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

Masztalerz: Keeping Pushing Yourself

By Liese Klein, New Haven Aikikai

“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.”

Stay tuned for a longer interview with Masztalerz Sensei here in coming weeks; see more videos at the Birankai Aikido Video Channel and the New Haven Aikikai Video Channel on Youtube. Find out more about his book in Polish about his lifelong study of Aikido here.

 

Yahe Solomon in New Haven

Yahe Solomon at Connecticut Aikikai, Sept. 28-30.

Instructor’s Statement:
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.
Yahe
Editor’s note: Videos from this seminar can be found on the Birankai Aikido Video Channel and the New Haven Aikikai Video Channel.

Level Up: Graham, Klein and Murphy in Seattle

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.

More video clips from the event are on the Birankai Aikido Video Channel on YouTube.

If you are in Tacoma early for Birankai North America Summer Camp, be sure to visit Tacoma Aikikai, Murphy’s thriving dojo downtown. Classes are on until the start of camp; the schedule is here.  If you’re a bit north in Seattle, stop by Seattle Aikikai, where Graham Sensei welcomes Birankai members with a warmth and appreciation. The schedule is here.

All Aikido practitioners of all affiliations are welcome at Birankai North America Summer Camp and it’s not too late to sign up. Drop-ins are also welcome as commuters. Sign up here and see everyone at camp!

Boyet em Brasil

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!

Footwork First in the Mountains

Frank Apodaca Shihan at the 2018 Mountain Weapons Seminar.

Thirty students gathered at Grass Valley Aikikai Chief Instructor Cecilia Ramos Sensei’s home, ten acres ten miles into the Sierra Nevada mountains, for the 2018 Mountain Weapons Seminar with Frank Apodaca Shihan of Deep River Aikikai. We were pleased to host students from San Diego Aikikai, Summit Aikikai, Alameda Aikikai, and Aikido Institute of San Francisco, along with visitors from Chico.

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.

Deena Drake: Bringing the Liveliness

“We can do it!”

By Rodger Park, Huron Valley Aikikai

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.

See more clips of Drake Sensei at the Huron Valley Aikikai Youtube Video channel:

Memorial Seminar in Brooklyn

By Liese Klein, New Haven Aikikai

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.

George Lyons and Chiba Sensei, late 1980s.

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. ”

 

Celebration in Albuquerque

Mateo’s 1st Kyu test.

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.

Aikido of Albuquerque is an outstanding dojo with offerings including Continue reading “Celebration in Albuquerque”

Calling All Teachers

Birankai Aikido Instructors Intensive in California, 2012. This year’s intensive is in Upstate New York May 18-20; the theme is “Kihon,” or the building blocks of our training.

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.

All Birankai Aikido teachers in North America, Europe and beyond are welcome to take part and join the discussion: Email liese.klein@gmail.com if Continue reading “Calling All Teachers”

Seminar Report: Breath Power

Event: Darrell Bluhm Shihan of Siskyou Aikikai at Green River Aikido, May 5-6, 2018. With additional instruction from Cindy Eggers Shidoin.

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’ve been thinking a lot about something Chiba Sensei said in a letter to Lizzy Lynn: ‘To practice Aikido is to study the body; to study the body is to study the Continue reading “Seminar Report: Breath Power”

Training in San Diego

By Elodie Honegger

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’d like to share the way Deena Sensei trains on New Year’s Eve, because it Continue reading “Training in San Diego”

Teaching in Brazil

By Roger Park, Huron Valley Aikikai

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”

Progressing in the Absence of Time

By Jody Eastman, Goldstream Aikikai

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.

Jody Summercamp San FranciscoIn 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.

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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.

Polishing the Aikido Spirit

By:  Andy Brastad, Clallam Aikikai 

Aikido Seminar with Frank Apodaca Sensei, November 3-5 2017

“The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body and polish the spirit.”

-Morihei Ueshiba

Recently, I had the great fortune of attending a Clallam Aikikai Aikido seminar taught by Frank Apodaca Sensei in Carlsborg, Washington.  It was my first seminar since I returned to training in Aikido after a six year hiatus.  Six years – it may not seem like a long time.  But time off the mats and aging (I’m 63) act like a slick pick-pocket – taking your valuables from you and you have no clue that they are even gone, that is until you need them.  So with a bit of trepidation I signed up for the 3-day training hoping that my stout-hearted spirit would indeed shield me from the feelings of awkwardness, lack of memory of techniques, and the aches and pains of hard workouts. I also volunteered to host visitors attending the seminar from nearby Victoria, Canada.

The seminar began on a Friday night – suwari waza techniques. I’m thinking that my training is back to square one; just do your best and don’t sweat it if you make lots of mistakes.  Throughout the session Frank Apodaca Sensei stressed the basics of good techniques; stance, posture, movement, position, timing, breath, completeness of techniques, and a martial attitude.

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For the entirety of the seminar the basics would be the mantra of the seminar.  The seminar ended Sunday afternoon with a pot-luck on Saturday night. As it turned out my visitors from Victoria, Maggie and Jody, were a couple that had stayed in my house about 6 years ago.  When we met at the seminar it was as though we had just seen each other yesterday, not like 6 years had gone by. It was truly reconnecting with friends.  Also traveling with them was their son Raven and one of their students, Paul.  We all became really good friends.

This brings me back to the wise words of O’Sensei. As a student with a huge amount of “slack’ in my techniques, this seminar was just what I needed as a retuning new student.  I definitely took in as much as I could and “stole” from black belts what they offered to me.  Yes, my body ached on Monday (and Tuesday too) but I like the feeling of testing my body and learning to adapt to the limitations that I now have.  After all I’m in it for the long haul.  However, for me the words “polish the spirit” really ring true.  The basics really extend not just to techniques and training but also to developing and renewing friendships, camaraderie, and the shared excitement of friends getting promotions.  All of these activities are polishing (and rekindling) the spirit.

I want to thank Frank Apodaca Sensei and Neilu Naini Sensei for bringing this seminar on “the Basics” to Clallam Aikikai.  I could not have enjoyed it more.

 

The Flynn Sensei Rules for Life and Aikido

by Cecilia Ramos, Grass Valley Aikikai 

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!

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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.

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Flynn Sensei throwing his son, Mitsu Flynn. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Gonzales-Webb.

Unnumbered Rules:

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.

Load, unload.

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.

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212257192038572&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212256752907594&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212251484535888&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212250980483287&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212249353602616&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212248947592466&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212248474140630&id=1041170109

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212244361437815&id=1041170109

November 2017 Seminar with Frank Apodaca Sensei, Shihan, at Clallam Aikikai

By James Burtle, Clallam Aikikai

I first met and trained with Frank Apodaca Sensei in Michigan in 2002. He had established and was then operating Mid-Michigan Aikikai in East Lansing, MI. I had recently moved to Ann Arbor, MI, two hours drive from East Lansing, and had had the good fortune there to meet and train under Rodger Park Sensei, my root teacher, at Huron Valley Aikikai.

James Burtle Aikido image 2

From 2002-2004 I benefited greatly from regular group training with these two dojos and consider Apodaca Sensei’s instruction an inseparable compliment to the excellent foundational instruction that I received from Park Sensei then in the early years of my martial arts training. These two teachers consistently demonstrated friendship, deep respect for each other and for students, and a high level of technical instruction. They also happen to both be great guys!

I am currently a member of Clallam Aikikai, in Carlsborg, WA, benefitting from the vast experience and excellent instruction of Neilu Naini Sensei. Due to her efforts, our dojo was lucky enough to recently host a full weekend seminar lead by Frank Apodaca Sensei, Shihan.

When I consider the teaching style of Apodaca Sensei as I have experienced it, I am first inspired to comment on the relaxed, confident power that he so gently, and effectively, displays. His mat presence inspires me to give more fully of myself in training. He is always smiling. His utilization of illustrative example from walking life, and especially from other martial arts, helps to open and deepen Aikido study; His instruction is always rich with just the right amount of technical information to perfectly compliment established, overarching themes.

James Burtle AIkido image 1Some highlights I (hopefully) took away from Apodaca Sensei’s recent instruction at Clallam Aikikai include:  A detailed description of the importance of knee/forearm cross-substantiality necessary to soften and protect the affected shoulder while taking ukemi during ikkyo and kata gatame, and how this positioning preserves mobility and increases safety; On cutting, to cultivate the relaxed “zero point” also crucial to accurately discharging a firearm, or throwing an effective punch;  and the necessity of full, dynamic balance taking in ki no nagare.

Apodaca Sensei reminded us that self-care is of paramount importance as we work to maintain our bodies and bring longevity to our training. A generous section of seminar instruction was dedicated to the application of a Systema method of partnered whole body muscle/nerve therapy. Like many members of our community, managing chronic pain and acute injury is an ever present part of my personal practice. I am always encouraged and refreshed when this aspect of martial art is addressed directly on the mat, and especially by an instructor of such high level.

Off of the mat, Apodaca Sensei’s unassuming, approachable personality greatly contributes to a warm, welcoming sense of community. This feeling, in my opinion, indicates good health among a group of practitioners and is an excellent example of the potential to enrich human relationships through the martial arts.

A huge “Thank you!” to Sensei for traveling across the country to be with us in Washington for the weekend! Please return as soon as you are able! And to aikidoka not already aware, absolutely do not miss any opportunity that you may have to benefit from the instruction and example of Apodaca Sensei.

Women’s Camp Addresses Important Topic

By Sarah Cuevas, Grass Valley Aikikai

In September I was fortunate to have the experience of attending the Women’s Aikido Camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The travel to the event was a story all on its own. Missed flights, multiple rerouted gates, and lengthy wait times (an extra 8 hours), were just some of the events that made the travel to Camp a hilarious story. However, my experience of Camp outweighed the travel to and fro. As I usually do when attending an event, I made an agreement with myself to let go of expectations. Life is too unpredictable to come loaded with desire. I had never been to an all women’s anything before (with the exception of a few girls’ nights here and there, but nothing of this magnitude). So I arrived with an open heart and mind and an intention to train hard and do my best.

Our rerouted travel kept us from attending the first evening class. We arrived by shuttle in the dark, to the retreat center where Camp was held. Showed to our room by Varjan Sensei herself, we were delighted to discover comfy beds and cozy furnishings. A good night’s sleep was definitely in store for myself and my dojo mate, Marci Martinez. The next morning we awoke to a perfect view of the high desert, and then were even more astounded by the breakfast buffet. After homemade granola, fresh greek yogurt, organic fruits and juice options, good coffee, scrambled eggs with meat or vegetarian options, we practically rolled ourselves back up to our rooms to dress and go to the dojo.

The dojo was a simple yet quality setup in the gym of the retreat center, with long, tall windows at the top for great natural light, and doors at either end to keep the air flowing. I walked in noticing the calm air. Not the calm-before-the-storm kind of calm, more like the quiet peace you find after the space of meditation. There was an inherent unhurried-ness coupled with the power of being a martial arena. Being one of the first to arrive on the mat, I noticed the energy shift as more women arrived. Having no expectations, I observed, interested to see how this was going to play out. Turns out, it began seemingly no different than a seminar where our brothers were in attendance. We lined, up, we bowed, we entered training with a confirmed sense of martial awareness. With skilled teaching, precision ukemi, and a relatively crowded mat, we trained hard. Technique followed technique, one after another, sweat abounding and egos aside, we trained in body arts and weapons.

Stretching my back to warm up before the morning class.
Stretching my back to warm up during the morning class. Nage: Sherri Waldman, Rhode Island Aikikai

It wasn’t until someone triggered a recognition in my head by saying, “So this is what it feels like when there is no testosterone on the mat” that I even noticed a difference in the energy of the room. There was a difference: a subtle, yet powerful, transcendence of this hormonal variation. It is challenging for me to describe, because it didn’t feel like anything was lacking, and it didn’t feel like an abundance of estrogen either. It just felt, well, softer. When I say softer, I don’t mean less martial, or easier training. I refer to a feminine energy, the type of energy you feel when you know you are being cared for and supported, yet held to a high standard, like that of a grandmother with her grandchild. Yet there certainly remained a requirement for all present to challenge themselves in their training, an element inherent to progression, regardless of gender, or of the gender of training partners.

Throughout the remainder of Camp, we went in this fashion: delectable meals, phenomenal teaching, sweaty gi, heavy sleep. We had some nights with evening discussion. It seemed a communal agreement that group meetings were something we could take with us back to our home dojos, and to our greater Aikido community.

Many topics were discussed, but there seemed to be much discussion around misogyny. I should comment that after hearing some of the stories that my fellow women Aikidoka have experienced, I feel grateful to not have had the circumstance of discrimination alive in my dojo or at any seminar I have attended. However, it was an obvious issue for other women, leaving me surprised at the reality of it. Male students and teachers have always been fair-minded towards me, however it seems not the same way for all women. Please don’t misunderstand and come to the conclusion that this was a man-hating event. There were many topics discussed, but because of the alarming nature of this topic, I choose to write about it. Due to my own ignorance, naivety, or both, I had never thought that women were managing discrimination in this way. Out of respect for the women attendees, I won’t go into details, but there were a range of patterns and actions brought up. I think it is enough to just mention it in this platform, to bring awareness to the topic. It seems likely to me, that after merely reading that misogyny is an issue for some of your fellow Aikidoka, that the reader will bring this awareness to the mat with a heightened sensitivity for fair minded-ness. That is all I am asking here, for the blessing of bringing awareness to training. Training is already challenging, let us keep it as simple as it can be without adding any friction to it. O’ Sensei instructs, “Training should always be conducted in a pleasant and joyful atmosphere.” With this in mind, it may be easy to maintain his request, because with any type of discrimination comes the difficulty of managing the response. Let us be easy on ourselves and each other, free from bias and judgments, allowing each person their right to train in a safe and joyous environment.

Warrior mode
Warrior mode

After four days of amazing training, Marci and I headed back to the airport. Thinking we would arrive with no problems, our shuttle ran out of gas on the highway. Ironically, our rescue shuttle, once we were all loaded up, would not start. We joked about how our travel was cursed this trip, when all of a sudden, after half an hour of waiting on the rescue shuttle, and half an hour of sitting idle with the clock ticking to get to our flight on time, the shuttle van miraculously started. We arrived with literally five minutes to spare, made our flight, and nestled into the plane hilariously awaiting another debacle. But the trip home was fine with no other events. With a head full of new techniques, new friendships and life lessons, I returned home a happy Aikidoka.