Remembering Yamada Sensei

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai

Yamada Shihan and Chiba Shihan at 2012 Birankai North America Summer Camp

Please also visit Aikido Journal for Josh Gold’s Spring 2022 interview with Yamada Sensei.

The recent passing of Yamada Sensei marks the end of an incredible era of Aikido in America. Yamada Sensei was the first of a wave of Japanese Aikido pioneer instructors to establish themselves in America. He was one of the last remaining of those pioneers and arguably the most impactful, proving to be an extraordinary ambassador for our art for nearly 60 years.

I first met Yamada Sensei in 1973, while I was training with Saito Sensei in Iwama, Japan. Yamada Sensei was visiting Japan with a group of students. A stop in Iwama, O-Sensei’s long-time home and home of the Aiki Shrine, was essential. While that first encounter was brief, it’s one I still remember, largely because I found Yamada Sensei to be disarmingly charming.

Over the course of the next few years, I encountered Yamada Sensei at various seminars, and was always charmed by his friendliness and openness. However, during the late 1970s, most of what I heard on the west coast regarding Yamada Sensei was resentment on the part of the local American Aikido teachers, including my own, because the organization he co-founded and headed, the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) was the only organization in the United States to be recognized by Hombu Dojo. Dan ranks could be processed only through the USAF, and all US based instructors who wanted to have their students’ ranks registered with Hombu had to be members of the USAF. (It was known as the “one country, one organization” rule. Interestingly, it was Chiba Sensei, after his arrival in the US, who was instrumental in persuading Hombu Dojo to abandon that policy, and agree to recognize multiple organizations within a country.)

In October 1980, Yamada Sensei brought Chiba Sensei to visit San Diego, as a possible place for Chiba Sensei to settle and establish a dojo. As it happened, I was designated to pick the two of them up at LAX and be the tour guide for the day. Yamada Sensei was thus the person who first introduced me to Chiba Sensei, for which I shall be eternally grateful. Yamada Sensei did almost all the talking during the day. Chiba Sensei didn’t speak with me until the evening, when I sat to drink with him at the bar in Hanalei Hotel, where they were both staying. The difference in personality between Yamada Sensei and Chiba Sensei was quite striking. Yamada Sensei’s warmth and friendliness put me at ease — Chiba Sensei’s quiet intensity, not so much. One thing became clear to me during that day (and was confirmed with further conversations with Chiba Sensei), without Yamada Sensei’s efforts to bring Chiba Sensei to the US, convincing both Chiba Sensei and the leadership of Hombu Dojo that it was a good idea, it would not have happened. We in Birankai owe Yamada Sensei a special debt of appreciation for his striving on behalf of our teacher and our community.

Although my exposure to Yamada Sensei’s teaching was limited, there were numerous occasions where he most graciously offered me his personal support. As an early example, during the first year Chiba Sensei was in San Diego, while I was teaching a class, Yamada Sensei showed up at the dojo, by himself. He sat to observe my class. I was nidan at the time, and was extremely intimidated by Yamada Sensei’s presence, yet following the class he chose to give me only positive feedback and encouragement. The last time I saw him was at the BNA summer camp in 2016 in St John’s University in New York, his home ground. We taught classes back-to-back. I trained in his class, and he watched my class. It was 35 years later than the first time he watched me teach and I was just as intimidated and again, he offered only positive feedback.

Taken at the 1994 USAF summer camp celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the New York Aikikai.
Front row (L to R): Sensei –  Kawahara (British Columbia, Canada), A. Tohei (Midwest, USA) Tamura (France),  M. Ueshiba (WakaSensei, now Doshu, Hombu) Chiba (Western USA),  Kurita (Mexico)
Back row (L to R) Sensei – Kanai (East Coast USA), Shibata (Western USA), Yamada (East Coast, NY, USA), Sugano (East Coast USA, Australia)

I started with the comment, Yamada Sensei’s passing marked the end of an era for Aikido in America. He, Kanai Sensei and Chiba Sensei and other Japanese Shihan have laid a foundation for the development and growth of Aikido in this country and beyond. It is now our and our students’ responsibility to apply the same passion, commitment and expertise demonstrated by our teachers, now gone, to sustain and advance our art into the future. 

Darrell Bluhm
January 2023
Ashland OR

In Memory of Yamada Shihan – January 15, 2023

Kristina Varjan, Chief Instructor, Aikido of Kohala

There are special people in our lives who never leave us even after they are gone.
Yamada Sensei was one of those people.
How can someone that has given so much to others ever be forgotten?
He can’t and he won’t!
Yamada Sensei introduced me to our amazing world of Aikido in 1975.
He was generous, a great cook, a strong leader, with a great sense of humor, and a true diplomat as well.
He made everyone around him feel special.
Being on the mat teaching to so many, meeting new people, that was what was truly
important to him.
Spreading Aikido to as many people in as many places as possible was his mission in life.
It seemed like he never tired, but he did. He was human.
He came to teach a seminar in Hawaii at our dojo (Kohala Aikikai) in 2003.
I saw him outside the dojo preparing for the seminar and asked him if he was ok.
He said: “I’m nervous. I still get nervous after all these years. Like it’s the first time that I am getting on the mat to teach!”
It seemed to me like he was once again embracing the concept of “SHOSHIN”, beginners mind, every time he taught a class or seminar.
I think many of us have felt the powerfulness and the freshness of his dynamic teaching in each class stressing the basics, even if it’s Ikkyo again and again.
Get everything you can from your Senseis, talk to them, and stay in touch with them.
Their commitment and vast experience are invaluable.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart Ms Yamada, Mika, Risa and Tatsuya for sharing Sensei with us all.
And when your Sensei says “ROLLS”, throw out a few on the mat!
Some of you will know what I mean…

Kristina Varjan

A Tool For Your Path

Archie Champion, Birankai Senior Council Member and Chief Instructor, Central Coast Aikikai

People too often undervalue the benefit of martial arts practice and its ability to transform one’s life. To have good health, power and energy at any age is a blessing. Being healthy is a virtue that every individual should strive for to the best of their ability. The muscles of the body are naturally designed a to be challenged by bearing weight, and being lengthened and contracted. The bones are designed to bear weight, to continue to grow, to replenish themselves and to remain strong. It is the body owner’s responsibility to know these things and to engage in practice designed to fulfill these functions that has been handed down from the ancestors. People suffer from many health issues that decrease quality of life and lead to premature death, which can be changed through Aikido practice. Having practiced Aikido almost every day for 44 years, I don’t consider myself old or close to the end of the road.

We live in a postindustrial, digital, AI culture, programmed to believe and operate as if our human consciousness is no longer capable of focusing for extended times to achieve true development. Especially in this day and age of technology, it is essential you create something with your hands. We no longer really develop and hone our physical skills; instead we simply express ourselves with filters and quickie videos. Nowadays, if you want to learn something you watch YouTube, not a book or manual in your hands. Yet it is through the body we experience the world, coming to sense the mystery of life, and a feeling there must be something beyond it. It is through the body that we express our true Self.

Our physical body is the alchemical laboratory in which we can test what kinds of foods, how much physical training or rest, and what kind of mental attitude we need to cultivate an ” Aiki body”. A human being who develops an Aiki body can circulate life force. Developing an Aiki body requires humility to learn from nature – the natural world, and your own nature/body, working with the hands, the body, the physical. To work with the body is to engage creative spirit, becoming co-creator with nature. Similarly, our emotions are stored in the body as energies we sometimes must work through physically, rather than talking about them. Aikido movement helps you go into that space, where those emotions live and move this energy through the body. Bodywork helps you learn to release fear or anything else that is not you, and learn to trust your intuition.

The lockdown over the last two years caused me to stop doing body arts and to only teach Jo. (Usually I switch every year, but the uncertainty of the times compelled me to stay with Jo.) First let’s remember every weapon has its own “spirit” and a manner in which it likes to do things,  almost as if it has a personality. Furthermore, weapons tend to create their own “rules” for body methods and training. The Jo’s versatility is the liveliness of the grip, making practice very enjoyable and flowing, as there fewer limitations on what can be done and achieved. The Jo can be held with junte, gyakute, or a combination of grips. In fact, the hands can grip at any position, even at the butt of the Jo, and at any distance across the length of the weapon. With such diverse grips, the hands can also easily adopt some of the qualities and methods used with swords and can move similarly to many empty-handed techniques. When pressed against uke’s joint or bone, the Jo often enhances joint-locking techniques. Stand in left or right hanmi, you still enjoy practice: left hanmi, symbolizes our attraction toward divine light and spirit, and progress; right hanmi symbolizes our individual body, and regression. 

(Earlier I said every weapon carries its own spirit – with Jo that spirit is wood. Human beings have used trees and their wood as friends, medicine, and vessels for their creativity. We evolved to coexist with trees and other plants in the deepest sense possible. I personally have had an affinity to wood for as long as I can remember and believe deeply this is an innate human trait. Even traditional Chinese medicine recognizes trees and wood are related to our livers and Hun (ancestral spirit). They also see wood virtue being adaptable, you can pull, push, press, thrust, smack, chop, redirect, divert, absorb, block, spiral from the middle and sides.)

In sum, the ideal of our Aikido has always been to create a body of work that set the standard for others. Today, if the body is uncomfortable doing something outside its normal range of natural ability, or if the breath is not developed enough to move and circulate life force, many simply give up and move on to that which can be done with little/no effort, depriving our mental and physical development. Others go through the motions, recording the “hours”. Few actually change their diet, adopt a holistic or spiritual way of living and become actual practitioners committed to a lifetime of consistently  engaging your body with this wonderful tool called a Jo. Those of you who are willing to follow their hearts and connect with your core being will in this tool find solace and meaning. Seek to make it more than a weapon, and it shall serve to guide you on the path.

Letter to Chiba Sensei

Coryl Crane, Birankai Senior Council Member and Chief Instructor, North County Aikikai

North County Aikikai 20th Anniversary Seminar, December 2011

To throw oneself into the extraordinary having isolated oneself from the lifestyle so long ago adopted. – Chiba Sensei in an article on Sesshin.

Dear Sensei, every year since you passed, I think about what it meant to train with you and how that relationship changed my life.

As a teacher, you gave yourself fully to every encounter with your students. You would walk onto a mat full of students, and the power of your intention spoke to each one of us. From the beginning, my personal encounters with you were often fearful because inevitably I found myself in a place I had never been before; but the more I opened up the more I let you in, and the more I gave you the more you gave back to me. When you worked with me, we were the only two entities in the world at that moment.

There were truly painful times along the way that took time to heal or to understand – after all you were as human as I and as prone to errors of judgement. Yet through it all, in your own way, you always respected us as part of the one human race.

You were a profound thinker and your grasp of the English language enriched your vision for us. You saw Aikido through many lenses and articulated them in depth and often poetically. You could describe the movement of Aikido as a brushstroke on rice paper, or as the physics of body movement extending from the spine. And when we were ready, you made real the martial edge between life and death. Aikido was always an art form within a martial context for me.

You expressed an Aikido for each one of us, if we could see it. For me, as a woman and an artist, you made it beautiful as well as powerful. Because of you, I threw myself into the extraordinary and stepped away from the lifestyle I was born into. I am eternally grateful for your teaching.

Coryl Crane

Learn more about Chiba Sensei’s life in Aikido with Power and Grace – Portrait of a Master: T.K. Chiba

Cultivating An Aikido Body, Part 3: Liveliness and Openness

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai

“Take musu aiki”, brushed by by Chiba Sensei, describes the highest level of Aikido where one is capable of spontaneously executing perfect techniques.


As we continue to explore the process of developing and maintaining an Aikido Body, I want to review and expand on earlier topics. An Aikido Body is of course, a human body. Even more fundamentally, it is a living body. Our language – the English language, specifically – biases our self-perception, so we see ourselves as objects or things, when, in fact, we are, as all of life is, ongoing processes. We are not objects, we are subjects, actively engaged in the process of living. At some point we will all die, and as corpses we can be considered objects – although the process of decomposing is also quite dynamic. But, as living, embodied beings, embedded in a living world right now, we are gifted with life, bodies, consciousness, and the ability to make distinctions and choices. We can recognize what is toxic or nourishing in our world and choose appropriately. Movement is one form of nourishment. Unfortunately, many of us develop habits of movement that are to movement what junk food is to food.

Training can strengthen our capacity to sense ourselves with greater refinement, so we may learn to distinguish functional, effective action from junk. For our training to fully serve us, however, we also need to extend our conscious awareness to our everyday actions: how we lie, sit, walk, breath, bathe, cook, play, and receive the nourishment that being alive in this world offers us. When we, through conscious practice, learn to move as whole beings, connected to our partners and the world at large by means of our center and all our senses, a liveliness emerges in our movement and responses.

Aikidoists tend to discover this quality of liveliness, on the mat by practicing ukemi. Chiba Sensei, having discovered this liveliness, said of it, “The practitioner frequently experiences a sense of pleasure and joy in the discovery of the body’s previously hidden potential – an experience often accompanied by a sense of safety and security while training.” He continues that, in his experience, “Sustaining injuries during training is largely the result of [the person] handling his or her body in a fragmented manner…” 1

Sensei described the art of ukemi as “preparation for the unexpected” and counseled us to avoid mechanical or rote habits of practicing ukemi. He defined ukemi as “the means for receiving and neutralizing force, without resisting, trying to escape, collapsing or flying away.”

The process of neutralizing a force coming towards or into us requires an acceptance of and joining with that force and is best accomplished with a passive will, as opposed to a will seeking control. In our practice, whether as uke or nage, using weapons or in solo practice, we build a repertoire of actions that take residence in the deepest resources of ourselves. Usually when we practice, we consciously observe ourselves as we do it. Yet there are times on the mat when we respond to a given situation with our “adaptive” unconscious or non-conscious mind. When this happens, we move from the domain of kata, or form, to that of true martial technique or waza, which is formless. Many of us have experienced this in the role of uke, where we find ourselves getting up from the mat with no conscious sense of how we arrived there. 

Chiba Sensei exploring liveliness through ukemi
(Ukes: Lizzy Lynn, Jim Hauer, Mikey Roessner-Herman, Mike Flynn)

Eventually, through training, this quality of liveliness can manifest in all aspects of one’s practice and by extension, off the mat, in one’s everyday life. There is a natural and pure quality to our acts when, to use Chiba Sensei’s words, “perception, judgment and action arise spontaneously and simultaneously.”

In our daily life, our conditioned responses, developed on the mat, can at critical times serve to save our self or others. I have experienced this in mundane ways, such as braking to avoid hitting a deer with my car before my conscious mind realized that the deer was there, or catching a falling object without conscious intent. This kind of non-conscious action is known in the Japanese martial tradition as mu so ken – dream-thought-sword.

Mu so ken – acting without conscious thought

Chiba Sensei wrote about several intense, life-or-death situations where he experienced this spontaneous, unconscious action. A couple of those situations involved saving himself when attacked. Other situations led to him saving someone else. On one occasion, while waiting to catch a train in Japan, a non-stop train approached the station at a high speed, as two brothers on bicycles approached the crossing. The older brother decided to play “chicken,” by riding his bike across the tracks in front of the approaching train. His younger brother, following, fell on the track. Without thought, Sensei rushed forward, threw the bike off the track, grabbed the fallen boy, and launched them both forward across the tracks with a forward roll, just in front of the oncoming train. Another time, while fishing at the pier in Ocean Beach, San Diego, Sensei spied a young girl drowning in the ocean below. He instantly jumped in and rescued the girl. When I asked him about it, years later, he said he simply acted, without hesitation or forethought.

These, and other more combative experiences, confirmed Sensei’s belief that the body responds more quickly and effectively in the present moment than does our discursive mind. While his teaching is often misunderstood and misrepresented as harsh, one aspect of it was a deliberate attempt to create conditions on the mat by which we could discover and nourish this developed spontaneity (mu so ken) to protect ourselves and others.

Frequently when teaching, Chiba Sensei tested his uke’s liveliness by executing a technique, such as ikkyo or irimi nage, where he would cut them down, allow them to recover and cut them down again and again, before finally completing the technique. This situation required uke to remain connected, centered, extended, lively, and fully present, perceiving everything. Often, Sensei would change to a different technique, and his uke was expected to follow. This practice, which requires we perceive deeply with all our senses, leads us toward the cultivation of openness.

Bluhm Sensei demonstrating Chiba Sensei’s practice of testing connection
(Uke: Ea Murphy)


In his recent Biran article, “Still Here”, Champion Sensei describes the Aikido Body as having “an expansive frame around a compressed core”.2 In the first part of this series I addressed the development of a compressed core in the discussion of centeredness and connectedness. To clarify further how a “compressed core” supports and interacts with a “expanded frame” I would like to expand on these earlier remarks.

The discovery and nourishment of our tanden, which is essentially our movement or “action center”, is the starting point for exploring the cultivation of an Aikido Body. The tanden works with two other centers: a “feeling” or “heart center” in the chest and a “navigational center” in the head. As upright creatures, these centers are balanced along our central axis and relate to the spine and our alimentary canal (gut). When I think of a “compressed core”, I think of these three centers functioning as an integrated and dynamic whole:

Our action center, which resides in our lower abdomen and pelvic bowl, connects us through our legs and feet to the ground, enabling us to move through the world. This lower center relates to our survival, individual conservation and reproduction.

Our heart center connects us through our arms and hands to one another, our tools, and allows us to bring the world to us. It sits on the central tendon of our diaphragm, is suspended between our lungs and its function is closely associated with our breath. This middle center relates to feeling, sensation emotion, and our relationship to others.

Finally, our head center orients us and allows us to navigate the world. Our head houses all of our teleceptors, organs of perception that connect us to the outside world, eyes, ears, vestibular system, taste and smell. This upper center, resides in the center of the head– where the skull sits on the first cervical vertebra — at the level of the eyes and ears.

These three centers all have perceptual aspects. Our lower center is associated with exteroception, which is the sense of contact with our base of support, our ability to recognize the firmness, amount of friction, or stability of the surface we are moving over. Our heart center is associated with interoception, our sense of what’s happening within us, which includes emotions, as well as the many sensations generated by movement, muscular and visceral. The center in our head, enables us to access the world outside ourselves. Action and perception mutually inform each other. The balanced, combined functioning of these three centers empowers us to act with confidence and competence in an expansive and expressive way.

The language by which the body, heart and mind communicate is that of feeling and sensation. Essential to refining our action in the world is learning to listen to that language. In learning to listen in that way, we open our senses to see, hear, smell, and taste, supporting a deeper engagement with the world we are a part of.

In Aikido, our capacity to generate and neutralize power correlates with the development of our tanden. Concurrently, our ability to make and sustain sensitive, lively contact with our partners is influenced by our hearts. I believe that emotion colors our perception, perception guides action, and the clearest perception comes with love. To be able to move to the right place, at the right time, with the right choice of technique (where, when and what) arises only when all centers are open and our frame is well conditioned and expanded.

The foundation of openness is the ability to listen with all of our senses with the attitude of a beginner (shoshin), or the wonder of a child. To accomplish this, we must consciously close at least one important opening: our mouth.

When we sit in seiza or zazen, our posture is upright and relaxed and our focus is centered on the present moment. Included in right posture is our “oral posture.” The lips should be lightly closed. The tip of the tongue should lightly touch the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. The jaw should be forward, but relaxed. This position of lips, tongue, and jaw ensures we breathe through our nose, which conditions our unconscious breathing away from the unhealthy practice of mouth breathing.3 Correct sitting posture assists us in quieting our internal chatter or mental noise, which deepens mental and physical stillness.

When we practice on the mat, it is Birankai’s tradition to keep our mouths shut. Of course, there are times when the vigor of training requires us to open our mouths to take in more oxygen to meet cardiovascular demand, but there are almost no times in our training when it is necessary to open our mouths to speak. Talking during training distracts from our engagement with our own senses and our presence in the given moment, creating noise on the mat that can endanger those practicing around us. This is a critically important element in Chiba Sensei’s teaching. On his mat, conversation was not tolerated.

When training vigorously, especially on a crowded mat, we must rely on hearing, as well as vision and kinesthetic awareness, to avoid collisions with our neighbor. Verbal noise creates a safety risk. With our mouths shut, our senses open, our breathing is healthier, and our mind more focused. When we sit to observe a teacher’s instruction, we endeavor to keep our internal dialogue quiet – and our internal mouths shut, just as when practicing Zazen. By so doing we enhance our learning, enabling us to cultivate “eyes to see” – to see what is, as opposed to what we think we know – and eventually to engender our “eyes to see through” – to see beyond outer form to the inner, normally invisible elements of what is shown.

Champion Sensei, in the article referenced above, discussed the martial principle of ichi soku ta, meaning “one equals many”. This principle speaks directly to the importance of openness, notably, the recognition that when practicing with a single partner, the potential for multiple attackers is always present. How we enact any form (shihonage, ikkyo, irimi nage, etc.) should reflect this understanding. Regardless of the form we do, our gaze should be soft, our peripheral vision wide, hearing active, our ability to turn and change direction readily available.

Chiba Sensei demonstrates ichi soku ta
(Ukes: Jim Hauer and Mike Flynn)

While it is true that in certain circumstances action can arise simultaneously and spontaneously without conscious thought, when training or in other learning situations we yoke our attention to our actions. This allows us to make choices and create opportunities to step out of our habitual patterns and refine and expand our understanding of and ability to execute any form. In this way we can discover how each element of our practice reflects the whole.

In presenting the five principles of Centeredness, Connectedness, Wholeness, Liveliness and Openness in his essay, “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness”, Chiba Sensei wrote, “Openness is both generated and characterized by a strong interrelationship between body and mind…In this stage, the physical and mental aspects respond to one another in mutual and nearly simultaneous development.”

While the thrust of this three-part essay focused on cultivating an Aikido Body, the development of an Aikido Mind cannot be ignored. Of the five pillars, openness probably contains more psychophysical aspects than the other four. For myself, the qualities of mind and attitude that accompany the cultivation of physical aptitude in Aikido are humility, curiosity, flexibility and creativity. When our Aikido Body/Mind matures through the forging and awakening influence of our training, we can bring the foundational principle of O Sensei’s post-World War II Aikido, that of take musu aiki – the martial generative power of aiki (union with nature) – into being. Essential to discovering the creative potential within our art is the necessity of dissolving our attachment to our egos. Our art, as George Lyons Sensei so beautifully expresses, offers the opportunity to step out of any fixed world view, to detach ourselves from our social and cultural biases, so we can see the world with fresh eyes. 

In conclusion, I want to add a few comments regarding physical conditioning, and to offer a few references I have found useful.

Chiba Sensei did not limit his physical/mental/spiritual training to Aikido. Sensei came to Aikido with extensive experience in Judo, and other martial arts. He incorporated into the Birankai “curriculum”, Iaido and Zazen. He also practiced Yoga, beginning with the Yoga of Tempu Nakamura and later, that of B.K.S. Iyengar. He spent intense periods of misogi, or purification, training at Ichi Ku Kai.4 In addition, he ran, bicycled, loved to fish and practiced and appreciated various artistic traditions; painting, calligraphy (Shodo), poetry (in both Japanese and English), and on occasion, singing. 

I have found several other disciplines very helpful to my development as an Aikidoist. Particularly valuable, when I was young, was extended periods of time backpacking, often at high altitudes, which not only provided elements of physical fitness, but placed me intimately in the more-than-human world. I have practiced Tai Chi Chuan for as long I have practiced Aikido, and fenced for over 30 years. My Tai Chi teacher, Choy Kam Man, and fencing coaches, Charles Selberg and Michael D’Asaro Sr., influenced me tremendously as a teacher and as a person. I have been practicing Iyengar Yoga the last few years, and find it deeply enriching. I have practiced the Feldenkrais Method professionally for the past 25 years, and have extensive experience with the Alexander Technique, Structural Integration (Rolfing), Tui Na (Chinese massage), and other approaches to movement and the life of the body. All of these various activities inform my Aikido training.

For resources related to movement and physical well-being, I suggest the following books and websites. For teachers, I hope these resources prove useful in expanding what you incorporate into your warm ups and conditioning elements in your classes. For all of us as students of Aikido, I hope these resources provide more movement choices to support our ongoing development of our unique Aikido Bodies.

Books (please choose “Birankai International” on Amazon Smile) :


There are of course many more great resources. The most important resource is your own movement, driven by your own curiosity!


  1. Thanks to Shiun (Biran Continental Europe newsletter) for the Chiba Sensei quote, excerpted from “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness” Shiun, Vol 5, No.2, 2007.
  2. “Still Here”, Archie Champion, Shihan, quoted in Biran, Fall 2020 print edition.
  3. I strongly recommend Breath by James Nestor, which describes the plethora of negative health consequences of mouth breathing.
  4. See Adam Sorkin’s recent article in Biran, Fall 2020 print edition

Cultivating An Aikido Body, Part 2: Connectedness and Wholeness

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai

The discovery and development of a dynamic center naturally leads to greater core ability, which includes core stability, mobility and reversibility. It also leads to a stronger connection of the various parts of ourselves to each other: upper body to lower body, front to back, left to right. 

In his classes, Chiba Sensei often followed the exercise for discovering the center, (found in Cultivating an Aikido Body, Part 1) by what he called a “seesaw” exercise.

The exercise involves sitting on the mat, maintaining a strong extension through both legs with ankles and toes pulled toward one’s center, spine extended, with the head balanced on top. In this position the legs are lifted, center engaged, so that the upper body and lower body are held in a V-shape, and one rocks backward and forward without allowing the feet to return to the mat. This exercise is easily integrated into the basic practice of backward ukemi. 

Ukemi as a whole plays a central role in the forging of an Aikido body. The practice of ukemi, receiving and neutralizing the energy generated by nage (and by gravity) while falling and recovering is done repeatedly in our practice. Chiba Sensei often likened this aspect of training to the act of beating and folding iron in the traditional construction of a Japanese sword. No matter how well the blade is shaped, sharpened and polished, the smith will not produce a quality blade without first going through this initial stage of the process. The “beating and folding” that is promoted through the repeated enactment of basic forms, ikkyo, nikkyo, irimi nage, shihonage, etc., is the primary means by which we unify our bodies. This unification process, in my understanding, should be well underway by the level of third kyu, and completed by first kyu. 

We do not abandon this process as we advance in our art and as we age. As martial artists, we necessarily make a sustained commitment to physical training. In my experience, if the forging process is not well established in the early stage of training, the physical expression of one’s art becomes arrested and tends to break down with age. The development of one’s intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding can, of course, continue to grow, but to maintain and refine the physical aspect of our art requires a commitment to the life of the body. This requires adjusting and adapting how we train to the changes living brings. It is much easier to do if we lay down a solid foundation early.

Finding and working with our center both connects ourself to ourself, but also deepens our connection to the lived-world in which we exist. In Part 1 of this article, under the section titled “Centeredness”, I introduced the concept of the “field of promoted action,” which refers to the learned ways that we habitually eat, walk, sit, stand, dance, defecate, and otherwise use our bodies in the culture into which we were born. The experienced world, which we each inhabit, is even more complex and varied than “the field of promoted action,” as it extends beyond physical movement to all aspects of our subjective experience. 

However, within that great expanse of variability there is a common foundation, the earth itself, what Chiba Sensei called our Big Mother. There are primordial ways that being creatures of the earth support and nourish us, whether we are conscious of them or not. Deepening our awareness of our connection to Big Mother can enrich our Aikido practice in countless ways. We are connected to the earth and to the atmosphere surrounding her through our feet, our breath, our hands and our organs of perception, eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin and proprioception. 

Our feet provide the understanding for our action in the world. Adapted to the demands of this task, our feet are complex and wondrous instruments that dynamically connect us to the earth.

Each foot is comprised of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, numerous ligaments binding the bones, accessory bands and sheets of connective tissue and all the tendons attaching the twenty intrinsic muscles (originating from the bones of the foot itself) and dozen extrinsic muscles (originating from the bones of the leg above). The organization of these bones, joints, connective tissue and muscles in association with blood vessels, nerves and sensory organs (for pressure, pain, movement and position) allows the foot to mediate between the terrain of the ground below and the distribution of body weight and mass above. In accomplishing this role as mediator of above and below the foot acts as a sensory organ as well as an organ of support and mobility.

Living in a culture that imprisons feet in shoes from an early age, and within an environment that provides mostly even, two dimensional surfaces to move over, denies our feet the opportunity to develop the sensitivity, flexibility and strength that running, walking, climbing over varied natural surfaces provides. Martial practice offers antidotes to the dullness our feet acquire through our modern lifestyle. If you watch Chiba Sensei’s warmups you will see a variety of actions that work the toes, feet and ankles. Moving on our knees in shikko also works to enliven our feet. When enlivened feet act in accord with a conscious dynamic center, our ability to meet the fundamental demands of our practice — to manage distance, to transmit force from the ground through the whole of ourselves, etc. — is greatly improved. 

Chiba Sensei often began his classes, especially morning classes, with a series of breathing exercises derived from Tempu Nakamura, known as the Father of Japanese Yoga. One exercise that Sensei frequently taught, independent from the series, connects breath to the feet, center, spine and vision via our imagination. The exercise is done standing, feet close together, spine extended, eyes focused on the ground six to ten feet in front of oneself. Beginning with the inhale, one begins to float upward onto the balls and toes of the feet, ideally maintaining the weight over the balls of the first and second toes, while one breathes in through the nose and imagines drawing the breath into one’s center through the soles of the feet. At the top, maintaining balance, one engages the tanden and begins to exhale and lower the heels to the ground with the image of strongly breathing out through the heels. At the end of the movement down, one tries to empty the lungs of air through the mouth, audibly, with a strong contraction of the expiatory muscles. The exercise was usually done three times. Sensei encouraged us to use our imagination to develop a more conscious connection to our feet, breath and center and to explore our ability to experience our weight creatively, learning to intentionally become light or heavy.

Another breath exercise (kokyu soren), one that often followed that described above, also involves the use of the imagination, this time linking the breath, center, spine, feet and hands. After jumping both feet out into a wide stance, one inhales extending the fingers and arms upward overhead, rising up on the toes and balls of the feet at the end of the inhalation and extending the fingertips and arms up and forward, then exhaling, lowering the arms and whole body to the starting point. The instruction, given by Sensei, was to imagine breathing in through fingertips, arms, down the spine to the tanden, then breathing out through spine, arms and hands, extending our consciousness as far as we could imagine (“to the furthest ends of the universe.”) Both inhale and exhale are to be done quietly, through the nose, with an emphasis on relaxation.  

This exercise is reflected in the basic kokyu exercise done in hanmi. Hands are raised overhead, thumb leading the motion up with the inhale, weight shifting forward, and then cut out and down with the exhale, little finger leading, fingers strongly extended and consciousness extending out from the center, while shifting weight onto the back leg. The same image is applied to all basic cuts with the sword, or strikes with the jo. I can still hear Sensei say, “Don’t contract your muscles, extend your consciousness!”

Our feet connect us to the ground, and within the martial context, they function optimally when in the service of our center. Our hands connect us to others. The human hand is the most sensitive and sophisticated manipulative instrument in the known universe. While our lower body moves us through the world, our upper body brings the world to us. When we contact each other in Aikido, as uke and as nage, our hands, be it through grabbing, striking or controlling, should connect us, center to center. An oral instruction I received from Sensei was, “When your students’ handwork is weak, help them strengthen their center. If they need to strengthen their center, work with clarifying their hand work.” 

Having established vital connections to the ground through our feet, to the air through our breath, to our partners and our tools via our hands, we also must connect to the world at large by means of our organs of perception, most of which reside in our head. To function as a whole being engaged in the world, every action we make involves orientation, using our vision, hearing, smell and possibly taste to direct our attention and or action appropriately. In developing ourselves as martial artists, we seek to cultivate “Ten direction eyes” — that is, an awareness in all directions and the ability to move in any direction without hesitation or preparation. This requires a well-organized posture, in which the head sits balanced on the spine, free to move easily, supported below by our feet and center, using our senses to guide the complex actions of daily living and the wonderfully varied forms of Aikido. The unification of the body that arises through an awakened center, connecting all parts into a cohesive whole, exists in collaboration with a fully embodied and awakened mind. 

Wholeness of being allows for wholeness of action. As Chiba Sensei wrote, “… (It) activates (an) essential life force manifesting as strong physical liveliness and culminates in the reification of the psychospiritual virtues such as humility, receptivity, modesty, etc. that are necessary to the process of raising (ones) art to its highest level.”

Cultivating An Aikido Body, Part 1: Centeredness

Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai 

“Study your own body through basic forms. Study the centralization of the body.” – T.K. Chiba

Chiba Sensei often spoke of wanting those of us he trained as teachers to understand the ways he helped his students condition their bodies through and for training in Aikido. He expected us to be able to assist each of our students to develop what he called, “their Aikido Body”. When he spoke of the Aikido Body, he spoke not in the abstract but from his extraordinary experience in working with his own body, and from the practical means for shaping and conditioning his students’ bodies that he developed over decades of teaching Aikido to many different students in many different cultures. He would sometimes refer to the ‘Aikido Body” as the “Natural Body” or the “Instinctual Body.” However, he was very aware of how unnatural the social and physical environment of the modern world is. We humans have created a world for ourselves that resembles a zoo more than it does the wild world our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in, and in which our bodies evolved. In a very real way, we resemble captive or domesticated creatures more than adaptive embodied beings. The question Chiba Sensei sought to answer for himself and for us is: How do we, as modern humans, reclaim the natural abilities that exist within each of us?

In trying to answer that question for myself, in this three-part series I look to the five principles of embodied Aikido which Chiba Sensei identified: centeredness, connectedness, wholeness, liveliness and openness. Underlying these principles is a foundational assumption that the body is inseparable from the mind, and (as stated in his essay “On Food and Diet”) the body and the Earth are one. While I will explore this topic from the perspective of the primacy of the body, I too believe the body exists in union with mind and no body/mind union exists independent of a social and physical environment.


We are literally shaped by our everyday movement. Much of our movement is determined by what is known as the “field of promoted action”: the ways we eat, speak, defecate, dance, and so on, in the culture we are born into. This is different from culture to culture and even family to family. In the Japanese culture of the early to mid-20th century when, through the genius of Ueshiba O Sensei, Aikido emerged, there was little need to teach people how to move from their center. This teaching was embedded in patterns of action woven into daily routines: sitting on the floor in various postures, moving from sitting or squatting to standing and back to the ground. Now, in the 21st century, sitting cross-legged or on one’s heels on the floor (seiza) is uncommon. The chair intervenes between bodies and ground for many contemporary people as soon as they learn to walk. We sit, often while looking at a screen, more than we engage in any other posture. This creates challenges, even when confronted with simple actions such as kneeling, bowing, or getting up and down with ease.

To understand what it means to be centered, and to know how to move from our center, we need to have a clear image of where our center is and how it is related to the whole of ourselves. Chiba Sensei taught a very simple action for us to use to sense where our tanden resides and how to engage it actively:

He had us lie on our backs, place our hands by our sides (or sometimes place our fingertips on our lower belly) and with a sharp inhalation lift our head, arms and legs from the mat, hold for a moment and then with our exhale release our head and legs back to the mat. Try this for yourself. You will feel the engagement of your tanden and hopefully experience a sense of physical unity. This should be done carefully and without excessive muscular effort. Locating the center is the first step in cultivating our ability to use our centers dynamically.

To move in any way, we have to coordinate the mobilization of some parts of ourselves while stabilizing others. Given that our physical center resides in the basin of our pelvis, to mobilize that center requires fluency in the movement of the hip joints. If you watch video of Chiba Sensei conducting warm ups, you will see many actions both in standing and seiza that require movement in all planes of action, where the pelvis rotates over the hip joints, or the hip joints move relative to a stable pelvis, as well as very dynamic use of the tanden and breath:

Chiba Sensei 1986
Chiba Sensei 2009

For kinetic energy to be transmitted from the ground through the body to the hands, the hip joints must be fluid and the spine must be well organized, extended, flexible and stable. As teachers working at this time, we need to recognize that a life of accommodation to the chair has compromised the ability of most individuals entering our dojos to move freely at the hip joints or to have the requisite flexibility in their feet, ankles, and knees or the stability in their spines to execute the most basic actions of our art, sitting, bowing, suwariwaza, etc. Chiba Sensei modeled many ways to address this reality both through his warm ups and conditioning exercises, and in the precision with which he executed basic Aikido forms. I believe that going forward we need to study what he developed, and to expand it to meet the needs of our present students.

“Everything is hidden within your spine. The state of the spine is an indicator of the unification of the body and spirit. To study the body is to study your spine.” – T.K. Chiba

The primary function of our skeleton is to provide support to the body within the field of gravity. As upright, bi-pedal creatures with large brains — and consequently heavy heads — that task is complex. Literally central to that task is our spine. As mentioned earlier, in order for us to move freely, the spine provides the stability to transmit the forces generated by gravity downward and the forces generated by ground reaction forces and muscular action upward. Skeletal alignment, the organization of parts to each other and the whole relative to the ground, develops for us during infancy and early childhood. The movements of rolling side to side, front to back, lead to sitting and crawling, and create the strength and organization of muscles, connective tissues and proper neurological stimulation necessary to then stand, walk, run, jump, roll, etc. Returning to a closer relationship to the ground through seiza, shikko, rolling, etc. gives us an opportunity to refine and expand the quality of our movement by strengthening the stability of the pelvis and spine and their ability to support the actions of the body as a whole.

The quality of support we sense, relative to the ground, influences the amount of effort and the distribution of effort utilized in any action. Just as learning to walk as children required moving from the ground up, learning to move from our center in Aikido is promoted by the practice of sitting in seiza and executing suwariwaza (kneeling) technique. Paradoxically, our instability as upright creatures enhances our overall mobility. All martial arts involve an exploration of stillness and motion. Finding stillness in standing is required in balance poses in yoga, the most basic being Mountain Pose or “Tadassana.” Tadassana is very challenging, yet, moving from standing requires almost no effort. I have become very aware, in my personal Iai-batto ho practice, of the difference between moving from the large triangular base provided by sitting in seiza compared to moving from standing, At this point in my life, due to 70 years of wear and tear on my knees, seiza and shikko are no longer accessible to me. The foundational form in our system of Iai is Shohatto, executed from seiza. The standing version of Shohatto is called Koranto. This form has become the root of my present practice. Without the years of practicing Shohatto and its sibling forms, from sitting, where stillness is more readily available and moving from an engaged and vital center is essential, I would not be able find the rhythms of stillness and motion, mobility and stability, necessary to execute Koranto in a satisfying way.

If we as teachers of Aikido within Birankai wish, as our newly drafted vision statement states, to “meet our students where they are”, we need to develop ways to help them find comfort in their relationship to the ground and learn to mine the treasures accessible to them in the fundamental actions of sitting, bowing, knee walking etc. For those who can’t get all the way to the ground, we may need to explore ways we can help them discover their centers and how to move dynamically from their centers in and out from a chair (or zafu). What we must never do is remove seiza, bowing, shikko, etc.  to accommodate the many who will be challenged by them. To do that would be to  abandon the foundations of our practice.

Are you “antifragile”?

Biran Online Editor

The antifragile gain from disorder, volatility, and other stressors

Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, is to feel stuck next to him on a long flight. During the journey, you’re confused, intrigued, frustrated, inspired, and uncomfortable. Most significantly, you’re motivated to get back out into the world and apply your hard-earned knowledge…much like our current predicament with COVID-19.

If you have the time and fortitude, Taleb’s book is exceptionally insightful and worth the effort.  For the rest, being antifragile means to gain from disorder, volatility, and other stressors.  By contrast, the fragile wants stability and predictability, and the robust doesn’t care.  The wind extinguishes a fragile candle and enlarges an antifragile wildfire.  A forest which endures periodic fires is more robust than one which hasn’t withstood a fire in centuries. Fragile is bad, robust or resilient is better, antifragile is best.

The philosophy of antifragility complements Aikido, if one appreciates the peace, love, and harmony we aikidoka strive for comes from working through and even seeking conflict, pain, and disorder.  Making the commitment to train. Shaping the body through ukemi, off-mat training, and diet. Practicing techniques until they are instinctive.  Working through injuries.  Maintaining commitment to train when life events and other competing priorities emerge. Assuming leadership roles in the dojo and Aikido community. Perhaps, becoming a teacher, responsible for transmission to new generations and maintaining a dojo. Wherever you might be on your path, consider the following principles Taleb promotes in Antifragile:

If one has nothing to lose, then everything is a gain, making one antifragile.

One’s ability to switch from one course of action to another is an option.  Options allow you to benefit from the positive side of uncertainty without a corresponding serious harm from the negative side. Continuously set conditions which maximize your options, preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended payoffs.  Avoid being “squeezed” – having no choice but to do something, regardless of costs.

When you’re fragile, you depend on minimal deviation and demand predictability – a rarity in our increasingly volatile world. The antifragile need only the wisdom to not do things which might harm themselves and to recognize and seize emerging favorable outcomes. 

Base decisions principally on fragility, not probability. Failure to predict a tsunami or economic meltdown is excusable; building something fragile to them is not.  Natural systems are antifragile thanks to layers of redundancy – high birthrates, extra organs (kidneys, lungs), the ability to store fat or lose tails to a predator…

By tinkering, one incurs lots of small losses at minimal cost to occasionally find something rather significant.  A “loser” or “victim” is one who, after making a mistake or suffering harm, doesn’t reflect and exploit the lesson for gain.

So, which are you? Your dojo? The Birankai community?  More importantly, how are you working to increase antifragility among the people and things you care about?  Biran Online posts in the coming months will meditate on these questions and make suggestions for greater antifragility.  Please email your submissions to

Women’s Aikido Camp Redux 2017

By Kristina Varjan, Aikido of Kohala

It was 1994 at Ghost Ranch, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 23 years since the last Women’s Aikido Camp here.

So, I thought that was long enough to wait for another great group of women aikidoists to learn from and train with eachother.

Moments before the Bow
Moments before the Bow

From September 7th thru September 10th 40 women from all over the United States, from different dojo’s and different organizations came together in friendship to Santa Fe, New Mexico to practice aikido for 4 days.

Some of the original attendees of the first Women’s Camp in 1994

In the foothills of Santa Fe, at an old Carmelite Monastery (still active) we trained together, ate great food together,  meditated together, exchanging ideas about our training, our teachers and the future of the next generation of women aikidoka.

Women aikidoists will gather together again next year from September 13-16 at the same Immaculate Heart of Mary Conference and Retreat Center here in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Come join us again or for the first time!

Bring your gi’s, your weapons and your hearts and train with us…

Gina, Lynne Morrison, and myself, celebrating my birthday during camp!
Gina Zarrilli, Lynne Morrison, and myself, celebrating my birthday during camp!

For more info contact: Kristina Varjan,

Information and next years camp registration forms will be available at Aikido of Kohala on December 1st 

Chew on Rock

by Jon Paul Oliva, Multnomah Aikikai

 “In real discipline you are not entertained. You are simply presented with things – rock, jaw, chew. You are continually gnawing rock. Without even having the ambition to eat the whole mountain, you still keep chewing that rock.” – Chogyam Trungpa


Last year marked a twenty-year milestone for my practice of Aikido, a period of time during which my role has almost imperceptibly shifted from one of general student to sempai and more recently, assistant instructor. Along with changes in responsibility, the emphasis of my training has also changed. My training was once primarily focused on developing my ukemi and my technique. I now find that my focus is just as often on helping brand new beginners develop their confidence and more seasoned kohei on their journey to deepen their own study. During this process, I’ve been fortunate to discover that I have a genuine desire to help others with their own training, along with an evolving ability to meet people where they are within their own practice.

This shift in my practice presents me with significant challenges. Sometimes these challenges are straightforward technical considerations; other times they are deeply uncomfortable and personal in nature. Regardless of the form they take at any particular moment, I have a kind of intuitive knowledge, developed over my years of training, that these challenges are my “rocks to gnaw on”.

Our dojo has many junior students who need exposure to elementary aikido concepts. Training with these students has been immensely challenging and rewarding. When leading a class, I’m focused on finding new ways to help each individual discover their potential. It is important to me, particularly in the context of providing others with instruction, to continue to adopt a higher standard for myself in the technical curriculum. To this end, I have identified a need for my own self-directed study. My reasons include providing a solid foundation for kohei to develop their own technical proficiency, developing the self-confidence necessary to assist others in the learning process, and honoring the commitment of my teachers, who have created and carry on the path of study for us all to better ourselves through diligent practice and sincere commitment to Aikido.


Additionally, the need to structure training within a busy work-family life is a challenge with which many adult practitioners of Aikido can surely identify. I am fortunate to have family and friends that support my Aikido training and recognize the many benefits that training brings to my life. Even so, there are competing priorities that often need to take precedence. At forty-two, I have all the trappings that one might expect: a professional career, family, aging parents and a mortgage, to name just a few. It continues to be a challenge to find the right balance at any given moment. I don’t look at these as challenges that can be “solved” but I do believe that clear communication and constant vigilance (“Am I doing enough to meet the needs of X?”, “Have I clearly communicated that I need Y?”) is an effective strategy for successfully balancing all of the dynamic realities of my life in a way that honors my many commitments to community, work, dojo and self.

At the heart of these practical considerations is always the deeper context of training vis-à-vis my personal development and relationship with others. Perhaps my greatest challenge in embracing this changing role is that I fear failing.  Both inside the dojo and beyond its walls, the fear of failure is an obstacle that I’ve often struggled with, and struggled to acknowledge.  Oddly enough, it’s been a growing recognition of this fear that has led to a sense of opening up and a new joy in my practice.

Every new day on the mat it is an act of faith for me to believe that I can honor the life work of my teachers by devoting myself to the system of study that Chiba Sensei has laid out for us. The role of teacher – no matter how junior – is a gift and responsibility to be taken very seriously. Truthfully, I am uncertain if I can meet this challenge and I continue to make mistakes. Yet I feel very fortunate that training has provided me a window to use the very personal experience of my own imperfection to work for the benefit of others.


On the eve of my Fukushidoin test, I was very nervous.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t going to do well and that I would look foolish in front of my teachers and peers. That fear made the test much more difficult for me and obliterated any sense of relaxation in a way that felt tangibly familiar. This turned out to be the best outcome. The uncomfortable feeling lingered for weeks, providing me with an opportunity to really sit with my experience and become intimate with its unpleasant qualities.

It would be disingenuous to say my discomfort has gone away, but in a fundamental way it has shifted. I’ve spend almost two years now looking with curiosity at my experience and it continues to soften me to the difficulties that others face. This may seem such a common-sense outcome that it sounds banal, but making friends with my fear has melted some armor I didn’t know I was wearing.  While we all have our own unique challenges, seeing the processes fear engenders – the way it can freeze us or push us into aggression – has become a basis for me to experience an uncontrived tenderness toward myself and other people. Empathy is no longer a theoretical exercise but a practice that has emerged from the crucible of the dojo. I feel immense gratitude toward my teachers and fellow students that our mutual commitment to sincere training provides us with this unique opportunity to chew on rock!

A Teen at Summer Camp

By Sabrina Fogel, North County Aikikai

Aikido has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember – quite literally.  I was 5 years old when I started training (although at that age I imagine there wasn’t much actual training going on), and have kept up with it for the last 10 years. My first memory of Aikido is actually my first bow – the tan mats slightly chafing the palms of my chubby 5-year-old hands as they learned how to make a triangle for the first time, the warm light coating the dojo in a light haze.


The first Summer Camp that I went to (2015 at the University of Puget Sound) completely terrified me. I wasn’t technically the youngest kid there (I was 13 at the time, and there were a few smaller kids), but it sure felt like it.  I was at least a full head shorter than everyone else, and the pigtails sticking out of either side of my head didn’t scream “maturity” to anyone. Many of my nights were spent playing cards with people from my dojo – familiar faces in a sea of tall, scary aikidoists who could probably toss me around like a beanbag.

Being so young at Summer Camp had its disadvantages; I was often too short to see the sensei’s full demonstrations of the techniques, and to me it felt like people were slightly patronizing, if they meant it or not. Looking back, it is easy to see that most of them were just trying to be conscious of my size and skill level. At the time, however, I was so frustrated that people seemingly underestimated me and what I could do. I remember thinking, “Just give me a chance, I’ll prove to you that I can do this.”  I did get that chance a couple of years later at the 2017 Summer Camp, but by then the need to prove myself had gone away. Instead, I was able to focus on actually being at Summer Camp and what I could take away from it.

When I looked around the mat at that Summer Camp, I could see where I’ve been and where I want to go reflected in the people all around me. Now that I train mostly with adults at my home dojo, I can see the reflection of my younger days more clearly. It is visible in the way that they quietly count out the steps of the technique to themselves, and in the quiet hesitancy of their movements. Conversely, I can also see where I want my Aikido to go. Because of the incredible diversity of styles at Summer Camp, someone like me – who is still learning and adapting their own techniques – can draw from so many different people. I, like most people, have goals and ideas about where I want my Aikido to develop (I want to become more grounded, etc). However, Summer Camp can broaden those goals to encompass different styles and more people (I want my ukemi to look more like theirs, etc), and I think that’s great.

I recently read a quote (cliché, I know) that I think relates not only to my times at Summer Camp, but to Aikido in general: “Everyone is just a collage of their favorite parts of other people.” No matter what stage of Aikido you are in, there is always something more you can learn, something more you can add to your own personal style. I think Summer Camp is an amazing place to get exposure to new styles, and to reflect on how far you’ve come on your own Aikido journey and how far you still have to go.

Birankai Summer Camp 2017 Instagram Contest

Photo by Mike Head, Aikido Daiwa

At Birankai North America’s annual Summer Camp this year, Julian Frost, North County Aikikai, kicked off an Instagram photo contest. The contest was advertised as “Your Best Summer Camp Shot”.

The rules were one photo per day, per entrant. It didn’t have to be an action shot, but something that captured the spirit and fun of Camp.

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Winning entries, and some runner-up photos were published on the Birankai Summer Camp Instagram feed (#birankaisc) and the Birankai Summer Camp Facebook page. Julian Frost ran and judged the contest, along with Joanne Fogel, who provided the daily prize… a ticket to the camp raffle.


Photo by Suzanne Gonzalez-Webb

This was Wednesday’s winning photo, taken during the first night’s opening class with Alex Peterson Sensei, Summit Aikikai. Uke: Jake Davis, Sonoran Aikikai. Congratulations to Suzanne Gonzales-Webb!


Photo by Chris Poe, Aikido Daiwa
Photo by Chris Poe, Aikido Daiwa

Winner of Thursday’s Best Picture… Ganapatiye Sivaji, Chris Poe, and Adam Bowlds, all from Aikido Daiwa. Congratulations Chris Poe! He had tagged it #sexymofos. Not sure we can argue with that!


Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Thursday the honorable mention goes to Suzanne Gonzales-Webb, who actually won the contest the day before. Brian Keaney, Green River Aikikai, with Paddy the otter. Can’t help it, we’re suckers for otters!


Photo by David Pedowitz, Aikido Daiwa
Photo by David Pedowitz, Aikido Daiwa

Friday night Tai no Henko at Engine House No. 9, wins Friday’s best picture for David Pedowitz. Congratulations!

Uke: Hideki Okuda, Aikido Daiwa.


Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Saturday’s best picture of the Birankai Summer Camp 2017… Suzanne Gonzales-Webb again! Nage: Darrell Bluhm Shihan, Siskiyou Aikikai. Uke: Archie Champion Shihan, Central Coast Aikikai.


Other excellent entries included the following submissions:

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

JD Sandoval Sensei, Hayward Aikikai, one of the camp’s core instructors. Uke: Chris Wagner, Logan Square Aikikai.

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Uke: Bryce Walker, North County Aikikai


Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Dennis Belt Shihan, Ventura Aikikai! Another camp core instructor. Uke: Chris Wagner, Logan Square Aikikai.

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb


Photo by Pat Belt, Ventura Aikikai
Photo by Pat Belt, Ventura Aikikai

Nage: Kortney Barber, Brooklyn Aikikai. Uke: Dennis Belt Shihan, Ventura Aikikai!


Photo by Claire Wilson, North County Aikikai
Photo by Claire Wilson, North County Aikikai

Rat batting practice! Accuracy and fine technique from Carole Gifford!

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

John Brinsley Sensei, Aikido Daiwa, watching rat batting practice.

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Nage: Frank Apodaca Shihan, Deep River Aikikai. Uke: Iris Vandevorst, Grass Valley Aikikai.

Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb
Photo by Suzanne Gonzales-Webb

Nage: Gloria Nomura Shihan, Aikido Institute of San Francisco.

Uke: Leonard Schwartz.

Photo by Hannes Schweiger, San Diego Aikikai

Easy Rider

Photo by Ram Lichtman, San Diego Aikikai

Goodbye University of Puget Sound, goodbye majestic Mt. Ranier. We will see you again next year, July 20th – July 25th, 2018. Until we meet again.

Thank you to everyone who sent in entries, and especially Suzanne Gonzales-Webb, photographer extraordinaire!

Life Skills Learned in Aikido and the Applicability to Physical Therapy

By: Mitsu Nobusada-Flynn, Alameda Aikikai

My dad, Mike Flynn, Shihan) and I
My dad, Mike Flynn Shihan, and me.

Martial arts has always been a big part of my life as I was practically born into Aikido. My father was an Aikido instructor before I was born and when I turned 3 he opened his own dojo. I started training immediately and even have home videos of us practicing when I was less than 2 years old to prove it! Even before I could walk I was drawn to the art and during class I crawled across the mat to give him a Jyo (wooden staff). Aikido was ingrained into and has stayed with me throughout my life.

Starting off as a child you learn how to be disciplined and focused during class. You must pay attention at all times to learn. By starting off young, you also develop good motor patterns as well as learning how to fall properly.

Everyone has fallen at some point in their life, but Aikido teaches you how to constantly get back up again and fall without injuring yourself.

Stay focused or you might cut yourself.

As you grow older, you learn that Aikido is not a competitive martial art and although some of my friends have competed in other arts and tournaments, I have always stayed away from competition. I believe that with competition comes ego and this is what must be avoided to succeed in life. In Aikido, you are solely competing against your own demons and this heightens your level of self awareness. Battles are constant, as I too have a lot of faults and am no better than anyone else because I do not compete, but I have learned how to suppress my ego and take criticism. I think that by understanding one’s self at an early age, you will discover what to pursue in life and for me that was PT.

Of course, martial arts are not all mental, there is still the physical aspect! It keeps you fit and since I am more interested in manual therapy, it allows me to be in shape to perform manual interventions without tiring quickly (as you can see here, get up and keep moving).


Nage: Mike Flynn Shihan.  Ukes: JD Wright, Deena Drake Sensei, Mitsu Nobusada-Flynn, Elmer Tancinco Sensei, Sarah Crawford.

There are many ways to stay healthy, but personally this is one of my favorites. If you are a therapist struggling to maintain a high level of fitness, you are doing a disservice to all of your patients as the level of provided care will decline if you are withering away throughout a day of back to back treatments.

So you ask may be asking how does this all tie back together? Starting grad school three years ago, I learned early on that one needs to be able to take criticism from professors and CI’s while not letting your ego get the best of you. I have learned that one will fall early and often in school, but it is a necessity to persevere through these falls and constantly get back up to get where you need to go. Additionally you must stay focused during class while maintaining an outlet during school. Aikido was and still is my outlet as there is no better place to clear your mind than on the mat. Similar to becoming a healthcare professional, you must not think of anything else but the present moment, or ultimately you will be struck in the face.


Just do it!
Just do it!

I would like all of you to join me if you are ever in the San Francisco Bay Area and try out Aikido!

Sandan as a Weapon

By Sean Sheedy, Multnomah Aikikai

In his letter to the dojo after our most recent set of dan promotions, Fleshler Sensei referred to the metaphor of the student as a sword: at shodan a block of metal; at nidan a sharpened piece of steel; and at sandan a polished, integrated weapon. As a new sandan, what does it mean to “be a weapon”?

A dictionary definition is perhaps a place to start. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “weapon” as:

1. A thing designed or used for inflicting bodily harm or physical damage.
2. A means of gaining an advantage or defending oneself in a conflict or contest.

As an aikidoka seeking to reduce conflict rather than increase it, the first meaning seems problematic. Although aikido is certainly capable of resulting in bodily harm to an uke unprepared for absorbing and dissipating the power of the techniques, inflicting bodily harm or damage is not a goal of our art. The second meaning appears more promising, as defending oneself in a conflict by diffusing that conflict is a goal. One thread that is common to both meanings, however, is that of intent: in both definitions a weapon is a means of projecting one’s intent into a situation of conflict.

sandan as a weapon image

In this sense a weapon is a specific form of tool. Just as a chisel can be used to project one’s intent onto a piece of wood, thereby transforming that wood, a weapon can be used to project one’s intent into a conflict, thereby transforming that conflict. The type of transformation actually achieved depends on both the intent of the wielder of the tool and his skill level. A piece of wood can be transformed into a beautiful carving with proper intent and skill with a chisel. Conversely, a different intent or the lack of sufficient skill to produce a carving can result in wood chunks only suitable for firewood. Similarly, a conflict can be transformed into peace with both the intent of diffusing the conflict and skill with a weapon. Lacking peaceful intent or sufficient skill can result in more conflict and damage.

One consequence of this observation is that a weapon, like a chisel, has no intrinsic morality. Rather, the morality is derived from the intent of the tool wielder being transmitted through the otherwise inert tool. Seneca the Younger relayed a similar observation some 2000 years ago: “Quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit: occidentis telum est. A sword by itself does not slay; it is merely the weapon used by the slayer.”

Though necessary, proper or moral intent is not sufficient to successfully project one’s will to transform. Skill acquired through study and regular practice is also required or the result can be indistinguishable from that of bad intent. This requirement for a constant refining and honing applies to the tool itself as well as the user of the tool. Chisels and swords must be actually handled to develop the skill of their use, but doing so causes them to nick and dull, and eventually requires them to be sharpened. Even when sitting unused, chisels and swords must be cleaned and oiled or they may rust and not be ready when required. Similarly, even if not engaged in their art, the artisan and warrior must maintain their basic physical and mental conditioning or risk not being ready to apply their tools when required. The tool and the tool user are thus inseparably intertwined: both must continue to develop together in an endless cycle or forfeit the ability to successfully transform their surroundings.

This fundamental inseparability between tool and tool-user is what it means as a martial artist to “be a weapon”. If I, as an aikidoka, am a weapon, I am both the intentional agent and the tool to achieve a transformation from conflict to non-conflict. If I am a weapon, I must consciously and consistently develop my skills, renew my sharpness, and avoid deterioration due to inattention; failure to do so risks producing firewood instead of a carving.

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.  It is a sword that heals.” 
 — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Study The Way

By Greg Urbina, Aikido of Albuquerque

I first joined Aikido to get fit and learn how to fight. I liked the idea of protecting myself and also the person attacking. I was not looking for a traditional school or any type of philosophy when I came to Aikido of Albuquerque (AOA). I had preconceived ideas on what I thought was going to happen with me and my training. I would come, learn a technique, and I would be able to use it in a fight. I learned over time that Aikido forces you to use different parts of yourself, and if you are open to learning, you will grow from your training. Everything we do has a lesson in it; we are part of that lesson. “To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” The Way is not just Aikido, but the way of all things.

When I first came to AOA I thought it would be tough. It was not tough; it was hard. I was out of shape coming in, but I had played sports in high school, and I thought after a few months things would get easier. Eventually things did get easier, but my training also became more challenging. During my practice with Sensei, he would have me lift weights, sprint, then do a series of push-ups, sit ups, and jumping jacks. At the end of practice, I could barely breathe or stand. This was great for conditioning, but the real practice was pushing my mind when all I wanted to do is give up. Everyone falls apart when they get tired. Withstanding the mental and physical discomfort of that state is the true training behind this practice.

Sensei once had a conversation with me about how caring for the dojo and putting detail into your work is how to begin to analyze technique on the mat. Finding dust or out of place objects gives attention to detail. Everything we do has a purpose, everything in the dojo has its place for a reason. This is how we should approach our Aikido training, but also how we should approach everything. The training never ends; it only changes from one task to another. The intensity of training, the clearing of the mind in zazen, the detail put into cleaning, all these things we can take and apply them to everything we do in our life.

Growing up my family never really went to church or had relationships with any groups of people outside of close relatives. During my time at AOA, I have really gotten to experience being part of a community. Over the past four years, I’ve grown close with the people at AOA. The Senseis, all my Sempai, the Kohai, and all the kids I’ve seen grow, have had a huge influential impact on my life. The best times I’ve had, easily the healthiest time in my life, has been the past four years, and it’s because of the people at AOA. They have been there for me to talk to, had me over for dinner, and shown me the importance of togetherness. I would be much less without the compassion and guidance that all my comrades have shown me. I’ve always been able to put myself out and be there for people, but being able to take help from people is much harder and is an important part of being in a community.

I believe that someone can take many paths to finding oneself; I was lucky to find Aikido. To face the challenges in life, a person needs self-control, focus, confidence and help. Using Aikido in a fight is a byproduct of our training. What we truly get out of practice is to see ourselves.

Greg Urbina has been studying Aikido for 4 1/2 years and is an uchideshi at Aikido of Albuquerque.

Summer Camp 2017 In Full Swing

First bow in at Summer Camp 2017.
First bow in at Summer Camp 2017.

Gathering again for our annual Summer Camp, it is official that we have begun our week of intense training. It’s a pleasure to welcome all members of Birankai that have taken the effort in coming to the Pacific Northwest to join us in training. It is great to see so many familiar and new faces! Beginning with an energizing first class led by Alex Peterson Sensei, he taught swariwaza ikkyo and nikkyo, variations of tachiwaza tenchinage, kokyuho, and hamni-handachi shihonage. Thank you to Leslie Cohen, Camp Director, for giving us such an organized orientation after the class, and also a whole hearted thank you for her and her team’s months of effort and work before camp. Remember to stay hydrated and volunteer when possible. Have a happy and safe training experience here in Tacoma, Washington!

Head Injuries and Concussions

By Mark Goudsblom RN
Birankai North America Medical Director
Aikido Takayama

With summer camp just around the corner, please think about the first aid for head injuries, one of the most serious training injuries that may occur. Generally our training is relatively safe, especially as compared to sports like football, but accidents do happen. A head is hit, perhaps with a bokken, or bumped on the mat, or caught by a flying heel. What do you do?

Here is a straightforward article on head injuries and concussions by Birankai North America’s Medical Director, Mark Goudsblom RN. I recommend that all dojos print it out and keep it with their first aid supplies.

Remember that wild, crazy movement and accidents go together, so be mindful in your training. Train hard, train safe. – Cecilia Ramos RN

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A head injury is any injury to the skull or brain. The injury maybe only be a minor bump on the skull or it could be a serious brain injury. Head injuries include concussions, skull fractures and/or bleeding into the brain tissue or surrounding layers.

Head and spine injuries can be fatal and can result from a direct blow to the head or penetrating injuries. A hard blow to the head can cause shaking and jarring of the brain. If the blow is hard enough to injure the brain it is called a concussion. People affected can have symptoms such as paralysis, speech and memory problems, and behavioral changes. Head or spine injuries can lead to permanent disability.


• Scalp wounds or injuries
• Skull or jaw fractures
• Bleeding from the nose or ears

Non visual:
• Problems with concentration
• Problems with memory and judgement
• Problems with balance and coordination
• Tiredness
• Dizziness
• Having trouble sleeping
• Feeling anxious, depressed, or irritable

Symptoms of a head injury can occur right away or develop slowly over several hours or days. Even if the skull is not fractured or pierced, the brain can bang against the inside of the skull and be bruised. The head may look fine, but problems could result from bleeding or swelling inside the skull. In any serious head trauma, the spinal cord is also likely to be injured.

Serious symptoms of brain injury include but are not limited to: unconsciousness, blood or clear fluid coming out of nose or ears, seizures, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting, unequal pupil sizes, weakness or inability to move arms or legs and loss of bladder control.

Some head injuries cause changes in brain function. This is called a traumatic brain injury. Concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury.

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A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that alters the way the brain functions. Effects are usually temporary, but can include problems as a headache, concentration problems, memory lapses, judgment problems, balance and coordination issues. Other symptoms include tiredness, dizziness, having trouble sleeping and feeling anxious, depressed or irritable.

Although concussions are usually are caused by a blow to the head, they can also occur when the head and upper body are violently shaken. These injuries can cause a loss of consciousness, but most concussions do not. Because of this, some people have concussions and don’t realize it.

Concussions are common, particularly in contact sports, such as football. But every concussion injures the brain to some extent. This injury needs time and rest to heal properly. Luckily, most concussive traumatic brain injuries are mild, and people usually recover fully.

Please take a moment (5:30 min) to watch the following video about concussions at
Learn to recognize the symptoms of head injuries and concussion.
You can save someone’s life!

First Aid

If a person is unconscious call 911. Remember to apply spinal stabilization if it was an unwitnessed event or significant fall/injury. If the person is unconscious apply the first aid principles of Airway, Breathing and Circulation to ensure these are all present. If the person is awake, ask them if they are aware of what happened, which day of the week it is, the date, and time of day, and if they know where they are (this is to check their orientation to time, place and person. Try to find out what happened and how it happened.

All persons that experience a loss of consciousness should be seen by a doctor. Other symptoms that will require medical attention are: if the person becomes very sleepy, behaves abnormally, vomits more then once, develops a severe headache or stiff neck, has unequal pupils, or is unable to move an arm or leg.

What not to do:

• Do not wash or clean a deep head wound (more than ½” deep or ½” wide)
• Do not remove an object sticking out of a head wound
• Do not move a person unnecessarily
• Do not shake the person to try to wake them
• Do not remove a helmet or protective gear

Care at Home

The person with a head injury needs to take good care of his/herself. They need to stay at home for the next few days and gradually return to regular activities. The person should avoid strenuous physical activities for at least 24 hours. The person should refrain from watching TV or working on a computer for long periods of time. They should not be left alone for the first 24 hours following the head injury/ concussion as it is possible that more serious symptoms may arise. They should be watched closely by another responsible adult.

In the days following the head injury or concussion the person should not drive for at least 24 hours. If they are having trouble concentrating they should avoid driving or operating any kind of machinery until the symptoms subside. They should visit a medical professional if the symptoms worsen.

The person should not drink alcohol, take aspirin, Ibuprofen or any anti-inflammatory medication as these will increase the chance of bleeding in the brain.

Activities and exercise can be increased slowly as long as the symptoms do not return. They should start with light exercises first and gradually increase in duration and intensity. If the injury was caused during Aikido practice, the person should check with their doctor before returning to Aikido practice.

While a primary concussion can be damaging, the overall recovery form concussion is good. However another head injury shortly after a first injury, also known as Second-Impact Syndrome (SIS) or repetitive head injury syndrome, can be devastating. The symptoms can be similar as described above, but the recurring brain damage could impact neurological function in the long run and affect memory or cause permanent symptoms as reccurring headaches. It is therefore vitally important to ensure that they recover fully from the initial head injury before assuming all daily activities and training again.


Click to access Concussion.pdf
Author: Mark Goudsblom RN BSN MSH​​ October 2014


It is with great sorrow that Birankai mourns the passing of Robert Burns, 5th Dan Shidoin of Aiki Farms Aikikai. Bob was the crazy uncle of BNA. We all loved him dearly, especially Chiba Sensei. Bob’s loyalty, love, and dedication to our community and teacher, was unquestioned. bowl Knowing him personally for almost 30 years, I’m grief-stricken.

Alex Peterson
President, Birankai North America

Working With Kids

By Marci Martinez, Grass Valley Aikikai

I absolutely love teaching children Aikido! I want to help them learn to fall without hurting themselves, throw someone without hurting them, and how to speak up for themselves if something isn’t to their comfort level. In turn, they share enthusiasm, creative ideas, and at times, silliness.

yay I passed

When working with kids, I find that they bring out our best Aikido. I have heard that some adults are afraid to work with children because they are concerned they may hurt them. I think this is what Aikido is about – being able to control without hurting your partner. People can use that fear to make sure they are going slow, that they are exerting just enough force to make the technique work, and that they aren’t pinning hard and fast. The reverse side of this is another reason I love teaching kids; I love that I get to remind them to speak up for themselves in a way that is respectful while creating a situation where they are listened to respectfully as well. I love that they are learning that it’s okay to tell an adult, or another child that what they are doing is not comfortable, or hurting wyattmarci
them. Then the behavior changes and they learn that communication can work to make things better for them, not just on the mat, but in life too. I have seen children, who would first just get upset and shrink away when they were grabbed too hard, develop the confidence to speak to their partner and tell them that they need less pressure or to go slower.  I think this is such a valuable ability to learn, not just for Aikido, but for life.

Another aspect I enjoy while leading kids class is that their minds are so creative. We feed off each other’s creativity. When we play a game, after playing the game a few times, the kids love to pipe in with new variations of the game and look for something to make it more exciting. We have a game we call the “Timing Game” where the students run from one corner of the mat to the other without getting hit by a foam noodle. They learn to anticipate the timing of the noodle swing, watch where it goes, when it’s coming, and learn when to run flat out. Being somewhat tired with the game, one kid suggested that we do it as a group and try to run past a blind tagger who lies on the ground. Now the students must navigate other people and the noodle. A new game was born which we now affectionately call “Blind Alligator.”

Blind Alligator

Not only do the kids love to share their ideas to modify the game, they also enjoy analyzing the efficacy of the game, or how to make it use Aikido principles even more. Just today, we were warming up with a game the kids love. The students were supposed to get up as quickly as possible after falling but it was difficult to tell who got up first. Seeing some kids so set on winning that form was being sacrificed, I also shared my dilemma. After a bit of sharing, we came up with the addition of standing up into a hanmi. We practiced some more, then a new challenge arose. Two students were exactly in sync with each other. I had them ro-sham-bo it out, which resolved the issue, but then another student suggested that the leader judge which hanmi was better. Just brilliant!   

Marci and Veda

When I work with the really young children (3-5 year olds), it helps me to discover how to break things down to their simplest elements. You step back and think, “What is the first thing we need to do?” Then we practice that, add the next bit, practice that, then add another bit, until finally, something emerges that resembles a roll, or a back fall, or a technique. We celebrate with a high five or huge smile of appreciation as they experience a 155 pound adult fall to the floor from their throw. Working with small children, not only do you have to break things down to their simplest parts, you also learn to celebrate small victories, point out what they did well, see how it inspires them to do better, or try again until they have it. I think this celebration of small steps is imperative to success as I see people, young and old, getting frustrated when they can’t do something well the first time. I remind them of babies… they can’t walk when they come out… I couldn’t do a back fall well when I first tried….so just try and get one thing right and into solid memory, and then add. Fall down seven times, get up eight. 

veda roll

I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to get to work with the youth at summer camp this year. I look forward to hearing about the games they play at their dojos, the way they stretch, what they really enjoy in their classes, and to see how they learn. Last year, we had a meeting with the youth of summer camp but there weren’t many young kids, and there wasn’t a kids corner to the training mat. Our meetings for the Youth Program became a meeting up of experienced and new teachers and allowed an exchange of ideas for teaching youth things like rolls, warm ups, games, etc. I’m hoping that this year we get more time to exchange ideas between teachers, but also a chance to work with the young people present. I want to hear what they have to say about learning Aikido, their day-to-day training, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Iris and Ian