Summer Camp 2016 Ushers in New Role

By Sarah Cuevas, Grass Valley Aikikai

Touching down in NYC after a red-eye from Reno, Nev., my Sensei, Cecilia Ramos, my fellow student Marci Martinez and myself, excitedly made our way to the beautiful grounds of St. John’s University.IMG_6832
After a short drive through Queens, admiring the sloped roofs designed for heavy snows of East Coast winters, the unfamiliar neighborhoods and the trees vastly different from those of my native California, we were dropped on campus with hours to spare before the first evening class. After a quick trip to the dojo to check out the mat setup, a short walk around campus, and registering among the first at camp (thank you, red-eye), we arranged ourselves in our quarters and got ready for the first class.20160614_084831

My excitement and nervousness shared equal parts of my mental configuration.  I have just taken on a new position for Birankai: editing this online newsletter.  I knew coming to camp would serve as the springboard for this new position.  I also knew I had big shoes to fill, as the retiring editor Liese Klein has held this position for the past 15 years.  She has nurtured it through its adolescence, and created the profound resource it has become today for our Aikido community.  Given the new position and the shoes to fill, I knew the heat would be on to meet any expectations that come with the job.

Having been to camp only once before, ten years prior, I decide to leave any of my own expectations of what was to come back home.  What I did expect, however was nothing less than good, hard, solid training. This expectation was met with the first class taught by Patti Lyons Sensei.  My training partners had no issue throwing me around the mat, letting me know exactly what I was doing wrong, and having benevolent patience with my mistakes.  A gift indeed, as this is a recipe for growth through training.

Before Summer Camp during my Sankyu test.

Before Summer Camp during my Sankyu test.

As camp went on, I was challenged by every class.  Each teacher provided a variety of techniques with a focus on the theme of “connectedness.”  From tai no henko to iriminage to kokyuhos and kokyunages, we were guided in the form, details, and execution of each technique.  I’ve never felt so much like a rag doll in my life!  Each class was a download of information, a challenge for my body/brain connection, and a training of my ego (“Oh, I know this one! I can do this no problem”, only to realize that subtle variations make huge differences when it comes to doing exactly what was shown by the teacher).  With each teacher having a unique set of talents, personality and teaching style, I appreciated the individuality of each class.  You never know what to expect when you step on that mat, so relinquishing expectations was a great idea.

By the end of the second day, I was formally indoctrinated into sweat, aches and pains.  I think the only time I wasn’t sweating, was walking to and eating in the cafeteria.  I had brought a bottle of analgesic oil for the aches and a tube of arnica for the bruises, using both each day to alleviate what I could.  If you’ve ever been to camp, you are surely familiar with the heavy, achy and sore muscle groups: nearly every muscle and tendon communicated the need for self-massage, stretch or rest.  Indeed, each received some form of the three, and bowing in to every class I wondered how I would survive! Ironically, as soon as I started to move on the mat, my body forgot about the pain, seemed to not remember the aches and bruises, and carried me through the whole class, only to reveal its presence again at the end of class!  This was an interesting experience for me, because after each day I felt like I had been hit with a truck.  The following day, I would bow in, turn on the brain, and let the body just follow along.

Bokken impressions over the Birankai Summer Camp tote.

Bokken impressions over the Birankai Summer Camp tote.

The rest of the week followed this same pattern, wake, stretch, pain, then train.  In between classes I had duties related to my new position, and was often being introduced to the key players who would help me in adapting to my new role.  I was first introduced to the members of the Birankai Board of Directors during one of their formal meetings at lunch.  After one class, Champion Sensei walked me around to introduce me to a few Sensei he thought I should know. I was introduced to the members of the Teachers’ Council during another lunch, allowing me to get an inside scoop of what happens behind the closed doors of our organization.

Each evening was as unique as the classes.  The week began with the mixer, full with music from talented fellow Aikidoists, a catered function with treats and sweets.  The following night was a free night in the city exploring Central Park and Times Square.  There was a memorial class for Chiba Sensei taught by Lynn Sensei, and the final evening of the farewell party was full of good food, short skits, a time of honoring each other for all the hard work, shared stories from students of their teachers, the annual fundraising raffle, and, of course, music and dancing.  Everyone attending seemed to laugh and enjoy themselves while making fond memories for the future.

View of New York City from St. John's University

View of New York City from St. John’s University

The final day remained true to form with training, good people and many goodbyes.  In the morning, we spent some time on the now mat-less gym floor in a class led by Stier Sensei, performing Tachiwaza exercises.  After eating a final breakfast in the cafeteria, we walked back to our dorms ready to pack up and head home.

Summer camp was a blend of excitement, bodily commitment, mental perseverance, strength and an open heart.  With any training, it is important to honor all aspects of what has been taught, and what was learned.  I feel blessed to have the experience of getting to train with so many dedicated Aikidoists.  I took home new technique, and a fresh, revived attitude toward training.  I know I am not alone in this.

I would like to thank Savoca Sensei and Brooklyn Aikikai for all of their hard work in organizing camp this year. Summer camp would not have been possible without the dedication and efforts of the many hands involved with making this such a success.  There were many behind-the-scenes responsibilities that made for the fluid and accomplished success of this year’s camp.  As always, a huge gratitude is owed to the core teachers, our respected Shihan and all the instructors who brought their teaching to us during classes.  Thank you to all, you have blessed our community with the gift of opportunity, training and fellowship.

Camp Highlights

Most of us are back home – the bruises are fading and the gis have been washed. Time to reflect on Birankai Aikido 2016 Summer Camp, which ended with a lively session of tai no henko led by Dave Stier Shihan of Green River Aikido on Tuesday morning.

Stier Sensei was the topic of some truly moving testimonies at the farewell party the night before, when his students told of his dedication to helping those of all abilities and body types master Aikido.

“I just wanted to be a student,” Stier Sensei said, describing the trajectory of his training after the sudden death of his teacher, Paul Sylvain Shihan. Stier Sensei went on to lead an impressive closing class to 2016 Birankai Summer Camp.

Another longtime student, Frank Apodaca Sensei of Deep River Aikikai in North Carolina, was recognized earlier during camp: Birankai has recommended that he be promoted to shihan rank.

Apodaca Sensei was a long-suffering kenshusei when I arrived in San Diego, a veteran of the legendary “Pressure Cooker” and “Suffering Bastards” eras.  His ukemi was death-defying to this newbie, especially when he would get up seemingly in one piece after Chiba Sensei demonstrated ushiro ryotedori sutemi waza, also known as “the roadkill technique.” (Chiba Sensei would rear back and flatten him like a bug.)

By the time I got there in the mid-1990s, Apodaca Sensei was a stern taskmaster in morning class and an even more stern leader of sesshin and other events at San Diego Aikikai, a link to a harsher past. Time spent as dojo-cho in Portland, Oregon, and Lansing, Michigan, seemed to mellow him out, and by the time Apodaca Sensei established Deep River Aikikai he was a supportive and open-hearted teacher.

For me, the best thing about 2016 Birankai Summer Camp was gaining new appreciation for these two men, working often without recognition in recent years to transmit Chiba Sensei’s (and Sylvain Sensei’s) Aikido.

With teachers like these in our ranks, Birankai is in safe hands.

Liese Klein

(More new video of 2016 Birankai Aikido Summer Camp at the BiranOnline channel on YouTube.)

My First Aikido Camp

Meghan McCoy at 2015 Birankai Summer Camp in Tacoma, Wash.

Meghan McCoy at 2015 Birankai Summer Camp in Tacoma, Wash.

By Meghan McCoy, Oak Park Aikikai

For everyone who has been to at least one Birankai summer camp, what’s the first thing that you remember about your first camp? Perhaps it’s all the people you met, the parties and gatherings in the evening, or, of course, the hours of classes a day that left you feeling either successful, or desperate for an ice pack and some ibuprofen. Everyone has their memories, and the special moments that made summer camp not just a seminar, but also a family reunion that makes the bumps, bruises, and traveling well worth it.

My first summer camp, held this past July at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., was nothing short of fabulous, and I promise I’m not saying that just to make my Sensei happy. When I first arrived at camp, I came in with the rookie naiveté that I was in pretty good shape and four hours of class a day wouldn’t be that bad.

Oh no, not the case.

By the third day I would have given anything for a hot tub and a five-hour nap, and let’s not talk about how my bottle of pain meds was quickly dwindling. But what my discomfort taught me, and what I think our teachers are always trying to impart, is how vital it is to relax and use our whole body at all times, and certainly if something is in pain. If my shoulder was hurting, then I had to adjust for it, relaxing my arm and remembering that my hips and legs were really useful things.

When I was throwing someone twice my size, and fatigue and soreness were starting to set in, it wasn’t enough to just muscle my way through and hope my upper body was strong enough to throw my partner. Everything had to come together with grace, speed and power, something Miyamoto Sensei demonstrated every time he stepped onto the mat.

Speaking of Miyamoto Sensei, one thing that I, and many other people I talked to were impressed by was his ability to constantly adapt to whatever his uke gave him. Even if it wasn’t the technique he initially had in mind, Miyamoto showed what mental and physical fluidity looked like when doing, and changing, a technique.

For me, particularly since I’m still very new in Aikido, every class had something new to learn. Familiar techniques, such a katatedori suwariwaza ikkyo, had to be approached differently because I was practicing with someone I’d never met, and so I had to learn how to move in a way that worked with them. The weapons classes were immensely beneficial, especially Frank Apodaca Sensei’s weapons class. He emphasized cultivating “the eyes to see,” which I took as meaning not just watching and stealing the technique, but also seeing and feeling the energy with which someone moves. I once read that proper form is essential, but without technique and heart put into the form it’s all mechanical, and much of what I believe Aikido to be is lost.

In the midst of all of our training, I was so thankful that the 2015 summer camp was to be the first camp I attended, because it allowed me to attend the Celebration of Life memorial for Chiba Sensei. Even though I was never able to meet Chiba Sensei, I could very clearly feel how special a teacher he was, and just how much he mattered to people all over the world. The memorial was lovely, and the reception held after, with all of its singing, dancing and conversation was exactly what I think Chiba Sensei would have wanted us to have in his memory.

Leaving camp, what I didn’t fully realize till a few days after, was when people speak of the Aikido or Birankai family, they aren’t exaggerating in the slightest. Camp allowed me to meet people from dojos across the country and even the world, and knowing that almost wherever I go I can find a dojo where I will be welcome, makes the world feel just a little less daunting. So thank you very much to everyone who helped make my first camp a marvelous experience, and more importantly, officially welcomed me into the Birankai family. I look forward to many more summer camps in the future.

More Miyamoto Sensei


Editor’s Note: Thanks to John Brinsley of Aikido Daiwa for this writeup from Miyamoto Sensei’s visit earlier this month to North America. I’ve just posted some new video of Miyamoto Sensei from the event and 2013 Camp on the BiranOnline YouTube channel. Don’t forget that the deadline for early registration for 2015 Summer Camp is approaching!

Power Aikido in the Great White North

Miyamoto Sensei provided a rigorous and thoughtful weekend of instruction in Vancouver March 6-8 that left the practitioners tired and yet somehow energized.

East Van Aikikai and Tony Hind Sensei, a long-time Hombu dojo student who lived at Hombu in the early 1990s, did a masterful job in hosting the event. The seminar brought together people from as far away as Hawaii and proved once again that having different organizations are no barrier to a committed group who wish to experience first-rate keiko. I would like to thank Hind Sensei again for putting on such a successful seminar.

Regardless of the technique, Miyamoto Sensei returned again and again to the importance of timing, connection and proper spacing. Even for those of us familiar with his ability to create dynamic technique while adapting to the uke’s movement, there was always a need to pay close attention to how he managed to unbalance his partner while retaining complete control. For me, anyway, it also served as a reminder of how vital the concept of “stealing” the teacher’s technique is, rather than having it spoon-fed.

For Birankai members and attendees, along with valued USAF friends Malory Graham Sensei and Seattle Aikikai students, it provided an excellent chance to spend time with Miyamoto Sensei ahead of Birankai Summer Camp. Which, if the weekend is any indication, should be epic.

– John Brinsley, Aikido Daiwa

Boyet in Brooklyn

Didier Boyet Sensei of Tokyo gave a great seminar this weekend at Brooklyn Aikikai focusing on kihon waza (basics) and the interplay between sword arts like Iaido and Aikido. Boyet Sensei will be a featured instructor at 2015 Birankai North America Summer Camp — register now at the Summer Camp Registration site.

Check out more videos from Boyet Sensei’s seminar at the BiranOnline channel on Youtube.

BTW, we’re getting near 1 million views for our videos — pass the link around and let’s hit seven figures! Better yet, send me more clips of events at Birankai dojos so we make sure to keep the site fresh and interesting. Share via Dropbox or another site — we can also highlight videos posted on your own channel on BiranOnline playlists like “Women of Birankai” and “Summer Camp 2014.”

See you on the mat and bring your video camera!

L.Klein