“If it looks pretty, it’s not Aikido. You have to have tension.”
That is just one of the many thought-provoking asides offered by Piotr Masztalerz Sensei of Wroclaw Aikikai last month at a dynamic seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai. Masztalerz, rokudan Shidoin and a leader of Polish Birankai, brought his innovative approach to ukemi, technique and weapons to the U.S. for the first time at a major seminar.
Masztalerz studied intensively with Chiba Sensei both as an uchideshi in San Diego in the early 2000s and as a leader of European Birankai who attended many seminars and hosted him for several large camps in Poland.
With a large full-time dojo and hundreds of students, Masztalerz devotes himself to all of the elements of Birankai Aikido practice, with a special emphasis on the study of ukemi. His home base of Wroclaw (pronounced “vrots-wahf”) in western Poland hosts a lively scene that brings together actors, dancers, motorbike drivers and a range of martial artists in the study of movement at Wroclaw Aikikai.
Ukemi should be challenging and gymnastic at all levels in Aikido, Masztalerz says, with the intent of freeing up the body’s potential and exploring the art on a deeper level. Beginners need to learn practical falling skills from the very beginning or they won’t come back, he adds. Also important is that senior students push themselves at all ages to maintain their conditioning and try new ways of taking ukemi and executing techniques.
“It’s very important for people with experience to challenge themselves with ukemi,” Masztalerz says. “Ukemi is very physical, so you have to be fit. As soon as you feel like you already know it, you’re dead.”
Thoughts/direction from my recent seminar at Connecticut Aikikai:
A lot of these folks I only get to see once a year so I really wanted to give them something they could not only memorize as a technique but perhaps work on as a broad principle within their Aikido practice and when teaching and training.
My biggest concern in the seminar is that we are engaging correctly in the training process whatever the technique may be. Aikido technique has a certain correct rhythm that naturally emerges if one is holding their body in a correct manner – basically the unbalance should be immediate and continuous and the theme of that was my focus in this seminar with body art and weapons.
My wish is that my students find their own unique body and movement through the training which is an organic expression through sincere practice. I’m grateful to have this chance to teach and am looking forward to next year.
Chief instructors Malory Graham of Seattle Aikikai, Liese Klein of New Haven Aikikai and Ea Murphy of Tacoma Aikikai collaborated on a workshop at Seattle Aikikai on July 14, 2018. The event focused on the Seattle Aikikai monthly theme of “exploring levels.” Graham Sensei and Murphy Sensei worked with the katatedori, morotedori and ryotedori grabs while Klein Sensei led students through the basics of the Sansho 2 jo kata.
All Aikido practitioners of all affiliations are welcome at Birankai North America Summer Campand it’s not too late to sign up. Drop-ins are also welcome as commuters. Sign up hereand see everyone at camp!
Birankai North America Summer Camp 2018 guest instructor Didier Boyet Shihan gave a great seminar this past week in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Visit the Facebook page of Leonardo Marques Câmara Sodré to see hundreds of photos of the event – you may even catch a glimpse of Luis Gonçalves, who visited Birankai Summer Camp in San Diego a few years ago while he was living in Japan. (The photo up top is one of many high-quality images.)
Looking forward to seeing Boyet Sensei soon in Tacoma and greetings to our friends in Brazil!
The importance of correct usage of the feet and twisting movements, was the theme of the day. With jyo in the morning and bokken in the afternoon, basic strikes and movements were reviewed. There were beginners and youth, so the material was appropriate for their level, yet by the end, the senior students realized the teaching was thoughtful and presented a deep understanding that Apodaca Sensei has developed through his personal training.
After the last class, kids and dogs went swimming. Then the make-your-own pizza party got started! Afterward, some people had to get home, but lots stayed for a campfire and conversation. The next morning those that were still around had an unplanned class at the dojo. It was interesting to apply the footwork and twisting themes from the day before to body arts.
The day before the seminar Apodaca Sensei visited Grass Valley Aikikai and conducted a shodan test for Marci Martinez, who passed. We were so happy to include out of town guests and all visit together over tacos at the dojo.
Looking back, we realized that while we officially hosted a one day seminar, that in reality it turned into a three day event. So we decided next year we should just turn it into a proper three day seminar – Friday night, all day Saturday, Sunday morning! We invited Apodaca Sensei to come again and he said he would! So make your plans – probably next year the weekend after Father’s Day. Why not make a vacation of it? Bring your family and spend a week seeing the sights and enjoying the beautiful Sierras. Do come if you can. Everyone is welcome.
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 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.
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.
I spent almost thee months as an uchideshi in San Diego Aikikai, starting November 15th, 2017. My French teacher, Sadek Khettab Sensei, had sent me to train with Juba Nour Sensei for a while, and Juba Nour Sensei then sent me to train with Deena Drake Sensei. I’ve trusted each one of these great teachers with my life, and I’m happy I did.
Deena Sensei welcomed me and my partner on a training evening when she was just coming back from Japan. Even with jet lag, she wanted to meet the two new uchideshi at the very moment of our arrival. That night was representative of the way I felt welcome in her dojo, every single day and for every single class.
I was invited to teach in Brazil by a gentleman by the name of Mauricio Nascimento, who trained with us here in Ann Arbor while he was at the University of Michigan for graduate studies. He is now a professor in the city of Maringa in southern Brazil, and runs an Aikido club there. He’s associated with Aikido Parana Brasil, an organization whose lineage is through Kawai Shihan. Kawai Shihan is credited with introducing Aikido to Brazil in the early 1960s and lived in Sao Paolo until his death in 2010. Aikido Parana Brasil is now Continue reading “Teaching in Brazil”
Having read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” I can assure you this will be nothing like it. Rather, this is a personal reflection of my own Aikido’s progress over time. In summary, I think introspective thinking and maximizing seminar attendance have been valuable tools for my own progress.
Before proceeding, I think it’s important to briefly define progress – or rather, not to. To many people, progress has different meanings depending on one’s training purpose, their experience and expectations and perhaps where one is at during that moment of training. We use words like becoming rounder or softer, learning or letting go, shu ha ri, beginners mind, etc. There is no end to the discussion one could have defining “progress” and this is not within this paper’s scope. Rather, the intent is what progressing has meant for me and likely, what progress could mean for others in the absence of time; regardless of one’s definition.
Like many – I’m busy. There once was a time (I can now hardly remember) when my wife and I spent much time training at the dojo, attending most seminars within driving distance and going to summer camps. Time was filled to the brim with Aikido conversation, videos and of course – practice. I can even remember going to a spa for a weekend date and learning Sansho I, Part I, on a beach. Time was plentiful and being dedicated required only a selection within choice.
In 2012 however, this all changed. In 2012, we welcomed the birth of our boy Raven. Here, like Hawking’s black hole, so too began the steady and constant demise of time. As time to eat and savor one’s food became non-existent, so too did the ability to remain entirely focussed on training. One does not appreciate time until it’s taken away, or as Shakespeare would better phrase, “O, call back yesterday, bid time return.” So then arose the struggle – how to progress in the absence of time?
During the first two years of my child’s life, my training stumbled. I attended every class at the dojo and did attend a few seminars and a summer camp. However, with a “new dad” focus and nightly sleep that amounted to less than what a rocket would take to reach the stratosphere, energy was lacking. Emerging from that for me, would require a new definition of training and hence a new way to progress.
The first change I made to my training was the intentional use of introspective thinking. This is nearly obvious as we do it all the time, especially when doing menial tasks. What was different however was not merely slipping into the thoughts but intentionally becoming determined to use my “time” more productively when off the mats. Time included watching my kid nap, completing work around the house, biking to work, walking, etc. This time would now involve intentional thoughts towards Aikido techniques.
I think introspective thinking is useful on many levels. First, can the body perform what the mind cannot create? Reinforcing what I (think I) saw is an important mental practice. I noted “think I” because as I have progressed, this too has changed. Without going too far down a rabbit hole, one could argue that this must change or one would become fixed or lost within ego or without progress. For me, the evaluation of what I “think I” saw often occurs off the mats within this type of thinking.
Further, the mental regurgitation of technique is especially important when time on the mats is limited. For example, I bike most days to and from work. This journey gives me time to mentally practice Aikido techniques. I usually give myself a goal; today I have to recall eight gyakuhanmi katatedori kokyunage techniques. This brings forward a memory bank of past classes, seminars, videos, etc., all to recall what I can. From here, I sometimes check my technique before or after class with a willing aikidoist. Naturally, from this there are lessons learned to improve my technique on the mats, in my head, or to seek advice. Introspective thinking has therefore been essential for my own progress.
My other progression tool has been maximizing the attendance of seminars. If we look at O Sensei’s quote “the purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit;” it all exists at seminars. First, seminars break the repetitive nature of time. As days blend into months and years, one’s largest progress may be their child’s weight and height. Within a regular training schedule, work and family priorities tend to creep in and steal the remaining time that has already been marginalized. Setting one’s calendar towards a seminar is like a (narcissistic) vacation. It forces one to dismiss these time pirates and refocus, even if briefly, one’s attention to training.
Seminars also enable one to train with a variety of different ukes and instruction. Frank Zappa once said “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” Similarly, regular training at a dojo is important but it has limitations. Ukes may be new to the art or conversely, may anticipate through familiarly. In addition, similar bad habits may reinforce each other. Finally, despite one’s Sensei constantly repeating the same corrections, it may be at a seminar where the error is finally “seen”. It may be through a variation in teaching or (and likely) that in that moment one was focussed enough to grasp what had repeatedly been shown.
Unlike regular training, seminars also require an increased and prolonged physical requirement that leads to a decreased physical and mental ability. Musashi is often quoted as having said “you can only fight the way you train.” Training under exhaustion is vital and requires practice. Training under exhaustion enhances progress by forcing one to “let go” of all those unnecessary muscles that are used to cheat techniques. One is therefore, forced to “find” Aikido technique. As a generally physically strong person, without the exhaustion of seminars, my own progress would surely have been limited; and much more exhaustion is still required.
Finally, seminars allow one to experience and support the bigger Aikido community. This time spent together off the mats may seem irrelevant to progress, however this would discount the power of motivation. Most people are more productive when motivated. Seminars for me stimulate excitement towards the art and motivate me to want to train more; not with the intention of progressing, but to enjoy the training as it is. Progress at or following a seminar is therefore merely a side-effect of training.
So how does one progress in the absence of time? There are many different methods to be sure but for me, introspective thinking and the maximum use of seminars have been two tools that I have relied on. To finish, I’d like to end with a quote from one of my favorite guitar players Steve Vai, “passion eliminates time.” If you have the passion, you will somehow find the time.
I went to Alameda Aikikai’s seminar with Flynn Sensei last November. It was to be the third in a series of weapons seminars and turned out to focus on weapons taking. I went with the expectation that it would be great, and indeed it was. Brilliant actually.
Flynn Sensei began the seminar by reminding us that he had rules. He explained that these were “the rules that I live by”, not just rules for training. So therefore the real Rule #1 didn’t apply and Rule #2 became Rule #1, except then a different rule became Rule #1 and Rule #2 remained Rule #2. The original Rule #1 continued as the actual Rule #1, while the other Rule #1 also stayed as Rule #1. (Are you keeping up? How many Rule #1s are there?) Rules #3 through #7 followed, but the numbers keep changing. Rule #11 was referenced but never stated. Many rules were left unnumbered.
At one point he turned and said “I hope someone is writing this down!” Being injured, I was just watching, so I thought perhaps it should be me. I grabbed an envelope off Alameda’s desk and scribbled them down. Here, I now share with you my notes and thoughts on the Flynn Sensei Rules for Life and Aikido. Perhaps someday someone from Thistle Aikikai will write a better list. And if they do, I would like to see it.
The actual Rule #1: The woman is always right. Do what your wife tells you.
Flynn Sensei explained that as his wife was 5,000 miles away, that this rule therefore didn’t apply to him for the weekend. But nevertheless, he did dwell on it a bit. One could write an opus on Rule #1. Such wisdom, yet so many variables. What if it is two women who are married? If wives disagree, which is right? Or what if the wife is wrong? If one is a wife, is there a burden to strive to be right? Is this rule really true? Nevertheless, it is probably really good advice for most of the men out there. I asked Flynn Sensei if he could explain Rule #1 to Fred, the love of my life. It would be so much easier if only Fred would embrace Rule #1. But Flynn Sensei said, “I only make the rules. I don’t enforce them. You have to do your own work.”
The other Rule #1, the real Rule #1: Don’t die.
“You got to be alive at the end. You have to survive. Don’t die.” Kind of obvious, yet surprising how it is always the logic behind every part of our movement and surprising how often we violate it. All through the seminar Rule #1 kept coming up. Why do you do this, why do you do that – Rule #1 – don’t die!
A corollary to Rule #1 is… Don’t get hit. Being hit is a possible precursor to dying, so Rule #1 applies – don’t die. Also relates to Rule #2.
Rule #2: Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.
“Don’t be stupid. Don’t die. Don’t make life hard.” This rule has become a saying around my house. For example, if you neglect to check your car’s oil, then you might burn up your engine. Rule #2 applies! By the time you have done this twice, then you have to take a look at yourself. Waiting to check the oil until the check oil light comes on definitely makes life tougher. Because you are stupid! Far be it from me to call a relative stupid, but Rule #2!
The other day I spoke to my students about the “hardness” of life. There are bills to pay, chores to do, jobs to go to, emergencies, conflicts, and it never stops. On top of all that you want to study aikido? My advice is, stay on top of things. Pay attention to details. Maintain your car. Keep everything around you clean and in good repair. Be organized. Be law abiding. Pay attention to your finances. Save money. Musashi said, “Pay attention to gain and loss in worldly affairs.” Don’t make mistakes that come back around to bite you. Be prepared, so that you can deal with problems as they arise. Life is hard enough, don’t make it harder. Because if your life derails itself, then you can’t do aikido! Disaster!
Rule #3: Laugh to yourself, don’t make noise. LTYS.
Thank you Flynn Sensei for giving me a way to get my students to be quiet! LTYS!
Rule #4: New rule! Don’t make shit up.
Well, he meant as uke, but applies to nage too. Shu-Ha-Ri theory here. It’s hard enough to do what is presented without interjecting variables. Stay with Shu. Copy the teacher. Don’t know about Shu-Ha-Ri? Ask your teacher.
Rule #5: Don’t put your elbow in uke’s face too soon.
He was referring to kokyuho. Very true and classic good form. The only thing is that I kind of like putting my elbow in uke’s face. Very Berkeley Aikikai. Great for self-defense and leads into headlocks. But one day while doing kokyuho with Varjan Sensei, she whispered in my ear, “Some people like having an elbow in their face, but I am not one of them.” Oops.
Rule #6: If you give uke the power they will never give it back.
Definitely true for kaiten nage.Get your hand on their neck early and be heavy about it.
Rule #7: Anybody can kill anybody, but you got to look good doing it.
This might be one of my favorite rules because it points to the relationship between form and function.To my way of thinking, it’s all about function. But in order for techniques to function effectively, they must be done with a form that is just so. If the little things aren’t just so, then the partner isn’t controlled, the technique falls apart, Rule #2 applies, and possibly you die (violating Rule #1). But if everything is just so, then you control the opponent and survive. It just so happens that when all the little things are in place, then aikido movement, to our eyes, becomes beautiful. If you strive to make your aikido beautiful, then it will also be functional. If you strive to make your aikido functional, it will become beautiful. Good posture is a big part of it.
You can’t stop it, you can only contain it.
Take your time, don’t rush. Pay attention. Let’s go.
Don’t stab yourself with the weapon. Relates to Rule #2.
You got to establish control.
He who hesitates is lost.
To explain, you load a gun with ammunition and by firing it the gun it unloads itself. Lifting a sword is like loading, then cutting down is unloading. Flynn Sensei emphasized this over and over. But then somehow it got translated into French, charge and decharge, and became something that amused Flynn Sensei no end.
Katedori Aihanmi Ikkyo omote is go no sen. Ura is sen no sen.
Brilliant. Why did I never notice this before? (Go no sen is late timing. Nage reacts to uke’s attack. Sen no sen is mutual timing. Nage moves with uke. Sen sen no sen is early timing. These are deep concepts. Perhaps others can write more about this in future articles.)
The price of ______ is eternal vigilance and constant suspicion.
This one immediately caught my attention, but sadly, my dear friend Lizzy Lynn Sensei who was watching with me, chose to whisper in my ear, “That’s not the quote.” I whispered back, “What is the quote?” She replied, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” My mind thought, Thomas Paine. But no. I googled it later and it seems no one really knows who said it. Not Thomas Jefferson, not Abe Lincoln, not Mark Twain, but probably John Philpot Curran, Irish orator, 1790, or Leonard H. Courtney, British politician, late 1800s.
The point is that I missed what it was that the price is of. I asked Flynn Sensei, “The price of what is constant vigilance?” He replied, “It’s eternal vigilance and constant suspicion” thus not answering the question. For some reason this bothered me and I actually watched the live streams from the seminar over again to catch it, feeling a little put upon that I was watching what I already experienced in real life. And to make it worse, I was able to confirm all the other rules, but could not find this one! So who knows? The price of safety? The price of security? None of my students can remember either. Having given it thought, I don’t think it was what he said but martial awareness would fill in the blank nicely. The price of martial awareness is eternal vigilance and constant suspicion. And it is very true. Very tiring. They say Musashi seldom slept for fear of attack.
Looking back on my career as an emergency room nurse, keeping the patients safe required eternal vigilance. It’s all about careful observation. A good ER nurse pays attention to noises. Every sound means something. And if you hear something strange – go toward it! Don’t wait. Go toward the danger. Irimi! And when it comes to child abuse, if you don’t suspect it, you won’t see it. Constant suspicion keeps kids safe. Eternal vigilance and constant suspicion. Good rules. Make it habit, then it’s not so tiring.
Long ago, in 1987, Flynn Sensei wrote an article for the newsletter of Aikido of Berkeley:
“The students actually are the dojo and collectively should provide the atmosphere of unity of effort toward training, camaraderie amongst each other, mutual support amongst each other. Sincerity and commitment become even more important. Make every effort to absorb what is being taught, remember it, practice it, and make it part of your life.”
Thank you Flynn Sensei for your teaching, for the rules, for your great laugh, for your dedication to aikido, and for loving your wife!
Here are links to the live streams of the seminar via Facebook.
Why did I go to Women’s Aikido Camp? To be honest, I went mostly for the location. I looked at the pictures of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center, and thought a few days in Santa Fe, New Mexico would be a well-deserved “escapadita” (little escape), as we say in my family. Also, as a newbie, the idea of going to Summer Camp had just been too intimidating and I thought that Women’s Camp, with its smaller size, could serve as an introduction of sorts: a way to jump in, but maybe not too deeply.
We arrived at the retreat center with only a few minutes to spare before the first class. I scrambled to get my gi on and rushed back to the gym. As all the women began to line up, we were instructed by Varjan Sensei to do so in order of rank. This required us to talk to one another to find our place. There was no need for this shy girl to talk to anyone. As a 5th kyu, I just needed to go to the back at the end of the line, easy! When we all settled down, I looked down the rows at all the women in hakama, and the enormity of the situation settled on me and brought me to tears. The sound of all the female voices as we said our onegai shimasu in unison filled the gym and filled me with an unexpected joy.
In trying to describe why it was so different to train with only women, it is easy to jump to stereotypes, all of which are completely inadequate to describe what I saw and experienced. All these weeks later and I still haven’t been able to put my finger on what the difference was exactly, but I can say that I loved every minute. I can tell you that the encounters on the mat were intense and sincere, but also filled with love and so much joy.
Yes, the classes were amazing, but I haven’t been to a seminar yet where that wasn’t true. So, what was different? Maybe it was just the opportunity to see what I can become. It may have been just being in a room full of bad ass women and feeling that if I work hard, I can be like them. Maybe it was being told by a very open and powerful woman, that this little shy girl can become open and powerful. It probably had something to do with Graham Sensei telling the kyu ranks that it was time to inhabit the front row and know that we deserve to be there. It may also have been that while a mat full of men can sometimes feel intimidating, a mat full of women felt welcoming and empowering. I’m still not sure what it was exactly, but for me it was magical. I can tell you I found something in my Aikido practice that I didn’t know was missing, and I can tell you that I will be at the next Women’s Aikido Camp.
In the world of surfing, we seem to get a particular joy out of telling people that they missed it. We don’t share our secret spots lest they get too crowded. But this I will shout from the rooftops. Ladies, if you missed it, or if you hesitated for any reason; the next one is not to be missed! Go for the location, go for the local spas, go to get away for a few days, whatever your reason is, just go!
To my male training partners, I can’t say I missed you, but I will say that I thought of you often. I kept thinking that I would like you to experience this too. I know what you are thinking: “Summer Camp… not Women’s Camp.” But what I wish is that you could experience “Women’s Aikido Camp” so you could experience the intensity, the joy, and the sisterhood with me. Guys, while I can’t arrange an invitation for you, I can promise you that I will do my best to train with the intensity and the loving spirit that I felt in Santa Fe.
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.
Check out the great video above put together by the Birankai Scholarship Committee. Real Birankai students talk about the benefits of seminars as a part of training and development in the art. It’s eight minutes long but full of action footage!
All of us in Birankai Aikido are working to fund seminars to raise our level of Aikido, Iaido and Zazen training through the T.K. & Mitsuko Chiba Endowment Fund. Our national goal is to raise $400,000 in four years and we are already funding seminars through the endowment.