those of us who practice Aikido, these writings are a source for deep reflection and an encouragement to continue moving on our own path towards a deeper appreciation of Aikido and the unique miracle of our own lives.

“Takemusu” calligraphy by Chiba Sensei

Conscious Training

T.K. Chiba Shihan, Birankai Founder

Chiba Sensei in Poland, 2007

Editor’s note: this article was previously published in Sansho, April, 1987

Anyone who thinks that putting more hours into training will necessarily result in greater achievement in the art is thinking like a child. Fundamentally, it is a materialistic attitude and doesn’t lead anywhere but to an unsolvable problem. We can’t avoid moving, day by day, closer to the grave.

Many people think that through training they can make their bodies responsive and controllable; that they’ll be able to move them as they wish. I don’t deny that this is an important part of learning. However, it is only part of it. A part that is only relative to a greater factor which one should be more aware of. This, I think, is more important: to develop an introspective attitude in training, with a more serious eye to self-examination. This is a matter of the quality within one’s training.

To recognize the imbalance, disharmony, or disorder within one’s system, sensed within the body, as well as between the body and consciousness, is a starting point for one’s growth. This is where a conversation or dialog begins to happen between the body and consciousness. As the dialog develops, awareness becomes more clear, and one begins to recognize a natural power or potential ability which has, until then, been hidden.

Instead of adding an external element to the body, one needs to see what is already within. More importantly, consciousness itself (the way one perceives things), begins to change along with the discovery of the true body (as opposed to the body that one changes according to will.)

The important and unique thing that makes Aikido what it is, is that progress moves in proportion to the discovery of a natural power which is already within each individual, together with an organic, dynamic core, which helps the body function in harmony and as a whole.

It is the kind of path where one progressively encounters the true self with wonder and joy. The “estranged self,” hidden with its inexhaustible potential, lies undiscovered by many people who die without knowing that it even exists.

In many ways, rightly or wrongly, our bodies are the product of our consciousness. In order to discover what that is requires close self-examination within our training. It isn’t a path where one adds more and more information, details, power, etc., externally and endlessly, to the “too much” that is already there.

Touching upon this subject in a profound way, according to Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen: “Buddhist practice through the body is more difficult than practice through the mind. Intellectual comprehension in learning through the mind must be united to practice through our body. This unity is called SHINJITSUNINTAI, the real body of man. It is the perception of everyday mind, through the phenomenal world. If we harmonize the practice of enlightenment with our body, the entire world will be seen in its true form.”

Finally, the discovery of the true body of man, with its value and beauty, is beyond comparison with competitive values, but rather stands on its own within each individual. Thus, the only conclusion is for Aikido to be non-competitive.  I’d like to add another Zen master’s words in this regard — a master from Vietnam whose lecture (given at Smith College in New Hampshire, Massachusetts) I was fortunate enough to attend. During a question and answer period, a woman stood up and asked him what he thought of the meditation system practiced by the Quakers. He answered, “How can you compare the beauty of a cherry flower with that of a rose?”

Little and Big Aikido: Suggestions for the Future

Lynne Ballew, April 2019

An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership

Lynn with Chiba Sensei

I have not been on the mat for 16 months and I have been retired from Birankai leadership for the same amount of time, yet here I am writing an article for Biran…still volunteering for an organization that I am no longer involved with.  I began volunteering for Chiba Sensei in 1992 and I never stopped until December 2018.  Over those 20 years I easily spent 15,000 volunteer hours for Birankai and Chiba Sensei, probably more, I never counted.  It is worthwhile to analyze what motivated me to volunteer in order to understand what it would take to attract a new generation of leadership.

Wanting to give back to Sensei – Despite being a confirmed lifetime klutz, at 33, I began training in earnest.  As my commitment to my training increased, my teacher took my training more seriously.  He started using me for ukemi and paying attention to my progress on the mat.  Because he, as my Teacher, took me seriously, I took him very seriously and felt compelled to give back to him and to the organization that he had established.

It was fun – I enjoyed volunteering.  I had a chance to be creative and use what I was good at.  For years I was the junior ranked aikidoka amongst very talented senior ranking practitioners in the room.  They were much better at aikido than I was but I had something to offer that they perhaps did not.  Very talented athletes are not always the best at things outside of their art/sport.  It was really fun to offer my skills to people that needed help.  I felt good about my talents and myself, as they were needed.  People volunteer because they get something out of it.  I got a seat at the table and companionship from people that I am still close with.   We had lots of fun along the way working on issues and took time to laugh at each other and the process along the way. 

I was addicted to aikido, it became my life – Sensei had us training so hard and intensely that we couldn’t think about anything else; we became completely present in our training.  The outside world disappeared while we were on the mat.  I became addicted to this level of training.  I trained 10 hours a week and it became the center of my world.  It followed naturally from this that I gave something back to my addiction, my world; I would not have been capable of only taking. 

Family – While training and volunteering, the people that I was spending time with became like family.  To this day I count among my closest friends in the world the people with whom I trained intensively and with whom I helped to shape Birankai.  Even in my departure, I tried to leave people in place to replace me so as not to let my family down. 

I was asked and then I asked others – Before Ismail Hasan Sensei (Aikido of London) left the Kenshusei program at San Diego Aikikai, he asked me to volunteer. He was taking care of the family he was leaving behind.  I agreed.  Next, Elizabeth Beringer asked me to be on the USAF-Western Region Advisory Council.   In later years I asked others to volunteer, they also became longtime volunteers.  Lyons Shihan had married and was busy running his farm when I asked him to take on a fundraising project and later to join the Board of Directors; Peterson Sensei was busy with his family and military career when I asked him to join the Board of Directors; and Cohen Sensei  was busy with her family when I asked her to volunteer to help with the fundraising job and later to became Summer Camp Coordinator.  They all made positive contributions and changed the face of our organization because someone asked for their time.

So, what does this history lesson teach us:

Training must be intense and martial to attract people to become long term practitioners of aikido. –  In order to get people to show up several times a week to the dojo and to subsequently volunteer I think they need to become addicted to the art.  The only way to do this is with very intense training.  However, a caveat to this is that for various reasons that have been outlined by other people in other articles, the population of aikidoka is aging and we are not attracting as many young people to the art as we used to.  With that in mind a serious commitment should be made by Birankai Teachers to develop an aikido that is both highly martial and low impact.  Notice that there are very few post-menopausal women that remain in Aikido, and yet in earlier years women make up a large percentage of our membership.  We need to develop a type of training that remains intense and yet that people are still able to do as bones and joints age.  Get and keep people addicted even in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

Build community that people want to belong to and therefore are motivated to volunteer for at the dojo level and at the organizational level. – Without the charismatic leader that attracted me to Aikido it is difficult to attract students to become involved beyond the dojo level.  Chief Instructors should consider using summer camp as a way to attract their students to become involved with and bond with the larger organization.  Attending summer camp can help people feel that they belong to the larger “family” and thus hopefully motivate them to volunteer for the organization. 

Ask people to volunteer. – It works.  Most people like to be noticed and to think that their contribution might matter.

Cultivate leadership and volunteers.  – Chief Instructors should cultivate volunteering as an expression of and a deepening commitment to one’s Aikido practice.  Birankai leaders should consider how to cultivate an environment in which volunteerism is expected and acknowledged at every level and rank in the organization.  This will help broaden the pool of volunteers.

Take time to have fun along the way. – Don’t try to do too much organizationally that you don’t leave time for your volunteers to play.  Meetings should have time for a joke or prank or two and not be only about business. 

Recognize the necessity of volunteering. – Note that many years ago we had over 1,000 members in Birankai.  Our current organizational structure was built on that level of membership.  A larger membership enabled the organization to support paying an Executive Director and providing a stipend to support some other organizational jobs.  We have dwindled to 645 members now.  The lower level of people paying dues will mean that finding volunteers is more crucial than ever…somebody else is not going to take care of it…the organization needs you.  Volunteer to help with something. 
Email Deb Pastors at if you can give as little as 1 or 2 hours a month to help with the many tasks it takes to keep our village running and continue to spread the art of our beloved TK Chiba Shihan.

Chiba Sensei and Lynne’s daughter, Hanna

The Ecology of Birankai

By Lizzy Lynn, Birankai Senior Advisor, Eastshore Aikikai

An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership

When Steve Thoms first asked me to write about the change in leadership in Birankai North America, I demurred. I have been so close to the process that I thought I would not be able to step back enough from the people and personalities engaged in the transition.

But after some reflection, I decided to try. Now that I am no longer Chair of the Senior Council, with my function devolved to (mostly) an advisory role, I have had the opportunity and privilege to look at the work we do in a different way.

I first want to thank the Birankai members who have guided us through a hard time, and have now passed their responsibilities to others. I particularly wish to recognize the outgoing President/Board Chair Alex Peterson, retired Executive Director Cindy Eggers, and retired Financial Advisor Lynne Ballew for their unswerving and careful management during the years of our teacher’s illness and passing. Thanks also to the members of the Senior Council, the Directors, and the many volunteers who have worked steadily to keep the organization healthy. I also want to thank the folks who have stepped up, and have selflessly accepted responsibility for the organization’s work, especially President/Board Chair Deb Pastors, Executive Director Neilu Naini, Senior Council Chair Frank Apodaca, Teachers Council Chair Roo Heins, and Summer Camp Coordinator Leslie Cohen.

It is natural for leadership to change over time. Governments, corporations, families – all have built-in processes to pass on knowledge and responsibility to the next generation. It is not only natural: it’s necessary. New people bring fresh ideas, new enthusiasms, and fresh responses to changing conditions.

BNA – and all Aikido organizations — reminds me very much of an ecosystem. (I beg the indulgence of the scientists among us who will cringe at my simplifications.) Imagine a forest. It is shaped by climate, soil character, and water. What kind of plants and animals inhabit it depends on how hot or cold the environment is, what nutrients the soil provides, and the abundance or absence of rain. But the forest is not a mechanical object. It is a living system: complex, inter-relational, and dynamic. 

BNA too is a dynamic system. Prior to the creation of Birankai, Chiba Sensei described the organization he wished to develop as one which find a way to reconcile the values of American democracy and Japanese budo. He described it as he hoped it would be, as an harmonious and creative community. The work of that community is to support the transmission of the Way of Aiki from teachers to students. The transmission is manifested – given life — through Gyo, practice. Sensei was direct and explicit: “The foundation of the transmission is the teacher-student relationship. A transmission without the healthy development and dignity of the teacher-student relationship misses the essence of Aikido. It will dry up the essential Aikido life force.” [T.K. Chiba, January 1995.]

Birankai dojos are the place where that work is done. If BNA is an ecosystem, the individual dojos might be seen as habitats within that system. A flourishing forest contains a diversity of plants and animals. Birankai dojos, similarly, are distinct and diverse. Each has its own character, forged by the relationship of its students to their teacher. BNA as an organization exists to serve the Way. I believe that the best way to do that is to support our teachers, and to strengthen and assist the growth of our dojos, since they are where the transmission occurs.

This is a demanding time, not only for Aikido, but for many traditional martial arts. Birankai is nearly twenty years old. External conditions – cultural conditions — have changed since Chiba Sensei first envisioned it. But nothing, we know, is permanent. What happens to a forest when the weather patterns shift, if there is too much rain, or if there is none? A healthy ecosystem responds robustly to a change in conditions. What does an Aikido organization do when it encounters disruption or instability, either internally or externally? It holds fast to its mission, to serve the Way, and applies its knowledge and its skills to the encounter.

I am confident that BNA can respond flexibly to the challenges we face. The people who have volunteered to lead us are knowledgeable and mature. We have an abundance of dedicated teachers, who embody the art fully. We have a solid connection to the lineage and to the mother house. We have students who wish to study. And we have a compelling message: As Aikido practitioners, our lives have been transformed and enriched by training in this art. We must find ways to make this happiness visible to others.

I am deeply grateful to those members who have served BNA for so long, and now withdraw to rest, and equally grateful to those who have stepped up to share the work. I hope that, as we move into the future, we can remain united in friendship and in kindness.


Lizzy Lynn