The amazing weather continues in Tacoma as Birankai North America prepares for testing tonight. Candidates for dan ranks and fukushidoin (junior teacher) recertification will be testing and all camp attendees are on notice to jump up for ukemi. Should be a fun (and tiring) night. Gambatte!
Lots of people are arriving at the University of Puget Sound campus for 2018 Birankai North America Summer Camp and the first class starts at 7 pm. Some snapshots as camp revs up — above is the crack Aikido Daiwa mat team testing out the training surface!
Didier Boyet Shihan started studying with Chiba Sensei in 1977, spending an extensive amount of time with him in Japan, Europe, England and San Diego. Boyet lived in Tokyo and trained at Hombu Dojo from 1977 to 2016 – he currently lives in Paris and travels the world teaching Aikido seminars. The following is an edited transcript of several conversations between Boyet Shihan and Liese Klein in Tokyo in March of 2016. Some of Boyet Sensei’s experiences are also related in the upcoming biography The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido. Boyet Sensei will be the featured guest instructor at 2018 Birankai Aikido Summer Camp, July 20-25 in Tacoma, Wash.
Tell me about your arrival in Tokyo in 1977.
I arrived on Oct. 4, a Tuesday, and on the 7th, I joined Chiba Sensei’s class. I came a little bit early: He signed me up at the dojo then he took me to Kisshomaru Sensei’s house. Then he took me to his class, I changed and sat down in the dojo. There were very few people, maybe 12. When everyone bowed in, the only one left to train with was this Japanese guy. We started training and I thought, ‘This guy’s trying to kill me!’ I’m thinking that I can’t take it, I’m going to die! That was Shibata Sensei. I had very long hair at that time – for iriminage he grabbed me by the hair. After class everyone was laughing. I was a very weak shodan. Then I started going to Shibata Sensei’s class and he sort of liked me. We were eight people in this class at 3 pm. The class was very wonderful, it was very dynamic but basic, basic.
How did you first meet Chiba Sensei?
I first met Chiba Sensei during the Tamura Sensei Summer Camp of 1973 or ’74 in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France. I believe that this was Chiba Sensei’s first visit to France although he had been living in England since 1966.
When I saw Chiba Sensei practice for the first time, I said ‘Oh my god.’ It was raw. There was violence but I never saw it as violence, I saw it as something raw, mainly, He hadn’t polished anything yet. I was totally subdued by that. After this Summer Camp I tried to attend as many seminars and classes that he conducted as far as I could.
He returned to Japan from England in 1976; I met him September of 1977, in San Sebastian (Spain), where he was conducting a seminar with [Nobuyoshi] Tamura.
Chiba Sensei was 36. He had so much fire. He would go to class to practice, not to play around. I practiced with him as a partner at that seminar in San Sebastian. I remember doing nikkyo with him, suwariwaza for maybe 30 minutes. I couldn’t eat for a whole week; I couldn’t use my hands anymore. Just like two pieces of wood. He’d take you all around the mat, drag you.
I told Tamura I wanted to spend a couple of years in Japan. Tamura said I had better talk to Chiba and he would introduce me at Hombu. We had a special lunch in San Sebastian. Chiba said, ‘No, there are already so many French people who give me trouble every day, I don’t want another one.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I already brought my ticket!’
How did you start Aikido?
I was living south of Paris, in a city called Tours where I landed a job in 1971. I had just moved to the city and did not know anyone there. I went to see a movie but unfortunately that day was the movie theaters’ day off. So, here I am, in front of a closed movie theater and I noticed that there was another guy who, like me, did not know that movie theaters had holidays. We joked about it and sat in the next café for a drink. In that place, there was a small TV hanging on the wall and showing, you won’t believe it, an episode of a documentary about Japanese martial arts dedicated to Aikido. I had never heard of Aikido and I was not interested in Japan or the Far East for that matter. But it struck me and the next day I called the city hall to find out if the small city of Tours had an Aikido dojo. And it did and the clerk knew about it. I immediately started to train.
My first teacher soon took me to Tamura Sensei. I really liked Tamura Sensei’s Aikido, he was extremely dynamic. Tamura Sensei didn’t have a dojo in Paris, he never did. He was working for the French Aikido federation, going one place to another every weekend. I got my shodan in 1976. Around that time, Chiba urged Tamura to invite Mitsuzuka Sensei to
France to teach Iaido. Tamura Sensei would always do a couple hours of Iaido at seminars, and I knew shoden [basic forms]. I got to drive Mitsuzuka Sensei around in the summer of 1977, all over Europe. Mitsuzuka Sensei was very Japanese, he behaved abroad like he did in Japan –Tamura and Chiba behaved differently. Mitsuzuka Sensei would come to a seminar, people would practice for a couple of weeks, and he’d give them third dan or fourth dan! The other Japanese teachers would go bananas. ‘These guys are going to go open a dojo!’ In Japan, fourth dan is nothing.
Did many Europeans appreciate Chiba Sensei?
Some people, not a lot. It was completely new.
Tell me about the private classes with Chiba Sensei at Hombu Dojo.
Chiba Sensei was back in Japan after 10 years in England, and he had already a clear view of what he wanted to do. To do it, he needed people to work on. The private classes had started a few months before I arrived. They were on Tuesday and Thursday at 1 pm. We used the small tatami room on the fourth floor; the door was closed for total privacy. We started at 1 clock, but most of the time it went on for at least two or three hours. The foreigners were Paul Sylvain, Lorraine DiAnne, Meik Skoss, Dee Chen, Bruce Bookman, Jay Dunkelman and two Scottish guys. Shibata Sensei would usually join in. Sometimes the door would crack open and a head would come out and say ‘Dame, dame dame!’ [Wrong, wrong, wrong!] that was Yamaguchi Sensei. He’s in his suit, he was teaching in the morning, suit and necktie. He would take over and show us what to do. Chiba Sensei loved it.
Chiba Sensei was enthusiastic in the private classes. He was not the same as he was in Europe. He was very approachable, he liked jokes. He loved these private classes.
It was rough because everybody was scared, even though in four years there were no accidents, no serious injuries in the private lessons. It was really tense. There was tension on each side. We were so eager to learn and he was so eager to teach.
What kinds of things was Sensei focusing on in those classes?
He would bring in Budo, a thick book written by O-Sensei before the war. We went through the whole book, one page or a couple of pages a day. He would put the book on the kamiza; he’d turn to it and look at it again. It was really like a laboratory. For us it was a great way to learn things. Then bokken, weapons work. Lots of it.
When did you start training in Iaido with Takeshi Mitsuzuka Sensei?
As soon as I arrived in Japan. I went through Chiba Sensei, he said OK, come to the dojo. We went to the Iaido dojo in Yotsuya Sanchome, the old one. Chiba Sensei officially asked Mitsuzuka if I could join, he introduced me and asked him if he would agree to take me on as a student. Everything was under Chiba Sensei’s tutelage. Chiba Sensei always practiced Iaido. At one point Chiba Sensei told us he got hurt during a trip with O-Sensei and O-Sensei left him in an Iaido dojo somewhere in the south of Honshu. He had to practice Iaido to get his back better. He also collected swords; he had many in Japan.
I went three times a week to Yotsuya police station to train in Iaido with Mitsuzuka Sensei. You could do it at Hombu but it had to be secret, you had to hide yourself. Chiba Sensei was practicing Iaido on his own at Hombu – he couldn’t come to Mitsuzuka Sensei’s except on the weekends because he was so busy. He cut himself once so bad, all by himself upstairs. We were changing in the locker room, he came down he had his hakama around his arm, blood was dripping from the hakama. He said, ‘Go clean!’ He disappeared, went to the clinic for stitches. He had cut a vein, it was pissing blood. We go up there and there is blood all over the stairs going to the fourth floor. We open the door and go, ‘Oh shit.’ The white mat was covered with blood. We spent about two hours with cold water and rags until it disappeared.
We knew that if [Kisabura] Osawa Sensei, the dojo-cho, saw the mess he was going to be so pissed. He was very against doing any weapons in the dojo: When doing bokken, we had to close the windows so nobody could hear the noise of the weapons.
What was it like to practice with Kisaburo Osawa Sensei?
Osawa Sensei had a class on Friday at 5:30, and he gave that class to Chiba Sensei. I would go to his Wednesday morning class and he used me for ukemi every time, but he never addressed me. In his class, Osawa Sensei did everything slow, he would show things very, very slowly. He would slow down like slow motion. It was very beautiful. There were mostly Japanese in class; he never talked to foreigners and I don’t think he liked them. He was an old-style Japanese nationalist. Right after the war, he had a bar in Shinjuku. When the dojo started to grow again in the 1950s, Doshu went to pick him up.
Why were foreigners so drawn to Chiba Sensei at Hombu?
We understood what he was doing. We were just there to train. We were not supported by our own federations but we asked for it. We had no money – nobody wanted any money, we didn’t care about it. All that we wanted was to train, train, train, train.
We often went out with Chiba Sensei. He talked a lot; he liked to practice his English. He liked his group. He told us stories of his time with O-Sensei. When O-Sensei would come down from Iwama, he would arrive at Hombu and he never said anything. He would show up at Hombu and pick up somebody to go with him as kaban-mochi (bag-carrier). I remember Chiba Sensei saying that he knew O-Sensei was coming when he saw [Yoshimitsu] Yamada running and closing himself up in a closet so O-Sensei would not see him and take him on a trip!
Being a kaban-mochi was very hard. After O-Sensei arrived, he would say, ‘You!’ and he would leave. You have to pack your stuff and then grab his stuff and run after him and he’s gone to the station and he doesn’t have tickets! They would take the cable car from Nuke Benten [transit stop near Hombu Dojo] to Shinjuku Station. Chiba Sensei used to say you had to go into the train cars and find a place next to or in front of a beautiful girl. O-Sensei loved to talk to beautiful girls, and you had to go from one car to the other and find somebody alone. Otherwise you’d have to persuade who was sitting next to her to move aside.
As kaban-mochi, you never talked to O-Sensei because he’s up there. [Gestures above his head.] You don’t talk up.
Report on Deena Drake at Huron Valley Aikikai, June 9-10: Though the “June Gloom” followed Drake Sensei from San Diego, participants from several Midwest dojos braved the humidity and benefited greatly (if damply) from two days of vigorous training. Drake Sensei presented clear and dynamic techniques, emphasizing the importance of honest, centered attacks and responses, and pushing us all to bring the liveliness! Our youth students who participated in the classes pushed their boundaries and came out the other side with a new appreciation of Aikido as not just ‘kids stuff’ as well. Many thanks to Drake Sensei for making the trip and for offering us the example of her training.
The first time I met Boyet Sensei he was wearing a black, rabbit felt hat with a wide brim and no decoration other than a simple black band chasing around the crown. A bold yet natural choice for the cold weather of Vancouver BC in February 2017.
Attending his seminar at Mountain Coast Aikikai caused my practice to shift. Until then, I was practicing the techniques being taught. A beginner working at the surface.
My eyes absorbed, my mind decoded and my body moved.
What I found in Boyet Sensei’s teaching was essential, direct and fluid. A bold simplicity that resonated with my creative values.
“You do not have time” he said while we worked through a shomen bokken technique. He emphasized how important one, clear movement was in meeting the attack of an opponent’s weapon.
“You will be dead,” he finished, underscoring that speed was a matter of timing and reduction to essential movement. It was not a matter of more, but rather less.
His lesson was simple; nine words, one clear meaning. It catalyzed my Aikido practice with new perspective because he taught through the language of my creative values. I left the dojo in Vancouver excited to put the weekend’s learnings to daily practice.
It had triggered the shift, but the avalanche was still to come.
A year later, March 2018, Portland was emerging from winter’s slumbering rhythm. A bouquet of purple tulips rested with a wild, natural gesture on the kamiza at Multnomah Aikikai. Boyet Sensei was in town to teach a seminar at my home dojo.
I had just come off a rather taxing period in my career that ended abruptly. I was feeling listless and disinterested creatively. A problem for a designer and perfect timing for the kind of provocation a mentor can inspire.
I spent the whole weekend on the tatami, eager to absorb all the Aikido I could. To my surprise, what I learned illuminated a path beyond the dojo and helped to reignite my dimming passion for design.
Once again, Boyet Sensei was direct in his practice. No fluffy stuff, no extra movement; all practicality, applied simply.
A year before I was encountering all of it for the first time; I was just happy to get a signal. This time, I was tuning into the finer lessons that come with familiarity.
“Copy from someone better than you until you have made it your own, then find another person.” He lectured between techniques.
I thought about all the senior students and instructors I had learned from. Gweyn’s ukemi, Bill’s kokyu-ho, Thoms Sensei’s tenchinage. But had I committed myself to it? Had I owned my practice? Had I possessed my creative identity?
“You do not have time” he said about the little extra movements he was trying to prune out of his students. Once again, those five words echoed the clear message that changed my mindset a year prior.
The way that Boyet Sensei demonstrated techniques struck like a bolt of lightning. Just enter, turn, and there it is; Ikkyo. The clarity of movement leaves nothing mysterious, and the reduction reveals beauty.
He spoke in familiar language.
“You must be beautiful, and to be beautiful, it must be simple.” Boyet Sensei explained during the Sunday morning Iaido class. “it may take fifteen, twenty years, but if you train, you will find it.”
In the creative arts, it is no different. Form follows function. Less is more. But getting there is a messy exercise with a lot of wasted movement. Out of the process emerges the value.
Boyet Sensei reminded me that the practice is the purpose. Beauty will come.
This is a lesson every creative from Dietre Rams to Paul Motian and the Eames have tried to pass on. Owning one’s way of being, their “do” is born in practice. Beauty is a result, not a destination.
Boyet Sensei had connected my Aikido practice with my creative values. His teaching changed the way I do both. It guided me below the surface and gave me a deeper perspective of my Aikido journey. It made my practice personal and I felt recommitted.
I try to remind myself to find the simple path and follow it boldly. In ikkyo or in life.
Rob Darmour is a 5th kyu member of Multnomah Aikikai. This essay first appeared in the Multnomah Aikikai blog; click the link to see the original and view a brief montage of Boyet Sensei practicing Iaido by Sam Brimhall.
More newly posted clips of Boyet Sensei can be found at the Birankai Aikido Video Channel on Youtube:
The mat was packed for all three days of the Chiba Sensei Memorial Seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai June 1-3, 2018. The event featured instructors George Lyons Shihan of Bucks County Aikido, Toko (Jenny) Flower Sensei of Athens Aikido and Ryugan (Robert) Savoca Sensei of Brooklyn Aikikai.
From Lyons Sensei’s closing remarks on June 3, 2018:
“I’ve been running through my memories of meeting an extraordinary person, Chiba Sensei. What do I remember about those days? Much of it is just in my body now, as best as it can be. I’m working to cultivate that so hopefully it’s alive in me. Chiba Sensei said once: ‘Until you’re a master of it, you’re a slave to it.’ That one kind of stuck with me.
“Discussing the teacher-student relationship, in many ways we struggle to understand it. Right up until Chiba Sensei’s death I was trying to understand it. Even now, I work on it, even though he’s gone. Of course I don’t think he’s gone, in some way.
“It is the problem of authority, giving over to an authority. In my opinion I think it’s not surrender to it but more transcending it, if that makes sense to you. At first it might feel like you’re surrendering to your teacher. But hopefully we’re going past that. You’re not going to be a slave to your teacher, that’s the not the intention. The intention is to let go of something, and to transcend it. Then you’re free to do whatever you want. And you’re probably very grateful, as I am. So you are master of it.
“You are supposed to stand on the shoulders of your teacher. Your teacher is someone you have always put up, so it’s a difficult idea. Somehow maybe we can drop something and you can reach your teacher for the first time, as a full grown human being with full potential.
“Funny, but we somehow put something in the way. It’s human nature. I see it on the mat in just basic things. When I say, ‘Don’t move your feet like that, do this.’ They say ‘Hai, Sensei!’ and they do the same thing they did before. It didn’t change one bit. I’m a human being too so I make the same stupid mistakes. When we do that, I think we just can’t hear it yet. Eventually you can, you can hold more. When you finally hear it, you say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ [Laughs.] This comes to the point of training over time. In farming you can’t pull the shoots up early to make them grow faster. It takes time. If you pull the shoots up, there’s nothing there.
“In the same way, when you’re practicing it takes some time. It has to mature. It’s just the nature of things. You come to the dojo every day, every day. ‘What’s the point of this? I can’t do ikkyo one more time, I’m out of my mind.’ You keep doing it until something gets out of the way. You make every effort that you can until you realize that all that effort is getting in the way. It’s a paradox you have to solve yourself, everybody does.
“I’m really pleased to be here with you to celebrate the life our teacher. For you guys, be careful because the stories get bigger and bigger as time passes. It was incredible times, but we tell stories…
“This is the time. Now is the time. This is our time. It’s fun to hear stories about the past, but when you’re sitting around with a bunch of people talking about the old days, be careful. This is the day. Today is the day. We’re proud to be here with you, proud to know you, and may we carry on. ”
Congratulations to Aikido of Albuquerque, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with an intensive seminar April 20-22. Chief instructors Philip and Bernadette Vargas were joined by Birankai teachers from across the Southwest in 16 hours of training that focused on the four pillars of Aikido laid out by Chiba Sensei: Aikido, weapons, Zazen and Iaido. (The new header image above is of the Aikido of Albuquerque shomen.)
Capping off the seminar were kyu tests that included Summer Camp veteran Mateo Vargas earning promotion to 1st kyu. Congratulations to all! See more photos of the event at the Aikido of Albuquerque Facebook page.
A warm welcome to Santa Fe Budokan, a dojo that recently joined Birankai North America, and welcome back to Damon Apodaca Sensei, a student of Chiba Sensei’s starting in 1981.
Santa Fe Budokan opened in November of 2008 but recently moved into a newly built structure on Apodaca Sensei’s property at 190A Nine Mile Road, in the southern part of Santa Fe. The dojo offers classes five days a week in Aikido, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido and Zazen and features the instruction of Birankai veterans Kristina Varjan Shihan and Rikko Varjan Sensei.
Apodaca Sensei’s Aikido journey started in 1974, when he interviewed to join M. Nakazono Sensei’s Santa Fe dojo. Upon joining the Navy, he joined Chiba Sensei’s Fourth Avenue “Pressure Cooker” dojo and trained in San Diego until 1987; he also spent three months in Iwama as an uchideshi of M. Saito Sensei. He opened his first solo dojo in Santa Fe then moved to Newport, R.I., where he maintained a dojo until 2009. He also co-authored the book Aikido Ground Fighting.
Santa Fe Budokan welcomes visitors and guests. People wishing to train there regularly must apply directly to D. Apodaca Sensei, and must either have a recommendation or be subject to an interview.
“I hope to be a good contributing member to BNA, especially in memory of Chiba Sensei who I credit as being the teacher which contributed most to my training,” D. Apodaca Sensei said. “I am grateful daily to be able to still train regularly in all these arts.”
How do I attract new members? What is the best platform to fundraise for new mats? How can I get more from my dues-payment system? What is a good strategy for teaching Sansho? We have a lot of experience in our organization – and we have a lot of know-how to share.
“Grow Your Dojo” is the focus of our new Birankai Aikido Teachers news blast, a monthly rundown of tips and real-world experience from instructors across the continent (and beyond, we hope). We’ve also started a closed Facebook group to encourage discussion and sharing of videos, news items and other media with the goal of supporting and encouraging each other in trying to transmit Chiba Sensei’s Aikido.
Instructor’s Statement: “Coming here I’ve been really interested in thinking about ukemi and kokyu ryoku (breath power from the center) as sort of the yin and yang of our practice, the inhalation-exhalation. For me ukemi is the art of receiving and neutralizing power with our whole body – as Chiba Sensei would say without resisting, without escaping, without flying away, or without collapsing. Ukemi is a vital aspect, it’s a preparation for the unexpected, and the way that we take ukemi in Birankai is really lively.
“Ukemi isn’t just the falling down, it really is a whole relation, the ability to absorb and neutralize power. Thinking about power, I think that how we generate power is misunderstood because we tend to think about it in terms of muscular force. The first thing we have to do is to align our skeleton because the skeleton is the primary organ for support of the body. When we align our skeleton with gravity, we’re able to capture the ground reaction forces that our relationship with gravity gives us. It allows us to generate force through the body, so skeletal alignment is critical. Really important to that is spinal extension, something that was so apparent in Sensei’s Aikido, his throwing as well as how he taught and how he demonstrated ukemi.
The seminar spanned two warm days in San Francisco but students remained focused and training was vigorous. Students and instructors were as diverse as the city itself – children and adults, beginners and Yudansha, local and from afar.
Training focused on movement, distance and space with instructors paying particular attention to the opening. Diagana Sensei, McSpadden Sensei and Schenk Sensei all share a common lineage and it was evident in their instruction. At times it felt as if you were being taught not by a single instructor, but by a team of instructors with each Sensei building off of the teachings of the other, and Nomura Shihan’s ever watchful eye ensuring that no details went unnoticed. Emphasis was placed on the opening movement. Once the opening was correct and the Uke unbalanced, we moved to the entry, taking the Uke’s center, controlling space and so on. Students were reminded to recognize and utilize space, to move with the entire body and not waste movement. Our small mat space was utilized to its fullest, yet did not seem crowded. All three Sensei circulated and weaved through the dojo and trained with all Aikidoka.
The Seminar’s theme of friendship was appropriate as participants gathered from San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Brooklyn and Singapore. It serves as a reminder of why seminars are important. Seminars bring people together to train and create or strengthen bonds. When the day is done, we share a common respect and part ways knowing we will see each other again.
When I left for this seminar, I had never been to San Francisco. I had never been to a seminar not hosted by my dojo, and I had never been to a body arts seminar. I was so excited; in fact, I was absolutely thrilled to be going. I was nervous about the new space and new people, but everyone was so kind and helpful that I immediately felt comfortable. I feel I learned many new things, and new ways to do techniques and new ways to view Aikido as a whole. I left with new openness to learning. I remember when we first spotted the Golden Gate Bridge rising through the mist, with the island prison of Alcatraz in front. It looked like something from a postcard or a fairytale. Afterwards we went for sushi and discussed what we had learned. The entire experience is one I will remember for a long time.
My name is Liam McCarthy, I am a 15 year-old student at Grass Valley Aikikai, and an attendee of the seminar hosted on September 17th, at Aikido Institute of San Francisco.
I thoroughly enjoyed this seminar. Everyone I trained with was friendly, patient, and knowledgeable. It was my third seminar, and only my second outside of my dojo. Although the space at first seemed small, the mat had plenty of space for all in attendance. The advice, tips, and help I got were extremely useful, especially when the technique was being demonstrated slightly differently than my dojo’s style. One thing I specifically liked a lot was the form in which one Nage was performing the technique and the other students in that group attacked as Ukes in a line. Although it put pressure on the Nage, as the line moved quickly, it allowed them to try many times over with all different heights, ages, and body types.
As for each of the three Sensei who taught classes, I thought all three were pleasant and patient, and I enjoyed each of their styles. Schenk Sensei demonstrated everything carefully and accurately, and explained all the techniques he taught very thoroughly. I enjoyed his class and my time spent trying to soak in every detail of what he demonstrated. I thought the same of Scott McSpadden Sensei; he seemed very focused, yet good-natured, and had no problem patiently showing things to you if you felt overwhelmed or misunderstood something. Lastly, Diagana Sensei taught his class, the third and final class of the day. I noticed a very strong presence and focus in his practice, and thought he was a great teacher. He was easy going, and spared time for any student who was confused (as did all the Sensei teaching a class).
Aside from the three Sensei who taught their own classes, the students of this dojo were extremely well-mannered and knowledgeable. Nobody seemed frustrated when I didn’t get something right; they had no problem with me taking all the time I needed to fix anything I was having trouble with; and they showed a great deal of patience with me whenever I had trouble. I tried my best to keep up with everyone with my ukemi, and each partner I had went as fast or as slow as they thought I could handle or needed. All in all, this was a fantastic experience for a seminar, and I really enjoyed myself.
Before we got there, I was nervous. But once we got there, my strength returned. It was fun learning all the different training styles of all the different dojos! I learned many new techniques too, like ryokatadori shihonage. My favorite part of the experience was learning the different teaching styles of the different Sensei.
Pleasure is defined as a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment. Aikido is pleasurable as it involves centering the mind and body in the most intense way possible, with love, in the company of friends and other Aikidoka, striving to better not just ourselves, but the communities where we live by practicing the teachings of Aikido in our daily lives. It is always a pleasure to train with the trio of Schenk Sensei, Diagana Sensei and McSpadden Sensei as they all bring a joyful awareness to their otherwise sharp Aikido. Together, these three epitomize the freedom to play with techniques through the connection between partners. Words fail to frame the experience.
Like rough ashlar*, continuously being improved by practice and work, we can attain the smoothness of perfect geometry in our aikido by having a child’s mind: to absorb as much as we can from our teachers and Sempai. When I watch and listen to McSpadden Sensei, Diagana Sensei and Schenk Sensei, I can feel their happiness in their art. They all want to practice with love for each person on the mat, happy but sharp. With a child’s mind, they enter each encounter willing to learn but astutely aware of each movement. I was very happy to be a part of this seminar for the experience of seeing and feeling the openness of each technique presented by these teachers.
The seminar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the beginning of October, 2016 was the second seminar that I have attended. I am still new to the practice of Aikido, and deciding to attend classes was a test of nerves. I do not have the physical characteristics of a professional fighter, and am not the kind of person anyone would assume has an interest in Martial Arts. A major reason I have been willing to regularly train at the Aikido of Albuquerque dojo, is the welcoming atmosphere for students who are new to Aikido specifically, or fighting styles in general. This same concept carried over to the fall seminar, which made the event enjoyable.
Discovering the Junior Kenshusei programs at the Aikido of Albuquerque dojo provided me with a boost of confidence. Observing a broad range of ages and sizes among the students and attendees of seminars enforced the feeling further. I’ve heard that techniques that can be used against any opponent, but I never really believed it until I witnessed teens in high school or younger children performing ikkyo on an adult twice their size or larger. It is a hard truth that age slows everyone down, but people at seminars old enough to be my grandparents seem to be entirely capable of taking ukemi just as well as the younger attendants.
While the variety of people at the seminars was inspiring, I also found that it brought a sense of urgency. I’m aware that I won’t be able to keep up with someone who has been training for years, but at the same time practicing techniques with advanced students brought the desire to try to prove that I was making progress. Also, the days passed quickly and assigned techniques changed rapidly. Knowing that people at the seminar had traveled from out of town, and likely from out of state, created the urge to make the trip worth their while. The feeling caused me to move too quickly during training, which also made me sloppy. As the days went on the people seemed to realize that I was moving too fast for my own good and made it clear that they were willing to go slow when working with me. In addition to the attendant’s willingness to take their time training, the Sensei took a few moments intermittently throughout the day to review the basic concepts that were being emphasized to keep everyone on track throughout the seminar weekend.
Overall it was the welcoming environment that made the seminar enjoyable. The feeling in the dojo was not exactly relaxed; there was definitely a sense of seriousness and commitment to the training and conditioning and everyone was pushed physically. However, there was also the sense of respect and understanding for individuals without an intense background or years of experience. That balance resulted in a supportive learning environment and an overall worthwhile experience. If that same concept continues to other locations then I am entirely willing to attend another seminar.
Most of us are back home – the bruises are fading and the gis have been washed. Time to reflect on Birankai Aikido 2016 Summer Camp, which ended with a lively session of tai no henko led by Dave Stier Shihan of Green River Aikido on Tuesday morning.
Stier Sensei was the topic of some truly moving testimonies at the farewell party the night before, when his students told of his dedication to helping those of all abilities and body types master Aikido.
“I just wanted to be a student,” Stier Sensei said, describing the trajectory of his training after the sudden death of his teacher, Paul Sylvain Shihan. Stier Sensei went on to lead an impressive closing class to 2016 Birankai Summer Camp.
Another longtime student, Frank Apodaca Sensei of Deep River Aikikai in North Carolina, was recognized earlier during camp: Birankai has recommended that he be promoted to shihan rank.
Apodaca Sensei was a long-suffering kenshusei when I arrived in San Diego, a veteran of the legendary “Pressure Cooker” and “Suffering Bastards” eras. His ukemi was death-defying to this newbie, especially when he would get up seemingly in one piece after Chiba Sensei demonstrated ushiro ryotedori sutemi waza, also known as “the roadkill technique.” (Chiba Sensei would rear back and flatten him like a bug.)
By the time I got there in the mid-1990s, Apodaca Sensei was a stern taskmaster in morning class and an even more stern leader of sesshin and other events at San Diego Aikikai, a link to a harsher past. Time spent as dojo-cho in Portland, Oregon, and Lansing, Michigan, seemed to mellow him out, and by the time Apodaca Sensei established Deep River Aikikai he was a supportive and open-hearted teacher.
For me, the best thing about 2016 Birankai Summer Camp was gaining new appreciation for these two men, working often without recognition in recent years to transmit Chiba Sensei’s (and Sylvain Sensei’s) Aikido.
With teachers like these in our ranks, Birankai is in safe hands.
For everyone who has been to at least one Birankai summer camp, what’s the first thing that you remember about your first camp? Perhaps it’s all the people you met, the parties and gatherings in the evening, or, of course, the hours of classes a day that left you feeling either successful, or desperate for an ice pack and some ibuprofen. Everyone has their memories, and the special moments that made summer camp not just a seminar, but also a family reunion that makes the bumps, bruises, and traveling well worth it.
My first summer camp, held this past July at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., was nothing short of fabulous, and I promise I’m not saying that just to make my Sensei happy. When I first arrived at camp, I came in with the rookie naiveté that I was in pretty good shape and four hours of class a day wouldn’t be that bad.
Oh no, not the case.
By the third day I would have given anything for a hot tub and a five-hour nap, and let’s not talk about how my bottle of pain meds was quickly dwindling. But what my discomfort taught me, and what I think our teachers are always trying to impart, is how vital it is to relax and use our whole body at all times, and certainly if something is in pain. If my shoulder was hurting, then I had to adjust for it, relaxing my arm and remembering that my hips and legs were really useful things.
When I was throwing someone twice my size, and fatigue and soreness were starting to set in, it wasn’t enough to just muscle my way through and hope my upper body was strong enough to throw my partner. Everything had to come together with grace, speed and power, something Miyamoto Sensei demonstrated every time he stepped onto the mat.
Speaking of Miyamoto Sensei, one thing that I, and many other people I talked to were impressed by was his ability to constantly adapt to whatever his uke gave him. Even if it wasn’t the technique he initially had in mind, Miyamoto showed what mental and physical fluidity looked like when doing, and changing, a technique.
For me, particularly since I’m still very new in Aikido, every class had something new to learn. Familiar techniques, such a katatedori suwariwaza ikkyo, had to be approached differently because I was practicing with someone I’d never met, and so I had to learn how to move in a way that worked with them. The weapons classes were immensely beneficial, especially Frank Apodaca Sensei’s weapons class. He emphasized cultivating “the eyes to see,” which I took as meaning not just watching and stealing the technique, but also seeing and feeling the energy with which someone moves. I once read that proper form is essential, but without technique and heart put into the form it’s all mechanical, and much of what I believe Aikido to be is lost.
In the midst of all of our training, I was so thankful that the 2015 summer camp was to be the first camp I attended, because it allowed me to attend the Celebration of Life memorial for Chiba Sensei. Even though I was never able to meet Chiba Sensei, I could very clearly feel how special a teacher he was, and just how much he mattered to people all over the world. The memorial was lovely, and the reception held after, with all of its singing, dancing and conversation was exactly what I think Chiba Sensei would have wanted us to have in his memory.
Leaving camp, what I didn’t fully realize till a few days after, was when people speak of the Aikido or Birankai family, they aren’t exaggerating in the slightest. Camp allowed me to meet people from dojos across the country and even the world, and knowing that almost wherever I go I can find a dojo where I will be welcome, makes the world feel just a little less daunting. So thank you very much to everyone who helped make my first camp a marvelous experience, and more importantly, officially welcomed me into the Birankai family. I look forward to many more summer camps in the future.
When I committed to Chiba Sensei to become a teacher and he allowed me to join the kenshusei program, I had a distinct perspective on how, where, and what my dojo would be. Since that time (20-plus years ago), my perspective has evolved. Perhaps I matured, perhaps I drifted, or perhaps evolution is natural.
As I consider two challenges facing our community, No. 1, attracting younger people to Aikido; and No. 2, the public’s interest level in Aikido as a non-competitive martial art, I see a shift in both my perspective and the way I feel I can most effectively address these challenges while remaining true to my understanding of Sensei’s transmission to me.