Many of you are aware Doshu was recently hosted for a weekend seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area (September 2019). During the weekend activities, I was fortunate to attend a special discussion on ‘The State of Aikido in the United States‘, held by Josh Gold, of Aikido Journal (Josh took over after Stanley Pranin’s passing).
The statistics that Josh shared during the discussion are sobering. Since 2004, interest in Aikido has dropped 90%. This interest continues to decline 9% PER YEAR at a consistent rate. 82% of Aikido practitioners are over 40 years of age. Less than 16% of United States Aikido practitioners are women (clearly Chiba Sensei was ahead of his time: Birankai has more women Shihan than men!)
It is clear that if we keep doing things as we have been doing them, our art will die a slow death and fade away.
Bold steps, open minded leadership, getting outside of our comfort zones, and new ways of engagement are needed NOW. We in the Northern California Region propose a way to slow down this trend and ultimately reverse it, is to refocus on and expand our Youth Programs.
To do our part to create some new energy, the NorCAL Region held its 1st Annual Kid’s Seminar on August 31, 2019.
It was wonderful to see a large turnout with students open to receiving positive and engaged instruction from Marci Martinez from Grass Valley, Bernard Dalay from Alameda Aikikai, and Gerard Enriquez from Aikido Institute of SF.
“For Aikido to thrive into the future, it really comes back to the kids. If we can engage and inspire kids with the positive messages of Aikido, including discipline, focus, character development, respect and martial awareness, we will carry on O’Sensei and Chiba Sensei’s legacies. We look forward to developing and extending our shared lineage through continued, dedicated practice, one child at a time.“
-Rob Schenk, Aikido Institute of San Francisco
“I completely agree with Rob and think that these children are the future of Aikido. This regional seminar was needed to bring us all together and see the future and potential of our region. The way the kids seemed to get along and the support and camaraderie that we just witnessed this weekend was inspiring.“
–Mitsu Nobusada Flynn, Alameda Aikikai
“The First Annual Northern California Regional Youth Seminar had a great turn out of students and teachers. It was fantastic to see how the youth from different dojos were comfortable playing and training with each other using Aikido as their common bond. Our students had not seen youth in hakama before. Those with hakama helped the younger students with how to engage at a seminar and that it was safe to try new things. Not only did they train together, but it feels like they inspired one another. One of the youth from Grass Valley had a fire lit within him, and for most of the way home, he was talking about how he couldn’t wait to show the other kids how he practiced Ikkyo. This seminar has created a more intense hunger in our students that they will share with their other dojo mates. This will help drive them to train at a different level than before and to feel comfortable training with students from other dojos.“
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.
Editor’s note: this article was previously published in Sansho, April, 1987
Anyone who thinks that putting more
hours into training will necessarily result in greater achievement in the art
is thinking like a child. Fundamentally, it is a materialistic attitude and
doesn’t lead anywhere but to an unsolvable problem. We can’t avoid moving, day
by day, closer to the grave.
Many people think that through training they can make their bodies responsive and controllable; that they’ll be able to move them as they wish. I don’t deny that this is an important part of learning. However, it is only part of it. A part that is only relative to a greater factor which one should be more aware of. This, I think, is more important: to develop an introspective attitude in training, with a more serious eye to self-examination. This is a matter of the quality within one’s training.
To recognize the imbalance, disharmony, or disorder within one’s system, sensed within the body, as well as between the body and consciousness, is a starting point for one’s growth. This is where a conversation or dialog begins to happen between the body and consciousness. As the dialog develops, awareness becomes more clear, and one begins to recognize a natural power or potential ability which has, until then, been hidden.
Instead of adding an external element to the body, one needs to see what is already within. More importantly, consciousness itself (the way one perceives things), begins to change along with the discovery of the true body (as opposed to the body that one changes according to will.)
The important and unique thing that makes Aikido what it is, is that progress moves in proportion to the discovery of a natural power which is already within each individual, together with an organic, dynamic core, which helps the body function in harmony and as a whole.
It is the kind of path where one progressively encounters the true self with wonder and joy. The “estranged self,” hidden with its inexhaustible potential, lies undiscovered by many people who die without knowing that it even exists.
In many ways, rightly or wrongly, our bodies are the product of our consciousness. In order to discover what that is requires close self-examination within our training. It isn’t a path where one adds more and more information, details, power, etc., externally and endlessly, to the “too much” that is already there.
Touching upon this subject in a profound way, according to Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen: “Buddhist practice through the body is more difficult than practice through the mind. Intellectual comprehension in learning through the mind must be united to practice through our body. This unity is called SHINJITSUNINTAI, the real body of man. It is the perception of everyday mind, through the phenomenal world. If we harmonize the practice of enlightenment with our body, the entire world will be seen in its true form.”
Finally, the discovery of the true body of man, with its value and beauty, is beyond comparison with competitive values, but rather stands on its own within each individual. Thus, the only conclusion is for Aikido to be non-competitive. I’d like to add another Zen master’s words in this regard — a master from Vietnam whose lecture (given at Smith College in New Hampshire, Massachusetts) I was fortunate enough to attend. During a question and answer period, a woman stood up and asked him what he thought of the meditation system practiced by the Quakers. He answered, “How can you compare the beauty of a cherry flower with that of a rose?”
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.
“If it looks pretty, it’s not Aikido. You have to have tension.”
That is just one of the many thought-provoking asides offered by Piotr Masztalerz Sensei of Wroclaw Aikikai last month at a dynamic seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai. Masztalerz, rokudan Shidoin and a leader of Polish Birankai, brought his innovative approach to ukemi, technique and weapons to the U.S. for the first time at a major seminar.
Masztalerz studied intensively with Chiba Sensei both as an uchideshi in San Diego in the early 2000s and as a leader of European Birankai who attended many seminars and hosted him for several large camps in Poland.
With a large full-time dojo and hundreds of students, Masztalerz devotes himself to all of the elements of Birankai Aikido practice, with a special emphasis on the study of ukemi. His home base of Wroclaw (pronounced “vrots-wahf”) in western Poland hosts a lively scene that brings together actors, dancers, motorbike drivers and a range of martial artists in the study of movement at Wroclaw Aikikai.
Ukemi should be challenging and gymnastic at all levels in Aikido, Masztalerz says, with the intent of freeing up the body’s potential and exploring the art on a deeper level. Beginners need to learn practical falling skills from the very beginning or they won’t come back, he adds. Also important is that senior students push themselves at all ages to maintain their conditioning and try new ways of taking ukemi and executing techniques.
“It’s very important for people with experience to challenge themselves with ukemi,” Masztalerz says. “Ukemi is very physical, so you have to be fit. As soon as you feel like you already know it, you’re dead.”
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.
Thoughts/direction from my recent seminar at Connecticut Aikikai:
A lot of these folks I only get to see once a year so I really wanted to give them something they could not only memorize as a technique but perhaps work on as a broad principle within their Aikido practice and when teaching and training.
My biggest concern in the seminar is that we are engaging correctly in the training process whatever the technique may be. Aikido technique has a certain correct rhythm that naturally emerges if one is holding their body in a correct manner – basically the unbalance should be immediate and continuous and the theme of that was my focus in this seminar with body art and weapons.
My wish is that my students find their own unique body and movement through the training which is an organic expression through sincere practice. I’m grateful to have this chance to teach and am looking forward to next year.
The amazing weather continues in Tacoma as Birankai North America prepares for testing tonight. Candidates for dan ranks and fukushidoin (junior teacher) recertification will be testing and all camp attendees are on notice to jump up for ukemi. Should be a fun (and tiring) night. Gambatte!
Our friends in Birankai Europe are having their Aikido Summer Camp this week and the teachers posed for a nice photo in Germany.
We gathered up some teachers for our own Birankai North America photo, trying our best to look Euro-cool in the bright Tacoma sunshine. We send our love to our European friends and hope to see you all soon!
Lots of people are arriving at the University of Puget Sound campus for 2018 Birankai North America Summer Camp and the first class starts at 7 pm. Some snapshots as camp revs up — above is the crack Aikido Daiwa mat team testing out the training surface!
Didier Boyet Shihan started studying with Chiba Sensei in 1977, spending an extensive amount of time with him in Japan, Europe, England and San Diego. Boyet lived in Tokyo and trained at Hombu Dojo from 1977 to 2016 – he currently lives in Paris and travels the world teaching Aikido seminars. The following is an edited transcript of several conversations between Boyet Shihan and Liese Klein in Tokyo in March of 2016. Some of Boyet Sensei’s experiences are also related in the upcoming biography The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido. Boyet Sensei will be the featured guest instructor at 2018 Birankai Aikido Summer Camp, July 20-25 in Tacoma, Wash.
Tell me about your arrival in Tokyo in 1977.
I arrived on Oct. 4, a Tuesday, and on the 7th, I joined Chiba Sensei’s class. I came a little bit early: He signed me up at the dojo then he took me to Kisshomaru Sensei’s house. Then he took me to his class, I changed and sat down in the dojo. There were very few people, maybe 12. When everyone bowed in, the only one left to train with was this Japanese guy. We started training and I thought, ‘This guy’s trying to kill me!’ I’m thinking that I can’t take it, I’m going to die! That was Shibata Sensei. I had very long hair at that time – for iriminage he grabbed me by the hair. After class everyone was laughing. I was a very weak shodan. Then I started going to Shibata Sensei’s class and he sort of liked me. We were eight people in this class at 3 pm. The class was very wonderful, it was very dynamic but basic, basic.
How did you first meet Chiba Sensei?
I first met Chiba Sensei during the Tamura Sensei Summer Camp of 1973 or ’74 in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France. I believe that this was Chiba Sensei’s first visit to France although he had been living in England since 1966.
When I saw Chiba Sensei practice for the first time, I said ‘Oh my god.’ It was raw. There was violence but I never saw it as violence, I saw it as something raw, mainly, He hadn’t polished anything yet. I was totally subdued by that. After this Summer Camp I tried to attend as many seminars and classes that he conducted as far as I could.
He returned to Japan from England in 1976; I met him September of 1977, in San Sebastian (Spain), where he was conducting a seminar with [Nobuyoshi] Tamura.
Chiba Sensei was 36. He had so much fire. He would go to class to practice, not to play around. I practiced with him as a partner at that seminar in San Sebastian. I remember doing nikkyo with him, suwariwaza for maybe 30 minutes. I couldn’t eat for a whole week; I couldn’t use my hands anymore. Just like two pieces of wood. He’d take you all around the mat, drag you.
I told Tamura I wanted to spend a couple of years in Japan. Tamura said I had better talk to Chiba and he would introduce me at Hombu. We had a special lunch in San Sebastian. Chiba said, ‘No, there are already so many French people who give me trouble every day, I don’t want another one.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I already brought my ticket!’
How did you start Aikido?
I was living south of Paris, in a city called Tours where I landed a job in 1971. I had just moved to the city and did not know anyone there. I went to see a movie but unfortunately that day was the movie theaters’ day off. So, here I am, in front of a closed movie theater and I noticed that there was another guy who, like me, did not know that movie theaters had holidays. We joked about it and sat in the next café for a drink. In that place, there was a small TV hanging on the wall and showing, you won’t believe it, an episode of a documentary about Japanese martial arts dedicated to Aikido. I had never heard of Aikido and I was not interested in Japan or the Far East for that matter. But it struck me and the next day I called the city hall to find out if the small city of Tours had an Aikido dojo. And it did and the clerk knew about it. I immediately started to train.
My first teacher soon took me to Tamura Sensei. I really liked Tamura Sensei’s Aikido, he was extremely dynamic. Tamura Sensei didn’t have a dojo in Paris, he never did. He was working for the French Aikido federation, going one place to another every weekend. I got my shodan in 1976. Around that time, Chiba urged Tamura to invite Mitsuzuka Sensei to
France to teach Iaido. Tamura Sensei would always do a couple hours of Iaido at seminars, and I knew shoden [basic forms]. I got to drive Mitsuzuka Sensei around in the summer of 1977, all over Europe. Mitsuzuka Sensei was very Japanese, he behaved abroad like he did in Japan –Tamura and Chiba behaved differently. Mitsuzuka Sensei would come to a seminar, people would practice for a couple of weeks, and he’d give them third dan or fourth dan! The other Japanese teachers would go bananas. ‘These guys are going to go open a dojo!’ In Japan, fourth dan is nothing.
Did many Europeans appreciate Chiba Sensei?
Some people, not a lot. It was completely new.
Tell me about the private classes with Chiba Sensei at Hombu Dojo.
Chiba Sensei was back in Japan after 10 years in England, and he had already a clear view of what he wanted to do. To do it, he needed people to work on. The private classes had started a few months before I arrived. They were on Tuesday and Thursday at 1 pm. We used the small tatami room on the fourth floor; the door was closed for total privacy. We started at 1 clock, but most of the time it went on for at least two or three hours. The foreigners were Paul Sylvain, Lorraine DiAnne, Meik Skoss, Dee Chen, Bruce Bookman, Jay Dunkelman and two Scottish guys. Shibata Sensei would usually join in. Sometimes the door would crack open and a head would come out and say ‘Dame, dame dame!’ [Wrong, wrong, wrong!] that was Yamaguchi Sensei. He’s in his suit, he was teaching in the morning, suit and necktie. He would take over and show us what to do. Chiba Sensei loved it.
Chiba Sensei was enthusiastic in the private classes. He was not the same as he was in Europe. He was very approachable, he liked jokes. He loved these private classes.
It was rough because everybody was scared, even though in four years there were no accidents, no serious injuries in the private lessons. It was really tense. There was tension on each side. We were so eager to learn and he was so eager to teach.
What kinds of things was Sensei focusing on in those classes?
He would bring in Budo, a thick book written by O-Sensei before the war. We went through the whole book, one page or a couple of pages a day. He would put the book on the kamiza; he’d turn to it and look at it again. It was really like a laboratory. For us it was a great way to learn things. Then bokken, weapons work. Lots of it.
When did you start training in Iaido with Takeshi Mitsuzuka Sensei?
As soon as I arrived in Japan. I went through Chiba Sensei, he said OK, come to the dojo. We went to the Iaido dojo in Yotsuya Sanchome, the old one. Chiba Sensei officially asked Mitsuzuka if I could join, he introduced me and asked him if he would agree to take me on as a student. Everything was under Chiba Sensei’s tutelage. Chiba Sensei always practiced Iaido. At one point Chiba Sensei told us he got hurt during a trip with O-Sensei and O-Sensei left him in an Iaido dojo somewhere in the south of Honshu. He had to practice Iaido to get his back better. He also collected swords; he had many in Japan.
I went three times a week to Yotsuya police station to train in Iaido with Mitsuzuka Sensei. You could do it at Hombu but it had to be secret, you had to hide yourself. Chiba Sensei was practicing Iaido on his own at Hombu – he couldn’t come to Mitsuzuka Sensei’s except on the weekends because he was so busy. He cut himself once so bad, all by himself upstairs. We were changing in the locker room, he came down he had his hakama around his arm, blood was dripping from the hakama. He said, ‘Go clean!’ He disappeared, went to the clinic for stitches. He had cut a vein, it was pissing blood. We go up there and there is blood all over the stairs going to the fourth floor. We open the door and go, ‘Oh shit.’ The white mat was covered with blood. We spent about two hours with cold water and rags until it disappeared.
We knew that if [Kisabura] Osawa Sensei, the dojo-cho, saw the mess he was going to be so pissed. He was very against doing any weapons in the dojo: When doing bokken, we had to close the windows so nobody could hear the noise of the weapons.
What was it like to practice with Kisaburo Osawa Sensei?
Osawa Sensei had a class on Friday at 5:30, and he gave that class to Chiba Sensei. I would go to his Wednesday morning class and he used me for ukemi every time, but he never addressed me. In his class, Osawa Sensei did everything slow, he would show things very, very slowly. He would slow down like slow motion. It was very beautiful. There were mostly Japanese in class; he never talked to foreigners and I don’t think he liked them. He was an old-style Japanese nationalist. Right after the war, he had a bar in Shinjuku. When the dojo started to grow again in the 1950s, Doshu went to pick him up.
Why were foreigners so drawn to Chiba Sensei at Hombu?
We understood what he was doing. We were just there to train. We were not supported by our own federations but we asked for it. We had no money – nobody wanted any money, we didn’t care about it. All that we wanted was to train, train, train, train.
We often went out with Chiba Sensei. He talked a lot; he liked to practice his English. He liked his group. He told us stories of his time with O-Sensei. When O-Sensei would come down from Iwama, he would arrive at Hombu and he never said anything. He would show up at Hombu and pick up somebody to go with him as kaban-mochi (bag-carrier). I remember Chiba Sensei saying that he knew O-Sensei was coming when he saw [Yoshimitsu] Yamada running and closing himself up in a closet so O-Sensei would not see him and take him on a trip!
Being a kaban-mochi was very hard. After O-Sensei arrived, he would say, ‘You!’ and he would leave. You have to pack your stuff and then grab his stuff and run after him and he’s gone to the station and he doesn’t have tickets! They would take the cable car from Nuke Benten [transit stop near Hombu Dojo] to Shinjuku Station. Chiba Sensei used to say you had to go into the train cars and find a place next to or in front of a beautiful girl. O-Sensei loved to talk to beautiful girls, and you had to go from one car to the other and find somebody alone. Otherwise you’d have to persuade who was sitting next to her to move aside.
As kaban-mochi, you never talked to O-Sensei because he’s up there. [Gestures above his head.] You don’t talk up.
Chief instructors Malory Graham of Seattle Aikikai, Liese Klein of New Haven Aikikai and Ea Murphy of Tacoma Aikikai collaborated on a workshop at Seattle Aikikai on July 14, 2018. The event focused on the Seattle Aikikai monthly theme of “exploring levels.” Graham Sensei and Murphy Sensei worked with the katatedori, morotedori and ryotedori grabs while Klein Sensei led students through the basics of the Sansho 2 jo kata.
All Aikido practitioners of all affiliations are welcome at Birankai North America Summer Campand it’s not too late to sign up. Drop-ins are also welcome as commuters. Sign up hereand see everyone at camp!
If you’re shopping on Amazon for Prime Day this year, don’t forget to help Birankai North America through the Amazon Smile program. Amazon donates 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the nonprofit organization of your choice, and Birankai North America is on the list!
Just check out the Amazon Smile page and be sure to type in Birankai North America when prompted to enter a nonprofit. We use that money to pay for scholarships, grants and training events like Summer Camp and Instructors’ Intensives and we need every cent! Thanks for your support and happy shopping!
Check out this great newsletter put out by Birankai Europe in both English and French. Our Birankai North America newsletter, Biran, will be available at Summer Camp with great articles on the theme of “The Art and Science of Aikido.” Also find out in detail what the Exam Committee is looking for in tests — make sure someone from your dojo picks up your copies!
Birankai North America Summer Camp 2018 guest instructor Didier Boyet Shihan gave a great seminar this past week in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Visit the Facebook page of Leonardo Marques Câmara Sodré to see hundreds of photos of the event – you may even catch a glimpse of Luis Gonçalves, who visited Birankai Summer Camp in San Diego a few years ago while he was living in Japan. (The photo up top is one of many high-quality images.)
Looking forward to seeing Boyet Sensei soon in Tacoma and greetings to our friends in Brazil!
The importance of correct usage of the feet and twisting movements, was the theme of the day. With jyo in the morning and bokken in the afternoon, basic strikes and movements were reviewed. There were beginners and youth, so the material was appropriate for their level, yet by the end, the senior students realized the teaching was thoughtful and presented a deep understanding that Apodaca Sensei has developed through his personal training.
After the last class, kids and dogs went swimming. Then the make-your-own pizza party got started! Afterward, some people had to get home, but lots stayed for a campfire and conversation. The next morning those that were still around had an unplanned class at the dojo. It was interesting to apply the footwork and twisting themes from the day before to body arts.
The day before the seminar Apodaca Sensei visited Grass Valley Aikikai and conducted a shodan test for Marci Martinez, who passed. We were so happy to include out of town guests and all visit together over tacos at the dojo.
Looking back, we realized that while we officially hosted a one day seminar, that in reality it turned into a three day event. So we decided next year we should just turn it into a proper three day seminar – Friday night, all day Saturday, Sunday morning! We invited Apodaca Sensei to come again and he said he would! So make your plans – probably next year the weekend after Father’s Day. Why not make a vacation of it? Bring your family and spend a week seeing the sights and enjoying the beautiful Sierras. Do come if you can. Everyone is welcome.