Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai and Cultivating Connectedness Webinar Moderator
Much of the credit for the conception, organization and
presentation of the two webinars must go to Rob Schenk, Chief Instructor of
Aikido Institute of San Francisco, and technology wizard. Rob initially
proposed the idea of Birankai North America holding webinars and offered his
expertise to the organization to make them happen, serving as host to both
Personally I’m grateful to Rob for prompting and supporting
us in creating a means to remember and honor Chiba Sensei with the first
“memorial” webinar on June 6th. I felt strongly it was important that we, as a
community, could come together during this challenging time in remembrance of
While I was involved in planning that event, I participated
as an audience member and greatly enjoyed hearing the stories and comments of
my colleagues and friends. For me it was a healing balm to the feelings of
sadness and emptiness that still arise within me as I continue to miss Sensei’s
physical presence in my life. I was also encouraged by the level of
participation and general enthusiasm expressed during and after the event.
The success of the memorial webinar led to a desire to host
a follow up event, in part, to create an opportunity to address some of the
questions that remained unanswered from the first webinar. We chose to focus
the discussion on Chiba Sensei’s development of bokken and jo practices and
their integration into the whole of his Aikido “curriculum”. This choice was
stimulated by the reality that for many of us, our weapons practice is what sustains
us during this time of social distancing where the physical contact we’re
accustomed to is not readily available.
The selection of panel members was made with the intention
to select teachers with extensive weapons training and experience working
directly with Chiba Sensei. The panel clearly met that criteria and were able
to provide a lively and entertaining conversation. This time I did have the opportunity to
participate actively in the event as the “moderator”, a role that proved much more enjoyable than I imagined!
It’s my hope that we will continue to hold these kinds of webinars going forward, with a wider level of participation and structured to address the needs and interests of our teachers and general members.
Coryl Crane Shihan, Chief Instructor and Founder, North County Aikikai and Chiba Sensei Memorial Webinar Host
The June 6, 2020 commemoration of our inspirational and much loved teacher, Chiba Sensei, was a moving, visual, and experiential journey into his life. He came alive again for us all. The Zoom webinar connected over 100 people from 10 different countries around the world. Many had trained with Chiba Sensei and knew him personally, while many were second generation and knew him through their teachers and his reputation. Five years since he passed on June 5, 2015, and here we still think about Sensei and the effect he had on our lives.
The webinar started with a moment of silence during which time, and each in our own way, we could remember Chiba Sensei. We then saw his 2008 video interview with Lori Stewart, and it felt for me like I was sitting at that table with him while he talked about shoshin, beginner’s mind, and his relationship with the metaphorical, unobtainable Princess, that was his Aikido – the treasure he lived his life to protect. Next, we were immersed yet again, watching Sensei in action on the mat, in a selection of video clips highlighting his always dynamic, powerful, and physical presence.
But what better way to know Chiba Sensei, the teacher, than through the personal memories and direct experiences of those students who spent many years in close and intense training with him. Webinar participants were invited to ask questions of four panelists: Archie Champion Shihan, George Lyons Shihan, Roo Heins Shidoin and Leslie Cohen Shidoin. The panel answered wide ranging questions from, “What was it like to take ukemi from Chiba Sensei?” to, “What was he like as a person?” The responses were unique in each case. What became apparent, however, was the panelists’ shared common bond of love and respect grown from a life-changing relationship with their teacher.
From this first webinar, which had more questions than there was time to answer, ideas for a follow-up webinar soon grew. Held on July 18, Darrell Bluhm Shihan moderated our second webinar on Chiba Sensei’s concept of connectedness, with panelists Didier Boyet Shihan, Diane Deskin Shidoin, Dave Alonzo Thierry Diagona Shidoin, and myself. There were 52 attendants from 6 different countries.
We very much hope to build on the interest generated by Chiba Sensei’s memorial and open up discussion on subjects of interest to you all. Please let us know what and who you would like to hear more from.
Gassho, Coryl Crane, North County Aikikai, 8/14/20
The article “Structure of Shu, Ha, Ri, and Penetration of Shoshin” was first published in the 1989 Winter edition of Sansho, the Aikido Journal of the USAF Western Region. Two more articles on Shu-Ha-Ri followed, which were transcribed from interviews between Chiba Sensei and Shibata Sensei.
The article below was written when Sensei was a fully mature teacher with a clearly developed methodology to his teaching. Having taught Aikido for nearly 30 years, Sensei presented his understanding of “shoshin”, beginners mind, in a clear and powerful way. In his last advice to us, his students, in 2015 he returned to this frequently referenced principle, admonishing us to never lose our beginners mind.
Sensei’s later essays on Shu-Ha-Ri expanded upon the concepts below, striving to help students assess their current and future levels of development. He wrote, “I am writing about Shu-Ha-Ri to help students understand where they are in terms of the stages of advancement in training. By developing ‘eyes to see’ what stage they are in, I want them to grasp what direction to take in their future training.”
This article and the principles presented in it introduced elements of Sensei’s teaching that he continued to develop through his life. They are central to what he gave us. Please read with an open heart and an open mind.
–Darrell Bluhm Shihan, Ashland, Oregon, 2 January 2020
Among those words we commonly use and supposedly understand are those that, when paid close attention to in order to define their meaning, reveal how unclear and obscure our understanding really is.
Perhaps the word shoshin, which is commonly used by martial artists, is one of these. It is understood that Budo (martial art) begins with shoshin and ends with shoshin. Budo, therefore, cannot be understood without first having a clear definition of the meaning of shoshin.
What follows is a description of the meaning of the two Chinese characters that make up the Japanese word shoshin: The character sho means first or beginning. The character shin means mind, spirit or attitude. The two together have been translated as “beginner’s mind” and indicate the mind (spirit or attitude) of a complete beginner when starting Budo training. This is marked by modesty, meekness, sincerity, purity and a thirst to seek the path.
In Japan, Budo discipline is commonly recognized as, or expected to be, severe and hard, requiring many years to master. Within shoshin one finds a spirit of endurance, sacrifice, devotion and self-control. Why do the Japanese see Budo training in this way? (In contrast to the American attitude where, in general, it seems that pleasure and enjoyment come first.) The Japanese understand that it is impossible to master the art without the determination to go through many years of training, passing through various stages and being required to go to one’s physical limit and sometimes even beyond. The Japanese also recognize that in the final completion of the physical mastery of the art, there is spiritual realization that can take one further.
The state attained through spiritual realization, the highest state of Budo, is often expressed as mushin, the state of No-Mind. It is represented by the image of a clear mirror reflecting everything that comes before it exactly as it is. The state of No-Mind reflects everything that passes in front of it, whether coming or going, without interference of will or self-imposed view. However, there is an important distinction between a static mirror and this active state of mind. The active mind responds spontaneously and simultaneously to the reflected image without attachment or interference, right or wrong, gain or loss, life or death. What makes this state more difficult to attain is that it requires physical motion (technique) to simultaneously accompany the mind responding to the images reflected upon it.
The state of mind like a clear mirror — the state of No-Mind — may be attained through other spiritual disciplines such as meditation. What makes Budo unique, however, is found in the simultaneous and inseparable embodiment of mind and the physical motion (the technique.) This stage of training is known as the Sword of No-Mind or the Sword of No-Form, or even as the Sword in a Dream. Only when this stage is attained is one’s art considered complete.
Shoshin is the mind or attitude required to follow the teaching. This implies sincerity, modesty, meekness, openness, endurance, sacrifice, and self-control unaffected by self-will, judgment or discrimination. It’s like a piece of pure white silk before it is dyed. It’s also an important condition for the first stage, in which a beginner learns to embody the basics precisely, point by point, line by line, with an immovable faith in the teaching.
Shoshin, however, is not only the state of mind required for a beginner, but must be present throughout every stage of training. The manifestation of shoshin therefore varies depending on one’s status: whether a beginner, intermediate, or advanced student. What’s most important is that one becomes, ultimately, one body inside and out, finally developing into Mind of No-Mind. This is the completion of Budo training.
One’s determination to hold firmly onto beginner’s mind is a key factor in the completion of one’s study. But how difficult this is to do! That determination is very vulnerable to being destroyed by fame, position, rank, or being lost through haughtiness or conceit.
Like everything else, shoshin encounters and experiences various challenges and can retreat, weaken, decay, or break down. It also can become clearer and stronger.
It’s vital to maintain a strict, self-reflective attitude throughout study to prevent shoshin from decaying or breaking down. It is necessary to be decisive, crawling out from a crisis not just once, but twice, three times, to keep on going. Loss of shoshin means the stopping of growth, and this almost always happens where and when one does not recognize it. This is a characteristic of losing shoshin. It is both a sign and a result of human arrogance.
If arrogance is the main cause of losing shoshin, modesty, its counterpart, is necessary to maintain it. A modest mind is one that recognizes the profoundness of the Path, knows fear, knows the existence of something beyond one’s own reality, while continuing to grasp one’s internal development.
Shoshin is also an idea strongly associated with self-denial, while arrogance is founded upon uneducated self-affirmation and superficial self-assertion. In many senses, self-denial works like a mid-wife to stimulate the birth of a true richness of heart. Paradoxically, while self-denial broadens, the reflection and understanding of human nature deepens.
In general, the difference between Americans and the Japanese lies in whether hardship or pleasure/enjoyment are anticipated in the study of Budo. This seems to be largely due to differences between the two cultures.
There still remains a strong influence from medieval ideas within all Japanese traditional artistic disciplines, including Budo, as well as within the present day Japanese consciousness.
It is largely because of Yoshikawa’s work on Miyamoto Musashi that Musashi’s life is deeply appreciated by the Japanese people. He has now become a long-standing national hero. This is not only due to an appreciation of his accomplished swordsmanship, but also an appreciation of his austere way of life, which deeply moves Japanese consciousness. A similar respect can be found in the attitude of the Japanese people towards O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido. Despite the differences between Musashi and O’Sensei (the Zen influence strongly characterized Musashi’s life, while Shintoism influenced O’Sensei), what is common to these two gigantic individuals is the depth of their self-denial.
It is necessary to pay strong attention to the profoundness of this self-denial because it contributes to the birth of an even stronger self-affirmation.
Self-denial is a vital force that contributes paradoxically to the development of humankind. Through self-denial, one can attain cosmic consciousness and achieve greater self-recognition by transcending the restraints of the ego.
This process is basic to the progressive development/structure that is commonly understood within the traditional artistic disciplines, including Aikido. However, before I enter more deeply into this subject, I would like to touch briefly on the meaning of kata.
Role of Ki in the Practice of Kata
The study and disciplines of kata are the fundamental and common methods found throughout the traditional Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, painting, calligraphy, dancing, theater and Budo.
Kata has been translated into English as “form.” However, “form” seems to cover only one part of a larger whole, superficially limited to the physical appearance of kata.
While form covers only the physical part of the whole (the visible part of kata), there is another element that works within, which is invisible in nature. It is the internal energy associated with the flow of consciousness (ki). There are schools to be found in the old records of budo which describe kata as the Law of Energy, or the Order of Energy. Kata, therefore, does not limit its meaning merely to its physical appearance. Its appearance can be taught and transmitted physically with reasonable effort, as it is visible. However, the internal part requires a totally different perspective and an ability to master it. Since it cannot be seen physically, it cannot be taught but must be sensed and felt.
Ki, for instance, as a manifestation of control and flow of consciousness, works jointly with physical energy inside and outside of the body within kata. It is sensitively associated with the quality and combination of opposite elements that integrate and exchange: purity and impurity; brightness and darkness; wholeness and emptiness; contraction and expansion; positiveness and passivity; hardness and softness; lightness and heaviness; explosiveness and quietude; speed and slowness, and the like.
Kata comes into being as an organic life form when the two opposing elements, inside and outside, harmoniously integrate within a martial necessity. The kata then breathes, manifests, comes into being, and dies at the moment of execution. One must then let it go.
Furthermore, what makes kata significant is that it is deeply characterized by a school, especially a school’s founder, as well as the school’s successive personalities and experiences. Ultimately it crystallizes as a particular philosophy, which is then passed down to its successors. This is the heart of the school.
In its original form, kata is described as combative motion (against an enemy) and is the accomplishment and collective essence of each school. It results from the pursuit of efficiency, economy, and rational thought in any given circumstance.
By being exposed to — and trained in — kata, under a methodology unique to a school (or teacher) for a number of years, one can learn the physical forms and internal order of energy as well as being penetrated by the heart of a particular school.
Although the foundation of Aikido training is based on the repetition of kata, its approach is much freer and more flexible than in the old schools. It can be said that it is kata beyond kata. The reason for this can be found first of all in the positive fact that Aikido draws a wide diversity of people to it, compared to other budo disciplines. However, on the negative side, this contributes to a superficial overflow of individualism.
The second reason can be found in the fact that the Founder himself repeatedly transformed and changed his art and in particular its physical presentation. These changes were synonymous with his personal development and age. Without doubt, this is one of the reasons we see the different styles of kata, or different ways of expressing the essence of the art, among his followers. These students completed their training under the Founder at different periods of his life.
This continual development of Aikido is clearly due to the Founder’s endless exploration of the Path, a search with which, I assume, he was never satisfied. The best way that I can describe his attitude in this regard is that he used to tell his followers that if they advanced fifty steps, he would advance one hundred. I’m convinced that it was truly his intention to encourage his younger followers.
Although there appear to be differences in the approach to kata between Aikido and other arts, the mastery of kata still carries substantial weight in our study. It might, therefore, be helpful to describe the three progressive stages that appear in the study of the traditional arts that exist in Japan. Some of these I will illustrate with the hope that visualization will help the reader grasp them more fully!
in the Study of Traditional Art
The first stage is known as shu, and can be translated as follows: to protect, defend, guard, obey, keep, observe, abide by, stick to, be true to. From these definitions, the characteristics of this particular stage can be said to be: protection (by teaching), observation (of teaching), keeping one’s eyes open (on the teaching.)
As one can see, there are two factors: one a subjective issue, the other objective. For example, to be protected (by the teaching), to be defended (by the teaching), and to be guarded (by the teaching) all refer to defense against external negative influences, and from falling into danger and making mistakes. These are all objective issues. On the other hand, to obey the order (of the teaching), to observe (the teaching), to stick (to the teaching), to be true (to the teaching), are all subjective, internal issues.
Technically, what is characteristic of this stage is the learning and embodiment of the fundamentals through the repetition of kata, exactly as they are presented, without the imposition of will, opinion, or judgment, but with total openness and modesty.
This is an important basic conditioning period both physically and mentally, wherein all the necessary conditions are carefully prepared for the next stage. Physically, this is the time when various parts of the body are trained — joints, muscles, bones, overall posture, how to set the lower part of the body centered around the midsection, the use of gravity and its control, the balanced use of hands and footwork, etc.
Mentally, one learns how to focus and concentrate attention on any particular part of the body at any given time, how to generate internal energy and its natural flow through the use of the power of the imagination. Furthermore, one learns faith, trust, respect, endurance, modesty, sacrifice, and courage, all of which are considered to be virtues of udo.
There is no set time or period to this stage. It all depends on the strength, quality, ability, and capability on the parts of both teacher and student. Generally speaking, however, it does not have to be too long, say from three to five years. Needless to say, this is said on the assumption that one trains earnestly, trains every day, and makes training the first priority of that time of one’s life.
The stage that follows shu is known as ha. The definition of ha translates as: to tear up, rip, rend, break, crush, destroy, violate, transgress, open, burst
As these definitions indicate, this is a rather dynamic stage in character and strongly leans toward negativity and denial. However, paradoxically this negativity leads progressively to self-affirmation.
The stage of shu, described before, is centered on the denial of individualism. That which then develops afterwards is a stage of self-affirmation, which is based on denial of the first stage, shu. A new horizon then opens up. It requires a totally different perception in order to grasp the whole meaning of what is happening at this time.
This stage demands careful preparation by both teacher and student. The strength of the teaching and deep insight and recognition of the potential of the student by the teacher, and the ceaseless and earnest study carried out by the student in response to the teaching, are essential. This is not a superficial self-assertion or pose of individualism, because its strength comes from having been through the flame of self-denial.
Technically, this is also the stage when it is required to rearrange or reconstruct what the teacher has taught. This includes the elimination of what is undesirable, unnecessary or unsuitable and allows new elements to be brought into the study as food for growth. These changes are based on the true recognition of self, together with accompanying conditions such as temperament, personality, style, age, sex, weight, height and body strength.
This is the stage, spiritually or mentally, when it is necessary to have a high mind of inquiry and self-reflection. More than anything else, it is required to attain a true and unshakable understanding of oneself as an individual. In other words, it’s necessary to have a clear vision of one’s own potential and the best possible way to stimulate it. This might require that one abandons or denies that which is already an asset or strength in one’s art. In this stage, in particular, gaining does not necessarily mean being creative, but often means losing or abandoning, and this plays an important part in the process. It is indeed a difficult task to carry out and one often does not see its necessity due to lack of true insight and courage.
Due to human nature, it is indeed difficult to deny what one already has, especially when it’s considered to be a good part of one’s possession. This is where most people get stuck and cease to grow. It is a matter of insight and perception in relation to the true recognition of self. In relation to human growth, this stage is still the period of the infant and youth and therefore still comes under the wing of the teaching and the teacher. Another, very significant part of this stage, is moving from the complete passivity of the previous stage to active responsibility for one’s own training.
What happens in this stage is that the one who gives (on the part of teaching — an external effect) and the one who receives (on the part of the student — an internal effort) simultaneously contribute towards the birth of individualism. It is exactly like the moment when the baby bird within the egg begins to break the shell from the inside as the parent bird helps to break through from the outside. If the time is not mature, the death of the bird results.
Again, there is no set time or period for how long this stage takes. However, this is an important transitional period. Grow from infant-youth to a complete, fully grown individual appears only after this stage.
The final stage is known as ri. The definition of the character is: separation, leave, depart (from), release, set free, detach.
As the definition indicates, this is the time of graduation. The completion of one’s study is here, though it isn’t the end of study. In this stage, one is given recognition as a Master of the art, as well as recognition as a complete individual, independent in the art. Obviously, in this stage, one has to acquire every required technical skill, knowledge and experience, and a dauntless personality. Spiritually or mentally one no longer depends or relies upon external help or guidance. One depends upon one’s own continual inquiry. This is the stage where one may begin to see the Mind of No-Mind, or the Sword of No-Mind, through an as-yet misty horizon.
Needless to say, to attain this stage takes work and study that is beyond expression in words. This is where one liberates the self from external reliances, including one’s teacher, until cosmic consciousness, the Mind of No-Mind and the Sword of No-Sword, are revealed. And it is the state of shoshin with its continuous growth that is the key to its attainment.
I’ve given a brief description of shu, ha, and ri with their progressive development and structure. However, these three stages do not necessarily set up in mechanical form with clear boundaries between them, although their progression and transformation are basically acknowledged through a certificate given by the teacher.
Referring the above system to the present ranking system practiced in today’s Aikido, the stage of shu is applicable up to the rank of third Dan, the stage of ha up to fifth Dan, and the stage of ri to sixth Dan and above. Obviously it doesn’t apply to everyone’s rank, for both negative and positive reasons. The quality of rank is often questionable; and then there is the genius, someone who is not necessarily restrained by any system.
One who has attained the stage of ri is considered to be a master of the art. He/she has become one of the successors of the Path who stands as the embodiment of the art to all others. Obviously, one is still regarded as junior to one’s teacher within the line of transmission. Nevertheless, one is equal to any other master, including one’s own teacher, in responsibility to continue to transmit the art to others. And by this continual transmission of responsibility the art develops through further generations.
Whether the above-mentioned system is still practiced in today’s Aikido in Japan, or whether it is workable here in the United States where culture, life-style, and way of thinking are so different, is not my present interest. I am convinced, however, that this system still carries profound value for today’s society, as it presents deep insight into the growth of humankind. Furthermore, it clarifies the responsibilities of the teacher and the student, thus contributing to the establishment of an ideal relationship between the two.
Whatever changes American Aikido makes in the future, it will still require a close association with Japan. This is not limited to the technical level, but is meant more broadly from a cultural perspective. Culture exists as an undercurrent within the art wherein knowledge, wisdom, experience, and insight with regard to human growth through physical and spiritual training can be found.
Seeing all change as creative development is a dangerous concept, especially when this is given affirmative recognition based on the superficial assertion of one’s own creativity. Equally dangerous is the harsh demand for independence of the art based on political or racial reasons, or giving too strong an emphasis on the differences between two countries (East is East, West is West . . . is an extreme attitude). This is important, especially as American Aikido as a whole is still considered to be in its youth.
Change is unavoidable and only natural. However, it is illogical to think only of change while not recognizing those things which do not change. Changes derive from differences. Their counterpart — no-change — comes from something common and unified between the differences, through which the value of the art becomes a universal asset or property of mankind.
Whether one places importance on a part that changes or on a part that does not change, it’s necessary to have a delicate balance. Ultimately, it is shoshin which will bring about both a deeper insight and a sense of balance.
In the final analysis, it is perhaps shoshin that American Aikido as a whole needs, to be truly creative and independent in the future.
For years I stated a passionate opinion. Eight years ago, I was encouraged to capture this opinion in writing since my “journey has been different than many”. I struggled with the notion that somehow, there was anything unique about my Aikido experience. Isn’t everyone’s path in Aikido unique? In recent years as I travel, hearing others’ journeys, learning as much as I can and passing on as much as I can from those lessons, I finally found the inspiration to put my views into text.
provide a bit of background: I first saw
Aikido in 1983 at Michigan State University. To me, it was the best example of applied
physics among human interactions I could imagine. All I wanted was to be
able to do “it”, even if it took a lifetime. I was an extremely
uncoordinated computer geek; much later in life, I discovered I fell just
outside the Autism Spectrum. My best
friend’s father introduced me to “it”. I
hung around the dojo, learning the philosophy from the Sensei and participants
long before I ever stepped on the mat. Right
out of high school in 1985, I joined the club dojo – a Yoshinkai dojo, which had
beautiful Aikido and still exists today. I trained for about 18 months,
passed a number of early tests, and then was banished because of some dojo
politics with senior students. Though not in the dojo, I still practiced
bokken (with very poor form) and read and dreamed about aikido.
In 1995, I stumbled onto a new Aikido club in town: a non-affiliated dojo, with instruction once a week. I began studying again in earnest. The group soon grew and joined the U.S. Aikido Federation (USAF) Eastern Region. Our fledgling group attended summer camps, seminars and traveled to a USAF Western Region dojo in Ann Arbor as often as possible. I passed my 5th, 4th, and 3rd kyu tests, dropping into dojos and seminars as I traveled. Five years later, Lansing, Michigan received a great gift from the Universe (at least in terms of Aikido) when Frank Apodaca Sensei moved into town. He took in our motley crew of dedicated students, beginning a new chapter in our journey.
It was obvious the standardization of the Birankai curriculum, the basics, and the body movement led by such an incredible instructor would be a wonderfully challenging journey. For years we studied. For YEARS we tested and retested and retested before anyone was awarded a new rank.
I continued to train on the road, often in San Diego and in other Birankai-affiliated dojos. When my only option was another style, I was almost always warmly welcomed and made numerous friends. This experience taught me there are many systems and ways to learn Aikido: affiliated and non-affiliated; beginning with the body then developing the mind; beginning with the mind and then developing the body; building strength, then working toward flow and softness; working from softness to then build power; and so on. In each approach to training lies various ways to measure performance and rank. Clearly, they all produce great Aikidoists, and it’s been my honor to train with many.
For me, progress in Aikido began when I found an extrinsic system I could trust to measure myself against, coupled with a gifted and patient instructor who unwaveringly transmitted the system. During years of intense training and struggle, blind to all the changes in my body and mind and lacking reference (since my classmates were improving as well), this system removed my concern about level, rank, and progress. I could simply submit to the process. Rarely, if ever, did I find someone in the community of a “higher rank” who wasn’t more skilled than I. This was a constant testimony to the measuring stick for which I had signed up and allowed me to relax further into the system. The system has an integrity which instills a sense of trust.
At the heart of that integrity are three simple, beautiful and powerful words: “Please Try Again”. These words are amazingly inspirational to me. They scream, “Phil, you can do better. You have more room to grow at this level. Go find it!” These words are an external validation of where I am in the system and where I am not. Absent of politics and external motivations, these words are the only reason the word “PASS” has any value.
I was honored last fall to participate as an uke in a test for kyu ranks ranging from 5th to 2nd kyu and practice tests for shodan and nidan. I was reminded how testing is really about looking into a mirror and seeing its clear reflection. I was thrilled that day to hear these three words. I saw the integrity of the system upheld by a next-generation instructor. I was also thrilled for all the students who heard these words. I spoke with the recipients of these three most important words, explaining how lucky it is to hear them on a 3rd kyu test, and that I too heard them a half dozen times on my 3rd kyu practice tests from Apodaca Sensei more than a decade and a half earlier.
the word “Pass” had a bit more confidence in their ability.
appreciated me relating my experience and are continuing to work hard.
These words, “Please, try again”, administered by a community of instructors, generally of the same mind set, generally on the same curriculum, with generally of the same philosophy, continue to produce students who reaffirm the “trust” so crucial to a standard. The system is a classic feedback loop: the measuring stick gets stronger as these words are administered in a true and honest way. The system becomes stronger and avoids erosion. I may never reach another rank within the system. This is OK. What I know, and will never question, is the rank I achieved.
I continue to travel, 250+ days a year now. I train wherever and whenever I can, regardless of affiliation. I have visited more than 75 dojos across the world, many for only a single class, others for weeks or months of training. Thanks to the integrity of the Birankai system (because of those three words), I am confident in where I am and where I am not, and now have evolved to simply allow everyone I train with to be my mirror, my test.
Thirty-six years after seeing Aikido for the first time and wanting to be able to do “it” and twenty-three years after beginning Aikikai training, I still cannot. On rare occasions I can see in my uke’s eyes I am doing something close to “it”. I hope I have a number of years left to keep learning and getting closer to my goal. I never waiver in my confidence that following the Birankai system is the way for me to get further and allow me to always know where I stand.
Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai and member of BNA Senior Council
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a future book presenting Chiba Sensei’s extensive writings on aikido, some of which will be republished in Biran Online over the coming year.
In traditional Japanese artistic disciplines such as Budo, it is understood that the teacher/student relationship is the means through which the transmission of the art (or Way) occurs: the art is transmitted directly from the body/mind of the teacher to that of the student. The articles in this collection of writings by Aikido master Kazuo Chiba must be understood in this context. The wisdom expressed here emerges from the effort to transmit the art of Aikido — not in the abstract, but as a living breathing force from one person to another. The commitment and passion that characterizes Chiba Sensei’s teaching can be found in part in these writings, but the reader unfamiliar with the master himself should try to appreciate the intensely physical and personal nature of his life’s work. Those of us fortunate enough to have studied directly with Chiba Sensei knew that he taught by example and through his ability to recognize each of us as a unique being.
The word sensei, Japanese for teacher, literally means “one who walks on the path before me”. Chiba Sensei embodies this. When I first began training with Chiba Sensei upon his arrival in San Diego in 1981, we practiced in a yoga studio that required us to put down and pick up the tatami mats before and after each class and clean the hardwood floors with damp rags. The latter was accomplished by holding the rag to the floor with both hands and then running across the floor, pushing the rag from behind, back and forth until the surface was clean. This was a strenuous enterprise, following an always exhausting training. Chiba Sensei would join us and when one of us would ask to relieve him of his rag he would refuse, stating, “It is my privilege to clean the dojo”. Once the routine for cleaning the dojo was established, Sensei eventually left the task to us, as there were many other demands on his time.
In his everyday teaching, Chiba Sensei never asked his
students to submit to any rigor that he himself had not undergone. This offered
little solace to us as students because Sensei’s arduous physical training was
legendary (one mile of bunny hops, 3,000 continuous sword cuts, extended and
intense periods of meditation and self-purification training). While his commitment to his own practice was
uncompromising, he tailored his expectations of his students, taking into
account age, temperament, health and each student’s level of commitment,
challenging and inspiring us toward our development but never in a by-rote or
The responsibility of a teacher is to recognize his or her
students for who they are and help them awaken to their own potential within a
given discipline. This is inherently different from a parental role in which
one is responsible for the nourishment and daily care of a child, while the
deeper manifestation of who that child is, is by proximity hidden from the
parent. The parent is too close to the child and their own emotional
attachments and expectations cloud their perception. A teacher has a more objective and detached
perspective to see into a student. In the Japanese martial tradition that Chiba
Sensei followed, the teacher does have a responsibility to the spiritual
nourishment of the student.
The requirement for achieving that obligation within this
tradition is that the teacher must possess the eyes to see deeply into the
student along with “the heart of the Buddha and hands of the devil”
with which to awaken him or her. An outsider observing an interaction between
teacher and student may only witness
“the hands of the devil” and not appreciate the compassion that
underlies the action. This aspect of
Chiba Sensei’s teaching was linked to his commitment to sustaining the roots of
Aikido training that lie in its historical and living relationship to
Budo. Aikido, as created by its founder
Morihei Ueshiba, is directed towards cultivating the harmonization of self with others (enabling individuals to act
responsibly in a civil society), rather than the capacity to survive by any
means in combat, which was the objective of past martial training.
The founder’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, furthered his father’s work promoting Aikido as a highly ethical discipline, cleansed of many of the more vulgar aspects of martial arts, yet true to Aikido’s source, Budo. On the surface, the martial essence of Aikido can be difficult to recognize, especially when it is presented in its most flowing form, with large circular movements, graceful and elegant. Seen this way, it appears unrelated to the martial imperative to recognize where, when, and with what technique to kill an opponent.
Chiba Sensei brought the martial essence of Aikido closer to
the fore, clarifying the highly rational and structured elements of his art,
yet faithful to the deeper, more instinctual processes at work in each vital
martial encounter. Within the crucible
of his own dojo, he created the conditions for transmitting this art to his
students, forging their bodies and characters in the fires of daily training.
The use of story, song, poem and philosophical discourse as
a means to further the understanding and accomplishment of students has a long
tradition in Japanese martial arts.
Chiba Sensei’s writing draws from a deep well of literature from his own
cultural tradition as well as sources outside.
Having lived in Europe and the United States for over 35 years, he was
also familiar with much of western philosophy and literature, such as the
writings of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and others. He always encouraged those of us who were his
students to express ourselves in writing, exposing us to Japanese literary
resources and prompting us to look within our own cultural traditions for
inspiration. Within the first months of my training with him he requested that
I read “The Swordsman and the Cat” from the appendices of D.T.
Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture and
submit to him an essay based on my reactions to the story.
Every time one was tested for advancement in rank under
Chiba Sensei’s direction, an essay on some aspect of training was required.
While he encouraged students to draw from cultural literature as an influence
for thinking and writing about Aikido practice, he was most pleased when the writing
reflected an understanding of self and circumstance that had emerged directly
from training. The writing presented in
this volume represents knowledge distilled from a lifetime of training, a
knowledge not limited to the intellect but one deeply connected to the body and
the deeper and richer recesses of being.
For those readers who are not practitioners of Aikido or who
have never had the opportunity to experience Chiba Sensei’s teaching directly,
the essays offered in this volume can serve as an opening into a master’s
world. The photographs and reproductions
of Chiba Sensei’s brushwork that accompany the writing can widen that aperture
and deepen your appreciation. If a
picture is worth a thousand words, then to feel the touch of a master is worth
a million pictures. For those of us who
practice Aikido, these writings are a source for deep reflection and an
encouragement to continue moving on our own path towards a deeper appreciation
of Aikido and the unique miracle of our own lives.
An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership
I have not
been on the mat for 16 months and I have been retired from Birankai leadership
for the same amount of time, yet here I am writing an article for Biran…still
volunteering for an organization that I am no longer involved with. I began volunteering for Chiba Sensei in 1992
and I never stopped until December 2018.
Over those 20 years I easily spent 15,000 volunteer hours for Birankai
and Chiba Sensei, probably more, I never counted. It is worthwhile to analyze what motivated me
to volunteer in order to understand what it would take to attract a new
generation of leadership.
Wanting to give back to Sensei – Despite being a confirmed lifetime klutz, at 33, I began training in earnest. As my commitment to my training increased, my teacher took my training more seriously. He started using me for ukemi and paying attention to my progress on the mat. Because he, as my Teacher, took me seriously, I took him very seriously and felt compelled to give back to him and to the organization that he had established.
It was fun – I enjoyed volunteering. I had a chance to be creative and use what I
was good at. For years I was the junior
ranked aikidoka amongst very talented senior ranking practitioners in the
room. They were much better at aikido
than I was but I had something to offer that they perhaps did not. Very talented athletes are not always the
best at things outside of their art/sport.
It was really fun to offer my skills to people that needed help. I felt good about my talents and myself, as
they were needed. People volunteer
because they get something out of it. I
got a seat at the table and companionship from people that I am still close
with. We had lots of fun along the way
working on issues and took time to laugh at each other and the process along
I was addicted to aikido, it became
my life – Sensei had
us training so hard and intensely that we couldn’t think about anything else;
we became completely present in our training.
The outside world disappeared while we were on the mat. I became addicted to this level of training. I trained 10 hours a week and it became the
center of my world. It followed
naturally from this that I gave something back to my addiction, my world; I
would not have been capable of only taking.
Family – While training and volunteering,
the people that I was spending time with became like family. To this day I count among my closest friends
in the world the people with whom I trained intensively and with whom I helped
to shape Birankai. Even in my departure,
I tried to leave people in place to replace me so as not to let my family down.
I was asked and then I asked others – Before Ismail Hasan Sensei (Aikido
of London) left the Kenshusei program at San Diego Aikikai, he asked me to
volunteer. He was taking care of the family he was leaving behind. I agreed. Next, Elizabeth Beringer asked me to be on the
USAF-Western Region Advisory Council.
In later years I asked others to volunteer, they also became longtime
volunteers. Lyons Shihan had married and
was busy running his farm when I asked him to take on a fundraising project and
later to join the Board of Directors; Peterson Sensei was busy with his family
and military career when I asked him to join the Board of Directors; and Cohen
Sensei was busy with her family when I
asked her to volunteer to help with the fundraising job and later to became
Summer Camp Coordinator. They all made
positive contributions and changed the face of our organization because someone
asked for their time.
So, what does this history lesson
Training must be intense and martial to attract people to become long term practitioners of aikido. – In order to get people to show up several times a week to the dojo and to subsequently volunteer I think they need to become addicted to the art. The only way to do this is with very intense training. However, a caveat to this is that for various reasons that have been outlined by other people in other articles, the population of aikidoka is aging and we are not attracting as many young people to the art as we used to. With that in mind a serious commitment should be made by Birankai Teachers to develop an aikido that is both highly martial and low impact. Notice that there are very few post-menopausal women that remain in Aikido, and yet in earlier years women make up a large percentage of our membership. We need to develop a type of training that remains intense and yet that people are still able to do as bones and joints age. Get and keep people addicted even in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.
Build community that people want to
belong to and therefore are motivated to volunteer for at the dojo level and at
the organizational level. – Without the charismatic leader that attracted me to Aikido it is
difficult to attract students to become involved beyond the dojo level. Chief Instructors should consider using
summer camp as a way to attract their students to become involved with and bond
with the larger organization. Attending
summer camp can help people feel that they belong to the larger “family” and
thus hopefully motivate them to volunteer for the organization.
Ask people to volunteer. – It works. Most people like to be noticed and to think
that their contribution might matter.
Cultivate leadership and volunteers.
– Chief Instructors should cultivate volunteering as an expression of
and a deepening commitment to one’s Aikido practice. Birankai leaders should consider how to
cultivate an environment in which volunteerism is expected and acknowledged at
every level and rank in the organization.
This will help broaden the pool of volunteers.
Take time to have fun along the way. – Don’t try to do too much
organizationally that you don’t leave time for your volunteers to play. Meetings should have time for a joke or prank
or two and not be only about business.
Recognize the necessity of volunteering. – Note that many years ago we had over 1,000 members in Birankai. Our current organizational structure was built on that level of membership. A larger membership enabled the organization to support paying an Executive Director and providing a stipend to support some other organizational jobs. We have dwindled to 645 members now. The lower level of people paying dues will mean that finding volunteers is more crucial than ever…somebody else is not going to take care of it…the organization needs you. Volunteer to help with something. Email Deb Pastors at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can give as little as 1 or 2 hours a month to help with the many tasks it takes to keep our village running and continue to spread the art of our beloved TK Chiba Shihan.
An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership
When Steve Thoms first asked me to write about the change in
leadership in Birankai North America, I demurred. I have been so close to the
process that I thought I would not be able to step back enough from the people
and personalities engaged in the transition.
But after some reflection, I decided to try. Now that I am no longer Chair of the Senior Council, with my function devolved to (mostly) an advisory role, I have had the opportunity and privilege to look at the work we do in a different way.
I first want to thank the Birankai members who have guided us through a hard time, and have now passed their responsibilities to others. I particularly wish to recognize the outgoing President/Board Chair Alex Peterson, retired Executive Director Cindy Eggers, and retired Financial Advisor Lynne Ballew for their unswerving and careful management during the years of our teacher’s illness and passing. Thanks also to the members of the Senior Council, the Directors, and the many volunteers who have worked steadily to keep the organization healthy. I also want to thank the folks who have stepped up, and have selflessly accepted responsibility for the organization’s work, especially President/Board Chair Deb Pastors, Executive Director Neilu Naini, Senior Council Chair Frank Apodaca, Teachers Council Chair Roo Heins, and Summer Camp Coordinator Leslie Cohen.
It is natural for leadership to change over time. Governments, corporations, families – all have built-in processes to pass on knowledge and responsibility to the next generation. It is not only natural: it’s necessary. New people bring fresh ideas, new enthusiasms, and fresh responses to changing conditions.
BNA – and all Aikido organizations — reminds me very much of an ecosystem. (I beg the indulgence of the scientists among us who will cringe at my simplifications.) Imagine a forest. It is shaped by climate, soil character, and water. What kind of plants and animals inhabit it depends on how hot or cold the environment is, what nutrients the soil provides, and the abundance or absence of rain. But the forest is not a mechanical object. It is a living system: complex, inter-relational, and dynamic.
BNA too is a dynamic system. Prior to the creation of Birankai, Chiba Sensei described the organization he wished to develop as one which find a way to reconcile the values of American democracy and Japanese budo. He described it as he hoped it would be, as an harmonious and creative community. The work of that community is to support the transmission of the Way of Aiki from teachers to students. The transmission is manifested – given life — through Gyo, practice. Sensei was direct and explicit: “The foundation of the transmission is the teacher-student relationship. A transmission without the healthy development and dignity of the teacher-student relationship misses the essence of Aikido. It will dry up the essential Aikido life force.” [T.K. Chiba, January 1995.]
Birankai dojos are the place where that work is done. If BNA is an ecosystem, the individual dojos might be seen as habitats within that system. A flourishing forest contains a diversity of plants and animals. Birankai dojos, similarly, are distinct and diverse. Each has its own character, forged by the relationship of its students to their teacher. BNA as an organization exists to serve the Way. I believe that the best way to do that is to support our teachers, and to strengthen and assist the growth of our dojos, since they are where the transmission occurs.
This is a demanding time, not only for Aikido, but for many traditional martial arts. Birankai is nearly twenty years old. External conditions – cultural conditions — have changed since Chiba Sensei first envisioned it. But nothing, we know, is permanent. What happens to a forest when the weather patterns shift, if there is too much rain, or if there is none? A healthy ecosystem responds robustly to a change in conditions. What does an Aikido organization do when it encounters disruption or instability, either internally or externally? It holds fast to its mission, to serve the Way, and applies its knowledge and its skills to the encounter.
I am confident that BNA can respond flexibly to the challenges we face. The people who have volunteered to lead us are knowledgeable and mature. We have an abundance of dedicated teachers, who embody the art fully. We have a solid connection to the lineage and to the mother house. We have students who wish to study. And we have a compelling message: As Aikido practitioners, our lives have been transformed and enriched by training in this art. We must find ways to make this happiness visible to others.
I am deeply grateful to those members who have served BNA for so long, and now withdraw to rest, and equally grateful to those who have stepped up to share the work. I hope that, as we move into the future, we can remain united in friendship and in kindness.
This was the best summer camp in years for me. All summer camps are good but this one had some breakthroughs for me personally. I feel excited about it because it’s like an old dog learning new tricks.
I have been in Aikido since 1971 in Toronto and while I won’t say that a great deal of that time has been wasted, it has not been utilized to its maximum potential. Back in the day our senior teachers were Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei, both 5th dan then. It didn’t matter because to us they were (and still are) amazing in their dynamic execution of Aikido.
Back then the teaching was old school. They would show something a few times and then we would go for it. There was a lot of early talk about “extending your ki” and “holding your tanden,” and although we all would devoutly repeat these phrases I myself (and I suspect many others as well) didn’t have a clue as to what we were talking about…but it sounded cool!
Over the last 20 years in Aikido under our late founder Chiba Shihan, Aikido became codified and the method of teaching, of transmitting the knowledge, became much more conceptual to me. I say this because without having someone who really “knows and can teach,” a student (like me) can be doing something entirely wrong for decades. Or if not wrong, then empty perhaps is a better word.
For me at least, this change began when I started Iaido ten years ago in Birankai. From the get-go we were all (those of us who were newbies) told to not only study the forms, but to strive to use visualization when performing these forms. All of my Iaido teachers are wonderful. Each one stresses different aspects when they teach, but visualization is central with all of them.
Getting back to this year’s (2018) summer camp, I began to be able to (for short intervals of time), hold on to the visualization during the form. Wowee, what a thrill. An entirely new feeling that made the forms come wonderfully alive.
Now here’s the best part — it began spilling over into my body arts and weapons. I have to say that (for me at least) I try very hard (and have for many years) to concentrate all the way through a technique. I can think about the form and monitor it as I do it, but at the end I always realize that I blanked out during the middle. I remember the attack and the end but the middle? ”It’s all a blur,” as they say in the movies.
This camp has been the first time this old guy had several moments (yeah..not a lot) of being alive throughout an entire technique…watching my movement…my partner’s movement..his or her eyes…everything right to the end. It was an astonishing revelation for me and a true watershed moment.
Remember the first Spiderman movie? Peter Parker wakes up as spiderman and goes to his high school. At his locker some steroid juice monkey throws a punch at him. He watches the punch slip by him in slow motion due to his new spider sense. As crazy as it may sound…that’s what my visualizations felt like to me.
As I wind up this commentary I again won’t say that I’ve wasted most of my years…there have been many good points. But it wasn’t until this last camp the for me that I began to integrate what my teachers have been hammering into me for years.
As we approach the publication date of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido,” I’d like highlight one important facet of the book – it’s not just about Chiba Sensei. At close to 400 pages, this book attempts to profile an entire generation of Aikido pioneers. These are the young Japanese men who left Hombu Dojo in the 1960s under the direction of Kisshomaru Ueshiba to heed O-Sensei’s call to build “bridges across the ocean” and bring Aikido to the West.
Using Chiba Sensei’s writings, historic materials and in-person interviews where possible, I’ve attempted to profile many of these men and tell their stories of struggle and triumph in Europe, the U.K. and the Americas.
The book also explores the foundational role of several of Chiba Sensei’s most important sempai: Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito and Mutsuro Nakazono, along with influential teachers like Tadashi Abe, Kenshiro Abbe, Sadateru Arikawa, Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi and Hiroshi Tada. These men, along with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, shaped the Aikido and careers of Chiba Sensei’s generation and continue to influence many across the Aikido world.
Life as a direct student of O-Sensei at both Hombu Dojo and Iwama is also explored in-depth in a section on the early careers of the post-war generation. Throughout the narrative, several of Chiba Sensei’s close colleagues, especially Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai and Nobuyoshi Tamura, are discussed in detail as they developed their own dojos, organizations and teaching styles. As far as I know, this is the first full-length treatment of this period of Aikido history.
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I practice Aikido because it is my path. This is not what I would have said five and a half years ago when I started.
When I started Aikido, I had no idea what it was. I had just moved to New York City from living in India and London, and was starting life over on my own. After about 22 years of dancing, I had decided to stop. I had studied one year of Indian martial arts while in Bangalore and knew that I wanted to train in a martial practice. I did not know why. It was like I was in a pitch black room and was following a simpler, more basic sense than sight. My friend said, “You should check out aikido, I think you would like it.” Watching class, I knew within a few seconds that I would like Savoca Sensei to be my teacher. In a way, as much as I found Aikido, I think it also found me.
Recently, I have been thinking about my previous dance training and Aikido. I have been asking myself why I decided to stop dancing and why I have made a commitment within myself to Aikido. The initial answer that came up was too easy. “Dance was heavily related to my married life and I wanted to leave that behind.” That wasn’t it. While I loved dancing, I felt boxed in by ideas of how I Continue reading “Why I Practice Aikido”
A lot of things go through your mind when test time rolls into your life. Even more so if you happen to be someone with the misfortune of failing your previous test. Beyond the obvious considerations of assessing one’s skill, is perhaps an even more daunting survey of a student’s determination. For me beyond the technical requirements of passing or not passing, is the question of whether or not the fire is lit. Is my flame a mere flicker or is it sufficiently hot enough to do its job? Can it heat the contents and transfer energy with mind, body, and spirit integrated as one?
I had a lot riding on this test for the rank of 1st kyu (level/grade) in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. I really wanted to show I had spent significantly more time on the foundations of our art: hanmi (stance) and taisabaki (footwork). I also wanted to prove to myself that I had been willing to eat the bitter fruit, spending the requisite time alone outside of class, continuing to forge my will, and bringing those developments to the dojo. My hope was that others would bear witness to my progress.
Three nights of testing sounded like a good idea at the time as a welcome switch up to the usual program of having to prove yourself on a single night. Continue reading “Building a Bridge”
I have had a long Aikido career…longer than many…less than others.
I look back at my Aikido life with an equal measure of regret and hope.
In 1971 (or thereabouts) the newly founded Toronto Aikikai was run by Bruce Stiles, a newly minted Shodan from Kanai Sensei. Our dojo and our sister dojo the Montreal Aikikai began bringing up Sensei’s Yamada and Kanai for seminars. It seems hard to believe but they were 5th dan then. I have a promotional poster somewhere to prove it!
Recently my mother died relatively suddenly. The shock, anger, and sadness that accompanied the news and then the eventual acceptance of the reality of her death was overwhelming. Yet everything seemed to come into focus. Things that I thought mattered, I no longer tolerated; people who I thought would be in my life forever, are gone. When my mom was dying, all things including Aikido were dropped as if they were never a part of my life, nor mattered in the end. The act of swinging a wooden sword seemed pointless when the life of a mother so dear – I felt she was like my right arm – was draining painfully away.
Shutting one’s self away is one way to cope with death. It is what I did. I did not want to see anyone. Hearing the language people use around death was offensive to me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” (I did not lose my mother – she died!) “She’s in a better place.” (How do you know she is in a better place?) When I could not touch her, hug her, speak to her, or hear her voice I could not be around people saying these platitudes. Having others assert their own beliefs and faith on my experience caused even more suffering.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.