The 3 Most Important Words in Birankai

Phil Mansour, September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journey is well worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Takemusu” calligraphy by Chiba Sensei

The Ecology of Birankai

By Lizzy Lynn, Birankai Senior Advisor, Eastshore Aikikai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gassho.

Lizzy Lynn

My Year at Summer Camp

By Charles Aarons, Aikido Takayama

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.

Old dog, new tricks…woof woof!

Book Profiles a Generation

Instructors at the 1994 USAF Summer Camp, celebrating the 30th anniversary of New York Aikikai.

By Liese Klein, New Haven Aikikai

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.

Chiba Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Yamada Sensei and Tamura Sensei, 1980s.

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.

Sign up now to reserve a first-edition copy of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido.” You will be notified as soon as copies are ready for sale and directed to an online purchasing page.

(Active Birankai North America members will be notified automatically, but if you want more than one copy, please submit the form below.)

Why I Practice Aikido

By Haryo Shridhar, Brooklyn Aikikai

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.

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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”

Building a Bridge

By Sanders Anderson, Multnomah Aikikai

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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”

Am I Too Old For This?

By Charles Aarons, Aikido Takayama

70 years old! Where did the time go?

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!

In those early years, I can only describe the teaching as “old school.” Waza were shown a few times and then off we went to practice with as much vigour Continue reading “Am I Too Old For This?”

Living and Training through Heartache

by Norine Longmire, Aikido Takayama

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.

Norine Longmire Sensei

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.

The sadness that remains after the death of a loved one can be like a pit that continues to get deeper and broader. Every day is a struggle to get out of bed, to face a world where we continue to kill each Continue reading “Living and Training through Heartache”

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.

Women’s Aikido Camp: “An Experience of Intensity, Joy, and Sisterhood”

By Rosa Mitchell, North County Aikikai

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.

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photo by Karen Hamilton

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.